Music for Mr. Thanh
At first, I couldn’t identify the sound echoing down the alleys that weave their way around Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City. It was a combination of high school pep band and a New Orleans funeral ensemble. Following my ears, my guess was not far off the mark.
Ong (Mr.) Tran Thanh was dead. Of this I am certain. His picture with start and end dates of his life (he was born in 1965) was affixed in a red frame to the doorway of the modest whitewashed apartment in this modest alley barely wide enough for two motorbikes.
In the alley a table with men seated on plastic chairs was lined with shot glasses and a large bottle of what I presumed was alcohol. Onlookers displayed little outward emotion except for smiling for the video camera filming the event. Little kids fidgeted, running up and down the alley, seemingly oblivious to the ceremony (if you could call it that) and occasionally reappearing with a snack in their hands.
Many of the onlookers were dressed in white smocks and kerchiefs on their heads bearing a red dot, with some symbolic significance but reminiscent of student protesters in Japan or a scene from the Karate Kid. They chatted on cell phones, smoked cigarettes, and stood in place, ignoring the occasional Westerner, like me, who had followed the sound of the music.
The band played on, dressed as if outfitted by Professor Harold Hill of Music Man; starch white shirts, appropriate band hats of blue (known as a shako) and matching lariat ties. A drum, three trumpets, and an unidentified horn belted out lively tunes, almost jazz like. It was anything but somber and at one point I was convinced they were doing an upbeat version of “Love Potion # 9”. Honestly.
At intervals, the presumed leader of the band would take off his hat and balance it on his nose. No one applauded or laughed but he seemed pleased with his performance. As time moved on he added two plastic stools to his repertoire, this time balancing them on his forehead as he pirouetted in place. The piece de resistance was adding a bottle of alcohol to the pyramid atop his cranium and then attempting to fill shot glasses without spilling. At this he still needed practice.
When the music concluded and the crowd dispersed I looked inside the small apartment. Mr. Thanh was at rest in an enormous coffin, surrounded by white clad well-wishers, candles, incense, and a large offering of fruit, vegetables, whiskey and one enormous roasted pig.
He seemed well prepared for the afterlife; music, food, drink, well-wishers galore; and that is about as good as it gets.