Khuong Viet Temple, Tan Binh District

Down by the river in Tan Binh (my home away from home) is a little temple I've driven past hundreds of times over the years but never bothered to visit. I found myself at a loose end this afternoon so decided to wander down there. It was well worth the sweat, harrassment and risk to personal safety that any 'stroll' entails in Ho Chi Minh City.
When I entered the temple courtyard (it was around 3 pm and insanely hot) a portly young monk was asleep in a banana lounge with the most beautiful little puppy asleep on top of him. I tiptoed past and as soon as I entered the main hall I realised that there was something very different about this temple.
The statues were immense and terrifying and quite alive, of a style and bearing that I have never seen before in Vietnam.

They were also of Bodhisattvas and deities that, for the most part, I've never heard of.

A sweet faced old monk poked his head in for a peek at me, and I asked him what the deal was. Turns out I had stumbled into one of Saigon's only Vajrayana temples - I hadn't even been aware that there were any. For those of you shady on the finer points of Buddhist sectarianism, Vajrayana is the tantric form of Buddhism most commonly associated with Tibet, though at one point in the history of Buddhism's spread through Asia it was one of the commonest schools. the tantric schools were very much alive in Vietnam centuries ago, but over the course of history most Vietnamese temples shifted into the more popular schools of zen and pure land.
So Khuong Viet Temple, deep in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City, is one of the last bastions of Vietnamese Buddhist Tantrism, with its emphasis on the recitation of magical formulas and mantras. This particular temple emphasises the worship of Bhaisjyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, and every evening chants the great dharani dedicated to him.
If it weren't so hot I would have gone to prayers there this evening, as it's the night before Ram, the Buddhist sabbath. On this night people go through a mammoth session of chanting and bowing in an effort to confess ones sins over the past 14 or so days. It's exhausting and I always end up a sweaty mess, so I figured I'd skip it and check out Vietnamese Vajrayana on a less rigorous night.

Cao Dai Temple, Phu Nhuan

Most people who come to Vietnam have heard about Cao Dai, Vietnam's most famous indigenous religion. Indeed, many tourists go on a one day package tour to Tay Ninh to visit the Holy See of the Cao Dai faith and to watch a prayer session. I have done this myself on occasion, but i was much more interested in seeing how Cao Dai operates in the city, where it is one among many faiths.
Indeed, once you get into Ho Chi Minh City Cao Dai temples are few and far between. The boy who fixes our computers outed himsel as a follower of Cao Daism, and so I found out from him that there is a temple in Phu Nhuan, just 10 minutes away from where I live. I even knew exactly where it was - in years past the site housed a squat little cottage and overgrown garden that i always wondered about (teh gates were always locked). Now a new temple has been built there, and it is quite spectacular, as you can see.
The darling old Abbott showed me around and invited me back for prayers any time. He said people rarely come to prayers - normally it's only him. So I get the feeling he'd like the company.
The main shrine is dedicated to the all-seeing divine eye of the Cao Dai creator God. It is a beautiful image. There is much to admire about Cao Dai, in spite of its surface silliness. It is a genuine effort at religious syncretism, and it advocates a quiet, spiritual lifestyle focused on prayer and contemplation and the observation of a vegetarian diet. Yes, I know there's all that awkward history about maintaining their own army, and Charlie Chaplin being a saint and all. But all religions make mistakes.

Phnom Penh

Just back from Phnom Penh and found it the most charming little city. I enjoyed myself immensely, though got a little sunburned - the legenbdary Cambodian sun is no joking matter.
I went to Cambodia 10 years ago, and like many tourists I overdosed on the tragedy of the place - I really wallowed in the miserable modern history of the Cambodian nation. This time I deliberately avoided all that and instead discovered a beautiful city full of beautiful people and throbbing with a proud and vibrant culture.The food is excellent - wonderful upscale cafes and bars and delightful downscale street stands and market stalls. Phnom Penh is a lounge lizard's paradise, and I could easily spend a month there working my way through the cafes and restaurants. The heat is pretty impressive, and curtails sightseeing to the early morning when the locals do their most important business. Climbing to the top of Wat Phnom at 7 in the morning is not a lonely experience - people are praying for good luck in their business and at school, beggars crowd the entrances and the temple cats are at their most playful.The Khmer are wildly spiritual, and monks are everywhere you look. The streets are crowded with small and large spirit houses erected to house the local deities and provide a quick and local outlet for prayer to the Lord Buddha.Naturally there is still much poverty, but the people are unfailingly smiling and friendly - and frequently quite beautiful. I was talked into taking the bus from Saigon (something I'll never do again), and it was a wonderful chance to catch up on some rural Cambodian life.

