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The invisible neighbours

Cosmopolitan ghosts in a vietnamese village
Heonik Kwon
Traduction(s) :
Les voisins invisibles

Texte intégral


1The residents of Cam Re, a seaside community south of Danang in central Vietnam, can tell many vivid stories about the village’s ghosts. Cam Re’s enterprising Taoist priest calls these ghosts his “invisible neighbours”. Although some of the stories about these invisible neighbours might come across as unsettling or even creepy, most typically sound much like any other mundane neighbourly gossip that the people in this small semi-fishing and semi-farming community exchange on a daily basis. Others can even generate laughter, which was characteristic of stories about the spirit of a one-legged soldier. His apparition was almost always along the bifurcated point of a narrow footpath that connects the village’s two main residential clusters; the footpaths also lead to the ruins of an old ancestral temple and those of a former French garrison, favourite hangout places for children. The soldier ghost hops around on his left leg, having lost a leg to a landmine, and the children invented a play in which they competed to see who could best imitate the soldier’s unusual mode of mobility, accompanied by copious amounts of laughter.

  • 1 For a stimulating discussion of hauntings as a critical response to the conditions of political an (...)

2Cam Re’s invisible residents are diverse in their historical origins and, when seen as a whole, even demonstrate a cosmopolitan outlook. There are many Vietnamese ghosts: the apparition of a young mother with two small children is familiar to the villagers living near a small enclave of bamboo trees, the site of a tragic village massacre in 1967 at the height of violence perpetrated during the Vietnam War in the area. The villagers living along the dirt road that leads to the sand dunes spoke of a middle-aged ghost they called “Head-down, feet-up”. This ghost is often spotted standing and moving on its head, and the locals associate its highly unusual pattern of mobility with the unconventional condition of its burial. It is believed in Cam Re and its environs that this spirit is of a man who was (wrongly) accused of treason and who was subsequently buried (alive) upside down by a communist hit squad in the wet season of 1966. Many other non-Vietnamese, foreigner ghosts dwell in Cam Re. These include the ghost of a non-Vietnamese-looking Asian man dressed in American combat uniform. The locals speculate that this is the spirit of a South Korean soldier killed in a bomb crater, now used as a fish pond. Another well-known foreigner ghost is that of a non-French-looking man dressed in a French army uniform. Cam Re’s elders share the view that this ghost originates from the village’s old French garrison, which, at the height of what the Vietnamese call the War against France, had more than two hundred colonial conscripts from North Africa. In a hamlet west of Cam Re that is cut into two by the paved road to Danang, built originally by the French during the French War (1945–1954) and later improved by the South Korean engineering corps during the American War (1961–1975), residents are aware of an “ancient combatant”, an oversized and intimidating spirit of a former French officer.1 Also known are the two extremely timid and perpetually hungry ghosts of American servicemen. These two American ghosts are always together and are rather fearful of the villagers. They also make curious jingling noises, which the locals speculate emanate from spoons in empty army ration cans.

  • 2 Concerning the idea of hospitality manifested in these ritualized acts, see Ladwig 2012.
  • 3 See the captivating accounts in Mai Lan Gustaffson (2009 : 35–53). See also the highly acclaimed a (...)

3The people of Cam Re interact with these hidden neighbours of their community on a regular basis, laying joss sticks on the apparition sites and occasionally providing more substantial hospitality with drink and food offerings. Burning votive money notes is also an important part of these acts of hospitality.2 Most villagers take it for granted that the living should share their lived world (duong, the world of the living) with beings on the other side of the ontological threshold (am, the world of the dead). This is despite the fact that they sometimes have to act against certain invisible neighbours if the latter happen to be the cause of excessive troubles – troubles that are judged to violate the customary norms of communal coexistence. On one occasion, a few villagers teamed up with the village’s Taoist master in an effort to calm an Algerian ghost from the time of the resistance war against France. The foreigner spirit had the naughty habit of touching, from behind, the shoulders and necks of a few young village women while they were returning from the marketplace. These were not the only dwellers of the otherworld sharing the village environment with the people of Cam Re. Ritual interactions with ghosts coexist with those with family and village ancestors. These two categories, ancestors and ghosts, are inseparable; in fact, they mirror each other in a host of ways, as do the world of the dead and the world of the living, which are considered coexistent and interactive.3 The picture is basically a concentric duality consisting of two groups of spirits (ancestral spirits kept inside a house versus displaced, placeless ghosts outside the house), existing as part of a larger dualist world scheme composed of the living and the dead.


