Vũng Tàu

We are inbound to Vĩnh Long; I haven’t seen this many TV antennae since the 60s.

Inbound to Vĩnh Long; a forest of TV antennae

We get off the boats at the docks by the Phưồng Thủy restaurant, and have to walk a couple of blocks through the Vĩnh Long market in order to get to the bus.  We climb on, the bus starts up and Mr. Song calls out, “Buddy check!”

We all look at each other.  My buddy is Sandy; we wave.  No one else complains.  The bus moves a foot.  Someone calls out, “Hey, where’s Carl?”  Oops.

I speak up.  “Oh yeah, I saw Carl heading for the restroom in the restaurant.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Song, and gets off the bus.  Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Song and Carl are back.  Two people count us, just to make sure.  Ed and Steven are fond of telling the story of how they left both buddies of a pair somewhere on the last trip, but they don’t tell us the story any more after we almost lose Carl.

We’ve all forgotten that Mr. Song told us two days ago that we would have lunch later at the restaurant with the giant BGI beer sign and the topiary dragons, so when we pull in the lot, everyone is surprised.  We have short memories, like puppies.

Sign for Honest and Loyal Restaurant

Lunch at “Nhà Hàng Trung Lương,” or “Honest and Loyal Restaurant,” is good, but not as good as the meal we had at the Hotel on Stilts last night.  The outdoor cafe menu above offers cooked rice (of course), appetizers, rice gruel with innards, noodle soup, pies and cakes.  “Popular,” announces the sign.

The restaurant inside features “Great Ball of Rice,” a dessert made from a rice batter poured, like crepe batter, into a superheated wok; almost as soon as the batter hits the steel, it puffs into the sphere.  It’s sweet, but not overly so, like most desserts here.

Great Ball of Rice

I don’t order beer, naturally, but I’m intrigued enough by the giant BGI sign that when I get back home, I hassle my brother to see what kinds of Vietnamese beers he can try.  Not only does it turn out that Ba Mười Ba is still being made, at least for the export market, but he can even buy it in Peoria (with a much modernized label).

Ba Mười Ba

He reports,

“OK, we were out and about today, decided to stop at Friar Tuck, and bought a 6 pack of BGI 33 Export beer.  Flat and watery, but not quite as Bud Light pale as I expected.  S’pose the darker color is from the formaldehyde, eh?  Seemed to be lacking a little something like, oh, hops maybe.  Definitely not as tasteless as any of the 73 varieties of clear Mexican beer, but totally devoid of any sort of character.  Frankly, standing over a red-hot grill on a summer afternoon, I’d actually rather drink Bud Light.

“Other than that, it was fine.”

When we leave the restaurant, it is sunny and cheerful.  To go from Vĩnh Long to Vũng Tàu means we must drive almost all the way back to Sàigòn.  I recognize nothing on the journey until we are within a few kilometers of the peninsula, but by then the rain is coming down so hard it reminds me of Central Illinois, strengthening the resemblence between the landscape here and an area called "The Bottoms."  That was hundreds of square miles of backwater between the Illinois River and a town where I grew up, Bartonville; the place was interlaced with gravel dikes, full of waterlogged vegetation and billions of carp.  When it was overcast or raining, there was no discernible boundary between earth and sky.  In 1970 Việt Nam, in the dry season, Highway 15 looked like this, and the road traveled through unpopulated areas.

Overloaded truck driving on the road to Vũng Tàu

In 2002, in monsoon, no matter where we are on Q.L. 51, it all looks pretty much like this:

Monsoon season on the road to Vũng Tàu

From Vĩnh Long to Sàigòn is 140 kilometers, then another 90 kilometers back down to Vũng Tàu.  I guess we can make around 30 km/hour; we arrive at the peninsula in the vicinity of 1700.  We check into the Sammy Hotel; they keep our passports.  While waiting for our keys, I take a picture of a restaurant across the street with a huge pigeon coop on the roof of one of its outbuildings.  I go back inside and find a spot to sit and wait.

