Home makeovers take on a whole new meaning in the village of An Bang, Vietnam, approximately 20km outside of Hue.
Well off the usual tourist trail lies the biggest cemetery in the country, An Bang Cemetery (Nghĩa Trang An Bắng in Vietnamese), locally known as City of Ghosts. Now I’ve been to a few cemeteries in my time (slightly strange I know), but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of this one.
I booked a simple EasyRider tour of the Hai Van Pass, expecting a direct trip, but by my good fortune, I was the only one to book the tour, leaving me alone with my local and extremely knowledgeable motorbike driver. Driving out of Hue, we passed rice paddies and local villages for a few miles before he asked if I wanted to see a cemetery - apprehensive? Just a little. Intrigued? Quite a lot.
We weaved through tiny streets, only accessible by bike before arriving at a fairly ordinary little gateway. Just beyond lay a backdrop of magnificent mausoleums, towering over the landscape as far as the eye could see.
What made this place most remarkable, was that there wasn’t a single person in sight.
The History of An Bang Cemetery
After Vietnamese reunification in 1975, many residents of An Bang Village emigrated to Europe and the USA. From here, they sent money back to their relatives who stayed behind, making it one of the wealthiest villages in Vietnam. The town of An Bang is affluent even compared to western standards; driving through the streets we passed by huge brightly coloured houses, two stories high with balconies running the length of the building, and it is not unusual to see a jeep parked in the neatly paved driveways.
The residents seem to spend their days buildings grandiose mausoleums in the cemetery, which covers around 250 hectares, and sits next to a sparkling and deserted sandy beach.
The building began in earnest in 1995, and since then the local villagers have begun to build more and more extravagant tombs for their deceased family members, or sometimes even prematurely for themselves. These structures often stand two or three stories high, decorated with elaborate ornate gold carvings of dragons and mythical creatures, and complete with fully functional bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens. This not only reflects the style in which the residents live while they are alive, but also their strong belief in the afterlife, and the importance of honouring their ancestors.
According to the villagers' beliefs, having a meticulously cared for and decorated tomb will bring the family good fortune, and if the village of An Bang is anything to go by, their extensive efforts seem to have paid off!
The costs of the tombs they are building here can be as much as £50,000 (GBP) - extraordinary when you experience the poverty that is so common throughout most of Vietnam. Wandering through this remarkable and unique cemetery, surrounded by these towering tombs, I could easily appreciate the nickname 'City of Ghosts', and almost imagine the spirits of these people’s ancestors living in fantastic splendour, looking out across the village from their strange and spectacular kingdom.
How to Get to An Bang Cemetery
You will almost certainly have to hire your own motorbike to reach An Bang Cemetery, as the small and windy streets closer to the entrance can’t be navigated by car or public transport. To do this, first, make your way to the town of An Bang. From there, either ask a local, or check Google Maps/Maps.me for Nghia Trang An Bang.
Alternatively you may be able to ask your driver(s) to take a detour if you have booked a tour of the Hai Van Pass either from Hoi An or Hue, however I would recommend asking to be taken to An Bang village and making sure you have the location of the cemetery up on a map, in case of communication problems. If there is one place you will find some tourists (and therefore public transport) it is An Bang beach, and so it might be easiest to find your way there via bus or as a day trip from either city, which can usually be organised through hostels, hotels or tour companies.
Once you arrive it would not be too difficult to find a willing moto driver to take you the short drive from the beach to the cemetery, or you may even be able to walk depending on where on the beach you are. My EasyRider trip to the Hai Van Pass, via the cemetery, Pass, and Elephant Springs, was booked through Why Not Hostel in Hue, which I would highly recommend.
Read more about EasyRider Tours in our article - 7 Epic Journeys in South East Asia here.
About the writer: India-Jayne Trainor has been travelling since she could walk, and enjoys discovering unexplored places, sampling unusual local delicacies and has passion for photography. You can see more of her latest adventures on Instagram @indiajayne_photography.