The ancestral worship house, Chau Doc

| 12 May 2014
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12 May 2014

A simple dinner in Chau Doc on Vietnam's Mekong Delta border with Cambodia, turned into something very special when the restaurant owner invited me in for a look at his family's 100 year old ancestral worshipping house.


If you've visited Chau Doc in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, you've probably enjoyed a meal at Mekong Restaurant, in the courtyard of the most striking French colonial complex in the city.

It's the former residence of Le Cong Bich, the chief Nguyen Dynasty official in Chau Doc until his death in 1874. One of the buildings is dedicated to his memory and is tended by his offspring who still live in the complex.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to see it.

After a simple dinner of the local basa fish in a clay pot with rice and vegetables, I got chatting with Mr Nghiep, the current owner of the restaurant and house and a direct descendant of Le Cong Bich. He began to describe the magnificent interior of one of the buildings - the ancestral worshipping house for the family patriarch.

Mekong Restaurant, the family home and Le Cong Bich's ancestral worship house on the left.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Mekong Restaurant, the family home and Le Cong Bich's ancestral worship house on the left.



Vietnam is described as a mainly Buddhist nation and while this is true, the most pervasive spiritual practice is ancestral worship. The living tend the spirits of past generations and the spirits in turn recognise this and take care of the living.

Pretty much everybody in Vietnam, irrespective of their general religiosity, practices ancestral worship. Each house has an altar and if you're rich enough and important enough, like Le Cong Bich, you'll get an entire house, temple or even a mausoleum dedicated to your spirit.

Intrigued by Mr Nghiep's description of the house of worship, I asked whether I might be able to take a look. He told me that these days the house stays locked up except on important family anniversaries and at Tet.

He headed off to count the evening's takings and I did some reading in the courtyard.

After about an hour, Mr Nghiep returned. He'd changed his mind. He invited me in.

We walked along a corridor of original tiles. The walls were decorated with Vietnamese landscape paintings. There wasn't a lot of light around - though the camera does a good job of making it look brighter. 

The corridor leading to Le Cong Bich's worship room.
Photo: Mark Bowyer The corridor leading to Le Cong Bich's worship room.



It didn't seem like much had changed here since the house was dedicated back in 1912.

We then turned into a vast room, lined with dark timber, inlayed with mother of pearl. Each panel displayed decorated inscriptions in Chinese.

It was the most spectacular ancestral dedication I've ever seen in a private home. There are the Nguyen Dynasty tombs that dot the countryside around the former capital, Hue, and many temples found mainly in the north. But this was unique - in the style and scale of the inlay work.

Le Cong Bich's worship house, Chau Doc.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Le Cong Bich's worship house, Chau Doc.

 

Le Cong Bich's worship house, Chau Doc.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Le Cong Bich's worship house, Chau Doc.

 


Photo: Mark Bowyer
Out the back, another descendant of Le Cong Bich, in her late 70s, works into the night making party decorations.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Out the back, another descendant of Le Cong Bich, in her late 70s, works into the night making party decorations.



The room had been created by a Nguyen Dynasty master who travelled specially from Hue. I tried to find out more but Mr Nghiep's knowledge of the history was sketchy.

As I so often do travelling around Vietnam, I left wondering whether anybody was keeping the history of this incredible place alive.


For a look at some more images, check out this gallery.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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