n a warm, humid Saturday in February, two American friends and I drove our motorbikes west of the city to visit some Buddhist and Taoist temples in Cho Lon. Cho Lon, or “big market” in Vietnamese, is Ho Chi Minh city’s massive Chinatown, noted as possibly the largest Chinatown in the world, in fact, and has been here for as long as the main section of the city has been. Even before the French made of this slice of Vietnam its Cochinchina, building up Saigon’s most emblematic buildings, Cho Lon was already a separate Chinese township, its homes packed together like any dense section of Hong Kong, existing in its own particular sphere of culture and housing the many immigrants from China living, trading, and setting down roots here.
I wish I could say we planned our route historically (older temples and neighbourhood first, more recent temples and streets following), or thematically (progression of increasingly strange deities), but we went purely by geographical convenience, starting with a temple nearest to us and heading further and further out. As someone who holds the technological key to the city, a smartphone with working 3G, and with the google map app front loaded, I was designated navigator. My rudimentary language ability was a part of the decision too, for we often relied on locals in the neighbourhood to guide us to each location.
Chua Quan Am
The first temple we came to is Chua Quan Am, the famous temple of the Goddess of Mercy. We parked out bikes at a breakfast place across the street. Nearby, street vendors sold foods, drinks, paper money and incense.
Stepping through the colourful gates of chua Quan Am, one enters a frenetic scene: families paid tributes to ancestors, kids, adults, and the elderly were all there on this Saturday, all welcoming the new year by going through the procedures of the religion, burning paper, carrying offerings, praying with hands cupped while holding onto golden bottles of vegetable oil (used to fill the lamps that light the incense). Incense and smoke from burning paper enveloped the space in an oppressive haze. A nun, or female monk – I’m never sure how to designate practitioners – in brown robes circumambulated the inner track of the temple, hitting a small wooden drum at evenly dispersed intervals, making a pleasant woodpecker echo, a clear reverbation in the din and buzz of chattering worshippers. Behind her stretched a long entourage of worshippers carrying various votive offerings: clothes, paper money, fruits and drinks.
There was no breeze flowing through the central chamber, and the busyness and frequency of offerings being burnt made the air heavy with smoke. I felt like a salmon on the spit. I spotted a lone western woman, stoically still, observing the scene through eyes red and teary, waiting to feel touristic martyrdom as she chanced the possibility of permanent eye damage while watching the proceedings.
We walked from Quan Am temple to Minh Huong Pagoda, one of the oldest temples in the district, built in the 19th century by Chinese immigrants from Fujian and Guangdong. Along the way, bird sellers hawked cages of all shapes and forms; the chirruping and quick darting flights of these birds confined in their spaces were similar to the whizzing of motorbikes passing right behind and all around us. All part of the busyness of district 11.
The Buddhism economy
At certain temples or other Buddhist sites, you can free these birds from their cages after buying them, and gain positive karma for performing your benevolent, generous deed. There’s an obvious gap in logic in such capturing of birds for the very purpose of freeing them later, but not much time or thought goes into considering this paradox. Rather, travelers are allowed to enjoy the sight of these poor caged birds allowed to fly free, and be agents of their release.
I recall seeing such blissful joy on the face of a small child once in Luang Prabang, Laos, after her parents bought such a bounded bird from a hawker on the hill. When she released her bird back into its natural environs (hopefully), her parents clapped for her, and she looked back at them, grateful and cheered. The sight of such a creature freed to take flight must certainly freeing for us, too, we who are bounded by religion, family, societal codes that push us towards good, proper behaviour. Perhaps such an absurd catch a release tradition acts more to remind us of our state of imprisonment and the natural world’s freedom, more than anything else.
Placed conveniently nearby the birdcages were the stalls of ladies who sold live bird feed, their wares out in full display: worms, mealworms, twitching grasshoppers wrapped in plastic bags, crickets, with their gorgeous ink like limbs glued to the sides of woven reed baskets, waved their antenna to and fro, chatting to each other in their confines. As a kid, I used to buy such crickets not as bait for birds, but as warriors for my own amusement. We city kids used to gather these crickets and gather them to fight, teasing them with pulled twisted vines of hair, making them angry, and putting them together to duels of mandible strength. Money and other trinkets would be placed on the betting table. I don’t see such battles or warrior cricket stalls around anymore, however. It was truly a past time before the digital era – nowadays we capture virtual Pokemons to do our bidding.
Minh Huong Pagoda
But back to Minh Huong Pagoda. This particular pagoda is partially known for its horse deity, placed immediately to the left of the main hallway’s entrance. Life size, constructed of dark wood, with a venerable mien covered in garish red and gold head gear, he seems a particularly strange deity to pay obeisance to. Nevertheless, travellers anxious about upcoming, hazardous journeys would go to him, pray and bear gifts, before departing. I noted the plentiful incense sticks placed in the deity’s brass incense container, and wondered if families like mine, before leaving the country for the last time, had come here to pay tribute and gave offerings.
My family’s relationship to Buddhism has always been rather distant. We didn’t frequent temples while in Vietnam, nor did we turn to religion for community and company when we faced the challenges of assimilating to our new country. There were no temples in Toledo, Ohio, to come to anyway. My maternal aunt and uncle hew more closely to devotees of the religion’s philosophies and practices.
