Thursday, December 24, 2009

Temple Bells

Big cast-iron bells are a necessary feature of all temples in Vietnam, and I am kind of interested in them. They are obviously an expensive item, but I have no idea where they come from - I've seen factories and workshops making all kinds of Buddhist ritual objects, but I've never come across a bell-making business.
Unlike in the West, the bells aren't necessarily very carefully pitched - normally just a dull, heavy metallic sound that can carry over the whole temple complex.
Often in the afternoon the bells are sounded for extended periods.
Bells are frequently covered with sheets of paper carrying prayers, especially for the sick.
This is a new-ish bell at a big temple in Thu Duc district, just outside Ho Chi Minh City.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam - Cover at last

The cover has been finalised for a while, but it has received some minor tweaking here and there.
I found out today that it may even end up with some gold on it, which sent me over the moon. I've always been a glittery gold kinda guy.
I think the jacket just looks fabulous - the designers have done a terrific job, and it's really going to stand out in the bookstores.
So don't forget:

Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam
by Walter Mason
March 2010 release
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781741759495

Friday, November 27, 2009

Temple in Binh Dinh

Several chapters in my upcoming book are set in Binh Dinh, a beautiful but little-visited province in central Vietnam.
Specifically, I travel to the remote seaside temple of my old friend Thay Quang.
This is such a beautiful place that I thought I'd post some pics of it here.

Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam is out in March 2010, published by Allen & Unwin.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City

I love big cities.
Most people despise places like Bangkok or Taipei, but I adore them. The more unwieldy and congested the better, in my estimation. I think this is a reaction to growing up in the bush. I spent most of my life dreaming of the city, and when I travel that's mostly what I'm interested in.
Now, most foreign visitors to Vietnam come away adoring quaint little places like Ho An or Phu Quoc or Hue. All nice places. Or they rhapsodies about the faded post-colonial charm of Hanoi. Agreed, great city. But for me, the truly wonderful part of Vietnam is Ho Chi Minh City - that vast, heaving, polluted metropolis, a Gotham gone mad.
Yes, I know that it's filthy, hot and dangerous. I know that it's almost impossible to get around in - and increasingly so. But it's so charming!
For starters, the people are beautiful. Boisterous and outgoing, Saigonese love going out and being out, and their frank curiosity and love of the new make them irresistable.
And they are crazy about religion. Ho Chi Minh City is jam packed with temples, churches and shrines. This alone is enough to render it endlessly fascinating for me. Every single suburb can boast of dozens of hidden-away and quite beautiful houses-of-worship, and after 15 years of exploring I'm still nowhere near having discovered them all.
The crazy architecture and the tall, cool cement block houses are constantly diverting, and you never know what will be created when a construction begins.
Every third home is a restaurant or cafe, and dining-out options are endless.
Anyone who fancies him or herself a good cook can simply chuck a couple of plastic chairs out onto the footpath and voila, a restaurant is born. These places are frequently delicious.
Food, religion, noise and beauty - all these things combine to make Ho Chi Minh City the perfect metropolis in my eyes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Vietnam Traffic

One of the things that is most legendary about Ho Chi Minh City is its abominable, dangerous traffic.
Vietnam is not really a place designed for the pedestrian, and any thoughts of leisurely strolls through quaint city streets should be jettisoned as early as possible. Any avid walker soon learns that strolling the streets of any city of size in Vietnam is an act of insanity.
Road rules do exist, but in Saigon they are, for the most part, ignored. You need to look left, then right, then left again before you cross a street. And then you need to close your eyes and step out into the chaos, calling on the protection of your chosen supernatural being.
In side streets and alleys the going gets even tougher, because there are no footpaths, and the flaneur is forced to simply try for a place on the street, along with all the motorised traffic.
Should there be the remnants of a footpath, it is mostly used as motorcycle parking or extended display space for shops and restaurants.
Any spare space is taken up by small, illegal carts selling sugar cane juice, cigarettes or bread rolls.
In Ho Chi Minh City these days one sees more and more cars, but I really wonder if they will ever take off. It is already difficult enough getting around on the infinitely more maneuverable motorcycle.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Buddhists offer free education for poor children

VietNamNet Bridge, Oct 29, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- Lien Hoa pagoda in HCM City is the place, where hundreds of poor children from the ‘immigration village’ at Nhi Thien Duong bridge pier go to learn.

