I wrote my book, “Destination Saigon,” to tell the stories of my friends in Vietnam, the life I knew in Vietnam now.
How did the book come about? Well, I have had an abiding interest in Buddhism – and particularly Vietnamese Buddhism – for 20 yearsI have been a student of Zen masters, Nun scholars, and half-crazed mendicants who took me with them all over the country to teach me their ideas.
But in truth, in Vietnam it’s much more often like this.
Probably not the place to be an electricity worker, either.
I always visit the cemetery at the Actor’s Pagoda, a final resting place for thespians, where fans can come and pay their respects and look at the playbills, magazine covers and good reviews that have been immortalised on the performers’ tombstones. Here is the grave for the acclaimed actor Minh Phung, who still draws fans to his tomb – there were some there are always some there. Indeed, though he’s been gone since 2008, the person I was visiting with said, “I had no idea Minh Phung was dead!”I loved this because it’s the sort of commonplace utterance one hears all the time – though normally I am the one saying things like, “I had no idea Esther Williams was still alive!”
I follow in a fine tradition of literary travellers to Cambodia. The Sitwells, Pierre Loti, Somerset Maugham – for a period in the mid-20th century Cambodia was considered a romantic and fashionable place to go.
This is one of the Buddhist shrines that is still active in one of the temples in the Angkor religious complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Among these ancient religious ruins there still exists a living, beating heart of spirituality that has survived over 1,000 years. This temple was probably built sometime around the end of the 12th century. The form of religion being practised right now may not have been recognisable to the temple’s original builders, but the site and the intention is unchanged. Imagine the incredible spiritual power that exists in such places.
Cambodian religious art is simply the best in the world.The exquisite faces of the Khmer Buddhas. And another literary link – the French author Andre Malraux was sent home to France after being caught trying to orchestrate the theft and sale of some Angkorean artefacts while he was a young colonial administratorCambodia is these days a Buddhist country and Buddhism in some form or other has been present in this area for over 2,000 years. These days about 95% of the country is Buddhist, despite the best efforts of the Catholics during the French colonial era, and these days of hundreds of Protestant missionaries of myriad sects.
The religious heart of Cambodia is still beating. Cambodian Theravada Buddhism is unique in many ways, and the mystical and magical arts of Cambodia are revered and feared across South East Asia.This photograph was taken during the recitation of the Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha’s past lives.
I’m interested in the presence of women monastics in a religious culture that only officially recognises the presence of monks. But there are many nuns living at every temple, and they fulfil an important, if unrecognised and usually menial, function within religious life.
Plenty of monks in Cambodia, and anyone who knows my work will know that they are an abiding fascination of mine.
An allegorical statue commonly found in Cambodia, depicting a folk tale where a lame slave meets a strong blind slave and together they combine their powers to become free and wealthy.
This is where I live when I am in Vietnam – in an apartment above a cafe in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s crowded suburbs.
I’m a great breaker of furniture, the flimsy plastic stools designed to hold the weight of the slender Vietnamese. At restaurants where I am known, the owners make a great charade of stacking 3 or 4 stools one on top of the other in order to take my weight.
I frequent a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, and when I share the monks’ lunch in the refectory, they go to hunt down a truly massive mahogany chair, intended for the hallowed buttocks of visiting Bishops, and drag it into the communal eating hall for my benefit. Once, having suffered the indignity of breaking a chair at a bbq rabbit restaurant, a mother pointed me out to her child and said, “See that fat foreigner over there, the one who broke the chair? If you’re not good he’ll eat you up.”
The books of LobsangRampa captured my imagination as a child.
Favourite reading:Probably my favourite book about Vietnam isn’t even really about Vietnam at all – it is about life lived in the Cholon, the Chinese city-within-a-city in old Saigon in the mid 1950s.Poncins lived there for a year and tried to become Chinese.It captures perfectly a totally lost era, the last possible gasp of French colonialism, but also a world that would disappear entirely in 1975
In fact, I hang out in here, the big incense coil dispensary where my friend Duong has worked since he was 16 years old.This is a fascinating place which has kept alive many of the popular Chinese religious traditions that have died out in China itself.
Here Kwan Yin is worshipped alongside a whole host of other deities, Buddhist and otherwise.It was also once the domain ofshamanesses, fortune tellers and spirit channellers, but unfortunately in recent years these have been cleared out, making it a lot less colourful place.
Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala is an infinitely complex, but superbly and simply written, memoir about what it is to be an overseas Vietnamese returning home.It deserves to be much better known. It is brutally honest about the refugee experience and then the tourist experience. Pham undergoes what I have seen time and time again – the awkward dance with his traditional culture, alternately rejecting and romanticising it.
Norman Lewis’ A Dragon Apparent does in the late 1950s what young backpackers are increasingly doing now – recreating the grand Indochina tour, taking in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Lewis is an English gentleman and an exquisite writer.
Fermor’s almost-perfect “A Time to Keep Silence”, an account of being a young man trying to be a writer by staying in the silent cells of Cistercian monasteries in France. There is no book more likely to make you want to pack up all your things and run away than this one.Fermor only died recently, and was a dear friend of Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire – the last surviving Mitford sister.
Kien Nguyen’s “The Unwanted” tells a remarkable story of a Eurasian child in the years immediately following the end of the Vietnam-America war.
Francois Bisot’s “The Gate” is the most masterful account of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia.
An image from the TuolSleng torture museum in Phnom Penh. Bizarrely, but perhaps, now, fortunately, the KR Secret Police had a mania for documenting their terrors, and photographed all of the prisoners they tortured and murdered. Some of these photographs are now on display at the museum, and they are particularly affecting – the incredible looks on these people’s faces as they stare into the cameras of their soon-to-be murderers. Such is human nature that some were even smiling.
Once all the enemies of state form the old regime had been murdered, the insane Khmer Rouge turned on its own ranks, and began accusing people of disloyalty or incorrect thinking and bringing them here, to a suburban school, to be tortured and murdered.
This is a bookshop at a large monastery in Ho Chi Minh City – religious books and publishing are very popular in Vietnam.
So much of what is popular is not translated into English, and perhaps never will be. There is also some really interesting things produced in English – especially in Cambodia – and being published locally that will never find its way to booksellers or distributors in the West. So much of what we see and read is still so heavily focused on the past, and reflects our own abiding interests and concerns. People in Vietnam and Cambodia are reading very different books than we are. Or are they? In Cambodia the most famous history of the country is a Khmer translation of David Chandler’s “History of Cambodia,” and everyone is reading Harry Potter in condensed Khmer translations. In Vietnam the most popular books are the Chicken Soup for the Soul series translated into Viet, along with the Steve Jobs biography and...
...Louise Hay self-help books in parallel texts
There is even a thriving local self-help writing industry in Cambodia