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.