…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.