Giant Pigeon Coop with attached restaurant

I’m content to vegetate in a seat that’s not moving, and watch the very-dressed-up people march back and forth across the marble lobby floor.  No events have been organized for the evening; Ed and Kate say they’re going off to the beach to get in a little swimming before going out for dinner, which is on our own tonight.

2002 accommodations in Vung Tau 1970 accommodations in Vung Tau

I head to my room for a shower; the Leibos have two rooms directly across the hall from me.  The place seems nice enough, and is a far cry from where I stayed in 1970.  Notice the sign that says “No Smoking?”  Nailed up on the support pillars are red “butt buckets,” cans filled with water which serve as ashtrays.  The beds in the barracks aren’t made very well, by the way; the proper way to make up Army beds can be found here.  I open the curtains so I can see the view and scatter my junk about; I guess it’s the capitalist equivalent of cats marking their territory; there is no way to open the windows.  At 1900, I go down the elevator to eat dinner in the hotel restaurant.  How bad can it be?

As the elevator approaches the mezzanine where the restaurant is located, I start to realize how bad it can get.  The elevator walls are vibrating.  When the door opens, I am pinned to the back wall by sound.  My ears hurt.  The dressed-up people are in a wedding.  I haven’t heard music this loud since 1970, when the guys in the room next to mine would play the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” albums on their $10,000 sound systems every night.  They probably had a few more covers, but those were the ones they loved and played over and over.  32 years later, I can still flip the on switch in my head and replay the music.  But then, the music was softened by bouncing around the rafters where the geckos hid.  Here, the acoustics of the place are such that it feels like I’m at the focus of one of those parabolic reflectors people use to eavesdrop, only one that generates instead of receiving sound.  I can’t even get out of the elevator; I go to the ground floor where I “speak” (screaming is not speaking) to the woman on duty.

She can’t hear me; I can’t hear her.  I give up trying to complain.  I try to ask where a restaurant is and she screams something about a taxi.  My head hurts so much I decide to go back to my room and do without.  But I’m furious, and I’m afraid I let it show when Dr. Leibo comes out of his room just as I’m unlocking my door.  I tell him not to bother with trying to eat in the hotel restaurant, and I explain about the noise.  Maybe just a tad forcefully.

He takes it all in stride.  An hour later, he knocks on my door and says that the wedding is over and the restaurant’s free.  Do I want to have dinner with them?  Sure, I say, I’d love to.  At table, three of us (me, Joel and Steven) order pasta with mushrooms because it sounds too good to pass up.  When it arrives, however, it has ham in it, an ingredient that was not mentioned on the menu.  I’m a vegetarian who can’t eat dairy but will eat fish, and that’s a complicated set to explain to anyone, even in America where many restaurants think chicken is a vegetable.  Sara and Barbara’s food arrives in a timely fashion and they’re perfectly happy.  Barbara is especially serene, because she has her own strict dietary requirements, which involve hard-boiled eggs, pasta and french fries.  While waiting for my replacement, I look longingly at her fries.  When our new dishes finally arrive they have indeed re-cooked them, not simply plucked out the ham.  All around us the waiters and waitresses are picking up things left over from the wedding.  I wonder if they get combat pay because of the hearing loss.

After dinner, I return to my room and write in my journal for a while before I’m sleepy enough to go to bed.  I lie down.  Something’s wrong.  When my head starts pounding, I figure it out; the bed is tilted so that my feet are elevated and my head’s down so that the blood rushes to it.  It takes me twenty minutes, but eventually I determine that if I lay across the bed with my head and pillow at the foot, in the Southwest corner, my feet at the Northeast, I can lie almost normally.  Practitioners of Feng Shui would be deeply offended.