4In the tradition of central Vietnam, this house-centred, dual conception of death and the afterlife places the ritual practice of commemoration between two different surfaces of memory – between the ancestral shrine placed in the interior of the house and the milieu of the street­-wandering, displaced spirits of the dead. The typical way in which people in this region conduct their regular ancestral rites is to kowtow to the ancestors and then to walk to the outside and repeat the action towards the imaginary world of wandering ghosts. This two-sided commemorative practice, in which people engage with, according to Viet Thanh Nguyen, both memories of one’s own and those of others, is also found in wider community affairs, such as the opening ceremony of a village communal house or a lineage ancestral temple (Nguyen 2016: 23–46). The street-side worship is formally on behalf of the unknown and unrelated souls of the dead that exist in the neighbourhood or that are assumed to have gathered for the occasion from more distant locations. It is structurally similar to the act of distributing small offerings to the unknown graves found in the vicinity of the ancestral tombs after giving offerings of incense and flowers to ancestors. Offerings to ancestors acknowledge the exclusive ties of kinship between the donor and the recipient; the distribution of offerings to other graves recognizes the inclusive ties of residence between ancestral identities and non-ancestral beings.

5In this structurally dualist, practically two-way system, two distinctive ways of imagining social solidarity emerge. On the house side, we may say, following Durkheim, that the commemorative act affirms the given solidary relations between the living and the dead, thereby generating a sense of mutual belonging as well as of a coherent social whole, which can be called genealogical unity or the lineage paradigm (Durkheim 1991). This affirmation is particularly evident in the regular ceremonies held at the communal house, which are dedicated to the founding ancestors of the village. All family and lineage groups of the village are expected to take part in these occasions or to at least make contributions to them, including people from the village who have relocated to faraway places. The participants listen to speeches about the founding ancestors’ legendary history of migration and settlement and then make gestures and offerings of tribute to their memory, which are ordered according to seniority and lineage statuses.

6The organization of this village-wide ancestral rite also includes ritualized interactions with wandering spirits. Following the house-side worship, the participants turn in the opposite direction and bestow prayers and offerings on behalf of the displaced spirits. These spirits, unlike ancestors who are believed to be settled within the temple, do not have the privilege of having a home. The street-side worship does not follow a strict order of seniority such as that in the house-side worship and thus can appear quite chaotic. On certain occasions, the prayer activity for ghosts may also be accompanied by a traditional prayer of spirit invitation and consolation, calling in all tragic or displaced deaths and urging the spirits to receive the villagers’ gestures of sympathy and hospitality. Today, these prayers are often improvised versions of the classical poem Van te co hon (“Calling the Wandering Souls”) composed by Nguyen Du, an eminent literary scholar of the eighteenth century (Nguyen 1993: 130–32).


7The distinction between ghosts and ancestors has been a prominent subject in the study of Asian religions (Teiser 1988; Baptandier 2001). In his essay on Chinese popular religions, Arthur Wolf describes several incidents he experienced during his fieldwork in a Taiwanese village. One evening, a villager claimed that he had witnessed an apparition – a mysterious being floating across the rice fields. Finding that his foreign interlocutor was sceptical of his experience, the villager added that across the field where he had met the ghost, a family had been preparing for an ancestral death-day ceremony at the time of the incident. Reflecting on this episode years later, Wolf concludes that whether a particular spirit is viewed as a ghost or an ancestor “depends on the point of view of the particular person”, which supports his widely cited statement that “one man’s ancestor is another man’s ghost” (Wolf 1974: 356–57). To come to terms with this relativity in the identity of the dead, he argues that “we must shift our perspective” (Wolf 1974: 357).

8Wolf does not explain how exactly observers can put a shifting perspective into practice. Nevertheless, his insights into the shifting moral identity of the dead have spurred a constructive debate among scholars of Chinese religious culture. As critics note, this field of study has long assumed that patrilineal descent is the backbone of traditional Chinese society and, accordingly, that ancestor worship is a practical expression of the centrality of this lineage paradigm in regulating social relations. Wolf’s remark challenges these assumptions by unsettling the categorical stability of ancestors. Taiwanese villagers move in and out of the house where they pay tribute to their ancestors on a regular basis, and they believe that the spirits of the dead can be mobile in their own lifeworld. When people are gathered inside the house to perform a ritualized tribute to their ancestors, the invited spirits of the dead are categorically ancestors. Beyond this domain, the social status of the spirit is uncertain. Whereas the identity of ancestors is changeable and place-specific, observers tend to miss this variable, fluid reality because they typically see things from a static point of view. These were the ideas that Wolf hoped to illustrate with his ghost story – specifically, the disparity between the relativity of social reality and the immobility of social enquiry.

