Plum Blossoms in Winter

Not long ago, I was having dinner in Dalat, Vietnam, with my friend the Buddhist monk Minh Tam. The subject rolled around to poetry, at which point he pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down the following poem for me by a Vietnamese Zen Master from the 11th century named Man Giac. I later learned it is a famous and much loved poem in Vietnam. It is also in a long tradition of short “death poems” written by zen masters prior to their departure from this life. Here is my translation.

“Telling the World About My Illness”

Spring goes, a hundred flowers fall

Spring comes, a hundred flowers bloom

Life passes quickly before our eyes

On my head, age has settled in

Don’t say flowers stop falling when spring comes to an end.

Last night in the front courtyard, a plumb branch blossom!

From Chinese to English – Via Vietnamese

My friend Minh Tam is like a lot of monks in Vietnam in that he reads and writes Chinese, and has memorized a lot. He studied at the main Buddhist University in Vietnam (Van Hanh in Saigon), and then went on to get a PhD in Buddhist Studies at Delhi University in India, specializing in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. After he wrote down the poem in Chinese, Minh Tam then wrote out a version of the same poem in “quoc ngu,” using romanicized letters to spell out the mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese words in the original poem (known as “han viet“). Then he wrote out a version of the poem in “regular,” modern-day Vietnamese, without any of the original loan words from Chinese. These three versions are shown in the graphic here, from left to right.

Mãn Giác – Wikipedia tiếng Việt_1254801054864

What is the Poem About?

The poem begins by saying that at the end of our lives, we all perish (“spring goes, a hundred flowers fall”).  In the second line, he says that we are reborn when spring comes again (“spring comes a hundred flowers bloom”). But then in the fifth and most famous line of the poem, he contradicts his first line and says “Don’t say flowers stop falling when spring comes to an end.”

How could flowers still fall when spring has gone and now the trees have leaves on them instead of flowers? In Asia, the  plum blossoms come out in winter. It is a beautiful way of saying that even the traditional way of understanding reincarnation as explained in the first two lines is limited: it is too linear.  Life begins, passes, ends, yes, but that is looking at it from the point of view of a kind of progression, which does not fit with this master’s understanding. In fact, he seems to want to say, we die and are reborn in every instant, we and all things together.

If that is what he meant, I think it is most beautiful and tender.


On a recent holiday here, my friend and I went to visit his teacher Ong Muoi (known as “tenth uncle” in earlier posts here), who has moved from the island of Phu Quoc in South China Sea to the land of his ancestors about 90 minutes away from Saigon in Binh Duong town.  Ong Muoi came to Binh Duong to build a “định” on his family’s land, and my friend Hai had been suggesting that we go see it.


Altar at the Village Định: More deities than you can shake a joss stick at.

As far as I can tell, a định is a cross between a place to pay homage to the village’s deceased leaders (like a monument or memorial but with an altar), a place to worhsip animist deities like the “water god” and the “mountain god,” a place of gathering for the villagers to meet each other (village square), and  in some cases, a place of religious worship (Buddhist).  Because Ong Muoi follows the Buddha’s teachings, he included a buddhist shrine at the định. Whatever the object of veneration, the ritual seems the same: people appear from the village, light joss sticks, place them against their forehead, bow three times, insert them into the incense burner and then start talking to each other. [Sadly the photos of Ong Muoi and his new dinh, which were taken with my trusty cell phone cam, disapeared with the trusty cell phone cam on the streets of Saigon. ]

It should be noted that the 88-year old Ong Muoi built the dinh himself (my last post said he was 82 – I was six years off). And because he is a doctor of traditional Vietnamese medicine, he also set up a small herbal medicine clinic on the site as well, with about 84 newly-built bins filled with local herbs. Not bad for someone his age – or my age for that matter. He said he came back here for the end of his life, because it was where his family is from, and because his relatives were planning on selling the land (or stealing it, I could not tell which).

We sat and talked for a few hours, and it was quite rewarding to finally be able to understand enough Vietnamese to speak with him directly. We would talk about the trip Hai is planning – to take Ong Muoi to Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment – and then rest a bit. Then we talked about the dragon fruit that Hai and I had brought and we were eating  – still not ripe, he said, disapprovingly. He would ask about my breathing, and whether I had taken his advice offered at Diamond Bay, and we would drink some tea, and rest some more. And then he would ask about my dreams. What kinds of dreams was I having? Where they peaceful or disturbing? He would ponder my answes, and often say nothing. He has a kind of non-invasive benevolent presence that is so nice to be around.

And as we sat and talked, night came to the place, and people emerged from the countryside, and the dinh started to come to life. People come there to pray, ring a bell, light incense, chant prayers, or just sit there in the placid way of the locals, squatting on their haunches, talking, sharing or just being silent. Most of them are elderly women, and I am reminded again what I love about this country. Of course there is fascination with a foreigner (me) that can make one self-conscious, but underneath that, there is this intense affection in their faces that one would take the time to come to this place and be with them: it is in their touch, in their words, in their a playfulness and in a kind of encouraging presence that says “whatever journey you may be on, I wish you well.”

Ong Muoi in his understated way pretends to be too busy to engage with the visitors – “his people” – who kind of come up to him, and tease him, tug at him, poke at him. He laughs and smiles, and scurries along, in perpetual motion when out in public. When a  middle aged man brings his youg four-year old daughter to the định, she comes running to see Ong Muoi, who scoops up the shy girl and brings her to sit and talk with us.


A Village Định

Down to Business.

Ong Muoi always like to talk about Buddhist things. Do I believe in reincarnation. What kind of reincarnation? Did I know how to relieve the sufferings of samsara? Was I repeating the name of the Buddha? And I would ask  him things as well. I asked why when I live in Saigon does my energy dissipate so much, and he said because I think about everything too much. (Buddhism for beginners.) He mentioned all of the wild dakinis who tempted the buddha prior to his final enlightenment.

But my favorite story from yesterday was the following: He explained to me the legend that one way Buddhist masters in the old days would check their students progress is that they put them in a big pond filled with crocodiles. According to Ong Muoi, those who had realized the Buddha way would float because they had digested their karma, and those who hadn’t would sink due to the weight of their undigested karma.  I think today we would call that “up or out,” and is one reason I have a hard time keeping my head above water in crocodile ponds (such as Saigon!)

The hour grew late, and Hai and I had to head back to the city. We stopped to eat “bun bi” a delicious noodle, vegetable, chicken combination, and drove 90 minutes through the dark, weaving amidst cars and motorbikes, heading back to the belly of the beast, Saigon. There, we would no doubt be crocodile food in no time.

The  mischievous U.S. poet Billy Collins, our former poet laureate, likes to poke fun at just about everything, including Chinese poetry.  In his quite funny poem called “Reading An Anthology Of Chinese Poems Of The Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire The Length And Clarity Of Their Titles” (see the poem here) he expresses some admiration for the way Chinese poets use titles to draw people into their imaginary landscapes.  He writes “How easy (the poet) has made it for me to enter here,/to sit down in a corner,/cross my legs like his, and listen.”

Nguyen Khuyen, With Nails and Tea

Nguyen Khuyen, With Nails and Tea

Though the Vietnamese poem translated below lacks the long title, its setting on a pond in the fall, with the author floating along in a small boat while fishing, passes the “Billy Collins test,” i.e. it seems it would be a nice place to be sitting in a cross-legged position with the writer of the poem, listening to the sounds of nature.

It is called “Fishing in Autumn,” (“Thu Điều,” in the original) by Nguyễn Khuyến, a 19th century Vietnamese poet. It is part of a cycle of three poems called  “Poems of Autumn.” Any doubt at all that these three pieces of writing were composed by a Vietnamese poet can be eliminated when one considers the titles: “Fishing in Autumn,” “Drinking Rice Wine in Autumn,” and “Writing Landscape Poems in Autumn.” I suppose he could have written one about the woman  who left him in autumn or one about missing Hanoi in autumn.

From a western perspective, what I find most interesting in regards to this form is that the first person singular does not appear. In fact, there are no personal or other kinds of pronouns in this poem and many others like it. No I, he, she, it, they, we etc.  There are only verbs, prepositions, nouns and adjectives. (In Vietnamese, adjectives can be verbs.) For example, the poem’s first line says “Ao thu lạnh lẽo nước trong veo,” which means “autumn pond | cold| cheerless | water | transparent.” The most direct translation here “The autumn pond is cheerless and cold, the water is transparent,” but there is no verb equivalent to “is” nor is there a person who is observing the situation. This means the poem and others like it are refreshingly absent of self-referential discussion (as Billy Collins would say, poems with titles like “The Horn of Neurosis,”) and very high on direct, clear imagery.

Here is the translation, which tries (once again, see last attempt) to preserve rhyme, and a consistent syllable count (nine versus the original seven). This is followed by a review of the poetic form in use in the poem, and a gloss of the original Vietnamese, tone placements and literal meaning.

What is the poem about? I think that its meaning can be found in the last two lines but I will let you sit cross-legged with the poet and decide for your self what he may be feeling. (Hint: The nibbling fish are a metaphor for…?)


Fishing in Autumn

by Nguyen Khuyen

The fall pond cheerless, the water clear

I fish from a small boat drifting here.

Tiny blue ripples roll through the mist

The wind, the leaves fly past with the year

From a deep blue sky hang rows of clouds

On a bamboo path, no one appears

Knees to chest, I can’t put down this pole,

Many  fish tug at the duckweed here.


Technical Issues (for poetry nerds only).

The poem comes to us in one of the most common forms used in Tang Dynasty China, known as “dường luật” in Vietnamese, which means literally “Tang era rules.” (“Rules” as in conventions, not as in “governs.”) It is a very tightly controlled form, and includes restrictions on the placement of rhyme, the placement of different tone marks, the placement of certain opposing types of imagery, and of course, more basic constraints such as the number of lines (four or eight, there are two options) and syllables per line (only one option: seven).

Fishing, Maybe in Autumn
Fishing, Maybe in Autumn

The rules governing the placement of rhyme are simple enough: A_A_b_A_c_A_d_A. In this poem the “A” sound is “veo” which sounds like what we use in the U.S. on bologna sandwiches: “mayo.” In the orginal, it creates a kind of echo through out the poem, as it is repeated every second line. I chose the sound “_ere” to replace it, which hardly captures the original.

Seccond, the placement of tone marks is shown in the chart to the left (BTBB etc.) In classical Vietnamse poetry, tones are grouped into “bang” and “trac” and then arranged likes notes. (See post). The tone of the second syllable of the first and last line define whether the poem is a “bang” or a “trac” poem in general. This is a “bang” poem. Third, the rules governing the placement of imagery require the poet to create contrast between couplets – the second couplet and the third couplet. This is often done by juxtaposing “heaven and sky” in one couplet against “earth and rivers” in the other.  The technical term for this in Vietnamese is “luật đoi,” or law of opposition. I don’t know if it has a name in English. Finally, there are seven syllables per line which I have altered to include nine syllables per line for reasons having to do with “syllabic density” Vietnamese. (See same post.)