Like other classes, the class at the Lien Hoa pagoda has a teacher and students. However that is where similarities end.

As the children of rural migrants, students here have neither cash nor “ho khau” a permanent residential book enabling them to go to local schools.

Each class starts with Buddhist prayers. The children say “Nam mo a di da Phat” (Glory to Buddha Amitabha) 10 times before each lessons. Nguyen Van Tong, the teacher of the class, says students need to pray to Buddha because they need to learn morality before learning lessons.

Tong, a retired school teacher from a traditional school, is unpaid.

Despite the circumstances the conditions are impressive. They have textbooks, pens and school bags which the Buddhists have donated. There are plastic tables and chairs in the class. However, the tables appear a little small for fourth and fifth grade students. Only recently have they acquired a blackboard.

Monk Thich Thien Quy opened the class in 2006. In that year, Buddhists had to visit each family to persuade parents to allow their children to come to the class. However they found the children eager to learn and he class soon gathered 30 students.

The children here are learning free of charge and most of the teachers are otherwise retired. Teacher Tong is now 66 years old and teacher Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tuyet is 67.

As a result many children have learned to read and write. They go to class in the morning or afternoon, and often spend the rest of the time helping their families to earn a living.

Student Le Thi Kim Ngan, goes to class in the morning and then sells lottery tickets in the afternoon with her father. Despite being only eight years old she helps earn 100,000 dong a day to pay for food.

Hoang Anh Truong Thang, born in 1999, is now living with his great-grandmother, who is 83 years old, because his father passed away and his mother left.

He helps at the pagoda every day, cleaning rooms and gardening. His biggest fear is who will take care of him when his great grandmother dies.

One child suffers anemia and has to be hospitalised every month. Others have problems with their sight.

However, they are all still trying to learn as well as continuing to earn money for food.

Each of them hopes that education will ultimately help them escape poverty.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Quan Am

Quan The Am is the Vietnamese name for Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, commonly known in English as the Goddess of Mercy.
Quan Am is everywhere in Vietnam, and many people have a special devotion to her. When I first visited Vietnam one of the things that really struck me was the ubiquity of this deity. There are shrines and beautiful statues of her wherever you go - in temples, on street sides, in people's houses. After spending a lot of time in the country, I really feel as though Quan Am is one of my own special protectors.
She also figures prominently in my book, Destination Saigon. I had never really intended for her to be there, but in several chapters she appears. Obviously the energy of the Goddess was flowing through my creative endeavour!
Most temples will feature a large outdoor shrine to Quan Am, and these shrines can become quite baroque affairs. If people feel that a particular shrine has a strong spiritual power, if they feel that prayers made there were answered, they will offer money to renovate and improve the shrine, hence their frequently elaborate appointments. Another way to say thanks for prayers answered is to adorn images of the Bodhisattva with costume jewellery, or have special cloaks made for her. Sometimes popular statues can become quite bulky with all the extra gifts, and most temples keep a schedule of people allowed to provide clothing for the deity at certain key points of the religious year.
Of course, Quan Am has many forms, and her strong point in the popular religious imagination is her ability to take on different shapes in order to help people or teach them a moral lesson. One of the more common and easily recognisable manifestations of Quan Am is Chuan De, the multiple armed and multiple headed Goddess who seeks to propagate the Buddhist message using the array of symbolic instruments she clutches.
Among overseas Vietnamese communities Quan Am is especially important, as many credit her with protecting the boat people and overseeing their safety and resettlement. That is why her blissful form can be seen gazing out from the front yards and temple gardens of suburban Sydney. I am happy to think that I always rest under the gaze of the Goddess of Mercy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

What is a Bodhisattva?

One of the requests I hear a lot is: "Please explain what a Bodhisattva is."

Now, I have moved in Buddhist circles for many years, so perhaps have a strange view of the world.

It would seem to me that "Bodhisattva" is one of those words that has well and truly made the progression into common English usage, but I think I am quite wrong. Just a casual survey of friends and acquaintances results in puzzled looks. No-one, it seems, knows what the hell a Bodhisattva is.