Like many folks, my parents and I come back to the language, rituals, and meditative spaces offered by Buddhism when we feel the fear of loss upon us, or when loss comes to us, suddenly, and its accompanying grief jostles us into a recognition of worldy suffering. We return to Buddhism and its solace, seeking peace and stillness. Sometimes, it awakens within us emotions we have blocked away as part of the daily living we must perform. I recall once hearing the famous monk Thich Nhat Thanh speaking in Vietnamese on an interview he did for NPR. I was driving home from my first teaching job in Delaware, and his voice suddenly appeared. Perhaps it was his particularly patient way of speaking, as if there was nothing to do but speak, no other point but to speak, or the fact that it had been so long since I had heard the rise and fall of Vietnamese tones, but I suddenly burst into tears while I drove, the wintry Pennsylvania roads becoming blurry ahead of me. His voice, the mellifluous pronunciations of the language, sounded like psalms to me, and I realized how long it had been since I heard Vietnamese spoken, how long it had been since I spoke to my family in my native tongue. So I wept.
These are, at least to my mind, some of the uses of the religion for my family.
My mother’s year in Thu Thiem
When she was a child, my mother lived for a year in a temple with her mother outside the hustle of Ho Chi Minh city. I have never asked her specifics of her living situation, or what caused the momentary splintering of the family, but my mother nevertheless volunteered that she never understood why her mother took her there. No one ever fully explained to her why, for a year in her childhood, her family went their separate ways: her brothers to military camp, her sister to live with her father, and she with her mother. I conjecture that there was a sadness in the family, or a keen sense of grief to come. And indeed, my grandmother would pass away soon after that year, to a sudden illness.
In 2014, many years later, my mother returned to live in HCMC for a brief time. I was visiting her from my home in Hong Kong when she told me she wanted to find this pagoda from her childhood, hoping that it was there in spite of the blur of destruction and construction in the city. The pagoda’s location, she told me, would be somewhere in the middle of what is now district 2. I agreed to come along, and we hired a cab for the day.
After our taxi went under Thu Thiem tunnel, only recently built, it skirted around the emptiness of the city’s suburbs and veered into a side street. Around us we could see the raised figures of new high rise apartments, the first I had ever seen come up in Vietnam. My mother recognized the name of a street and we began heading down a path towards her past. Blocks of concrete, upraised dirt, tufted wild grass and gravel set aside for new buildings, all lined the street leading to the pagoda. It seemed a dead end, so I was afraid my mother would be disappointed to learn that it was gone, just as so much of her past, and mine, had already been. But we drove on, past the rubble, cement blocks, bales of wires laid out for new construction, and we stumbled upon it finally, to my mother’s delight.
Half of the pagoda was demolished to make way for new buildings, but the half that remained was well preserved, held in stasis, as if in amber. My mother showed me certain elements and parts of the pagoda and how it hadn’t changed in the least since her time there, forty some years ago. Cats lazed about in the space, attracted to the noiseless calm and shelter from the buzzing world outside. My mother pointed to a photo of an old monk placed on a dais, sticks of incense set onto the porcelain vase, and told me that he was in charge of this temple when she lived here. As the monk was already 88 when she was living there, he passed shortly after she and her mother left to return to regular civilian life.
Three years later, it is 2016, and the pagoda, to my knowledge, is no longer there. Cranes tower over Thu Thiem, an entire place enveloped in the dust of construction, with overarching new highways and bridges overlapping with half built high rises. It will be a completely new city, linked to old Saigon by bridges, tunnels, even a metro line, all to be done in five years.
My mother has written about her childhood year spent living in this pagoda, and I asked if I could share what she’s written. Her loving description of this swampy section of a Saigon of the past describes a neighborhood that is vastly different to the place there today. In five years, it will be even further from the high rise future that the government plans for it, a eulogy to a land that will leave the memories of its inhabitants soon enough.
The words below are hers. I’ve made only a few edits:
The temple was in Thu Thiem, a borough situated across the Saigon River. It was an area of salt marsh, under populated and underdeveloped at the time. It was a fifteen-minute ferry trip from the Capital of Saigon with its car, bike, motorbike, tricycle, vivacious traffic, and its industrial noise and dust pollution. The ferry could carry three cars at a time and a ton of pedestrians on their bikes and motor bikes. As soon as one gets to the other bank of the river, only one narrow dirt road ran the entire village.
On both sides of the road, large green fields of young rice shoots spread out to the horizon, with some water buffaloes philosophically regurgitating their grass along the muddy edge of the fields. At times, a traveller could see a herd of ducks and yellow ducklings, with soft golden duvets covering their round little bodies. They looked like Christmas boules rolling on the field while happily cackling away their news.
Sometimes I could hear the whip in the air of a bamboo branch by a young boy- herder. His clothes blended in with the mud of the field and the stream meandering through it, so that you couldn’t see him until he played a short flute made up with a hollow branch from the marsh shrub. When that happened, one could not help but try to locate him amongst the reeds. His lovely music was of a simpler time in the country.
I could smell smoke and its distinctive fragrance from burned hay and dead wood used to cook the family meals, spreading out from the thatched dwellings and filling the pure air. If I close my eyes I can still see all this, this and the light grey convoluted spirals of smoke on the crepuscule sky of the Thu Thiem of my childhood, smell its unforgettable fragrance, hear to its mini decibel the music of the young duck herder.
In that country setting, living with no running water, electricity, or toys, with frugal vegetarian meals, with desolate nature and only the pagoda’s silence for company, I spent some of the happiest days of my childhood.