Tang Dynasty "Dường Luật" Poetic Form
Tang Dynasty “Dường Luật” Poetic Form

Thu Điều

By Nguyễn Khuyến

Ao | thu | lạnh lẽo | nước | trong veo

Pond | autumn | cold and cheerless | water | transparent


Một | chiếc thuyền câu | bé tẻo teo

One | fishing boat | very small


Sóng biếc theo làn hơi gợn tí

Wave | blue/green| follow| mist | ripple | small


Lá vàng trước gió sẽ đưa vèo

Gold leaves | before the wind | fall | fast


Tầng mây lơ lửng trời xanh ngắt

Layers | clouds  | float suspended | sky | deep blue


Ngõ trúc quanh co khách vắng teo

Path | bamboo  |   winding  | has people | deserted | totally


Tựa gối, buông cần lâu chẳng được

Leaning | knees | leave | pole | long time | cannot


Cá đâu đớp động dưới chân bèo.

Fish |  everywhere | bite/snatch | under | legs| water fern


A Language with Many Rivers

To begin to understand thee history of Vietnam’s poetry, it is helpful and pretty much necesary to understand the very unusual history of the Vietnamese language. As far as I can tell, there are four basic periods: (1) the first period in which the phonetic origins of the language were born among an ancient, agricultural (“wet-rice”) people native to what is today North Vietnam but who had yet to create a written language; (2) a period during which the conquering Chinese introduced Chinese language (which the Vietnamese refer to as “Han Tu”) as the “official” spoken and written tongue of the ruling class, which started about 100 AD and ended 1,000 years later; (3) a period beginning after the Chinese left during which the Vietnamese created their own language (chư nom), using a combination of Chinese created “loan words” (characters) and characters they designed themselves using the Chinese phonetic system;and introduced into the language through a 1,000 year occupation by Vietnam’s northern neighbor; and (3) a period from the 17th century until now when a missionary from France living near Hanoi named Alexander de Rhodes designed the modern script used today called “quoc ngu.”.sunrise-boat-can-tho-vietnam

Its phonetic origins (sounds) derive from a mishmash of other languages endemic to the northern region of Vietnam where the Vietnamese people lived thousands of years ago as farmers and fisherman. These people consisted of two cultures brought together by an ambitious warlord: one was a rice growing culture in the Red River Delta, and the other a mountain-based culture further north towards China. At that time, Vietnamese was soley a spoken language.

After the Chinese invaded the area in about 150BC, they made their own tongue the official language of the government and educated (maybe Rush Limbaugh would call them “elite liberals”). So while Vietnamese was still spoken by the common people, the use of Chinese as the language of the ruling class opened a linguistic spiggot which would flow for 1,000 years – the period of time China occupied Vietnam. By the time the Chinese left, about 60% of the spoken Vietnamese words were of Chinese origin, showing the impact that the written language had on the culture. (One thousand years will do that to a language. Even today, Vietnamese people use Chinese to count things.)

It was not until around the 13th century, after China was gone, that the Vietnamese began to write down a newly created set of ideograms similar to the ones used in China and created a new written language known as “chu nom.” Chu nom, which looks identical to Chinese to the non-initiated (see book cover), contained Vietnamese sounds captured in Chinese-style ideograms, and was the official written language for the next 400 years or so, providing a vehicle for the earliest Vietnamese literary figures such as Nguuyen Du (”The Tale of Kieu,” seen on book cover) and Ho Xuan Huong (a woman who wrote numerous rebellious poems) to write their still famous works.

The Tale of Kieu in Chu Nom

The Tale of Kieu in Chữ Nôm

All of this changed with the arrival French and Portugese missionaries, who wanted to speed up the learning process for the steady stream of eager new arrivals from missionary colleges in Europe. This led to the creation of a Latin script known today as “quoc ngu,” which captures the rich and textured sounds of the original spoken language in roman letters and diacritics. That makes Vietnamese, as far as I know, the only language to have been written in both Chinese ideograms and Latin letters. Does any of this matter in terms of understanding the poem ? Probably not, but it is interesting to imagine that the sounds one is hearing in the poem consist of an ancient tonal language from the Red River Delta, a collection of Chinese words forced into the language by conquering invaders, and a kind of bizarre cyrillic script devised by a French Catholic Priest. At least they left out the kitchen sink.

Vowel Soup

This amalgam language create a very interesting array of sounds of poetry. The bottom-most layer of sounds consists of the letters and their pronunciation. Leaving aside the consonants, which themselves are radically different and fascinating, consider the vowels. There are 12 vowels in the Vietnamese alphabet (although only 11 vowel sounds, as two are pronounced the same), compared to the relative poverty of six in English (a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y). The French captured 11 Vietnamese vowel sounds by using diacritics to modify the six western vowels – “diacritics” being the little hooks, hats and accents attached to most vowels in Vietnamese. (See the little table down there for the twelve.) So, while the vowels look the same as Latin vowels, most of them have absolutely no similarity to the sounds in English, French or any other romance languages. This is why when I go to a cafe and order a coffee for the 300th time, the waiter will still look at me as if I am speaking the language of a small, unknown African tribe: it is extremely difficult for non-native speakers to differentiate between these sounds when they are spoken, let alone to be able to pronounce them.

Dipthong Songs

Moving up one layer up at the archeology site, we find an entirely different group of sounds created by putting vowels together, which are called dipthongs. For example, the word “gooey” in English contains two vowels sounds pronounced side by side and is a dipthong. In Vietnamese, dipthongs abound: depending on how you define them, there are anywhere from three to 23. For example, the word for milk is “sữa.” That innocent-looking three letter word is actually a piece of linguistic nastiness in disguise. It has two vowel sounds: an “u” with a diacritic, and an “a” without one. Put together these two sounds and you get a dipthong which sounds like the noise you make when you drive up a highway on-ramp for a one hour drive, and there is bumper to bumper traffic: eeuuhhaa. Add to that a tone mark – in this case the up/down “dầu ngã” – and what you get in the end is something like someone hiccupping and saying eeuuhhaa. This and the many other strange sounds in the local language are why when I go to the corner store and ask for milk, I am just as likely to get a mechanic to come out and fix my motorbike. (“sữa” is a noun and means milk, “sửa” is a verb and means to repair. In the south they are pronounced virtually identically. For earlier experiences with the word “sửa,” see this post.)

Alphabet Pho

Alphabet Phỏ

Watch Your Tone with Me

Moving up to the next layer at our “site,” we arrive at the Vietnamese tone marks, which are more like musical notes, and which are added to the vowels or the dipthongs. When accompanied by one of these notes, a word can go up, go down (quickly or slowly), stay flat, swoop up and down slowly, or swoop quickly. For example, the two letters “ma” areoften used in Vietnamese class to illustrate this: they can have different meanings depending on what the tone mark is: uses the upward rising tone and is a cheek, is the downward falling tone and is an interrogative particle (but), mả uses a tone that swoops down and comes back up and is a tomb or grave, mạ uses a tone that drops quickly and stays down and is a rice seedling, etc. (Although English is not a tonal language, words can have intonation (go up or down) depending on their placement and use in a sentence, which is different than having the tone be intrinsic to the word.)


Ups and Downs of Tones

Bang Trac, Trac Bang

In everyday speech, these tones are arranged in a random order. In classical vietnamese poetry, however, these tones are arranged into patterns which creates a kind of melody. (This represents the fourth level up at the linguistic “dig.”) While English poetry has meter from the use of stressed and non-stressed syllables – i.e. iambs, trochees, anapests, etc. – it is more about turning up and down the volume on different syllabes rather than tonal changes. In classical Vietnamese poems, tones are grouped into two categories: the “bằng” tones and the “trắc” tones. The former are so-called “flat” tones, and the latter are so-called “non-flat” tones. Different poetic forms demand different sequences of the two kinds of tones: two common rhythmic patterns are “Bằng bằng trắc trắc bằng bằng,” and “Bằng bằng trắc trắc bằng bằng trắc bằng.” The poem “Cô Lái Đò,” has two stanzas written in a classical seven syllable form, illustrated in the diagram “van bang.”

Bang for Your Syllables

Vietnamese is a mono-syllabic, tonal language. This means when you have seven syllables (as in each line of this poem, in the original) you can get up to seven words (the exception is when compound nouns and verbs are used, which are quite common). In English, when you have seven syllables, you will generally get many fewer words – “uruguay potato vine” has seven syllables and three words, “autobiographical” has seven syllables in one word. This means that in Vietnamese language and poetry has a density in terms of amount of “meaning per syllable (MPS?),” which of course is not a real measure but I made it up anyway (or maybe BPS, “bang per syllable?”).

The Tonal Arrangement for Co Lai Do

The Tonal Arrangement for Co Lai Do

For a brief example on syllabic density (BPS) consider the title of the poem: “Cô Lái Đò.” This quaint sounding title is also a little piece of linguistic nastiness. “Cô” means a young woman, usually not married. It has an “o” with the diacritic “^” and has a flat-line tone and is pronounced like the English “co” as in co-dependent (interesting example…mmmmm) “Lái” means to drive, steer, or guide and has no diacritic but has an upward rising tone and is pronounced like “lie,” as in fib or go horizontal. “Đò” is an old-fashioned boat, much like the Chinese sampan and has no diacritic but a dropping tone mark. It is pronounced like “daw” as in Dawson. So the poem’s title sounds like “co lie daw.” Then add the tones, which move as follows: first flat, then up, then down which you can hum to yourself and get a sense for the music.

All of this is to provide a taste of what a Vietnamese poem can do in three syllables, which needless to say, it not easily reproduced in three syllables of English. (There are however poets that I love who write in English with very high “BPS” such as Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and e.e. cummings .)

For Further Excavation

There are other elements to these poems that I find interesting, but beyond already too long scope of this post. As mentioned, consonants are intriguing: many of them are so silent a lot of words end up being pure vowel sounds. For example, “hoc” means to study but the “h” disapears at the beginning and the “c” disapears at the end, like the “w” in “how.” The words sounds more like “ouw.” Also, Vietnamese poets make abundant use of internal rhyme and half rhyme, which is made easier by the large number of vowel sounds. For example, the most famous of all classical poetic forms (“luc bat”) uses only internal rhymes – rhymes never come at the end of lines. (The “luc bat” uses alternating six/eight syllable lines with “rhyming pairs,” except that the rhyme in the eight syllable line comes on the sixth syllable. It is the style in which “Kieu” was written.)

Chữ Nôm, is the ancient “ideographic vernacular script” of the Vietnamese language. After Vietnamese independence from China in 939 CE, chữ Nôm, an ideographic script that represents Vietnamese speech, became the national script. For the next 1000 years—from the 10th century and into the 20th—much of Vietnamese literature, philosophy, history, law, medicine, religion, and government policy was written in Nôm script. During the 24 years of the Tây-Sơn emperors (1788-1802), all administrative documents were written in Chữ Nôm. In other words, approximately 1,000 years of Vietnamese cultural history is recorded in this unique system.

I have been trying to finish a translation of a poem called “Cô Lái Đò,” by an early 20th Century Vietnamese poet named Nguyen Binh. I first picked up this poem a few years ago when I was living here, and in a fit of hubris and pretense, tried to memorize it and recite it to people. Of course, native Vietnamese speakers had no idea what I was saying, which led me back to Vietnamese class, and more prosaic discourses with my teacher such as “How are you today?” and “I am fine thank you. And you?” (Which I am still trying to perfect). In any case, by dint of persistence, here I am finally with a translation of the poem that I can live with. The original poem, the recordings and the  translation are all at the beginning of this post, and are followed by a rather lengthy digression on Vietnamese language, poetry and poetic form, which I wrote to explain to myself what was going on in the poem, so I thought I would share it.

