HANOI, April 3 (Xinhua) -- The sobbing cries and non-stop questions of her five-year-old son, like invisible needles, repeatedly stabbed at Tran Thi Mai Anh's heart. The 29-year-old woman living in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi could not soothe her son with tangible answers. It was all she could do to contain her tears from cascading down her face.
"Mommy, I miss grandma so much. Can we go to visit her? Where is she now? Why doesn't she want to see me anymore?" the boy kept on asking his mum again and again when he woke up in the morning on a cold, rainy day, just a few days ahead of the Qingming (Tomb-Sweeping festival), or Thanh minh as its known locally.
The truth is that Mai Anh's (as she's known in her family) mother died a few months ago, and her child, too young to understand what "death" truly means, simply thought that his grandma went away, far away from him, and that she did not want to see him again.
Of course, the little boy also did not know that his innocent questions and tears unintentionally ripped his mother's heart out. Memories of her now departed mother still living with her and taking care of her son, came painfully flooding back to Mai Anh.
The young mother decided to bring her child to visit his grandma's resting place in a cemetery in the suburb of Hanoi on the occasion of Thanh Minh.
On their way to the cemetery, she kept on explaining to her son, although unsure if the youngster could fully understand or not, that his grandma had already gone to another world.
"Thanh Minh is not really a big festival in Vietnam, but it is of great importance, spiritually, as it is a time for family members to go and visit their deceased relatives' burial places," Mai Anh told Xinhua at the gate of the cemetery
"Here they pay their respects and show remembrance for their beloved ones," Mai Anh, added, clutching her son to her side and carrying a bag full of religious offerings.
Thanh Minh is believed to have originated from China. In Vietnam, nobody knows exactly when it was first observed in the country, but it is a custom quite obviously familiar with many generations of Vietnamese people.
In his famous epic poem, "The Tale of Kieu", Nguyen Du, a celebrated Vietnamese poet from the 17th Century who wrote the ancient writing script of Vietnam, also mentioned Thanh Minh practices in Vietnam.
Accordingly, the festival is celebrated in the springtime, specifically in the third month of the lunar year, when the sky and the earth wake up after a long hibernation in winter, and begin to shed their bleakness in preparation for brighter hues and warmer climes, in which trees and wild grasses grow quickly.
For these reasons, in the month in which Thanh Minh lies, people often go to visit the graves of their deceased relatives, and clean the plots by picking off the wild grass. Offerings are also prepared to worship the deceased, including flowers, cakes and candy, votive paper, and incense sticks.
"In my parents' and grandparents' time, Thanh Minh was solemnly celebrated, especially in the rural areas, where communal life was highly respected and traditional customs were strictly followed," Mai Anh told Xinhua.
However, she said that many people of her generation or younger, especially those living in urban areas, could not undertake Thanh Minh practices due to their busy working schedules.
"They say they have no time to travel to far-off cemeteries where their deceased relatives are resting in peace. Instead, they buy items to make offerings at their home altars," Mai Anh explained.
In the cemetery, the white granite-covered grave of Mai Anh's mother lies amid rows of graves of different sizes and colors.
The young mother arranged all the items for worship from the bag on the grave's alter, including flowers, fruits and votive paper and then burned the incense and placed them in the incense holder.
The air was filled with faint smoke and the fragrant scent of the incense. Mai Anh stood in silence, clasping her hands together on her chest while uttering words of prayer, just as if she were talking with her dearly departed mother.
She also told her young boy to do the same. Clasping his hands, like his mother, and looking at the picture of the compassionate-looking old woman on the front wall of the grave, the little boy murmured: "Grandma, how are you? I miss you so much. I hope you are resting here in peace, and you will bless me and my mum, ok?"
Cemeteries throughout the country are crowded with visitors throughout the lunar month of March, especially on Thanh Minh day, which falls on April 4 this year. While the elderly are busy praying for their deceased relatives at the graves, children are instructed to follow the practices as well. They are also asked to plant incense sticks in nearby graves, which are considered to be the neighbors of their deceased ones.
"So far, I think I've come to understand the full meaning of Thanh Minh festival thanks to my mother's teaching, and I'll keep preserving this custom and its benevolent practices, even when I'm busy with work," Mai Anh vowed, adding that she will also teach her son more about the meaning of Thanh Minh when he grows up. "He should know the saying, When you drink water, remember the source'," said the young mother.
In a nearby area, Hoang Thi Tam, a 92-year-old elderly woman was arranging the religious artifacts on a large plate to be offered to her ancestors, while her children and grandchildren cleaned the graves.
"In the past, every year during the festival, my family members used to get together and pay a visit to our ancestors resting in this cemetery. It was a time for all of us to show our respect to our ancestors, and also a time for our family reunion," Tam said.
According to Tam, Thanh Minh is the most important annual festival to her as it is the only occasion in the year that she can go to "visit" her beloved parents and take care of their graves as well.
The old woman, whose eyes reflected her sorrow, told Xinhua that, "Life has changed drastically. Everyone seems to be busier with work in today's modern life. Now we rarely gather all family members together to celebrate Thanh Minh, because the younger ones are often absent due to their jobs or their studies."
"In any circumstance, I still encourage my children and grandchildren to go home and join the family in celebrating Thanh Minh festival. It is one of the ways for them to show their respect for our ancestors, and also a time for our family reunion," said the elderly lady, assuredly.
Pointing to a finished, but empty tomb nearby, Tam told Xinhua that it will be her resting place when the time comes.
"I bought a plot for my grave a few years ago. My children were shocked at first and strongly opposed to my idea. But later, they agreed with me after listening to my explanation," she said.
In the past, in Vietnam, when cemeteries were located next to the paddy fields, and there was plenty of unused land for graves, people never thought of buying places to build a tomb for themselves. However, in recent years the rapid industrialization of the country has turned many villages and paddy fields into big cities with tall buildings, and areas for cemeteries have become scarce.
As a result, there is a new trend of people purchasing a plot of land with empty graves built inside reserved for their living family members. Pointing to the neatly built graves that have yet to receive coffins, Tam said: "Old people like me want to know in advance the place where they will rest in peace after they die. It's a comforting desire, not strange at all."