9The distinction between ancestors and ghosts has been an important element in the broader tradition of modern social science, especially in Émile Durkheim’s theory of social representation. For Durkheim, the category of ancestors is a symbolic expression of human sociality, through which humans can generate a sense of togetherness and a moral imperative of being and living together. However, this rendering of the ontology of the afterlife tends to constrict itself within a functionalist outlook of social forms. In Durkheim’s view, the category of ancestors is a meaningful subject of sociological enquiry, as this category is part of the making and remaking of social order. By contrast, the category of “ghosts” is not, for ghosts, although existent in cultural realities, are “vagabond beings with no clear-cut responsibility” that play no role in the constitution of a given social and moral order (Durkheim 1991: 280).

10Seen in this light, it is clear that the idea of an afterlife has been far from marginal in the tradition of modern social theory (even though it may have little space in the spirituality of modern secular society), entailing that the very existential fact of sharing life with other humans necessitates the projection of a form of life that continues after death and that is larger than the life of an individual (Bloch and Parry 1982). In this respect, the idea of afterlife, in its very constitutive origin, addresses a social and public phenomenon. Although afterlife is a public concept in the sense of being a collective representation, a notion that constitutes the backbone of the theory of society in the early French sociological school, it is important to note that the publicness of this concept can vary depending on the types of death it is concerned with. Those who undergo a “good death”, a peaceful or natural death surrounded by loved ones and benefiting from proper atonement in the form of culturally appropriate mortuary and commemorative rites, do not have the same afterlives as those who suffer a “bad death” – a violent death away from home with no remarkable rite of passage (Middleton 1982: 144). This hierarchy in the modes of the afterlife is widely reported in ethnographic accounts; it is also the subject of the seminal work of one of Durkheim’s students and an important member of the early French sociological school, Robert Hertz, whose promising life was cut tragically short by the violence of trench warfare in 1915. Hertz was interested in how society invents a political hierarchy based on a moral hierarchy of the afterlife, itself in turn based on the consequences of good and bad death (Hertz 1960; also Kwon 2010).

11I do not challenge Durkheim’s idea that a notion of life after life is constitutive of the structuration of social life, nor do I question Hertz’s understanding that embedded in the concept of afterlife is a moral hierarchy that distinguishes a socially assimilated and preeminent ancestral afterlife from a socially marginalized and excluded afterlife. Rather, this essay intends to relate these social and political conceptions of afterlife to a large-scale historical event such as the destruction of the Vietnam War. In what follows, I hope to reflect on how the historical experience of mass death and displacement may affect the public perception of life after life, including the age-old moral distinction between placed ancestral spirits and displaced, or unknown, spirits of the dead.


12The Vietnamese concept of xac is instructive for starting a conversation on the phenomenon of afterlife displacement. This concept is special among the several Vietnamese terms that refer to the human body. The word means “corpse”; however, the term’s meaning incorporates not only the material condition of a body that is lifeless and immobile, but also the related yet opposite condition of a soul that is free and full of life. When the body dies, according to a common popular Vietnamese belief, the soul becomes free and can move between the place of death and burial as well as among other places with historical attachment and where the soul’s historical identity is remembered – such as the family’s domestic ancestral altar. The mobile soul of the dead may appear in different places simultaneously, which is recognized as a sign of the soul’s power and vigour. The Vietnamese describe this condition with the concept of linh, meaning “vital” or “efficacious”. When a spirit intrudes on someone’s body in what is commonly referred to as spirit possession, this mode of communication is called xac (or nhap xac), which, in this context, entails that “the spirit enters the body”. In central Vietnamese regions, the term is also a colloquial reference to spirit mediums, meaning “people who are capable of inviting spirits to their bodies”.