The Poet Nguyen Binh

The Poet Nguyen Binh

Vietnamese Poetry in A Nutshell

This poem is by a Vietnamese poet and thefore it involves spring. Poets in Vietnam employ spring in the same way that country and western singers in the U.S. employ honky tonk bars. For example, the word “xuan” (or spring) appears seven times in the poem, and it is a 16-line poem. Because it is a Vietnamese poem, it will also involve heartbreak, a young woman, a fisherman or farmer, green bamboo and deep and unfulfilled longing – usually for the woman but maybe for Hanoi in the fall. (Nobody seems to long for my fair city, Saigon.) While I truly enjoy the simplicity and beauty of Vietnamese imagery, the action, and the fun, in Vietnamese poetry for me is in the language.

Notes on Translation

The poem I translated here was based on a late 19th century classical Vietnamese poetic form consisting of a four-line quatrain, with each line consisting of seven syllables. While there is plently of internal rhyme, this form uses end of line rhymes, albeit in an uneven way. Nguyen Binh adopted this model to include, in this case, four quatrains. Because I found it impossible to capture the meaing of the lines in the original seven English syllables (see BPS issue above), I expanded the number of syllables per line from seven to ten. This was an arbitrary number that I chose because many of the lines ended up being that long anyway. Second, there is the eternal question as to whether rhymes should be preserved in translation or not. I have no preference, really, but for fun, and for the purposes of this poem (and to drive myself crazy) I tried to preserve the original rhyme scheme, and try to sprinkle in internal rhymes when I could think of one. Finally, finally, I thought I would mention that this poem has one of my favorite lines in all of poetry, and that is “Bỏ thuyền, bỏ lái, bỏ dòng sông/Cô lái đò kia di lấy chồng” which means “farewell boat, farewell rowing, farewell river/The boatgirl went off to marry a man,” which sounds pedestrian in English, but to my ear at least, fairly sublime in the original. It has end of line rhyme, internal rhyme, it has rhythm (from repeating “bỏ”), it has symmetry in the three syllables cluases at the end both lines, and there is of course the bittersweet conclusion to the poem.


To help bring the language alive, I have inserted two recordings of the poem, one by a friend from the south, one by a friend from the north. The two accents are totally different as you will hear.

Southern Friend

Northern Friend





Chữ Nôm, is the ancient “ideographic vernacular script” of the Vietnamese language. After Vietnamese independence from China in 939 CE, chữ Nôm, an ideographic script that represents Vietnamese speech, became the national script. For the next 1000 years—from the 10th century and into the 20th—much of Vietnamese literature, philosophy, history, law, medicine, religion, and government policy was written in Nôm script. During the 24 years of the Tây-Sơn emperors (1788-1802), all administrative documents were written in Chữ Nôm. In other words, approximately 1,000 years of Vietnamese cultural history is recorded in this unique system.

New meaning to the term "checkmate"

New meaning to the term "checkmate"

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but heading to my local ATM recently to withdraw a few  hundred thousand dong, I came across these two avid chessmen engaged in a game of “co,” which was apparently in such need of being played that those of us in need of cash needed to wait a bit. “Co” is chinese chess (not checkers), and I have no idea how to play it. But such is life in Saigon: rapid modernization surrounded by…chess (?).

One way to deal with the mind-numbing traffic around town: take pictures of it! Here is a selection of shots taken with my cell phone on the various ways that motorbikes can be put to use in Saigon.  (Click to enlarge.)

After spending almost eight months crunching numbers on the Vietnamese economy at a local investment company, I think I can safely say that Vietnam is well on its way to becoming the next Asian tiger. This success should come as no surprise. The Vietnamese government, to its credit, has been involved in economic liberalization for almost 20 years, privatizing state-run industries, joining the WTO, and opening sectors of the economy to foreign investment and competition. Average GDP growth in Vietnam throughout the economic crisis? Four to five percent positive. Technology is abundant. The education system is strong. (OK, the roads stink.)

Workers in a Local Factory

Workers in a Local Factory

Like many country’s making the transition from underdeveloped to developed, the main engine of growth is industry, which is fed by workers moving from the countryside to work in factories. (Industry, that is, as opposed to agriculture, which is on the decline as a percent of GDP, and services, which are still relatively small as a percent of GDP.) I read this morning, for example, that Saigon will grow from a city of 6 million today to 10 million by the year 2020. For many of these people, the incentive is quite clear: living in poverty, in the countryside, in one of the poorest country’s in the world, after a war, and a communist crackdown some say was worse than the war itself – after all that, why wouldn’t you want to move to a nice apartment in a high-rise, subscribe to cable, enjoy A/C, and walk on ceramic tile floors.

You don’t have to go much further than the city limits to see this mass migration in progress. Not far from the center of Sai Gon, and Ha Noi, are the well-known industrial zones. Large walls surround monstrous, smoke-bellowing, steel smelting, coal burning, smoke-stacked “nha may,” which literally means house machine in english, a.k.a. factories. When shifts end and begin, streams of workers in matching uniforms march in and out, people who have no doubt left their villages to come and try to earn money for their families.These are the people who make things for export like sneakers, clothes, furniture, and computers – and provide what economists call Vietnam’s “comparative advantage:” cheap labor. (Check the tags in your shirts, pants and shoes!). They work on assembly lines for local and foreign companies, for very little money, in frightening conditions and often live in housing that is provided by the company or shared apartments with co-workers.

Three Strikes and You’re Alienated

This has my over-analytical brain thinking about a few things.

First strike: Working in Factories Here Stinks. As we know from the study of early 19th century England (you took Western Civ, right?), the rapid industrialization of a society – fueled by the injection of private capital seeking to maximize profit – has its dark side, especially if you believe Karl Marx. As workers leave craft-based forms of manual labor, in which they are involved in the creation of the objects of their labor from start to finish (i.e. a chair), and move to the industrial work place, their work becomes only a small part of a much larger whole (i.e. a car), and this has an “alienating” effect on them.

Shoes for the People
Shoes for the People

Second strike: Salaries are Going Up VERY Slowly. What is hard not to notice is that the industrial revolution, and the inflow of foreign capital is being managed by a nominally socialist government. Socialism, and the thinking of Marx, are so endemic to this society, that young school children are inculcated in Marxist theory. And to some degree the ideology is supported in practice. For example, this spring, the average worker at a Taiwanese company in Vietnam made roughly $31.60 per month. This led to strikes at some of these companies, as well as ones owned by South Korean and Hong Kong companies. (Japanese and European companies tend to pay more.) The strikes in turn led to a hike in the minimum wage rate set by the government. Karl would be proud.

Or would he? When you do the math on the salary increases, which were about 40%, it works out to be about 33 cents per day or so. Another little fact that is troubling is that this was the first increase in six years. Over that time, the stock market has more than doubled in value, which means that according to the market, the value of the company and in most cases profits are increasing at more than twice the rate that worker pay is being increased. So maybe I am not imagining things when I look at the faces of the workers on their way to and from the factories, and then at the people I visit in the countryside working the land, and see a marked difference in their appearance, as Karl predicted.

What Would Karl Say?
What Would Karl Say?

Third strike: How do you say founding father in Vietnamese? When America went through its industrial era, it did so on the foundation of 150 years of democracy. This allowed for the vigorous and public struggles for worker’s rights, unionization, and other trademarks of U.S. labor history. (Unfortunately, it also led to the little problem of corporations taking over government through lobbying etc. A different story.) In any case, democracy is a long way off in this country. Though there is a benevolent side to the oligarchy in Hanoi, there is not a Jeffersonian one. It is a one party, communist clique. Period. The other day I went by the U.S. embassy and about 10-15 women were protesting there. I imagined it was about Agent Oragnge, though it could have been emigration policy or anything else. Problem was, there were almost as many policemen with cameras as there were protesters. Vietnamese policemen. And a well known Vietnamese, Western-educated lawyer who has acting as a defense attorney for those promoting democratic ideas was recently removed from his office and has not been seen since – except on a creepy Youtube video confession of his wrongdoing that popped up recently. And don’t even ask about the way some Buddhist elders are treated.

Oliver Twist in Cholon

What is interesting to ponder is if economic progress constitutes human progress. One thing I have learned while living here is that while it is easy to naively equate economic growth with happiness, it also easy to naively separate the two. This is something that took awhile for my liberally-educated brain to get itself around and understand. Poverty really sucks. Many of my Vietnamese friends, in fact much of their generation, are strongly dedicated to nation-building in a way that my generation in the U.S. is not. They feel they are serving their country when they start a successful business, employ people, and add to the national wealth. I think it is fair to say that I have been lucky to have a high enough standard of living established by my forebears to not make this my central concern in life.

On the other hand, a recent trip to one of the poorer sections of this city left me wondering just how much progress is being made. District Five is one of the oldest parts of the city, originally settled by the Chinese, and of incredible urban and human density. As I walked down back alleys, I saw saw what must have worried the British chronicler of London’s own industrial revolution – C. Dickens. Women squatted in the stoops of dingy doorways , their faces dirty and sweaty (it was unbearably hot that day), many clutching babies that looked only semi-conscious in their arms. They were dressed in ragged clothes, and it looked as if the bags they carried with them was the sum total of their possessions. Priding myself on magnanimity, generosity, and all the other traits of a good doobie, such was my shock at the site of this poverty, that instead of reaching into my pocket for 25 cents and putting it in their outstretched hands, I hurried on.

Scene Outside Binh Tay Market

Scene Outside Binh Tay Market in Cholon

Not far from the market, I came upon a “sinh to” cafe, where one can sit and sip fresh juice, combined with ice and (lots) of sugar. Interestingly, I was not alone for long. The young woman who brought me my drink, a very attractive young woman, sat down next to me after she served me the sinh to. Very next to me. I have learned there are two kinds of friendly Vietnamese: friendly Vietnamese from Saigon, usually (but not always) with ulterior motives, and friendly Vietnamese from the country usually (but not always) with good intentions. It took me a little longer than I care to admit to realize that this was the kind of friendliness with a distinct purpose. Maybe it was the very, very low-cut tank top, the very, very short shorts, or the way she touched my watch. I looked around and the cafe was peopled by men, men alone, at tables, in the shade, in a very poor part of town.

I had landed in what a friend told me is a “cafe om,” which means hugging coffee shop. These are kissing cousins (ha ha) to the “bia om” (beer hugging place), “restaurant om” (eating and hugging place), “karoake om” (beer, eating and drinking hugging place), “cat toc om/goi bau om” (hair cut and hair wash hugging place), “ma sa om” (massage hugging place), and so on. In fact, you can get “hugged” just about anywhere you go around here, and I don’t mean by your friends (people don’t literally hug each other much around here, actually).

I don’t mean to make connections where they can’t be made: poverty and prostitution were prevalent long before the opening of the economy to private ownership, and their existence in Cholon does not mean economic progress is insignficant. When I came here 15 years ago, in fact, District One, which is now home to swank boutiques (see Gucci shoe store), looked a lot like District Five today. The point is that for the time being, most of the economic progress is benefitting an emerging owning class in Vietnam, and the benefits of this growth will be slow to materialize down in the trenches.

In the meantime, the people of the country are being force-fed an economic miracle like a French Goose, and while you suspect the pate will probably come out well in the end, you kind of worry about the goose. There are those who live on the street, who work on the assembly lines outside the city, who sqaut in stoops begging, who clutch the arms of foreign visitors in Cholon, who seem to be propping up the economic miracle with their silence. If you ask the government and most foreign commentators, you would say the economic growth is paying dividends for the whole society. It’s just that sometimes you would really like to get it from the goose’s mouth.