My common understanding is that a Bodhisattva is a perfect, enlightened being who has renounced the benefits of nirvana and chosen to be re-born into the world in order to continue to help and enlighten human beings. It is the Bodhisattvas who so enliven the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon, and whose statues so clutter up the average Buddhist temple.

The most famous Bodhisattva is of course Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

She is almost universally revered throughout East Asia, and her statue can be seen everywhere.

Indeed, the popularity of her cult often seems to eclipse the supreme status of the Buddhas themselves.

Other commonly seen Bodhisattvas include Jizo (the Lord of the Underworld), Zhuan Di (the multi-armed manifestation of Kwan Yin) and Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
While the Buddhas might serve as exemplars of behaviour, in general it is seen as poor form to ask them directly for supernatural favours.

One merely respects the Buddha and studies his path. But the Bodhisattvas are much more approachable, and are seen as intercessory beings who will carry your prayers to the proper places. This is why their shrines are so important in the popular religion of Buddhist Asia.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Edited Version

The full edited version of my manuscript arrived yesterday, and it was terribly exciting. The editors had lots of nice things to say about the book in a cover letter, but that was obviously meant to soften the blow before I turned to the actual manuscript, which was a storm of pencil marks, queries and suggested improvements.
I now have two weeks to read carefully through it, answer the queries, agree to or reject the changes, and write a couple of explanatory passages. It's quite daunting, simply because I don't really know what to do - the editor's shorthand is quite a mystery to me, and at this stage I worry that adding sentences to explain something that is unclear in the text will look clunky. But of course I'll do it. Right from the beginning of this process I decided I'd be the model author who would respond to all requests positively. I have been warned by other authors that this is always the most difficult part of the whole creative process.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mini Version

My publisher is taking my manuscript to the Frankfurt Book Fair to try and sell the rights overseas, which is very exciting. They wanted a photo of me for the catalogue they are publishing, and of course I only had a range of incredibly daggy snapshots taken for Facebook or while I was on holiday. I sent them through a selection of the least embarrassing, and will alow them to choose. Must get some professional headshots taken soon.
Another thing that I have had to put together is a "miniature" version of my book, a brief thousand words explaining to potential interviewers what the book is about and why I am so interesting. This was a difficult process, causing me to go back over the book, select a few highlights and shrink them down to a sentence each.
And oh, the errors I found in the manuscript! Enough to make a man weep. Hopefully the copy editor will notice them all. Just in case I am marking them all in red so that when I get the final edited version back I can double check. The agony of the simple, foolish error!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Guerilla Networking

I'm kind of determined to make my book a bestseller, and am willing to pursue any avenue to make it so.
To that end I ordered a whole heap of self-promotion books from Amazon, and for the past couple of days I have been immersed in Guerilla Networking by Jay Conrad Levinson and Monroe Mann.
What a terrific book!
It's central premise is that the only real way to network correctly is to make yourself so fascinating and attractive that people will want to come to you. What a brilliant angle! Of course, they are absolutely right. A lot of the time you spend aimlessly schmoozing could better be spent actively working toward something really big that will make you a somebody, and therefore nullify the need to network. Just make 'em come to you.
More than a book on social networking, it is really a piece of inspirational literature, encouraging you to dream big and aim high. A piece of advice that particularly hit home was this:

Right now, you are certainly not doing nearly as many noteworthy things as you should be doing...and you know this. Right now, there are a number of things you know you could be doing to stand out from the crowd; to make a mark for yourself...that you are not currently doing. Our advice is simple: do these things! Do the things that are going to set you apart from your competition. Do the things that are going to make you noteworthy.

