Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chua Huong Mai

I spent last week in a little village about 20 kilometres outside of Quy Nhon called Nhon Hai. It was the most idyllic setting, beautiful mountains leading down to a picturesque fishing village almost totally isolated from the rest of the world. You can see that the roads are in a terrible condition, so I had to spend much of the trip there walking - arriving filthy and exhausted.
But it was worth it. I stayed at Chua Huong mai, my friend's beautiful little temple. He is a big city, highly educated monk who chose a sea change and went about transforming a sleepy little village shrine into one of the most beautiful temples in Vietnam. My few days spent living there were picture-book perfection, spending my afternoons on the temple terrace under the statue of Maitreya, reciting the Buddhist rosary, reading uplifiting books and snoozing.
The unchanging tempo of temple life is always incredibly relaxing, even though it means a 3.30 am start. The day being divided up into such definite sections means the hours fly by quickly.
The rooms were the utmost in simplicity - hard wooden platforms covered with a rattan mat, but I always slept like a baby, my heart content from the long evening prayers and the enforced periods of prayer, meditation and contemplation. I came away a new man.
I also got lots of writing done in those long hours of enforced idleness.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Kwan Yin

Kwan Yin is much loved in Vietnam, where she is known as Quan The Am. Temples always feature a little shrine to her somewhere on the premises, and some temples outdo themselves to create elaborate shrines to the Gentle Mother. Such statues often attract a cult following, and particular statues are thought to possess particular lucky energies. One could create a map of Ho Chi Minh City based on the various shrines to the Goddess of Mercy and what they are meant to bestow upon the sincere worshipper.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The River

Water runs through many of Saigon's suburbs. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh City is really little more than a glorified swamp, hence the constant flooding throughout the rainy season. This is the reason for the traffic chaos, the perpetual filth and endless inconvenience of the current roadworks going on all over the city - the government is installing a new street drainage system which will (hopefully) make flooding a thing of the past.
Now the section of river that runs through my part of town was once a stinking cesspit issuing a stench so foul that it was actually difficult to walk near it. A whole miniature city of illegal pole houses covered most of the water's surface, and it was generally an extremely undesirable place to be. At some point the government knocked down all the houses (I think it was in the late 90s) and beautified the riverbanks, installing a series of one-way bridges that helped traffic flow and eased congestion. restaurants and cafes blosomed in buildings facing the river, making the most of the clean, grassy banks and cool river breezes.
That was then.
For some reason the authorities decided to tear the whole thing up again and do something else. What that something else is is not exactly clear, as the whole process has taken years and years, and the riverside areas are once more stinking cesspits good for nothing but impromptu toilet breaks and spontaneous illegal cockfights.
How fondly I remember those green grassy banks and the gentle sound of laughter drifting on a cool breeze from an elegant riverfront cafe......

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Giac Lam Pagoda

Giac Lam Pagoda is well and truly on the tourist beat, but I still find it an amazing place.
It is gradually being gentrified, but just a few years ago it was an abandoned and rustic corner in a dodgy area of Ho Chi Minh City where you were likely to be abused by passers-by. It has lost that frisson of danger, but it is still a wonderfully real slice of Saigonese life, an ancient suburban temple that caters to its local community.
Though tourists flock to it for its ancient statuary and well-preserved temple architecture, Vietnamese come for the Kwan Yin Pagoda at the front of the temple, which is said to be especially lucky, and anyone fit or energetic enough to climb to its top to pray and make offerings can expect some especial boons.
The temple is also a destination spot for local students, who use its shady courtyards, patios and gardens as study spots to escape from overcrowded conditions at home. Inevitably this lends the temple a slightly romantic air as young people use the guise of study to explain away their illicit meetings.
When I was here studying Vietnamese back in 1999 I used to meet a young monk here and we'd have perplexing afternoons holding hands and talking about the Buddhist scriptures. We'd take a spot by the abbott's garden, famous throughout Saigon for its collection of medicinal herbs and plants indigenous to Southern Vietnam.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Building a new temple

There is something of a temple building boom going on around Ho Chi Minh City at the moment.

Buddhism is slowly accepting its status as the religion of the wealthy middle-classes in Vietnam, and a combination of financial forces means that City temples have, for the first time in a generation, the funds to renovate and re-invent. These forces include the increasing financial clout of the Saigonese professional classes, the injection of funds from overseas Vietnamese communities, and the diminishing size of monastic communities. In a very short space of time Buddhist monastic communities in Vietnam have begun to experience the same shrinking pool of vocations for the celibate life that the West has experienced for 40 years. While this is worrying for the future, it does have a positive short-term effect - the temples are no longer leaking money by being a halfway house for orphans, the marginally insane and the otherwise unemployable. There is money now to be made in Ho Chi Minh City, and being a monk seems far less attractive a meal ticket than it might have just a few years ago.

I was at Dai Giac temple yesterday, and observed the on-going re-construction of what was once a very humble little suburban temple (with a blind monk striking the bell in the afternoons, and a cage of irritable monkeys waiting to attack the unsuspecting passer-by). It is being transformed into something very new and very glamorous.

This process is happening all over town, at faster or slower speeds depending on the available cash. The crumbling old cement temples built for the most part during the American war years will soon be a thing of the past.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Over the Moat

I'm leaving soon (on Wednesday) and to get myself in the mood having been reading Over the Moat by James Sullivan. At first I hated it, but now I'm about halfway through it I'm absolutely in love with it. Sullivan isn't afraid to make himself look foolish, and when an author is that honest it's almost impossible to dislike their book.
What intrigues me is that it all took place back in the early 90s - why on earth did it take him 10 years to write it all down? It was confusing me at first - he was writing about all kinds of things and I was thinking, "That isn't true! Vietnam hasn't been like that for years!" And then I read more carefully and saw that he was describing the events of 1992, when things were exactly as he describes.
Amazing how much things have changed - this book is a fascinating little window into a specific moment in Vietnam's history.
Well worth a read.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Book - At Last

For years I've thought of myself as a frustrated writer - now at last I have an opportunity to become the real thing.
I have decided to write my first book - a spiritual journey through Vietnam. Vietnam is a place I know well and love very much - it is my second home, and in many ways my spiritual home.
I will be leaving for Vietnam in a couple of weeks time, and will spend 2 and a half months there, travelling and writing about all the the things I do and see. I will also be keeping a record on this blog.
So who are my influences when it comes to travel writing? Paul Theroux, Gontran de Poncins and Osbert Sitwell are probably my main inspirations, so I will blog more about those extraordinary figures in the days to come.