My friend Hai called recently to invite me to join him and his teacher Ong Muoi (tenth uncle) for a trip to Diamond Bay Beach Resort near the lovely seaside city of Nha Trang – at a bargain price. Leaving aside the question why he was bringing a Taoist monk to a beach resort, I agreed to go.

Diamond Bay became (in)famous in Vietnam after it was retained to host the Miss Universe contest in 2008, and then failed to complete construction in time, forcing the contest to be moved to another venue in the same town. This has not prevented the resort from taking full advantage of the exposure their (not) hosting the event garnered.

After a two day side trip to Danang, I arrived a half day before Hai and Ong Moui at Diamond Bay. Upon one’s arrival at the reception area, one is greeted by a life sized portrait of the winner of the Miss Universe contest behind the counter. I forget what country she was from. This kind of sets the tone for what is to come. When you go for a bite to eat, you dine in the company of photos from 100 contestants from around the world. There is nothing like looking out the window at the beautiful bay, eating rice cakes, sipping coffee and having Miss Belarussia staring you down.

Nha Trang (sorry-stock photo)

Ong Muoi and Hai arrived eventually. I was very much looking forward to spending time with Hai’s teacher. I had met him in passing but we had never really spoken at length. He is 82 years old, and has spent most of his life in the mountains of Phu Quoc, an island off the southern coast of Vietnam. He is thin but strong, has a wispy white beard, long hair in a pony tail, and smiles at everyone quite a bit. I asked him how he has stayed so strong at such an advanced age, and he says it is because he climbs the mountain in Phu Quoc everday. I believed him.

Now, because the Vietnamese tend be even more obsessed with feminine beauty than we in the U.S., the developers decided to name the bungalows along the beach after various contestants in the pageant. My bald, quasi-monastic friend Hai settled in the Miss Albania cottage,and Ong Mui settled in the Miss Korea suite. There, in yet another life-sized portrait, Miss Korean herself, wearing a traditional Korean frock-dress, strikes a tae-kwon-do pose, wielding a large scary looking saber.

Nha Trang (sorry-stock photo)

We met at the pool and then in the dining room and spoke of many things. He read my pulse (Chinese style, with three fingers). He told me I needed to eat more vegetables, that my meditation practice was too mental, and that I needed to breath more deeply . He was right on all counts, and how he knew that from reading my pulse, I have no idea. When we went to the dining room (filled with kodachrome beauty contestants) for a buffet, Ong Muoi looked at the food Hai brought him with great curiosity, as if he had never seen such things before. Finally, he ate some lettuce, and nibbled at some fruit.

That night we decided to go into the city for the Sea Festival that was happenning there. Like many Vietnamese events in Vietnam (TET, Christmas, New Year’s, etc.) the celebration seemed to focus on bringing together as many motorbikes, pedestrians and cars into as small a space as possible. We went out for vegetarian food, and then, because the decibel level on the street was unbearable, I decided to return to the hotel with Ong Mui.

Hai and Ong Muoi

The problem was, I had yet to visit Ong Muoi in his Miss Korea bungalow, and so neither he nor I had any idea where his room was. So we wandered the pathways of Diamond Bay – me and the Taoist monk – trying to find the bungalow in which he was staying. They were all of identical design, and because of the hour, many were unlit from the inside. Was he staying in Miss France? We approached and he shook his head. Mais non! Pas ici! Miss Germany? Nichts. Miss Vietnam? Khong! Miss Iceland? No. Miss Nigeria? No. Miss China? No. Finally, we arrived at the Miss Korea bungalow, and they key fit. We said good night and I left the tenth uncle with Miss Korea rattling a saber above his bed.

The next morning, I met Hai and Ong Muoi at the pool, another memorable moment. Hai had come to the conclusion that rubbing one’s body all over with salt prior to taking a swim was excellent for one’s health, so when I groggily arrived for my morning dip, my two friends were standing poolside covered from head to toe in salt, happily chatting like father and son, which basically they are. I wish I had taken a picture. Instead I rubbed salt on my body and went swimming. It felt great.

About ten years ago, I found myself curled up on the floor of a large closet of an old monastery in the mountains of Korea with a bad case of kim-chee-induced food poisoning. Because of the way the retreat was set up, we practiced, ate and slept in the meditation hall, and for those who were too sick to practice, we had to rest in the changing room.

During the breaks people would roll through the changing room, folding and unfolding monkish garbs, and I would lie and watch them. But there was one monk from Vietnam who was practicing there and when he came to change his robes, he always bent over and asked me how I was doing, patted me gently, and offered me various kinds of herbs and vitamins. That touched me.


He had been a monk since he was a young boy, and there was always something innocent and child-like in him. I remember for example at a dharma talk one day when the teacher explained a fine point of zen which perplexed my friend. He raised and his hand, and asked “But when you throw something up in the air, it always comes back down.” I remember laughing quite a bit at the simplicity of the way he perceived the world.

So it was great pleasure that I heard from a mutual friend that this monk was visiting Vietnam. He had come to seek help with an incurable medical condition related to a parasite of some kind – or one deemed so by his western doctors in California. I had heard that he was actually so weak he could not go outside, and that he was close to dying.

Here, through the typical “i know someone who knows someone” network used by everyone in Vietnam, he found a mysterious sounding traditional doctor, who asked for his date and year of birth and his symptoms through an intermediary. Based on that information, the doctor told the monk to bathe in four kinds of cinnamon and then go bathe in the sea.

On Sunday, I had lunch with him and his neice, a nun. (See photo). He could not stop repeating the word “unbelievable.” His symptoms had vanished. He was full of energy. We ate a small park near my home, and the water was brimming with fish. The same innocence led him to be more interested in the activities of the fish than anything I could say or do in our conversation.

“Why don’t poor people come here and catch these fish and sell them at the market?” he asked, a question for which I had no answer. From there he launched into a quite sophisticated (and child-like) explanation of the difference between zen meditation techniques in Korea and Vietnam, and how they relate to buddhist metaphysics. He was clearly “back” to use a tired sports metaphor.

Through another set of coincidences he had read a book I had given to our mutual friend in the US called “Fourth Uncle in the Mountain” (see post). He said he wanted to visit the area and meet some of the mystics, madmen, monks and medicine men that lived in that area (or used to, depending on who you ask.) Given my recent trip there, I gave him the coordinates of a temple, a teacher (Chi), and a few towns to pass through to get there.

This morning, I spoke with him on the phone. His voice was radiant. “Unbelievable,” he kept saying. “Unbelievable.” He had arrived at Forbidden Mountain, and was visiting the Matireya Buddha statue. The day before he had visited Chi. He sounded like a fish returning to water, which of course, for a pure-minded monk is the next best thing after nirvana.

After a particularly infuriating interaction with a drunk parking lot attendant who tried to confiscate my motorbike for lack of a parking stub (which I eventually found), I was driving home across the Saigon bridge, heading for the swimming pool, and a much needed cool down. I was amped up in a nervous kind of way, and as I motored across the bridge, I glanced out over the river, and noticed two people wading in the water, chest deep, next to a small wooden boat. My love for all things related to fishing (crabbing, scalloping, clamming, etc.) kept me focused for a split second too long on the scene below. When I looked back at the road, I was three feet away from a cyclo (pedicab), which was traveling about as fast as you would expect a cyclo to travel up a steep bridge (slowly). I was going a lot faster, about 30 k. p. h.
I missed the driver’s body but ran pretty much full on into the back left side of his bike, hurling the bike and the driver over to the right side. He stood up, shirt spattered with blood, holding his thumb. His face was grimaced in pain. As is normal here, and as I have seen at other accident sites, the protagonists in an accident tend not to scream at each other. He squatted down, clutching his thumb, and kept repeating “dau, dau, dau,” which means it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.
I looked at this thumb, and to my inexperienced eye, it looked quite crooked and broken. At home, we would call 911 (Second time I have wanted to call 911 here. See post.), the police would come, maybe an ambulance for the injured man, we would exchange license plates and insurance numbers, and the rest would be handled by lawyers and insurance companies. That, clearly, was not going to happen. In fact, as most Vietnamese would advise, the last thing you want is to get the police involved. It can be quite expensive, and not necessarily just. (See post.) It was a situation where I believed I needed to come to some determination on my own, and I had not a clue what that meant.
During the time this was happening, hundreds of motorbikes had passed by. Most were beeping their horns in irritation, some were shouting at us, some were laughing, and some look genuinely worried. Out of nowhere, however, one man pulled over (“the samaritan”) and began to help. The samaritan tried to help me calm the driver down and communicate with him. For some reason, when I spoke to the injured man, he could not understand me. (Could it have something to do with my own version of Vietnamese?) The cyclo driver was mumbling in pain, holding out his bloody thumb. The samaritan pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. What a strange time to light up, I thought, though I could not blame him. He took out a smoke, unrolled the paper, and applied the ground up tobacco it to the man’s thumb. I was not sure what this accomplished, because now the man was holding out a bloody thumb wrapped in tobacco, saying “dau, dau.” Someone told me later this is a way to stop bleeding.
The cyclo man asked for money. I offered 500,000 VND to calm him down. That was clearly not going to be enough when all was said and done, but it got the ball rolling. Problem was, I had no cash on me. The samaritan, who for some reason did understand my Vietnamese, explained to the cyclo driver that if he wanted money, he would have to travel with me to the ATM machine so I could “rut tien,” withdraw money. The look on the face of the cyclo driver at this point was memorable: should he get on the back of a motorbike with a guy who just smashed into his cyclo? He clearly had mixed feelings. After a bit of cajoling, he agreed to come along with me. I thanked the samaritan (alot) and we drove off the bridge.
In my mind, I had already decided that we were going to have to make a visit to the hospital, but I decided to go the ATM first, and give him money first to put his mind a bit at rest. We stopped at the machine next to An Phu supermarket, where all the rich Vietnamese and foreigners buy their food. I pulled out the money and gave him 1,000,000 VN dong. ($60.00)
For the jaded hospital staff at the hospital we stopped at next, the site of a 6’5″ American in a Lauren Polo shirt and Gap shorts walking into the hospital with a bloody 5’2″ (???) cyclo driver whose clothes were so ragged they barely clung to his body was nothing out of the usual. They did x-rays, which were negative (I guess he just had a crooked thumb.) But they said he had a deep gash on this thumb, that would require care to avoid infection. The prescribed five drugs, two of which were administered on site, three of which we purchased. Hospitals are cheap in Vietnam, the drugs and care coming to a total of 500,000 VN dong.
One annoying thing about Vietnam, at times, is that in my view, at least, Confucius won out over Buddha and Lao Tzu. This is unfortunate. What it means is that in Vietnamese society many people still see themeselves and others as part of a social hierarchy in which status is extremely important. Trying to get a cyclo driver help in a hospital, you can see this very easily. While the doctor was extremely helpful, one of the nurses was clearly struggling to keep the hippocratic oath with a character who probably lived well below the poverty line (which, in Vietnamese cities, is 260,000 VN dong per month – or about $15). And the pharmacist, completely unable to overcome her high class status behind a glass window, wrote out his dosages in an indecipherable scribble that this probably illiterate man would surely find useless.
Not that hospital work in Vietnam would be easy. While I am waiting for the driver to be taken care of, another man walks in, his shirt also splattered in blood, his face obscenely swollen and lacerated, which was either a really bad beating, or from the impact of a motorbike accident. A woman comes in on a steel gurney, semi-conscious, gasping for breath, probably also knocked out by a road accident. I have an extremely low tolerance for this form of human suffering, and I soon felt very nauseous. Luckily, we were just about done with the cyclo driver’s paperwork and headed out.
I took him back to his cyclo on the bridge, and tucked his medications, and his x-rays into the back of his cyclo. (Thinking to myself: would negative x-rays of a non-broken thumb be of any value whatsover once he arrived home?) For the first time, I could look over the cyclo closely to see how badly it was damaged. Sadly, the bike was so old, and in such bad repair, it was impossible to tell what was damage from this accident and what was just an old cyclo. The seat, covered with a plastic bag, was severly tilted to the right, which would be in keeping with the impact I had made. But the cushions and rims and wheels and foot stand and were a kind of museum of worn, tarnished and tangled cloth and vinyl and metal. At that and other moments, I sincerely hoped that the money I had given him could buy him another cycle.
We unlocked his bike, and were starting to put it back on the road, at which point he turned to me and held up his thumb, now neatly bandaged. As hundreds more motorbikes whizzed by, with quizzical expressions, the cyclo driver groaned in pain, providing the same – and I hate to say this – slightly put-on sad face that one sees with the shoe shine kids and beggar children (which have recently been remove from the downtown so as not to trouble tourists.) He kept gesturing at his cyclo, as if to say he could not drive it in his current state. At this point, for the first time, I was getting frustrated. What was the problem? Was the cyclo broken? Was his thumb too badly hurt to drive it? Was he holding out for something?
I considered my options. I could drive the cyclo off the bridge myself, though the thought of me trying to control a runaway cyclo barrelling down the far side of the bridge was enough to nix that idea. I had ridden skateboards down hills in school, with limited success. (See photo right of downward slope of bridge.) I thought about giving him more money.
Just at that moment, as the motorbikes passed by, two young guys came up the bridge pushing a broken down motorbike. Luckily, I had recently learned the word in VN for “repair” (sua) and these two guys, as their shirts attested, worked for a “Sua Xe,” or motorbike repair company. Talk about good timing. I told them I would pay them some money to help the driver to get his bike going again. They looked over the cyclo, and said the cyclo was OK, and didn’t want any money. They told me to give the driver some money. I told them I had already, and that we had gone to the bank, the hospital, the pharmacist and so on.
The repairman, perhaps satisfied that some strange form of justice had been done, whispered something into the cyclo driver’s ear. Whatever he said seemed to put the cyclo driver at ease. The boy told me to “di.” Take off.
Again, I was not happy with having to leave this man alone with his bike. I decided to do the following: I would drive off the bridge, exit at the bottom, make a U-turn and come back the other way to see if he could get the bike going. Oddly, when I was getting on my bike to do just that, the cyclo driver looked at me. He looked quite a bit like a child to me. He waved and even let out a wan smile of what I would like to believe was gratitude.
I turned around at the bottom of the bridge and followed the off ramp around 180 degrees back onto the highway traveling in the other direction. At this point, I was overcome with a strange feeling. I really wanted to see the cyclo man again. I wanted to see him pedaling. I wanted to see that he was OK. I wanted to know where he was going to go next. I even wanted to follow him home.
To my amazement, when I passed heading the opposite direction from where I had left him, he had vanished. There was no trace of him at all. I looped back around on the other side of the bridge and stopped at the spot where the accident had happened. The only trace of what had happened was a brown, square cushion that his passengers sit on. It was resting on the pavement, up against the bridge rail. Why had he left it there? It was in relatively good shape. How had he managed to take off so quickly? Where had he gone?
I rode back down the bridge up the highway a stretch past where he could have pedaled in such a time and he was gone. There were other cyclos, and other men, similary dark-skinned, and ragged, but he was gone. (The morning after, I woke and realized my mistake. (Or at least one of them.) I should have gone ahead only 100 yards or so after I left him, just out of his sight, to see what he did next, and then followed him home.)
So now, when I drive around my neighborhood, I look at all of the cyclos, the motorized ones, the man-powered ones, and I look at the drivers. I wish I could find him. I would like to visit his house and check up on him. Bring food or make sure his bike is OK. This is perhaps out of guilt, but also a kind of urge to care for a man that seemed helpless. My VN teacher says I may see him again, and I do hope so.