Ouch! I had more than a twinge of recognition when I read this.
Some more of their tips include: Help someone else become successful; Always smile and Get Media Exposure.
What I like about the book is the outrageousness of its advice - become an expert, write a book, get on Oprah. None of your usual milquetoast recommendations here.
So I thoroughly recommend this one to authors interested in making it big. A little bit of daring, dreaming and tough love to move you up!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Books I Must Read

While I am travelling I always keep extensive journals. It is something I have always done, and it was a habit that stood me in good stead when it came time to write my Vietnam book.
It's amazing what ends up in these journals. Of course, there is the run-of-the-mill observations of scenery, but also lots of complaining and lots of surprising obsession and flirtation.
But most interesting to me are the lists I make. I make lists about places I hope to visit wherever I am, and I also make lists of things I MUST do as soon as I get home. Invariably I get home and don't look at these lists for years, and when I do their content seems bewildering.
Being a confirmed bibliophile and compulsive reader, I also keep a list of books I will read immediately upon my return. Who knows where the content of these lists come from. Something has occurred to me while travelling, and I suddenly remember a gap in my reading. Or I have picked up some bizarre paperback at a book exchange in the backpacker area, and it recommends some odd titles I decide, in the heat of the moment, will be essential to my development when I get back to Australia.
Here is the list I made in my journal in October last year while in Ho Chi Minh City:

Books to Read When I get Home:

Needless to say, I haven't read any of them yet.
I've attempted to read Julian of Norwich for years, but keep drifting off.
I've had the Rimbaud biography on my shelves for years but have never picked it up.
The new Andrew Pham book is disappointing, and I just can't get into it.
I've already read The Four Agreements years ago, and found it quite uninspiring, so heaven knows why I felt the need to re-visit it.

I think that the act of being a tourist is liberating in all kinds of ways, and these lists represent a re-invention a positive conviction that, upon returning, I will be a new and better person.
Alas, it almost always turns out not to be the case...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Problems of Politics

I am aware that in writing about modern-day Vietnam I am engaging on a potentially perilous political journey. Though I rarely engage with questions of politics in my books, the fact is that any mention of Vietnam is likely to draw forth the condemnation of overseas-Vietnamese communities who are still angry about the present-day regime in Vietnam, and think that no-one should go there until democracy is restored.
These communities are present in large numbers in the USA, Canada and Australia, and in some cases wield real political power in their new homes. They have also been the source of some ugly cases of harassment, violence and intimidation.
What I want to say is that my book is a reasonably light-hearted travel piece, in which I barely discuss the war, politics, colonialism, globalisation or any of those other careworn topics that people tend to have firm opinions about. My book is instead about people, and about relationships.
So leave me alone!

The Next Book?

I had to change some of the chapter names again - apparently as soon as this was done the whole thing goes into editing. Quite exciting, and I suppose a landmark moment.
Now I have to think about my next book. Knowing publishers (who like their authors to keep writing the same thing), I will need to do another travel book, and I do have an idea planned. I have actually run the idea by my publisher, and she loves it. The problem is, until my first book is released and proves a financial success (which I am confident about), I seriously doubt the publishing house will give me another advance to do the relatively expensive - and extensive - travel that the new book will require.
But I want to keep writing, and working on a serious project, just to keep the momentum up and keep me in that psychic space of "being a writer."
So for now I am working on a project that I call Spiritual Journeying. It has elements of the travel genre in it, but all the travel is being done in my own city, or even closer to home - my own head. Basically it is a manifesto for the spiritual dilettante, an account of my own, unashamedly syncretic, spiritual journey. I have already written a substantial part of the first chapter, which is on the organised Interfaith movement, but so far have been to shy to show it to my publisher. Mostly because I feel certain that she will reject it and tell me to wait for the next travel piece. But I am still working on it, because I am passionate about it, it excites and interests me, and it seems the perfect thing to be writing about.
Is it the Next Book? I don't know. But it's my new lifeboat, the thing I can point to when people ask me what I am working on right now.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How to Get Publicity