The Temple of Literature

Hanoi prides itself on being the centre of Vietnamese culture, and certainly the Hanoians I know have a much greater interest in matters of culture, history and literature than the average Saigonese. This interest is balanced by a certain cynicism, so on balance Hanoians are far less religious than their cousins in the South.
One of the places that makes me love Hanoi the most is the wonderful Van Mieu, the ancient Temple of Literature which was once one of the world's great universities and a centre of Confucian learning. The beautiful courtyards and gardens are contained by high walls and culminate in a temple hall once dedicated to the worship of Confucius. Along the central courtyard run rows of stone tortoises which hold steles on their backs celebrating the achievements of the University's greatest scholars.
For someone who has aspirations to being a scholar himself, such a place is incredibly inspiring.
I wandered through those rows of stone tortoises imagining those ancient scholars, so young and beautiful and earnest, having sacrificed everything in order to ascend the peculiar scholastic hierarchy that typified state Confucianism, and which controlled the administration of Vietnam for centuries - until the arrival of the French.

Cafe Thien Si

There is a little cafe just around the corner from Van Hanh Buddhist University in Phu Nhuan district that I discovered quite by accident some years ago.
I suppose because of its proximity to the centre of Buddhist learning in Vietnam, the cafe exhibits a distinctly Buddhist vibe and is quite unlike any other cafe in the city.
We call it the Scholars' Cafe, because it is filled with books in all languages and pieces of calligraphy and portraits of monks. And while in other cafes you might be served by bored country boys or improperly dressed girls angling for tips, at Cafe Thien Si you are served by an elderly lady sitting in the corner doing needlework or reading from a pile of Buddhist scriptures at her elbow.
It's the kind of place I would love to own and operate when I am in my dotage.
For those interested in spending some time in such a sophisticated setting, the details are:

Cafe Lien Phuong, 259 Thich Quang Duc, P. 4, Q. Phu Nhuan

Chinese Temples

I have mentioned before that one of my favourite places in Ho Chi Minh City is Cholon, the large Chinatown district that centres on District 5. If I ever came to live here permanently I think I would make District 5 my home - I love its buzz, and its slight air of seediness. I love that the Cathedral is a red-light district at night. I love its cheap roadside food stalls and its elaborately expensive Chinese restaurants where every animal imaginable is on the menu.

But I especially love the temples of Cholon. They are quite different to all the other temples in the City. The Vietnamese are an inherently mystical people,and tend to take their religion seriously. For the most part, Vietnamese Buddhist temples are ruled over by stern and demanding monks and nuns who impose a strict set of rules on followers and visitors, lending most temples at least a veneer of quiet reverence. But in Cholon anything goes. The temples are run by committees of lay people and rarely have resident monastics.

And so the Chinese temples can be quite noisy, constantly busy and a little chaotic. No-one takes their shoes off, and buddhist shrines rub shoulders with shrines to the Taoist immortals, famous old generals and family ghosts.

Kwan Yin is ever present, naturally. It is Kwan Yin who unites the religious lives of the Chinese and Vietnamese. Even in Chinese temples no-one dares make offerings of meat or alcohol to Kwan Yin, though nearby shrines may be piled high with barbecued ducks and bottles of rice whiskey.

For the most part the temples of Cholon are quite antique - Saigon was, after all, a City inhabited by the Chinese since its earliest settlement. The temples normally exhibit a traditional style of Chinese temple architecture familiar to anyone who has travelled to Hong Kong or Macau. But there are frequently later and more incredible accretions and extensions.

I can and do spend hours sitting on benches in the shadowy, smokey corners of the Chinese temples watching people making their offerings and observing all manner of intricate ritual preserved intact for centuries in this fascinating city-within-a-city.

Thich Quang Duc

Thich Quang Duc was the first of the Buddhist martyrs in the Vietnamese-American war, and he is still the most revered. In fact, most people in the West are not even aware that many others followed his example and self-immolated in protest at the senselessness of that long and damaging war. Thich Quang Duc was a humble country monk who had been resident for sometime at an unremarkable temple in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City. His incredible act of self-sacrifice, which caused shockwaves throughout the world, elevated him instantly to that realm of extraordinary religious figures willing to die for what they believe in. He is known today in Vietnam as a Bodhisattva, i..e. a being who renounces enlightenment in order to help and serve suffering humanity.
The spot on the corner of CMT8 and Nguyen Dinh Chieu, where he poured petrol over his body and set himself alight while reciting the Buddhist sutras, has had a monument to the monk for many years.
I visited it this morning to pay my respects to this great and brave man.
The government is building a much more elaborate monument and memorial park just across the street, and it should be quite beautiful when it's finished. I will miss the simple old one, though - in keeping, as it is, with Buddhist notions of humility.

Strange Fruit

Yesterday we were touring around near the Pham Van Hai Market and we saw this woman pushing a cart of the most glorious looking fruit. It was a small black berry encased in a velvety sheath that glowed in the sun. I had to stop and buy some, but I wisely plumped for the small bag of peeled fruit.

The pulp was also black and incredibly sour - almost inedible. Kien said that it also comes in a candied form which is much more delicious. He said that girls in country towns eat this particular fruit if they are feeling said, so I assume it has some narcotic properties. I never ate the whole bag, so I never found out. He also said it helped one to keep one's figure trim, which could help explain the terrible stomach pains I have today!