A friend owns a small farm in the town of L. T., about a 90 minute drive from the city, in Dong Nai province. There, she built a traditional North-highland stilt-house known as a “nha san,” and a local family lives on the farm and works the land.

The wooden nha san stands out here in the south, a land of low, one-story houses made from a less exotic material – known locally as xi mang, and in English as cement. The house is raised up on stilts, to keep the wild animals that (used to) prowl the forest at a safe distance, and was also the type of traditional house that Ho Chi Minh lived in. There are many things to see on the farm, depending on the time of year: the lotus pond in various stages of life – budding, blossoming, blooming; the fields of rice just before harvest, a deep green; corn, bitter melon and other crops; and beyond these a small muddy river spanned by a rickety rope bridge; and a long thicket of banana trees along the river.

We arrive to the warm smiles of the farmer, Mr. Q., who along with his wife, and two young boys, Tuan and Tu live in a little (cement) house on a corner of the property. I know the family a bit from past visits, and they have always been politely curious about me. Our conversations are simple: I ask what the difference is between rice in the field (lua) rice after harvest (gao) and cooked rice (com). What are the names of some of the plants and birds around the place? What time do the boys go to school? How are rice prices these days? And they typically ask me the same question: Could I explain again why I am 47 and have never been married?

Mr. Q. prepares tea and drops a bunch of large, flourescent chom chom (rambutan, see photo) on the table for us to nibble on. For his son Tu, Mr. Q has managed to pluck a bees nest ripe with honey from a tree, and Tu is chomping away on it, as soon we all are. (See photo). It tastes like the smell of the countryside here at night. Mr. Q. is of a different breed than us neurotic, haywire city folk: placid, good-humored, and humble. For one, as far as I can tell he never stops smiling. His skin is a deep brown, and his arms look like the arms of a man who works his fields from – you guessed it – sun up to sun down. If I spend the night here, I often see him walking smoothly and peacefully along the narrow footpaths, past the stilt house, back to his house, only a trace of light remaining along the horizon. I believe he is deeply connected to the land in a kind of innocent and knowing and wise way.

We are a group of four, and so Mr. Q’s wife has been busy in their kitchen preparing a lunch of boiled chicken, fried chicken, fried fish, rice, vegetable soup, and stuffed bitter melon (kho qua, which means in Vietnamese “crossing past the difficult in life”). The preponderance of chicken on the menu might explain why the two-legged creatures – skinny and little – scattered rapidly in ten directions when our car pulled up in the driveway. There used to be two oxen here as well, tended to by the boys, but they were sold to help pay for the boys’ school fees.

After lunch, we read and sleep our way through the midday heat storm, but are soon walking down the footpath to visit the grove of chom chom. Tu has joined us, so we are five walking along the low dikes skirting square plots of land blocked out in the countryside here like a checkerboard. We slip through a stand of brush and out into a kind of hidden orchard, where the chom chom trees grow, along with lime and banana. Mr. Q. is plucking the prickly fruit from the trees, when a pod of very large red ants drops out of the tree and onto his back. It slows him down little. He simply takes off his shirt, and is quickly scaling a banana tree, and, like a Shaolin monk in a Chinese martial arts movie, seems to leap-float from branch to branch, heading higher and higher, his eyes set on a cluster of bananas at the top of a nearby tree. After some tugging, wrenching, twisting, the banana bunch drops down on the ground with a thud, a majestic pile of bananas (a small portion of which kept my potassium high for the entire week to follow). The stem of the hand is covered with a clear, sugary liquid, which I find out to be quite sticky when I try to pick it up.

We walk back to the house with branches of the rambutan tree (covered with the purplish yellow fruit) and a big load of bananas. Somehow, during the course of the day, we and others have also gathered a harvest of many kinds of local crops: not only choum choum and banana, but also jackfruit, as well as the dreaded and smelly durian, birds of paradise flowers (or as a local friend still working on her English botany says: “paradise birds”), grapefruit (known here as pomelo), and lychee. We pile the haul into the back of the old black Mercedes and head back to the big city with a week’s worth of fruit.

…The Way To Seven Mountains: Travelogue

Click on photos to enlarge.
Text copyrighted by Dun Gifford, Jr.

For Saigon residents, the Mekong Delta provides a sought-after break from the pace and grind of the city. The water buffaloes, the fields, the canals, the river people, the traditional ways of life beckon, and because I had never been to the area, and was feeling burned out by the city, I packed up with my friends Hai and Hai (photo right) and headed on a three day trip to the Seven Mountains.

In the Footsteps of Barefoot Doctors. Why the Seven Mountains? Before leaving the U.S., I had read a book called “Fourth Uncle from the Mountain,” which is the account of Nguyen Hoang Quang, a traditional medical healer now leaving in Vermont, USA. In the book, he recounts the story of his amazing life: from being abandoned on the side of the road by a desperate mother, to being raised by a beloved barefoot doctor from the Mekong Delta, and living in the Seven Mountains with the saints, sages, seekers, and hermits who made their home there. People sometimes say that books change their lives, and while that may be a bit dramatic, it is fair to say that what I read in that book touched me enough to bring me back to Vietnam. And since arriving here in December, I had wanted to make a pilgrimage to some of the places he describes in the book.

Destination: An Giang. If you close your eyes for one hour to avoid watching the unsightly Saigon ex-urbs roll by, and head south through the industrial zones surrounding the city, past the factories and housing developments, you arrive at one of the main tributaries of the Mekong called Song Tieu. The region was formerly occupied by the Khmer people, originating in Cambodia, who like the river crossed into the area and spread out. It was only about 200 years ago that the Vietnamese arrived here, at the encouragement of their king, Minh Mang in Hue, who saw in the richness of the delta a future source of rice and riches. But the Nguyen’s hold on the area didn’t last long. Maybe in the tradition of what goes around comes around, which any local monk here might explain as karma, it was not long before the French warship Catinat sailed up the Saigon River and began hurling canonballs at the Nguyen fortifications along the way. Not being adept at rice farming, the French were flabbergasted to learn that what they had conquered had little economic value to them. All sorts of agricultural experiments were begun – plants, animals, trees, fruit – but it would not be for another fifty years that the rubber plantations would take hold and profits would flow back to Napoleon III. That’s a different story, which of course has a tragic ending.

Into the Delta. We passed through the town of Dong Thap on the north side of the Song Tien, and our driver dropped us at a small ferry landing a few kilometers on. After crossing the river, we entered a small canal leading to the village of My Hiep. (See photo left.) This was like entering a different world. The small canals were lined with houses – hovels really – propped up on stilts, under which boats were tied up, people bathed, worked, paddled, cleaned and cooked. I was kind of mesmerized by the scene as I walked off the boat, and barely noticed the gaggle of villagers laughing at the site of a 195 centimeter American guy hopping on the back of small motorbike, with a helmet that did not fit, and a skinny and bemused little driver who bravely whisked him away down the small back roads of the Mekong. (See film below of ferry ride below.)

Movie in My Hiep Canal

Buddhist Temple on Mother’s Side. On the gaggle of motorbikes we had rented, we wound through the village, along canals, and pass small houses on stilts, and arrived at a small pagoda that belongs to relatives on Hai’s mother’s side of the family. The temple is more than 100 years old, and its worn wood entraceways and stairs, its yellow hue, and friendly nuns were almost enough to help us forget the heat. There were big altars and small altars, upstairs altars and downstairs altars, ancestor altars and Buddha altars. In the understated way of Vietnamese, the nuns were working hard, but appeared to be barely moving, just sort of floating around the temple. In the kitchen, pictured here through a window, flames were burning in old stove ovens that heated lunch. I believe it was already about 95 degrees with about 90 degrees humidity, so the idea of working in the kitchen seemed unbearable. Hai delivers two boxes of Choco pies to the altar.