I managed to get the third draft in on Tuesday, which gave me an immense sense of achievement. Fingers crossed that will be the last major revision, and that it can at last go into editing. It's hard not to get a bit exasperated and bored at this point, because I'm tired of seeing those same 60-something thousand words over and over, changed and re-arranged only slightly. But I do need to remain positive about it, even in its most exasperating stage. This state of mind is personally important to me, and will also, I believe, affect the ultimate outcome of the project. My publisher, who is herself a popular author, re-assured me that this is by far the most challenging part of the whole process. After this it is all seamless ease.
I have become rather a convert to Morning Coach, a website and podcast that gives me a bit of good old fashioned motivation, and helps me to maintain some focus on the various projects in my life. I do recommend it.
Now I am also reading a book called How to Get Publicity, in an effort to stay focused on my ultimate goal - producing a bestselling book. Though it's a little outdated by now, the book is still helpful and filled with good ideas. I am busily compiling lists and making action plans that will fall into place once my book is released in March next year. I know from my own personal experience in the industry that a committed, energetic author who is also a tireless self-promoter makes a huge contribution to a book's success. I want to be just such a person.
How to Get Publicity, intended for an amateur audience, outlines a number of strategies for getting media publicity. It also goes a bit into presentation and interview skills, things that will (hopefully!) become increasingly important.
I guess that through making such preparations, and studying such material, I am really keeping my project alive in my own imagination, and keeping the energy up and out there. It is going to be a long, dull time between now and March 2010, so I really need to remain engaged with my book and what it means. And that means working consciously towards improving my chances at media coverage and other forms of attention that will lead to reviews and, ultimately, sales.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Third Version

OK, I got the manuscript back today for the third revision. This one is much more nuanced - my publisher has been through it and made quite detailed notes, and though she cheerily said on the phone that there were just one or two simple changes to make before the whole thing is finally submitted for editing, it actually looks like an enormous amount of work. Oh well, all for the best, I suppose. It means that I will have to sacrifice my Friday night activities, though - this is going to take me all weekend, and I know they want it back asap.
In the last draft I was told to delete two chapters which didn't work on their own, and try to incorporate those stories elsewhere in the text. Well, I figured that if the chapters didn't work on their own (one was on Catholicism in Vietnam, the other was stories of my grandparents visiting me there) then the particular anecdotes must have sucked, so I just deleted them and forgot about them. A note on this new version of the manuscript asks, "can we have the grandparent stories back please?" So I have to try to find a place for them elsewhere in the book. Very risky work. But Maggie (my publisher) obviously DID hate the Catholic stories, because they remain un-resurrected.
I had a kind of fantasy that my book would be perfect on the first submission, and that my publisher would call me and say, "Genius - we're going straight to press as-is." Obviously, that must be the kind of fantasy that every first-time author has.
Admittedly it is a dull process, but there are worse things I could be doing. And I am confident that my publisher has my commercial interests at heart, and wants to release the best possible book she can. So I will continue to tweak and twist and re-arrange until I have produced a work of genius.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Vietnamese Fabrics

I will confess to loving textiles. Wherever I go, I tend to bring back examples of local weaving. This can be a curse, because traditionally woven fabrics have a tendency to be heavy, and then one doesn't do much with them when one gets home. I once travelled days to a little village in central Thailand because a friend's mother was a weaver, and I would get to see her in action. I did, and I bought some exquisite pieces from her...but they have disappeared somewhere in the intervening years.
The best examples of Vietnamese weaving come from the Hill Tribe districts in the Central and Northern provinces. They are quite sturdy and heavy, but the materials themselves are usually of poor quality - colours run easily if washed, and threads pull and come unraveled at even the slightest use.
That said, I still adore their wonderful colours, and our house is generously be-draped with some wonderful large pieces I have brought back from my adventures.
There used to be some wonderful shops in the Pham Ngu Lao district of Ho Chi Minh City that sold Hill Tribe fabrics at quite a reasonable price, but they seem to have disappeared. There are one or two little boutiques left in Saigon that deal in the fabrics, but they are considerably more expensive than they used to be.
In fact, earlier this year I found it quite difficult to find traditional fabrics at all in any of the large cities. Like anything, I suppose that fashions in souvenirs come and go, and it would seem that traditional weaving is well and truly forgotten. Makes me wish I had bought more over the years.