The next morning it is raining heavily; we drive through town in the bus and see nothing but rain.  We are supposed to sightsee in the morning, leaving the afternoon free.  But everything on the agenda is outdoors enough to get us drenched.  Ed and Steven suggest going back to the hotel for a seminar.  On the way back, I manage to get a picture through the bus window of Núi Lớn, Big Mountain, and the “Radar Installation” on top.

Looking up at Núi Lớ Closeup of antennae on Núi Lớn

It wasn’t a radar installation at all, of course.  It was the headquarters and headquarters company for the 369th Signal Battalion, and I was there several times.  At the hotel desk last night, I had noticed flyers for Jeep trips on the counter.  For $25, I could go on a trip that included the top of Núi Lớn, as well as Núi Nhỏ.  But our schedule calls for a visit to Núi Nhỏ, as well as to the Jesus statue; I think I can probably hire a Jeep and convince the driver to take me only to the top of Big Mountain.  I don’t care if anyone else goes with me; I want to visit an old stomping ground.  The smaller dishes are gone now, along with the rest of the infrastructure.  I’d still like to see it.  For one thing, the view from the top of the mountain, 170 meters up, is spectacular.

The same antennae in 1970 The same antennae in 1970

View from the top of Núi Lớn

This picture was taken in 1970, looking toward Núi Nhỏ (both peaks together are called “small mountain”).  That’s a lighthouse on top of the higher peak of Núi Nhỏ.  The beach in the curve in the foreground is Front Beach, Bãi Trước, while the beach at the left-hand side of the picture, opposite Front Beach, is Back Beach, Bãi Sau.  Bãi Sau is where the Sammy Hotel is now, and it is wildly different from the way it used to be.  To get to the top of the mountain, you had to negotiate a very narrow road which had switchbacks in it, enough to make the road twice as long as it would have been had it been a straight shot.  In a jeep, you could swing around the corners, but in a deuce-and-a-half the driver had to back up and inch forward several times in order to get around the extremely tight curves.

In the hotel, we gather in the now abandoned restaurant and take over two huge circular tables.  We discuss war and its effects; one expert on PTSD that Ed knows has suggested that every single person who participated in any way in the Việt Nam war has some form of PTSD.  I guess that doesn’t surprise me.  Some people get the screaming heebie-jeebies; other people just have difficulties going out on the street.  ’Nam vets have a higher suicide rate than most other groups; I’ve heard there are a lot more alcoholics, too.  I’m one of those, although I haven’t practiced for 25 years now.  The divorce rate’s higher, and that’s another group I’m a statistic in.

The smaller peak of Núi Nhỏ, or “VC Hill,” has a statue of Jesus; according to the guidebooks, it’s interesting but perched in a precarious spot, in danger of eroding into the ocean.  The shot below shows it as seen from the deck of the hotel.

Núi Nhỏ, or “VC Hill,”

Here’s a bit of a blowup: Giant Jesus This enormous finger of Jesus with his arm outstretched... (I know you can’t really see anything; this is only to prove that I’m not making it up).  The reason that the Jesus statue is so hard to see in the 1970 picture is that it didn’t exist then.  “Giant Jesus This enormous finger of Jesus with his arm outstretched, gazing across the East Sea is located at the southern end of Nho Mountain. It is 28 m high and was built in 1971 on top of Nho mountain. It rests in a 10 m high platform.”  From http://qasia.com/Vietnam/vungtau.html, which has some close-ups of the statue, and also says that “Vũng Tàu” means “ship puddle.”  The one-page history of Việt Nam looks pretty good, too, although I’m reminded of the one-page history of WWII I slapped together for an English course; everyone who read it rolled their eyes and complained about all the stuff I left out.  When pressed, however, they admitted that what I put in was correct—as far as it went.

The other peak of Núi Nhỏ, called “Monkey Hill” by the Aussies and the Americans, holds an old French lighthouse.