Uncle Number Two and a Mandarin. Back on the aging motorbikes, we rode down small back roads along tributaries and canals across the island of Cho Moi to another ferry in the town of Ton My. After our crossing to the town of My Luong, we met our driver Tien, and headed to our next destination, the home of “Bac Hai,” or uncle number two, on Hai’s father’s side of the family. A few generations back, a man by the name of Nguyen Van Tuyen (1763-1831) became a well known military mandarin to Minh Mang (the Nguyen king), and, while one shudders to think what he might have been doing in the Mekong Delta (see above history synopsis and intimidating photo to right), it was nonetheless remarkable to visit the family shrine, which was filled with photos, paintings, weapons, family trees, stamps from the former king, and of course the piece of living history, Bac Hai himself, who seemed to be the keeper of the temple. (see photo.) Hai delivers two boxes of choco pies to the altar.

Tip of the Cap to Our Driver. A quick aside here to mention our driver: Anh Tien (see photo of guy under “Banh Mi” sign.) Driving in Vietnam is like a lethal game of chicken with large vehicles. Cars and trucks and buses coming in opposite directions hold the middle of the road as long as they can (there is no divider) and veer right only at the last minute to make enough room to pass. In veering right, however, they come dangerously close to the shoulder of the road, and contend with a stream of motorbikes, ox carts, bicycles, and children darting about. How we avoided a major calamity during three days or driving is a miracle to me. And how he can drive the car all day, and maintain such a calm demeanor, and sense of humor was also amazing to me. Maybe it was something in the cigarillos he likes to smoke at rest stops.

Scrap Metal Uncle. The skies darkened, and opened, and by the time we pulled into the run-down house in Cho Moi town along a river tributary, it was raining so hard we were soaked crossing two yards from the car to the verandah. It was another old house, this one in disrepair and suffering at the moment from “cup dien” which means electricity outage. Eventually relatives emerged from the dark back of the house, and a meal was cooked, and we ate it in the damp heat, and I tried to fall asleep. Every few minutes I was jarred awake by a massive clash of metal on metal that sounded like a pile driver hitting a steel beam. After lunch, we went out behind the house, where the uncle had mango, jackfruit, grapefruit, ducks, and lots of scrap metal. In front, along the canal, a large barge had pulled up, and was cutting and loading metal, which must have been the source of the banging. We walked to a relative of the Scrap Metal Uncle’s house down the road, and saw another old house, also in disrepair. (See photo right of entranceway along a canal.) Hai delivers two boxes of Choco Pies to the family altar.

Two “Aunts” in Long Xuyen. The drive after lunch was down narrow roads along canals, through rain and dark clouds, that took us further inland towards the town of Long Xuyen. TPLX, as they call it, (abbreviation for the city of Long Xuyen), is the home of the second most revered national hero after Ho Chi Minh, Ton Duc Thang, who helped hold Vietnam together after HCM dies, and whose Stalin-sized statue greets you at city center, near the hotel where we stayed. I am learning to expect the unexpected, and the unannounced, as Hai tells us to rest until six because we are having dinner with some friends of his down the street. The two ladies (mother and grandmother) ply us with vegetarian food, speak of their (grand) daughter in Boston, and hand out various Buddhist images and booklets. Hai delivers one box of choco pies to the ladies.

Laughing Buddha. I consider myself somewhat adept at travel, something I backed into by being an itinerant soul, but Hai takes traveling to another level: he was born to travel. He relishes it, plans it, turns friends onto it, does pilgrimages, and tours, knows the right tour companies. Besides having been a tour guide, he travels “for his own account” incessantly: USA, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Singapore – not to mention within Vietnam. I literally can not keep up with where he may at a given time. And luckily for me, he is one of only people I have ever been able to travel with and remain happy most of the time. We share a love for the discovery, and the meeting of people, and I think have a similar rhythm in terms of the day. Just look at these photos: how could you not want to travel with a laughing buddha.

The Group Grows. In the morning, after a breakfast on the rooftop, we meet up with two other friends of Hai’s who live in Phu Quoc and will spend the next day and a half travelling with us. One is a real estate developer and the other a cafe owner. Hoang Le and Dung Nguyen. Our first stop on the way out of Long Xuyen is to the school where Hai’s father used to teach. Hai’s father is a retired professor of French from the old Saigon University and an accomplished linguist. They refuse to let us in the school, and I can’t blame them (five guys pulling out of a minivan with cameras and shaved heads probably looked mafia.) From there, we head to visit the widow of his father’s academic teacher, who, before his death, was a famous self-help author and translator inVietnam. His widow lived with a small shrine to his memory behind a local cafe that was packed with young men, it being Saturday morning, cafe time in Vietnam. Hai pays respects to his father’s teacher with Choco Pies.

American Uncle and Aunt. We leave TPLX for the city of Chau Doc, and beyond that the holy seven mountains area near the Cambodia border. On the way out of Long Xuyen, we stop at another uncle’s house (or was it a cousin, or a second cousin?) We were greeted by a somewhat surprised looking uncle, who was visiting his family home from Los Angeles. “Thank you for bringing me to America,” he told me. “No problem!” I said. His house was built under the French occupation, as the date inscribed above the door read: 1935, but the man was most interested in talking about America and how lucky he felt to live there. We walked out back to visit the family graves and gaze out over the large fields he owned that were being farmed. The house was a beautifully maintained: floors with ceramic tile patterns, painted columns, cast iron gates, large ceiling fans, fruit trees surrounding the front courtyard. Hai delivers a box of Choco Pies to his uncle and aunt.

The Old Forbidden Mountain (Nui Cam). Our destination that day, however, was Nui Cam, or Forbidden Mountain. In the book “Fourth Uncle…,” Dr. Quang’s journey takes him, at one point, to live in a cave on the mountain with a hermit monk. This to me was the most tender and heart breaking part of the story. He describes a world in that mountain that, by the accounts of even a monk we spoke with when we visited there, has vanished: tigers, sorcerers, mystics and taoists. When his father dropped him off to study with the monk, Quang was a teenage boy who missed his friends, his village and the life he led in Ba Chuc village with a sect of Pure Land Buddhists known as Buu Song Ky Huong (more on them later). After spending time in the cave with the Fourth Uncle, and experiencing various blissful states, Quang wanted only to stay and continue to his practice, at which point his father swiftly brough him back to work in a nearby town as a doctor. Such is life under a true teacher.

The New Forbidden Mountain. Today, somewhat sadly, Forbidden Mountain is a tourist attraction run by the communist government. This is not to say that the beauty and power of the mountain are not visible in the trails that lead mysteriously off the road into the jungle, or the intrepid pilgrims on their way up the steep road. But at the top I was amazed to see a mammoth, stone laughing Buddha, towering over the beautiful lake, the small village, and wildly incongruous with the landscape it rests in. On the side of the lake opposite from the laughing Buddha, is Van Linh temple, the destination for the pilgrims, who arrive in various states of exhaustion to prostrate and chant. (See photo above.) Hai knows the head monk, and we talk of their daily schedule, and then stay for dinner in another kitchen with no electricity, that runs on wood stoves, with huge metal pots and dark corners. We are doted on by the local women at the temple. No choco pies for the temple, though.

Chau Doc. We turn around and leave the seven mountain areas to spend the night in a hotel in Chau Doc. The night in Chau Doc is memorable only for the state of exhaustion I seemed to be in. I showered, lay down in bed, ate three mangoes and watched a soccer game on television. I turned down a request to go out on the town with the rest of the group, which turned out to be a good decision, given that our driver locked the keys in the car, and they spent an hour breaking into the minivan, returning to the hotel after midnight.

Xa Ba Chuc. I woke with great anticipation knowing that we were headed back to the seven mountains: today to visit two temples where Dr. Quang lived and practiced the village of Ba Chuc, about two hours from Chau Doc. The roads get narrower, and soon we are in a countryside more in keeping with what you would expect in a Chinese landscape painting from the Ming Dynasty. Boys wondered around well-trodden rice fields, lined with foot paths, leading large oxen; women and men worked the field, carrying hoes and rakes and harvested crop. We stop to taste the fruit of the “tuc nuc,” a small black fruit that looks like a coconut, each one containing three soft, gelatinous, delicious nodules of a juicy pulp. (See right, Hai #2 taking over for the storekeeper, opening the tuc nuc fruit.) Soon the sky opened to drop down a deluge of rain, turning the green landscape into a sheet of grey that scrubbed the sharp clarity of the countryside into a windy blur. We drove on down the narrow road (see left, with boys running to take cover), and were struck when we passed a small hut outside a local pagoda, where all of the local travellers had taken cover, creting a rainbow of blue, green, yellow, white and red rain ponchos, that jumped out against the grey backdrop.

The Slaughter at Tam Buu Tu. When we arrived in Ba Chuc, we passed through the small town and went right to Elephant Mountain, which was really more of a hill, though it did look like an elephant, with large rocks serving as ears. At the base of Elephant Mountain sits Tam Buu Tu, the home of a semi-Buddhist sect known originally as Buu Song Ky Huong (“Good fragrance from a scared mountain.”) and today as Tu An Hieu Nghia. The sect plays a central role in Dr. Quang’s story, for his father was a respected elder there and Quang himself lived there for a few years when he was young. Unfortunately, the temple is famous throughout the country for a tragic event: In 1978, Pol Pot’s troops crossed the border from Cambodia into Vietnam, and for two weeks slaughtered all of the three thousand plus villagers but two. The victims now sit grimly on shelves, divided into their approximate age at the time of death. Today, the temple seems to support itself through telling the fortunes of visitors: and there is an elaborate ritual through which eventually a cup of sticks with numbers is rattled until one falls out, and one’s fortune is read: my fortune told me I needed to change jobs! But the sadness of the temple was written on the grim faces of the people who sell incense and other offerings at the entrance to the shrine. They are not allowed to come inside with the visitors, but a few brave young boys sneek through the gate to pepper us with request of money, only to be chased away by a stick-wielding guard who ran after them, too slow to catch them.

An Son Tu Temple. Sometimes when travelling things happen that you can’t explain. Our final stop in this part of the country was a small Mahayana Buddhist temple where Dr. Quang used to live, about to kilometers down the road from Tam Buu Tu. Villagers had come to hide (unsuccessfully) in the mountains here during the Khmer Rouge attack. The temple looked deserted, and we wandered into the main Buddha hall, only to be greeted by a skinny, strong nun who, as is custom in the traditional temples, informed the Ong Su, or head of the temple, we had arrived. He emerged through a small door next to the altar, and we all sat down on a long wooden bench to talk.

One Toothed Sage. The Ong Su was blind, but when we showed pictures from the book to his assistant, we were amazed to learn that the man sitting opposite us was Chi, who figures prominently in the book as a close friend and guide to Dr. Quang, and whose picture is in the book as well. Chi was now in his seventies, we believe. He had a single tooth remaining which stood out because he could not stop smiling. I knew we were in the presence of a special man. First, tradition has it that the ears of a Buddha are long and thick, which can be seen on most statues, and if Chi’s had the most robust pair of ears I had ever seen – I could not stop staring at them. Second, I was overcome with emotion and love for this man that I can not explain. It was as if in his total, innocent, wise, caring and totally unassuming attention, everything I worry about in my life melted away, and I was happy. After our greetings and perfunctory questions, he asked that we stay for lunch, and we walked next door to the old, dark temple kitchen, where again we were doted on by the women and nuns who live at the temple.