13Just as there are two opposite conditions of xac, so are there two different ways to relate to death in Vietnamese mortuary culture. On one end of the spectrum is the elaborate tradition of dealing with the lifeless body. In this tradition, the corporeal integrity of the deceased is of great importance, and the proper ritual preparation of the body for internment is considered of supreme importance for the welfare of the deceased person and for a harmonious relationship between the dead and the living. This explains why people who went missing during the war are the object of pity and concern and why different institutions, from the family to the state, sought to find the remains of these missing individuals after the war was over (Kwon 2008a: 44–63). At the other end of the spectrum, the idea of xac indicates that the presence of the dead can be unspecified and that it may be widely diffused within the place of the living. It is believed that the spirits of the dead may wander freely about the village: in the ditches and sand dunes, old prison camps and police stations, school buildings and household kitchen areas, particularly at dusk. On the fifteenth day of each lunar month, the number and intensity of travelling spirits is thought to increase dramatically. In popular conceptualization, the dead who are properly entombed at an appropriate site according to ritual propriety are less inclined to roam the streets than those who are not properly buried and remembered. These un-mourned, hungry and unclothed spirits make up the majority of the lost and wandering ghosts believed to exist in contemporary Vietnamese communities.

14Therefore, the concept of xac denotes both a particular condition of the body, which is immobile and lifeless, and a related, specific condition of the soul, which is mobile and vital. Following Durkheim, we may think of the dual referential reality of xac as the freedom of the soul from the prison of the body (Durkheim 1991: 276). In traditional Vietnamese understanding, moreover, the human soul is a duplex entity, consisting of the spiritual soul of hon and the material soul of via. Due to this duality, the spirit of a deceased person is believed to be able to feel cold or hungry through its material soul and to transform this sensation into self-pity or indignation through its spiritual counterpart. The Jesuit priest and eminent French scholar of Vietnamese religious culture, Léopold Cadière, calls hon and via the superior and the inferior principles of vitality, respectively (Cadière 1957: 53–66). Some vital forces are placed and settled through appropriate rites; others are made loose without a place to anchor. Some are honoured and treated well; others are unwanted and feared. According to Cadière, learning to relate to these multiple spirits in their various modes of afterlife and in the moral hierarchy of settled spirits against loose spirits is central to Vietnamese religious practices.


15Cadière’s œuvres continue to be a seminal contribution to an understanding of traditional Vietnamese religious culture. It is unquestionable that the growing ritual intimacy with ghosts today is grounded in this long cultural tradition. However, it is also unquestionable that the phenomenon is intimately related to the recent historical experience of war and revolution, which resulted in a mass destruction and dislocation of human life.

16The Vietnam wars (1945–1975) were astonishingly violent and painfully chaotic, resulting in countless missing persons and deaths away from home villages. When the war was over, the physically and spiritually exhausted survivors returned to begin a new life with what little remained, only to encounter a situation that greatly challenged their ability to start over. Their homeland was dotted not only with deadly weaponry but also with the remains of the unknown dead buried in shallow graves. The intrusion of the foreign dead, both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese, on the village lands was paralleled with another crisis in the villages’ moral landscape – the bodies of numerous close kin were missing for burial in their home villages. This war-induced displacement of human lives long haunted postwar Vietnamese villages, particularly in the south, which were never the same as before despite the recovery of some normality encouraged by the national, postwar reconstruction efforts. The surviving families faced the reality of missing persons and missing bodies with great anxiety and pain despite the postwar state authority’s efforts to motivate the people to look forward with hope rather than look back at the ruins of history.

17In the part of Quang Ngai Province that came to be known by the international community as My Lai during the Vietnam War, after a tragic mass killing of civilians in March 1968, the residents told many stories of the spirits of the dead in pain. Some of the villagers vividly recalled the lamentations of ghosts in the villages and the cries they had heard coming from the killing sites. Residents in one particular settlement graphically described seeing the ghosts of young women, each walking with a small child in her arms and lamenting over the child’s lifeless body. The villagers explained that the mother ghosts were grieving for their dead children.

18According to the old village undertaker, the village’s invisible neighbours could lament their own physical pain or feel pain when their loved ones suffered pain; they might have grievous feelings about their own tragic, unjust death or they might cry over their children’s deaths as if they, themselves, were not yet dead. Their moods and sentiments – and even their forms – fluctuated with the circumstances. The child ghosts appeared dead in their grieving mothers’ arms on a moonless night during a rainy season, and yet these same children could be seen playfully running after their mothers on a pleasant evening before the lunar New Year celebration. The My Lai villagers regularly held modest rituals at home and outside their homes on behalf of these hidden neighbours, and they explained the condition of these neighbours’ lives using the concept of “grievous death” or “unjust death” (chet oan, in Vietnamese) (Kwon 2006: 120–136). This concept connotes that the agony of a violent, unjust death and the memory of its terror entrap the soul in an agonizing afterlife. The human soul in this condition of post-mortem incarceration does not remember the terror as we, the living, would; rather, the soul is believed to relive the violent event, perpetually re-experiencing the terror of violent death. The memory of death for the tragically dead, in other words, is a living memory in its most brutal sense.