Monday, May 4, 2009


In Vietnamese culture, big parties are what keeps the social wheels lubricated.
Since recorded history, the Vietnamese have been willing to spend an inordinate amount of money on elaborate parties to celebrate weddings, funerals, engagements and death anniversaries. All and sundry are invited to these events, and the festivities last over several days - particularly in country areas, where there is not really any other entertainment available.
In this photo, taken at a family member's wedding in the early 90s, you can see the traditional gifts presented in red lacquered boxes and then covered with a red cloth. The red symbolises good fortune, and the gifts inside are themselves symbolic - esoteric things like fresh tobacco leaves, betel and black tea.
These days weddings are a huge industry, especially in Ho Chi Minh city where vast wedding palaces are busy 7 nights a week hosting elaborate wedding parties that know no boundaries when it comes to tackiness. When I was there earlier this year the big trend was elaborate guards of honour lining up outside the venues to greet the guests and, ultimately, the bride and groom. Some confined themselves to the traditional seven bridesmaids and seven groomsmen, but some show offs had retinues of twenty or more of each sex. Wedding halls are hung with vast portrait photographs of the the happy couple, normally taken weeks before. These are generally real tributes to the art of digital manipulation, and even the most humble couple take on glamorous proportions when blown up to 5 metres high and photoshopped to within an inch of their lives. Elaborate videos are also made of the proceedings, and no digital effect is spared in rendering an exceedingly tedious and long-winded social gathering moderately visually engaging.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I like to avoid weddings. They are interminable, and gift giving is reckoned according to perceived social status, and as a result I am expected to give something big - gold jewellery or a big gift of cash. Maybe I'm stingy, but in Australia all they'd get from me would be a blender, and I resent being forced to shell out big amounts of money to people I hardly know.

Friday, April 24, 2009

St. Andrew Dung Lac

It is always my contention that the Vietnamese (particularly in the Central and Southern regions) are a particularly religious people, and take their religion very seriously.
I also think it's interesting that Catholicism is, in fact, quite an antique spiritual tradition in Vietnam. Many assume that it arrived with the French in the 19th Century, but in fact there have been Catholics in Vietnam since the beginning of the 16th Century.
In the section of Ho Chi Minh City that I call home, vast numbers of Catholics reside, most of them descendants of Northern Catholics who fled the great persecutions of the mid 50s. There is a network of churches in the district, some of them, like the beautiful Ba Chuong church on Le Van Sy, quite enormous.
It is inside the Ba Chuong church that you can see a shrine to St. Andrew Dung Lac and his martyred companions. At various times throughout Vietnamese history the people in charge have been less than enthusiastic about Catholicism, and there are large numbers of martyrs. St. Andrew Dung-Lac is kind of the granddaddy of them all, and his feast day serves as the memorial date for 117 of the 19th century Catholic martyrs in Vietnam.
Though a shrine to these martyrs is a standard part of most church interiors, in terms of popular devotion they can't compete with Truong Buu Diep, St. Martin de Porres and, naturally, the Blessed Virgin. Shrines to these figures are ubiquitous, and more spontaneously attended.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Writing Creative Nonfiction

Well, big news is that I've actually started writing, which is none-too-soon as the manuscript is due at the end of June.
This whole book project came about because of a course I took with the simply wonderful Jan Cornall on Creative Nonfiction. I wrote a long piece on my history with Buddhist monks, and a publishing friend read it and the rest is history.....
The genre of Creative Nonfiction has always been a favourite of mine - indeed, among my favourite books are In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, both accepted classics of the genre. People don't normally associate travel writing with Creative Nonfiction, but of course it belongs firmly within the confines of the genre.
I have been enjoying and finding very helpful Theodore A. Rees Cheney's Writing Creative Nonfiction - surely the bible for those in the field? He has lots of interesting and helpful things to say, and at the moment I am struggling with his chapter on character. There are one or two key characters in my book (apart from myself) who are, naturally, real people to whom I am quite close. I have been finding it difficult to write about them - am I saying too much about them, or am I assuming the reader knows too much? And how do I avoid making myself sound very clever and those characters appear very simple and often silly. This is a real concern for me, because personally I hate reading authors who I perceive as arrogant or unaware of their own sublime stupidity. I always like grumpy old curmudgeons like Theroux who aren't scared of making themselves appear thoroughly stupid, or someone like Bryson who casts himself as the bumbling fool, and thereby avoids charges of arrogance.
I am also aware that I am a Western man writing about Vietnamese people, and with a head full of Edward Said I am terrified of coming across as a post-colonial dilettante and cultural plunderer oozing with condescension. I don't want to make the Vietnamese people, especially my dear friends, appear quaint.
But maybe that's a lost cause?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