The Forest at Elephant Mountain. As we ate, I was still overcome with emotion from meeting Chi. I tuned out the chatter of “the guys” who like to talk and tease each other non-stop, and wanted only to sink into this place. I left lunch early and walked up the mountain behind the temple, and lay down on a bench. The noon heat was beyond heat: it was like a piece of clothing now, up against the skin, incessant, inescapable. I lay down on the bench and closed my eyes, and the sounds of the mountain forest came alive, even then, at midday: birds and the dark-skinned, bare-chested man sweeping the walkway and a visiting pair of women walking by. My breathing became deep (I am a shallow breather) and full, and it felt like the heat was seeping into my body to thaw out whatever had dried up in Saigon over the last four months, in the traffic, in the chase, in the fight, in the game, in the race. I was right to want to come to the Seven Mountains, to believe there was something to find here, though I did not know what it would be, or where it would be, or what it would look like.

Goodbye to Chi. Hai came to retrieve his melancholy friend, sitting on a bench on the side of the mountain. I wanted to stay, and I wanted to talk to Chi,but we went back to the car, and were about to leave, when I realized, given the eight hours or so driving ahead, that it would be a good idea to use the bathroom. As luck would have it, I could not find the bathroom, so Hai came to help me find it. As we passed by the main hall, we looked in and saw Chi sitting on his wooden couch, alone, peacefully. Hai suggested we say goodbye to him, and we walked in and sat down opposite him. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask him now: “How do we solve the problem of human suffering?” And he answered: “We are only passing through right now, and in the human realm happiness and suffering can not be separated.” He answered matter of factly, in the same way he answered a question about when the temple was built, or how old he was, or how many monks lived at the temple. There was silence. Then I asked him “So why do we engage in Buddhist practice.” And he said: “So we can start letting go.”
The Way Home We retraced our steps that afternoon: back to Ba Chuc, to Tri Ton, to Long Xuyen, to My Tho, to Can Tho, stopping to pick up the camera I had left in a bookstore, visiting a monk friend of Hai’s in Can Tho, riding ferries, stopping at the Victoria Resort in Can Tho to marvel at the design, eating terrible food at a rest stop, and finally arriving in Saigon at 12:30 in the morning. The streets were empty. I had never seen the city like this. It was like a living thing that had fallen asleep, somewhat drunkenly. We dropped Hai’s friends off at a small hotel and drove on. Only Nguyen Trai Street was alive, a street where the pretty girls go to meet overseas Vietnamese and foreign men. We passed Ben Thanh market, Le Loi, even Nguyen Hue was quiet. Crawling into bed that night at 1 in the morning, I dreamed a thousand dreams, and slept well. And while we may not have found the fourth uncle, and the world he inhabited, we were blessed to encounter such a wonderful array of modern day uncles and aunts in an enchanted land.


It can get downright hot here in Vietnam and many people just go to sleep at around noontime. This fellow is a “bom xe” man, which means he pumps up motorbike tires at the side of the road. It looks like it’s going to be a slow day for him revenue-wise.

The construction continues next door, but in the tradition of people being able to get used to just about anything, I seem to be tuning out the noise, and now have become quite fascinated with Vietnamese construction techniques. At first the builders seemed as fascinated by me as I was by them. They liked to joke among themselves about the people who live in my building – who are foreign visitors and who they suspect do not speak their language. They put it this way: there are two different kinds of people living in here our building: ngoui phap (French people) and ngoui cao (tall people). The latter would be me.

(Photo: view from my room.)

Somethings are just too good to be true, I suppose. Upon arrival in Saigon, I began to look for an apartment, and for some reason the first place I visited was what I was looking for, quiet, outside of the downtown area, close to some open space. The owner is a Tibetan buddhist, and did a wonderful job decorating the building. Paradise Found.
Unfortunately, it was less than a month after I moved in that four gentlemen arrived one morning on the open plot of land next to my apartment with a makeshift altar, incense, fruit, flowers, and lots of prayers. In Vietnam, such devotion can mean mainly one thing: business. Sure enough, within the day, my new neighborhood arrived: a crane, a pile driver, and about 15 workers.
Paradise lost.
Since then, my balcony has offered up the view of various forms of heavy machinery, trucks, and tools: the dump truck that drops stones, the pile driver pounding concrete foundations into the soft earth, the back hoe digging the foundation, the crane lifting and dropping slabs of stone. The hours between 6 and 8 am, when the digging begins, are now my favorite part of the day.

[contains graphic content.] A few weeks ago, I was driving my motorbike along a major downtown thoroughfare, and came upon a man face down on the road, his scooter laying on top of him. The man had fallen on the most famous street in Saigon – known today as Dong Khoi but called Rue Catinat in colonial times – right in front of The Continental Hotel, where Thomas Fowler was sitting in Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” when a Viet Minh bomb went off at the Opera House across the street. The street is lined with a unique blend of high end boutiques, tourists, beggars, peddlars, local Vietnamese and curious people.
His head was turned at too sharp an angle, his body a little too motionless. I pulled over to the curb, and left my motorbike idling, and helped pull his bike off his body. He was not moving or making any noises, face down on the asphalt. The sea of scooters parted around us – us being a few other worried-looking people who had stopped, the man lying there, and I. One rather gristly looking man rode by, called out to me “chet roi” which means “he’s already dead,” let out a loud laugh, and rode on. Looking at the man face down,I tried to remember my CPR training, but my mind went blank. A man reached down and flipped him over. I expected to see a bloody mess but his face was eerily without cuts or scrapes. His eyes were half open, but white and lifeless. One of the men standing next to me took a pulse and shook his head in that very understated but serious Vietnamese way.
I wanted to call 911 but did not know who to call, not to mention how to explain what I was seeing in Vietnamese. I was overcome with a sick and helpless feeling. Looking at the security guard standing on the sidewalk next to us, he deliberately looked away, as if to say, don’t look at me, you are own your own man.
At this point two or three men reached down and carried his body like a sack of potatoes to the side of the curb. I could not even get myself to reach down and grab his feet, as my desire to help was overcome by a kind of horrible repulsion. (So much for years of bodhicitta practice.)
By now, the guests walking out of the Continental were gathering, treated to the macabre scene, staring in confused shock at the drama in front of them. One of them was taking pictures. Vietnamese on-lookers, were also gathering, but without the same shocked look on their faces. This was not something new or particularly unusual to them.
I must have looked entirely confused, because local Vietnamese were offering a bit of comfort. One man made the universal sign for drinking liquor, tilting an imaginary bottle up in the air, as if to the say they guy was drunk and fell of his bike. Whether that was meant to mean he was dead or not I am not sure. Then, with a surprising urgency, person after person came up to me and told me take off and get out of there, again gesturing politely, pointing down the street, as if to say, you don’t want to get involved with this situation any more.
Something in me found the idea of leaving the scene of a probable death unpalatable. Even more local people came around me now, telling me to leave with great urgency, and I was becoming more the center of attention at this point, which was acutely uncomfortable. So, against my better judgment, I went around the corner to what I had intended to do in the first place, buy some dollars on the black market.
I called a friend later to explain what happenned, and she told me that this was actually a common scam in Vietnam, and that I was lucky not to have lost my motorbike. One guys “falls” of his motorbike. Concerned passers by stop to help, leaving their motorbike idling by the side of the road, at which time the accomplice jumps on the idling motorbike and heads for the pawn shop. The passers by may also put their shoulder bag down on the pavement to help, at which point they lose that as well. My friend scolded me for being a little naive: I had left my motorbike running, but luckily, I had not put down my bag, which had a month’s worth of earnings in the form of cash.
Be that as it may, I decided that this was not in fact a scam, for a number of reasons. First, the man really looked dead. Very dead. Second, my idling motorbike was still there idling ten minutes later when I got back on it. Third, the concerned pleas of the local Vietnamese to get the hell out of there told me that it was something more serious and that I did not want to get involved in.
This was not the first time I had stumbled upon a corpse in Vietnam: two years before, when visiting here, a dead body was spotted floating under the bridge I cross on my way to work. A few days later, a second washed up nearby. All of this morbid story telling is a reminder that even here, in the heart of the “economic miracle” unfolding around us, poverty still reigns, as does what comes along with it, suffering.
As we say in the Kwan Um School of Zen, Ji Jang Bo Sal.

The Tet holiday in Vietnam, better known as the Lunar New Year, is truly a time for celebration here. The night before the new moon is much like Christmas Eve in the west in terms of the energy that builds up before hand. Stores are overflowing with flowers, markets brimming with vegetables and fruit, and shiny red and gold trinkets hang from push carts lining the street. The main street downtown is turned into 500 meter display of flowers, flags, signs, glitter and lights. People shop fervently for large feasts to be prepared on the first day of the New Year, deliver gifts to friends and family, close offices and stores. And finally, like at home in the U.S., people disapear inside their homes, leaving the streets blissfully quiet.
At home, Vietnamese families (those who aren’t Christian) celebrate return to the hearth of Ong Tao, “the kitchen god,” who a week earlier had left to visit with the Jade Emperor. Ong Tao usually lives in the family’s kitchen, above the kitchen altar, and looks over the family’s activities during the year. He had left to issue a report to the emperor on the families activities. His return is a cause for celebration, if not concern (have we been naughty or nice?)
The day after Tet, the first day of the lunar new year, the mua lan dances begin, as “dragons” dance around from store to store to bless the business for the year (for a small fee of course). A Chinese tradition, the merry makers come from Cholon in District 5, Saigon’s China Town. They are followed by a band of musicians, blessing the house with a wild ritual dance, drums, cymbals and merrymaking. The long cloth dragons writhing down the street are of course filled with three or four young men jumping up and down inside.
And most of all, the first day of lunar new year, people eat. Yesterday, I was treated to two feasts on the Lunar New Year. At the first, the traditional sticky rice cake – banh chung – was eaten, along with chicken, squid, egg rolls and rice. The sound of loud crunchy caused me to look across the table, and watch a thin little man devour the foot of a chicken. He worked his way up each long toe, crunchy on each, and then arrived at the metatarsal, at which point he bit even harder, and managed to grind it up well enough for swallowing.
At the second feast, that night, consisting of fish, egg rolls, vegetable soup and beef, there was one dish that worried me a great deal. Gelatin cubes were piled on a plate, each containing various small bits of food of many textures and colours. Because the Vietnamese are incredibly gracious to guests, and always want to make sure you have enjoyed each delicacy, they saw I had abstained, and explained that it was in fact, a delicate way to prepare pigs’ ears. The polite nod from me was my ineffective way of saying “no thanks,” which was not enough to dissuade my gracious host from picking up a gelatin square with his chopsticks. I eyed the square, which at first was held suspended over the center of the table for a moment and which then floated slowly in my direction. It could have gone to my left, or to my right, into bowls of my friends, but unfortunately it landed square in mine.
Gnarled bits of white flesh and unidentifiable black matters were suspended in the gelatinous delicacy, and despite having been told many times it is extremely rude to turn down food from a host, I had absolutely no intention of eating it. At the first possible moment, as invisible as possible, I picked up the pig’s ears with my chopsticks and put them in the bowl of the person eating to my left!
The Tet festival continues for a week, each day traditionally involving different activities. Overseeing it all are the three folk gods – the wise man Ong Loc (wealth) Ong Phuc (happiness) and Ong Thu (longevity) – who sit on most family altars. And perhaps most beloved of all is Ong Dia, the slightly overweight, happy and generous man not so different from the laughing buddha.