19The idea that the dead can feel physical pain has a long history in Vietnamese mortuary and religious tradition, and it relates to the notion that the human soul is a duplex entity, as mentioned earlier with reference to Cadière, consisting of the spiritual part of hon and the bodily, material part of via. The material soul senses and feels; the spiritual soul thinks and imagines. In a “death at home” (as opposed to “death in the street”) under peaceful circumstances, surrounded by loved ones and after enjoying a long life, the material soul eventually perishes with the decomposing body. Only the spiritual soul survives a good death (however, if the deceased’s body is buried in an inappropriate place for entombment, the material soul is reawakened and may feel the discomfort of improper burial). It is believed that the pure and ritually appropriated spirit travels across the imaginary threshold between the world of the living and the world of the dead to eventually join the pure domain of ancestry and ancestor worship. In contrast, the soul of one who experienced a violent death away from home remains largely intact and retains its pre-death dual formation because of the absence of ritual separation. The material soul is believed to linger near the place of death and the place where its decomposing body is buried. It feels the discomfort of improper burial and awakens the spiritual soul to the embodied memory of its violent death. The material soul’s bodily pain communicates with the spiritual soul’s painful memory, and this communication between the two kinds of souls can generate the undesirable condition of grievous death.

20Trapped by the memory of its violent death, the soul experiencing grievous death is unable to depart to the other world until the situation is corrected by the intervention of an external power. This perpetual re-experience is described as “incarceration” (nguc), which means that the souls of the dead are trapped in the mortal terror and traumatic experience of violent death. The grievance of oan and the self-imprisonment of nguc describe the same phenomenon – grievance creates the imaginary prison, whereas the prison captures the grievance and heightens its intensity. The My Lai villagers recalled the names of certain deceased villagers as the most aggrieved victims of the 1968 massacre, and these names belonged to families whose genealogy was decimated by the violence. This devastation provoked the strongest sense of injustice and moral indignation in other Vietnamese communities affected by civilian massacres. A grievous death, in this context, is not only the destruction of innocent lives, but also a crisis in the social basis of commemoration. According to this culturally specific conceptualization of human rights, the right of the dead to be liberated from the violent history of death is inalienable, and the protection of this right depends on the secular institutions of commemoration.

21The concept of grievous death signifies a state of imprisonment within the vexing and mortifying memory of a violent, unjust event, but it also has a progressive connotation that indicates concrete measures that can be taken so that the dead can break free from this captivity. In vernacular Vietnamese language, the liberation from the incarceration of grievous memory is referred to as “disentangling the grievance” (giai oan) or “breaking the prison” (giai nguc). The liberation of a soul from the grievance involves the appropriate intervention of sympathetic individuals: family-based death commemorations and the provision of ritual offerings to the “invisible neighbours” are two prominent forms of this moral intervention. The commitment to this work of memory and its demonstration in communal ritual activities have been the most prominent changes in Vietnamese villages since the 1990s.

22The work of memory is also perceived as being a collaborative project between inhabitants of the living world and those of the otherworld, which involves not only acts of outside intervention in the form of death commemoration but also the soul’s strong will for freedom from history. Apparitions, such as those of the mother and child ghosts, are commonly understood as a sign of the growth of self-consciousness and self-determination on the part of the sufferers of grievous historical memory.