Núi Nhỏ or “Monkey Hill”

The blowup here also shows the signal towers left by the Australian 104 Signals’ Communication Centre (COMCEN) which had moved here from Sàigòn in mid-1970:

Lighthouse and Australian 104 Signals’ Communication Centre (COMCEN)

Dennis Hare has a history of the Australian 104 Signals Co. that has interesting sections on Vũng Tàu.

The reason I’m only showing these distance shots of Núi Nhỏ is because we didn’t get to either one of the peaks.  The rains continue through the entire morning; after our seminar in the restaurant—which had a disturbing resemblance to the aftermath of frat parties (the restaurant, not our seminar)—we disband for lunch.  Andrew, Bill, Mark Lawrence, Mark Byrnes and I end up walking North along the road to a restaurant whose name I translate as “Little Blue/Green Crab.”  Mark L. says that’s where Sandy ate last night—she recommended it—so that’s where we eat lunch.  Someone asks why I said “blue/green,” and I say that’s what the dictionary says.  I expect it’s not confusion of colors but that, like the Mayans, the Vietnamese just don’t find it interesting to make many distinctions in that part of the spectrum.

I order something that’s billed as “tuna” in a tomato-and-onion sauce.  It’s pleasant enough, except that it’s not tuna and it has many long, pointed bones in it.  It’s more like swordfish than tuna, but not as good.  Later, I find out that the Vietnamese believe that leaving the bones in fish makes it more tender and moist.  It is tender and moist, I’ll give it that, but it has half the flavor of tuna.

In the Little Blue Crab, we sit and watch the ocean and chat, wait for the rains to die down.  We’re not in a big hurry; neither is the help.  They’re all busy watching soap operas, talking to each other and the TV, folding napkins.  Last night I watched a few minutes of Vietnamese MTV.  The music seemed like pretty schmaltzy stuff, not very closely related to what’s on American MTV.  It’s kind of like what passed for rock-and-roll in my high school years—Born to Be Wild, Teen Angel, Tell Laura I love Her, Strange Things Happen, stuff like that.  That’s my guess, anyway, although I admit I haven’t spent any time translating the lyrics.  I haven’t watched any soap operas here, but then, I don’t at home either.  There’s something about the cinematography that puts me off.

After lunch, we meet at the bus, and I take a picture of our drivers.

Our bus drivers

The one on the right drives.  The young one, on the right, is there because, by law, any vehicle that carries more than ten passengers has to have two drivers.  He’s apprenticing, and he’s the one who gets out to guide the main driver into parking places and in backing up into tight spots.  They don’t talk much, but they’re very good at what they do.

We head south on a road which may be Bãi Thừ Vân; that’s what it was called in 1970, although the map I’ve got is not actually very clear on the spelling.  It could mean “Beautiful Silk Road,” or it could mean “Decapitated Pig’s Head Flat Spot.”  I think I’ll stick with the “Beautiful Silk Road.”

Our first stop is at Niết Bàn Tịnh Xá, a Buddhist monastery built between 1969 and 1974 at the bottom of Núi Nhỏ, the same peak where Jesus lives.  The bus pulls off onto Hạ Long street, where it remains parked while we walk uphill to the gate.  I see by the sign that it’s called a “museum monastery,” which I think must be something like a historical site in the US.  On the way up, I take a shot of a rather phallic lotus stalk.

Walking up the street to the Monastery Phallic lotus stalk

I think it’s a lotus stalk, anyway.  We march through the gate between guardian deities.  The name means something like “Peaceful Contemplation of Nirvana with Folded Hands.”  I’m not really contemplating nirvana; the stairs are very slippery and I’m concentrating on staying upright.  “Tịnh Xá,” the “peaceful” and “folded hands” part, is something I’ve seen on lots of temples, so I’m beginning to think it’s a generic sort of phrase for Buddhist retreats.

