In practically every Vietnamese house, shop or office you will find an ancestor altar. Typically a 50cm high wooden structure, with small statues, burning incense and the names, and sometimes pictures, of the deceased member(s) of the family. The altar is used for offerings, which vary from fruits to (fake) money, and from Coca Cola cans to cigarettes.

All Vietnamese, this is not a Buddhist tradition – as I first thought, believe that ancestors have the power to bring good or bad luck to the living. It is therefore important to keep them happy – especially when you’re about to ask them a favour.

It took me a while to realize a family member’s death anniversary is often more important than someone’s birthday. (Apparently, birthdays weren’t even celebrated before Western influence.) So, I have to admit that I frowned a bit when one of my Vietnamese friends invited me for the death anniversary ánd reburial of her grandpa, as if it was the most festive event of the year. Actually, I was too flabbergasted to say yes.

We can only hope I didn’t bring grandpa’s wrath down on all of us.