23Vietnamese villagers believe that ghosts of tragic war death abound in their lived environment, and they offer food and drinks to these unknown spectres as part of their seasonal and daily routines. According to Cadière’s rendering of traditional Vietnamese moral sensibility, this world of displaced spirits and the realm of bad death is best avoided. In Durkheim’s understanding of the place of religious concepts in the constitution of social order, with which Cadière in fact interacted closely while preparing his oeuvres on Vietnam’s religious culture at the beginning of the last century, sociological analysis should concentrate only on the conceptual sphere of the afterlife, such as that represented by ancestral spirits (whom he calls “true spirits”), which plays an important role in such a constitutive process (Durkheim 1991: 276). Both scholars projected a functional differentiation between ancestors and ghosts, or between the realm of good death and that of bad death. Their focuses were squarely on the structure of the moral order and how certain spiritual categories contribute to making and remaking this order. However, the experience of generalized displacement and loss can affect the moral hierarchical conception of forms of death and afterlife. The historical experience results in a moral identity to which conditions of displacement are integral rather than external. It can generate a sympathetic relationship between the displaced spirits of the dead and the living who remember the pain of displacement. Against the background of destructive wars involving prolific foreign interventions, moreover, the realm of ghosts in Vietnam does not discriminate among its inhabitants on the grounds of race, nationality, political ideology or other secular differences. The ghosts of foreign combatants and those of Vietnamese villagers have equal entitlement to gestures of recognition and remembrance offered by the living. In this imaginary yet historically authentic reality, we can perhaps witness how one of the hopeful visions of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, which involves the realization of the rights of strangers and the ethics of universal hospitality, is actualized (Kwon 2008b: 35–36).

24There has been a growing interest in the concept of hospitality recently, and I myself have written about it with reference to the contemporary Vietnamese culture of death commemoration (Candea & Da Col 2012). I propose that the gesture of hospitality in the latter context may instead be seen as an act of reciprocity. For example, let us imagine that I offer a glass of fresh water and a bowl of rice gruel to a stranger, a refugee in the world of the dead. I am not doing this as anyone but as someone who has lost a close relative to the war’s power of destruction and dislocation. It is possible then that when I make these offerings, I do so not merely as a customary gesture of hospitality but in the hope that someone in a distant place would do the same to my dearest who is lost. This art of reciprocity is not my own imagination; it is a theme that is grounded in the tradition of Vietnamese literary art, which dates back to at least the seventeenth century. The career and creative work of Nguyen Du, mentioned briefly earlier, speak to the fact that the living who are displaced from home may not relate to the displaced spirits of the dead in the same way as those individuals who enjoy a secure, settled life. The latter, identifying themselves with their homebound ancestral spirits, typically relate to these spirits as strangers, whereas a relationship of sympathy and mutuality may develop between the displaced spirits and the displaced living. Although this sympathetic relationship is historically rooted in the Vietnamese literary and religious tradition, it is worth noting that its contemporary manifestation in the manner described in this essay must be considered in relation to the turbulent historical conditions that people in Vietnam underwent in recent decades as part of the nation’s revolutionary upheavals, especially the experiences of generalized mass death and displacement. Sympathy with displaced spirits is a culturally grounded tradition in the specific sense that it is a religious and moral tradition whose relevance and strength are revived and reinvented in times of historical crisis and its aftermath. When this sympathy arises on the horizon, its collective manifestation can challenge the existing order of the afterlife, bringing about a revolutionary change in the moral hierarchical relationship between what Durkheim calls “true spirits” and the displaced spirits of the dead.

25The Vietnam wars were part of a turbulent postcolonial transition in the second half of the twentieth century. Peter Gatrell writes that the mid-twentieth century witnessed unprecedented mass population displacement in both scale and intensity, caused by “the collapse of multinational empires, the emergence of the modern state with a bounded citizenship, the spread of totalizing ideologies that hounded internal enemies, and the internationalization of responses to refugee crisis” (Gatrell 2013: 2). Mass human displacement continued in much of the following eras and throughout the Cold War despite the claim that the bipolar world, according to some observers of Cold War history, was an exceptionally peaceful time in international history. Today, the UNHCR reports that there are other “unprecedented” humanitarian crises, including the Syrian refugee situation. Even if we cannot do much to remove the politics of mass population displacement from the face of the earth, and even if we feel powerless in relation to the plight of displaced people, what ordinary people in Vietnam do today proves that we can do something for the displaced dead. Key to their ethical practice is the awareness that the experience of displacement is constitutive of moral and historical selfhood. If we can do this for the dead, we can, in principle, do the same for the living. One of the important legacies of modern social science, especially that of Durkheim, is the notion that what we do for the dead is actually about what we aspire to become and how we envision our society to be.

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1 For a stimulating discussion of hauntings as a critical response to the conditions of political and economic domination, see Delaplace 2010.

2 Concerning the idea of hospitality manifested in these ritualized acts, see Ladwig 2012.

3 See the captivating accounts in Mai Lan Gustaffson (2009 : 35–53). See also the highly acclaimed author Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016).

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Heonik Kwon, « The invisible neighbours », Terrain [En ligne], 69 | avril 2018, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2018, consulté le 05 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Heonik Kwon

Trinity College, Université de Cambridge –

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