Entrance to Niết Bàn Tịnh Xá

The characters on either side of the doorway are “chữ nôm,” Vietnamese written with “Chinese” characters.  Even though I can only read a few Chinese characters, I can tell that these aren’t “chữ Hán,” real Chinese, because of the presence of characters like this one, which violates pretty much every rule of Chinese writing: Real Chinese character meaning heart.  The character is reminiscent of the hiragana “hi,” , but I doubt that a Japanese character is what is meant here.  Chữ nôm and chữ Hán (also called “chữ nho,” scholarly writing) are writing systems for the Vietnamese language that were in common use until the late 19th Century, and which are used now for what we might think of as retro reasons.  Chữ Hán is what all court and government writing was in, since being able to write in Chinese was the mark of an educated Mandarin, or bureacrat.  Chữ nôm (meaning, I think, “unrefined writing”) used characters that were borrowed from Chinese, added “made-up” ones, and attempted to spell Vietnamese in a semi-native way. Naturally, after I wrote the text in the left column, Alexander Wu wrote to me, saying, “The character you claim breaks every rule of Chinese does NOT and is in fact, Chinese.  It’s the word for ‘heart’ xin.”  Later, he added, “In Chinese:  ‘xin’, Japanese ‘kokoro,’ Vietnamese ‘tâm’.”

The information about the three Vietnamese writing systems is still correct, but it’s obvious that I can’t tell anything about Chinese characters.

He says that the characters in the columns on either side of the doorway are prayers.  That on the right means, very roughly, something like, “Nieban (nirvana) shows sentient beings how pray to Buddha in order to comprehend emptiness and truth, or the truth in emptiness.”  The one on the left has something to do with the righteous way and Boddhisatvas.

The roman-style letters that are seen everywhere today are called “Quốc ngữ,” or “National language.”  Sometimes it’s spelled out fully as “chữ Quốc ngữ,” but mostly readers are expected to fill in the “chữ” part.  Quốc ngữ was developed in the 17th Century by Portuguese missionaries who were unwilling or unable to learn the complicated chữ nôm and chữ Hán writing systems (to be fluent in both required learning Chinese in addition to tiếng Việt), but who needed ways to translate bibles and write down sermons in the native language.  Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary, codified the romanization and published the first Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary and a catechism in 1649-1651; he usually gets the credit for “inventing” quốc ngữ, but that seems to have only slightly more credibility than attributing the Cherokee syllabary to “Sequoyah.”

While it’s tempting to view the adoption of quốc ngữ as yet another colonial imposition by the French oppressors, such a view is not supported by the evidence.  Quốc ngữ began to be taught in the colonial schools only in 1867, but wasn’t widely used for the next forty years, until it was taught as the primary writing system in the public schools beginning around 1918.  Once in the schools, use of the simpler writing system spread rapidly throughout the country, resulting in a phenominal rise in literacy; today, Việt Nam has one of the highest literacy ratios in the world.  Colonial powers rarely support literacy for the common people, reserving education for bureacrats in governmental service where they can be more strictly controlled.

Although the Chinese language is no longer required today, around 2000 Chinese characters are considered to be integral to any citizen’s education and are taught in the Vietnamese schools; this is about the same number also considered to be the bare minimum in Korea and Japan.  Not every Vietnamese attains the ideal of 2000 characters, however.  In Hội An, I was approached by a T-shirt seller.  “Where you from?” she asked.

“Tôi là người Mỹ,” I said.  I’m an American.

“Totally awesome,” she says.  “You need T-shirt.”

I held up one with particularly nice calligraphy on it.  “What’s this mean?” I asked.

She looked at me.  Looked at the shirt.  Looked at me again, shrugged.  “Hell if I know,” she said.

I bought the shirt.  By the way, the character was 寿, “long life.”

Once inside the compound, it proves to be worth negotiating the slippery stairs.


Right away, there’s an image of Quan Âm, standing on an image of the world inside an ornate dragon vase, similar to one I saw at the Dragon House in Sàigòn.  The one there didn’t contain the world, however.

