Vietnam – Phu My
I made my first visit to Vietnam today in the town of Phu My, which is the port for Ho Chi Min City. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to make the 2-hour or so journey into Ho Chi Min City, also known as Saigon, but I did manage to visit a Pagoda, a temple, and a couple of homes. I think it will take a few more days and a few more visits to figure this place out. Vietnam is quite strange. It’s a communist nation, with more than enough red flags, hammers and sickles around to get the point across, but there are also cell phone company billboards and a surprising lack of police presence. The port area reminds me a bit of the port in St Petersburg; a giant industrial area with nothing going on.
In this pagoda, they don’t really do any sort of meditating. These monks practice by chanting and essentially living clean. They live very simple existences without luxuries and are forbidden from eating meat or fish. In contrast with the Zen or Tibetan traditions that are popular in the west, these followers are focused on the long run. Many lives of virtuous living will lead to an opportunity of high birth and a chance at enlightenment for these followers.
This photo, taken of the shrine on the second level, inside the pagoda, is for some reason, pretty much exactly the image that comes to mind for me when I think of Mahayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia. I think it’s the combination of the gold statues with the neon that creates this connection for me with the ‘exotic’ branch of Buddhism.
The pagoda is a very peaceful place. There’s seemingly endless chanting of both men’s and women’s voices as this sect of Buddhism allows women to practice as well. There are sounds of resonant bells and light clave keeping the beat for the chanters. Incense is burning everywhere…I think keeping all that incense going must be one of the tougher parts of monastic life. Everyone shuffles around barefoot and rather slowly.
When you first enter the Pagoda on the lower level there is a school-like room with lots of chairs and desks. I’m not sure exactly what this room is used for but it seems like it’s set up more as a kind of community center than a religious space.
After visiting the pagoda, we went to a couple of local houses to see how people in the village were living and what they did for a living. Most of the houses are pretty basic in rural, southern Vietnam. They are sort of indoor-outdoor setups with not a great deal of privacy. Most nicer homes have a kind of fence around the home, with a courtyard in front of the house. Theft is apparently not a problem because most homes don’t really close themselves off from the outside. I’m guessing that the people are either really honest here or there just isn’t really anything to steal.
The first house that I visited was the home of someone who makes a type of pancake snack that she sells in the local area. She makes them by pouring out a type of rice gruel onto a large skillet and then rolling the cake off with a round rolling device. The cakes are then put onto a drying rack and left in the sun. When I asked what the ingredients were, she replied rice, water, and MSG. They were delicious.
The next house I visited was the home of a whiskey maker. This family had a nicer house, presumably because whiskey is a more expensive product than rice cakes. All around the house they had a sort of zoo with pigs, chickens, and other animals. The rice whiskey was sort of sweet and around 25-30%, so rather mild in flavor.
My final stop for the day was at a temple for one of Vietnam’s more idiosyncratic religions. My guide explained to me that in order to avoid the complications that come from having different religious groups living side by side, the government created something called combined religion. Basically, they just took a bunch of religions and smashed them together to create something that rivals Hinduism in its ability to confuse outsiders.
In this temple, they worship a variety of deities and have many different images on display above the altar.
The great thing about visiting these places is that they let you do pretty much whatever you want. Just take off your shoes and keep quiet and you can pretty much go anywhere and snoop through all of their stuff. They just go about their business and pretty much ignore you. In this temple I climbed way up in the bell towers on some pretty sketchy ladders and scaffolding and no one said a thing.
One thing that always catches me off guard at these places is the prominence of the swastika. I know that it’s a traditional Buddhist symbol of peace and prosperity but it’s striking since I associate it so strongly with fear and hate. At any rate, they can be found in many places at these temples.
One of my favorite things that I found at this last temple stop was a large poster with drawings that serve as a sort of warning to the monks. As best as I can tell they are depictions of what will happen to you if you commit certain sins. My favorite one is this one where if you misbehave you are fed to a bunch of sea monsters!
On the other side of the room was another poster with opposite pictures. Apparently they are what would happen to you if you were well behaved and followed the traditions. An old woman that spoke no English kept taking me over to that poster but I found the one with the sea monsters much funnier.
One of the stranger aspects of Vietnam is the influence that the French left on the culture. France had a strong colonial hold on the region for a long time and left behind much architectural influence. I visited one such home that was built over 100 years ago. On the inside it was covered with very ornate, traditionally Vietnamese décor, making for a pretty interesting cultural mash up.