Social Evils

The Social Evils campaign is a tired old piece of propaganda that has been haunting Vietnam since the mid 90s, but still has legs thanks to a press devoted to sensationalised reporting of anything to do with sex, drugs or foreigners, and to a deeply ingrained xenophobia that is never far below the surface of any official Vietnamese rhetoric.

The cities and towns used to be littered with propaganda posters exhorting people to eschew the social evils, but these have largely disappeared. I found an old one that was particularly amateurish and still surviving somehow on one of the back-streets of the west Lake in Hanoi. It features a wonderfully evil serpend spitting out the venom of moral wickedness, and its litanies of sins include things like massage, strong alcohol, heroin and AIDS. In the early days of the campaign there was also a heavy emphasis on homosexuality (which is actually legal in Vietnam) and prostitution.
No-one really subscribes to the simplistic bans on these things - most of us, after all, are attached to our own form of social evil. We just don't like the evils that others so wickedly enjoy.


Just back from Hanoi, where I spent the last few days. All the media was saying that Hanoi was under a metre of water, but I found it perfectly ok - indeed, rather less flooded than parts of Ho Chi Minh City after a rainy afternoon.
I have had a long and conflicted history with hanoi. The first time I visited in the eraly 90s it was a dire and charmless place indeed. So much did I hate it that it took me another 10 years to visit, and then under sufferance. I hadn't expected to totally fall in love with it, and now whenever I go I am totally besotted. The people are beautiful, the food is wonderful and the climate is perfect. The lakes make things most picturesque, and there is so much there that makes me want to stay.

I stayed at an absolutely wonderful little hotel, with a pocket sized balcony overlooking a crowded and always active alley. A perfect place for writing and snooping.

I spent an afternoon at the Ambassadors' Pagoda, a place with a great deal of spiritual significance for me. It was the first place I ever heard the Buddhist sutras being chanted, and the first place that spirituality ever really came alive for me. I find it a peculiar spot now, but I still always make a pilgrimage there to see what's going on.

The traffic's probably worse in Hanoi's old quarter than it is in Saigon, and that's really saying something. Parked motorcyles, illegal street vendors, spontaneous tea shops - all compete to make the footpaths un-walkable, and the crowded roads are already dangerous enough without scores of big-bottomed westerners taking up valuable space.

I always like to stay in the Cathedral area - I like its cultured, crowded feel, and its wonderful cafes and boutiques (not that I ever actually VISIT boutiques - I just like the idea that they're there). The cathedral itself, a wonderfully imposing pile in slowly dissolving grey stone and cement, remains a mystery to me - I've never seen it open, no matter what time of the day or night I visit.

Saigon Rain

It rains every afternoon from about 2pm, and it rains all afternoon.
Some days it just rains all day.
Ho Chi Minh City is not the most picturesque city in the rain. It's heavy on puddles, spontaneous floods, and large sheets of muddy water containing who-knows-what that fly up into one's face whenever a taxi drives past.
So much am I enjoying the constant rain that tomorrow I'm going to Hanoi to enjoy the floods that have hit there.

Vietnamese Cosmetics

One of the first things I do when arriving in a foreign country is to hit the nearest supermarket and check out the toiletries aisle. To me this is the very best kind of sightseeing - a genuine insight into the everyday lives of people.
I LOVE Vietnamese toiletries and cosmetics because they are cheap and heavily perfumed, two aspects that appeal to my essentially trashy character.
I had to rush out and get som sun cream because I was becoming quite dark very fast. Now to most Australians this would be a good thing, but in Vietnam white skin rules. It doesn't matter how otherwise ugly you may be, if you possess light skin you are pretty much at the top of the pyramid of desirability. So I bought 2 different bottles. One for home, because it encourages me to be "Out-Going"
The other I keep in my bag, because it promises to make me white. I am already very white, so my application of this in public areas always causes a great deal of merriment.
I also keep in my bag a bottle of cheap perfume, which allegedly smells like a herb garden. For emergencies.
I also have to hand an intriguing product I've only seen here. It is a skin refresher that contains mentholated oils that tingle and burn and it smells like baby powder. It is said to reduce the size of one's pores, and one can never have small enough pores. So this baby travels with me everywhere. I don't wanna be caught out with big pores.Finally, when I get home I normally have a throbbing headache, and so I apply lashings of Truong Son white oil to my neck and temples. Feels like I'm on fire. I love it.I also have a secret weapon in these little bottles of massage oil that I buy from the Benedictine monks in Thu Duc. For those of you who read Vietnamese I know the label reads "Bear Gall" but please rest assured that no animals were killed in the production of these oils! At $1.20 a bottle there are not even homeopathic amounts of bear gall in these babies. The name is more symbolic of the healing properties of the product. A rather unfortunate piece of symbolism, I'll admit, but animal welfare hasn't really hit Vietnam in a big way.
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