If you don’t like to offer “gratuities” to people in places of power, then this is not the country for you. The first time this happened to me was two years ago, when, at dusk, I had neglected to turn on the front light on my motorbike as I was heading to a yoga class. By some miracle of genius, the police officer who pulled me over spoke perfect English. What a coincidence! He knew the work for “foreign driver’s license,” and he could say “In Vietnam, you must follow the laws of the Vietnamese,” and he even knew the word “confiscate,” as in “I am going to have to confiscate your motorbike right now and you will have to come with me to the police station.” After conferring with his partner, he turned back to me and informed that I could save myself all the trouble if I happened to have 400,000 VND on me (about $25). As it turned out, I only had 100,000 VND ($6) which apparently was enough to relieve him of the responsibility of having to arrest me.
It wasn’t long before, on this trip, I met up again with the “canh sat,” as they are known here. (Police.) This time is was for “speeding” down a major thoroughfare jammed with traffic (OK, maybe I was going a little fast). But this time, experienced in the ways of police officers here (and in the US for that matter), I tried some diplomacy: smiling, and speaking really bad Vietnamese. “Happy New Year!”
Taken aback by the tall white person speaking (mangling) his language, he smiled at me. I told him I was sorry for speeding. He smiled again, went to talk to this partner, and returned. Again, in impeccable english, he said “You can keep your motorbike for 100,00 VND.” Wow, what a bargain. Now, having gotten over my reticence at sharing the largesse with local authorities, I forked over a crisp note, which he slipped into a wad of bills I estimate at about three inches thick, wedged into the spine of a little book he carried.
So imagine what it would cost to start a company here? Or buy a house? As the locals say, “Troi oi,” loosely translated as “Oh my heavens.”

Economies evolve in much the same way that other things do: most start out with a very large agrarian sectors, then industrialize and build cars and trucks for example, and then move on to higher value added service industries (like engineering, software.) Vietnam is at the moment moving from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. All you have to do is drive outside of the city and get lost in the massive and dismal industrial parks packed with processing plants, textile plants, chip plants and so on to know that. Lines of weary workers file in and out as shifts change, heading back to the little towns that sprout up around the factories.

So now that all of the countries that Vietnam sells things to are going into the tank (like the US for example), Vietnam is starting to feel the pain as well. Exports are dropping, GDP is slowing, interest rates are being cut, people are losing jobs, banks are seeing loan portfolios sour and so on. As at home, for the super-rich, this is a great time: buying distressed companies and assets at fire sale prices, which will only help stuff the coffers on the next up turn. For the rest, the decline in the prices of food that is grown here, such as rice, cashews, coffee and sugar, mean that those on the lower part of the income ladder – i.e. farmers in the agricultural sector and workers in the industrial sector – are going to struggle for awhile.

Update on the man selling chickens: He’s back, this time with one rooster and three hens. I could not resist stopping and asking how much for the birds. The rooster goes for 400,000 vietnamese dong, which is $25. The hens go for 300,000, about $18. Pretty expensive, I thought. I checked with a friend of mine whose family raises chickens in the countryside: 100,000 VND is all you should pay for a chicken, I was told. I guess the chicken farmer was not the country bumpkin one could take him for after all.

Anyway, I told him I thought the rooster was a nice rooster and he thought I was trying to bargain the price down. I said no, I just think it is a nice bird. He still thought I was bartering, which of course is because I speak Vietnamese about as well as a rooster. Anyway, he had to explain to me in very simple language that the reason the rooster is more expensive is that it can “marry” (dam cuoi) a lot of hens, and then gave me a fairly universal and quite vulgar illustration with his right and left hand of the act of biological reproduction, just so no doubt remained why the rooster cost more than the hen. Thanks but no thanks, I will pass on the rooster.

One thing I have learned in years of wandering around world is that it is a good idea to be open to invitations from local people. There are three young Vietnamese who live in my building, cleaning, guarding, driving a car for the owner. They are from the countryside, in the north, where there are mountains and traditional ways of life. One of them, Nhung, is returning Satruday to her home for TET (lunar new year) and wanted to visit her pagoda for good luck and to say goodbye for the month. Nhung wants to become a Buddhist nun, but her family will not let her, and asked her to work to support them. She wakes up at 5 AM and goes running, works quite hard around the place.
I returned from work at around 6 pm, having had quite enough of traffic for the day, mind-crammed with stats on GDP, sector weightings and other things when Nhung and the others leap from their room and ask if I wanted to visit their temple. They have seen the Buddhist paraphenalia in my room.
I had little inclination to go, honestly, but some little voice perked up and said “sure” and off we went, heading north of the city to a very poor area called Hoc Mon. It is hard to describe what an urban landscape marred by 150 years of colonial occupation, foreign wars, and communist rule looks like. Suffice it to say: lighting is poor, dust is plentiful, buildings tilt, people wander the side of the road, and trucks scream down the street. It is, without any exaggeration, a landscape of human suffering.
Forty five minutes later, we arrive at a high, wide, dented metal gate, and Nhung darts out of the car and through a small opening, and the gate opens, and we drive into, well, a pure land. Even in the evening dark, the temple grounds offer up immediate solace. Nhung is running along side the car, so excited to be at the temple with her friends, and leads us through a maze of buildings and paths for the grand tour: the buddha hall, where five novices are taking vows; the meditation hall, where about 40 monks and 80 lay people are sitting zen in tight lines, and where a young monk walks up and down the rows with his zen stick; to the study hall, where 50 monks in brown sit on benches studying sutras; to the library, where a young boy, who does not see us, recites sutras; and perhaps most amazingly to the kitchen, where it feels like we are stepping back 200 years in time.
An elderly woman in brown robes tending a fire turns to greet us as we enter the outer area of the complex, and she ask about the strange tall one. We exchange the local greeting “na mo a di da phat,” which brings a smile to her face, and she leads us through one dark kitchen chamber, which opens onto another, and another, as we walk past towering vats of water boiling over wood fires sunken into berm platforms, high shelves of white and red rice soaking before cooking, an array of many large pots sunken into another fire-filled berm, waiting for the rice; and finally, in the heart of the giant ktichen complex, to a large table where about 15 people – monastics, elderly, young, women, men – sit in silence pounding rice into cakes, filling them with bits of food, cutting and tying string around them, and laying them on a high pile. The air is filled with the scent of smoke from the wood fire, incense, rice and mostly, to be figurative, the passage of time.
The elderly woman has wandered off, and she reappears holding out two beautiful mala and asks which one I would like. As often happens, one is overcome with gratitude at the simple kindness, such a contrast with the struggle of getting through the day in the city, trying to make rich people richer, and such a reminder of what is important.
As we are leaving, and peaking in at the novices preparing for ordination in the main Buddha hall, we are approached by a middle aged monk, with the eyes, smile, skin and ears of one who has done years of training. It is through his impeccable and shockingly clear English, his smile, and firm and warm grasp on my arm, here in the middle of an urban sprawl so suffocating and dark and remote and hopeless, that I come back to myself, to my own longing for peace glimpsed through practice, and still longed for. And to a feeling of: “Oh, this is why I came here.”
He sits me down and quizzes me on the basics: “Why did Shakyamuni appear in this world?” Check, got that one. “What is your daily practice?” Oops. Wrong. Kwan se um bosal should come later, he says. First, focus on Amitabha Buddha. He tells me he does three hours of consecutive prostrations, five hours of chanting, and will go the distance pure land when he dies. (He does not sleep and lives on water, says his students later.) I ask him if there is a pure land any closer than that, and he laughs knowingly, as if to say, yes, OK, we understand each other. BUT, he says, just chant Amitaba (in Vietnamese, A Di Da Phat). Pure land fundamentalism! This explains also the fire in his eyes, the smile, and strength of his grip, the energy and excitement about his chosen vocation.
After ten minutes of fire and brimstone, which begins to make me a bit nervous, I use the excuse of the late hour, and my waiting friends, who sit with us entranced by the sight of this intense monk lecturing the nodding American on dharma, to excuse myself, and say I must be returning home. We exchange goodbyes, A Di Da Phats. Nhung, her friends and I jump back in the SUV and leave the pure land for the realm of desire, anger and ignorance, where I have always been more at home anyway.

There is at this time one major park in the city of Saigon, known as Gia Dinh park. It is near the airport, a long, long way from where I live. (Actually, where I “live” now is actually a long way from where I normally live in the US but that is a different story.) Yesterday, a friend invited me to meet a native Vietnamese Tai Chi teacher visiting from the U.S. at Gia Dinh park.
The local residents like to walk around the park in circles. They look like worshipping Tibetans at a stupa. However, they are just walking for exercise. Young lovers cuddle on benches and on the grass. An old blind man walks around with two raggedy beggar children at his side. He blows air into a very small plastic bottle and it makes a noise, like a whistle, which I take to mean it is the entertainment he is providing in exchange for small change.
Various people arrive, and finally the teacher himself, in monastic garb. Stout, short, energetic with wild eyes, he seems more like a fighter than a monk. He lives of all places in Washington State, just a few hours from my home in Portland. I told him of my time studying zen in the school of Zen Master Seung Sahn, and he asks me if I know of a place called Cambridge Zen Center. That, as many of you know, is where I used to live. He asks me if I know Mark, and I say of course I know Mark (the co-abbot of CZC). So it is a small world after all.
Soon the local TV station is there, and in typical Vietnamese fashion, a gaggle of onlookers, many of whom seem amused by the tall lanky guy they say looks like a swan (was that a complement or not?). The teacher puts on a quite a show, dramatically demonstrating what turns out to be more like Qi Gung than Tai Chi.
In the end, it was exactly what I needed after a long week in the Vietnamese stock market.

Sometimes on my way home from work in the city, I stop at the various streetside stalls for food: fruit shop, bread shop, house supply shop and, most recently, the rice shop. There one sees a beautiful array of different kinds of rice, flowing up and out of bags, with little signs stuck in then denoting their names. I pulled up on my motorbike, and simply pointed to the prettiest rice there was, since I didn’t know what any of the names meant. The somewhat grumpy shop owner proceeded to remove the cigarette from his mouth, and stick it butt down into another bag of rice, and leave it there, still burning, as he scooped rice out of another bag for me. As he did, I could not take my eyes off the ashes at the tip of the cigarette as they grew longer, and was waiting for them to fall into the pile of rice there – his ersatz ashtray – when he plucked it out and stuck it back in his mouth, and handed me my rice. “Not correct,” as a noted zen master might say. This morning, I discovered I had actually bought sticky rice, though luckily, it did not seem to have any ashes in it.

Sometimes, while buzzing around on my motorbike in the city, I see things that just make me chuckle. One of my favorite is the man standing by the side of the highway with a chicken. As 18 wheelers, BMWs, food carts, motorbikes and taxis whir by in a blur, as giant ships are built just over the fence there, and giant cranes dredge the canal a few meters away, the beautiful red rooster with long tail feathers struts around on the pavement, clucking and pecking, apparently totally unaware that this might be his last day. The rooster’s owner, looking bewildered, watches the buzzing mass of moving metal whiz by, and waits in hope that someone is craving chicken for dinner. Next time I see him, I will ask how much he wants for the rooster. Who knows, maybe I will set him free in the countryside!


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