Quan Âm Dragon vase

The swastikas Swastika, seen everywhere in Asia and Việt Nam, are symbols associated with Buddhism in particular and good luck in general.  They became popular in America at the turn of the 20th Century, long before the Nazis co-opted them and used them for evil.  There are a number of internet sites that purport to offer “facts” to counteract the harm that Hitler did to an ancient and respected symbol, but an awful lot of them are publishing misinformation.

One example is that of the “reverse swastika,” which is a claim that while the Nazis used a swastika, the true swastika spirals in the reverse direction from the one used by the National Socialists.  This is pretty much untrue on the face of it, simply because there are so many instances of the crooked cross being viewable in situations where it is unclear which is the “right” direction.  And indeed, if one merely looks at the symbol above, one can see that the only difference between it and the red, black and white is that the Nazi emblem is tipped 45° from the orientation usually seen in Buddhist contexts.

Another claim made by many of these sites is that the swastika was used worldwide for peaceful purposes:  “In the years to come, I would discover the truth about the swastika as used by American Indians, Hindus, Buddhists, Vikings, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Mayans, Aztecs, Persians, Christians, and neolithic tribes. There are even Jewish swastikas found in ancient synagogues side-by-side with the star of David!”  (From http://www.bmezine.com/news/people/A10101/manwoman/)

As an amateur Mayanist, I can speak to at least the claims of swastikas in the Yucatan and Central America.  There are none.  The closest there is to a swastika that I know of is this glyph (designated “T573a”), T573a which I think isn’t even in the ballpark.  Justin Kerr, an expert on Mayan ceramics, agrees:

As far as I can remember, in the entire Maya Vase Database and Precolumbian Portfolio, plus a few thousand more images which are not yet posted, there is not one single image of a swastika.  My recollection is that there are some swastikas used by the Plains Indians of North America.  However, I can’t cite any sources.
—Justin Kerr

Sidney Allison offers this story about swastikas, pieces of which may also be found at the Wikipedia:

There’s even a small town named Swastika, in northern Ontario, Canada. It was founded around 1908, and named after a symbol for good luck. The place does have a wildly improbable connection with Nazidom, though. In 1914, a British investor, Baron Lord Redesdale, arrived with his wife to oversee his investments in the local goldmine. The aristocratic couple lived in a log cabin, and while there they conceived a baby girl. She was christened Unity Valkyrie Mitford; Unity in hopes that the Great War in progress would end peacefully soon, and to hedge their bets, Valkyrie after the Norse war hand-maidens.

Unity and her sister Diana Mitford became adherents of German Nazism. Diana married Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Unity went to live in Germany, became obsessed with Adolf Hitler, and the pair became close friends. When Germany and Britain declared war, Unity Mitford shot herself in the head. She survived, but lived an invalid until her death in 1948.

During WWII, Canada tried to convince the town of Swastika to change its name. The locals refused, and came up with the slogan:  “To hell with Hitler—we named this town long before him!”

—Sidney Allison

The Mitford sisters Nancy and Jessica both became famous writers, Nancy for Love in a Cold Climate and its sequel, Jessica for her muckraking exposé The American Way of Death.

Reed C. Bowman expands on the topic of swastikas, after others point out that “fylfot” is another name for one:

I would call a three-legged one a “triskelion.”  Though normally a triskelion in heraldry is spiraled or formed of actual human arms, mailed or otherwise, the term triskelion theoretically (in generic usage, not necessarily in heraldry—as a herald I’m strictly an amateur) includes the three-armed swastika.  However, I have heard both swastika and fylfot used to refer to things with more or fewer than four arms.