While leafing through Harold Acton's exquisite Memoirs of an Aesthete I came across a passing reference to one of the Monkey stories, and I think I will include the quote in my book. I was suddenly reminded of how important the Monkey stories are in Vietnamese culture, serving much the same purpose that the Grimm Fairy Tales or the Mother Goose stories once served in Western culture. Various versions of the Monkey stories are endlessly repeated on Vietnamese television - Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and even home-made series of greater or lesser artistry.
One frequently comes across statues of Monkey and his companions in temple gardens in Vietnam, reminding us that the stories always functioned as Buddhist propaganda, serving up fanciful moral tales in which Buddhist virtues (and Buddhist characters) always came out on top - normally trumping the foolish Taoist or folk-religion figures.
A few years ago a whole slew of books came out about the mythic Journey to the West, with people trying to re-trace the steps of the monk Hsuan Tsang and his animal companions. At the moment I am reading one of the better ones - Richard Bernstein's stately and meditative Ultimate Journey.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Monkey tales is how they made the leap to the West through the agency of the 1970s Japanese TV series that was so hilariously dubbed into English by out-of-work Royal Shakespeare players and seemed to play endlessly on the ABC throughout the 80s. A whole generation of British and Australian youngsters (myself included) became immersed in this East Asian epic, the greater philosophical and cultural significance of which went completely over our heads.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Eye in the Sky

So often when I visited Cao Dai temples in Vietnam the old Alan Parsons Project song kept running through my head. "I am the eye in the sky, looking at you-o-o, I can read your mind..."
For that is very much what the central worship image of Cao Dai is: an eye in the sky.
The all-seeing eye of God represents to Cao Dai devotees the universal nature of the deity. God's eye sees all and God belongs to all.
The old Cao Dai teacher who was my friend at the Phu Nhuan temple in Ho Chi Minh City explained it to me this way: "Gos is one - there can only be one God. There is no God for Catholics, another God for Protestants, another for Buddhists. What a foolish way to think! God sees all, loves all, and belongs to all. God needs only one eye, and that single eye represents the unified nature of all of humanity, regardless of religion or race."
You can see why I always find Cao Dai such a seductive religion.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quan Am Temple, Cholon

I have been an enthusiast for Quan Am Temple in Cholon for many years now.
In fact, one of my abiding fantasies is to go and work there as a temple attendant for a few months and write a book about it - a la Gontran de Poncins' wonderful From a Chinese City.
I love District 5 and its crazy energy - especially at night. I love how the one place residents of Saigon consistently warn me against visiting is District 5 - allegedly many bad things happen there. Perhaps it's just lingering prejudice against the Chinese, or perhaps it's true? Cong An News, the trashy police tabloid that is read religiously by many in Ho Chi Minh City, delights in a good murder or violent robbery in District 5. In fact, it normally warrants a front page.
But by day my favourite place to hang is the colourful and crazily busy Quan Am Temple in Lao Tu street. The fact that this place is well and truly on the Lonely Planet beat doesn't bother me, because I have been hanging out there for many years. The foreigners drift in and out after taking a few snaps, but I have contacts among the incense sellers and fortune tellers and old ladies who clean the toilets, and am allowed to put my feet up in secret rooms and watch the non-stop activity at what must be one of Vietnam's busiest temples.
A few years ago this place was much more interesting, from a religious/anthropological view. It was a lot more run-down, and there were lots more shrines hidden about the place (which is amazing when you witness the sheer number of shrines that still exist within the temple complex!). Also, there used to be any number of lady shamans, clairvoyants and spiritual healers on the premises, ready to prescribe a religious ritual or two to advance the petitioner's good luck. An inflow of money from overseas Chinese communities has meant that the temple has cleaned up its act considerably, and the lady shamans and prophetesses were among the first things to go. It's kinda sad, but was probably necessary - the local authorities tend to take a dim view of When I spend a morning or afternoon at the temple I am treated as a special guest and ushered into one of the side rooms and fed royally with buns and fruit left on the shrines by devotees. It really is a wonderful way to while away some spare time while you are in Ho Chi Minh City, and I can't recommend it enough. Just pull up a chair somewhere near the main shrine room and brave the carcinogenic clouds of incense smoke.