If I were chief prescriptive lexicographer, I’d decree that swastika refers to the one whose outline is a square, whichever direction it goes, and use the strictly German term “Hakenkreuz” for the Nazi emblem, then use fylfot as the most generic term for all figures made with little L-shapes of different proportions and numbers.  There’s also the term gammadion (cross made of capital gammas, Γ), which might—if I were in charge—be reserved to fylfots with short feet.*

*Okay, strictly speaking, the gammas don’t want to be backward, so the gammadion ought to point only one way - unless we allow boustrophedon in our abstract design classification scheme ... heh. sorry

—Reed C. Bowman

The lotus, the other symbol Lotus just below the swastika in the Quan Âm shrine above, is just as widespread but much less problematic.  It’s one of eight auspicious Buddhist symbols.  The heart of all beings is “like an unopened lotus: when the virtues of the Buddha develop therein the lotus blossoms.  This is why the Buddha sits on a lotus in bloom.”  White lotuses symbolize purity; red, love and compassion.  See http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_lotus.htm.

I love the ceramic lotus buds Ceramic lotus bud Ceramic lotus bud, and wish I could take some home.  I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t fit in with the decor of our house, which is otherwise unremarkable. Our house

The multi-headed lotus stalk seems to have bird doors in it; is it possible it’s a fifty-foot birdhouse?  From another angle, the true surrealism of the thing becomes more apparent.  I decide this is an artifact better left to the imagination than the encyclopedia; later, at home, I find a reference to it on the net which calls it a flagpole.  I remain skeptical.

Stalk and ceramic lotus buds Triply phallic stalk
Dragon boat Dragon boat

Dragons, of course, are symbols of long life and prosperity; this dragon boat is notable for being 4 meters long.  The miniature mountains, complete with waterfalls, inside the boat are models of Mount Meru.  “In the mythology of Tibetan Buddhism, Mount Meru is a place which simultaneously represents the center of the universe and the single-pointedness of mind sought by adepts.  Thousands of miles in height, Meru is located somewhere beyond the physical plane of reality, in a realm of perfection and transcendence.  Symbolic representations of Mount Meru are commonly found in Tibetan mandalas, contemplative diagrams designed to aid meditators in focusing.”

That’s not the whole story, of course (is there such a thing?).  Mount Meru is also important in Hinduism and its mythology, and is an organizing concept for many views of Buddhist cosmology.  There is also a real one in Tanzania, the fifth-highest mountain in Africa, which, along with Kilimanjaro and Ngorongoro Crater, is a tourist destination for rockers and climbers.

Mount Meru is ordinarily seen as surrounded by a wall and a moat; the dragon boat seems to be a unique addition, but one I’m not surprised to see in Việt Nam, where the dragon is so important.  Behind the boat, there’s another shrine to Quan Âm; this one reminds me so much of a jukebox that I look for a slot in which to put quarters.

Quan Âm Quan Âm

I’m unable to translate the electric halo (thiên cái).  “Nam mô” is an alternate spelling of “na mô,” which is the beginning of a common phrase or mantra in Pure Land Buddhism, “Namo Amida Butsu.”  Borrowed into Vietnamese, it has become “Na mô a di đà Phật,” “Hail Buddha Amida.”  Quan Thế Âm, of course, is the Vietnamese version of Kwan Yin.  I pick up a free pamphlet about Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát, “White-robed female deity,” and it spells the word I can’t translate as “đại-bi.”  The best I can get from my three dictionaries is “sad rocks,” and I’m pretty sure that’s not even close.  Alexander Wu tells me, “đại means great; bi is literally sad, but here it means compassion.”  The whole phrase, then, translates as “Hail, greatly compassionate Kwan Yin.”  “Đại-bi,” I speculate, might be short for “đại bi tâm”; “bi tâm” is how my dictionary presents compassion.

I tuck the pamphlet in my pocket and buy two malas, or “Buddhist rosaries,” from a very, very old woman, seated to the left of the dragon boat.  I get a plain rosewood one and a plastic one; on the plastic one, individual beads bear the likeness of Quan Âm. Quan Âm bead  I get them both for $1 US.  In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, these are called “onenju,” or reminders, not malas, which seems to have a prayerful connotation.  Both of them are much to small for me.  When I put them on my wrist, they stretch so much the elastic is visible.

The onenju I bought The 3.5 ton temple bell, with the nun behind it

The 3.5 ton temple bell on the next floor up is tended by a nun; you have to take your shoes off to go in, and on this wet pavement I’m not about to do that.  Miriam and Ralph, however, do.  The bell is mounted on a lotus blossom and has prayers, written on small slips of paper, stuck into it everywhere.  Behind the bell and towards the hill is the centerpiece of this whole complex, the Reclining Buddha; in front of it, a nun pounds on a giant prayer bell.

Reclining, or dying, Buddha Reclining, or dying, Buddha

The big Buddha is not just reclining, of course; he is dying.  Of eating bad pork, in some versions of the tale.  I think there are as many variations on the birth and death stories of Buddha as there are sects of Buddhism.  Most monasteries and temples that offer tourist stops, like Niết Bàn Tịnh Xá, display statues of the eight great deeds, of Buddha’s life (yes, dying is considered a great deed).  In the tableau above, there are at least three.  On the left, the small standing statue with the hand pointing at heaven is the Buddha at birth; he has taken seven steps, seven lotuses have bloomed, and he is standing on the seventh flower.  In the background is the dying Buddha.  The Buddha in the foreground with the electric halo is either the just-enlightened Buddha or the teaching Buddha, but I can’t make out any words on the halo, so I can’t tell for sure.  The scenery behind the Reclining Buddha must represent other great deeds from his life—at least one of which has to do with mountains—but from where I stand, they look more like cartoons.

Looking down at the dragon boat Looking up at the Jesus statue

On the floor below where the dragon boat is, I see what I think at first is Quan Âm’s elephant sidekick.  Research now tells me that the elephant is probably Nalagiri, the Killer Elephant, listed as one of Buddha’s Eight Great Victories (which all seem rather violent to me, and at odds with the usual image of a man of peace). Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin, gets Nalagiri drunk, releases it on the streets of Rajagaha.  Guatama subdues the animal with loving-kindness (Metta), and it kneels down to take the Three Refuges (the official ceremony required to declare oneself a Buddhist).  “If he had not been an animal, the elephant would have attained Enlightenment on the spot.”

Looking up, I can see the top of VC Hill.  We might be about halfway up; there’s Jesus.  I wonder if it means anything at all that the statue is higher on the mountain than the Reclining Buddha?  The Jesus statue was started two years later, although this place took longer to finish.  Is there just possibly a little competitiveness?  I notice that the monks and nuns here watch TV.  I think of yellow-robed monks dancing to the syrupy music I saw on MTV in the hotel.

Looking out to sea through the wheel of dharma with swastika, baby Buddha, and phallus-lotus stalk

But here on the highest level, I wonder at the bravery of the monks who began building this place while a war was on, a year before I was here the first time.  What I don’t wonder is why here; the ocean is a powerful presence on the peninsula, and building a place of contemplation where it is easy to find views of limitless emptiness seems eminently reasonable to me.  What I wonder about is why then, why 1969, in the middle of a war?

Above, the Buddha stands on a lotus after his first great deed, being born.  Perched on top of the stupa is a swastika inside a dharma wheel.  Dharma wheels symbolize the endless cycle of birth and rebirth; they have eight spokes which represent the Noble Eight-fold Path, teachings central to Buddhism of all sects.  You don’t normally see the swastikas and dharma wheels paired like this.  Stupas commemorate the eight great deeds from Buddha’s life, and some enshrine relics alleged to be remains of the Buddha himself.  Much more about stupas can be found here, at http://www.stupa.org.nz/.

On the way down, I concentrate on not slipping.  I pass a family shrine, occupying one of the small rooms.

Family shrine Family shrine

I am unable to translate the text; what I come up with seems to be about the leader or head of a flower-seller’s organization.  Since the shrine is part of the whole temple complex, however, the family must have money; it’s a prime location.

Our next stop is Bạch Dinh.

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