Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Friendship Bridge

Back in the late 90s I began to hear from my friends in Vietnam about an amazing new bridge that was being built to span the Mekong between (I think) My Tho and Vinh Long (or close enough). All of the Vietnamese that I spoke to were in genuine awe of the project - the first of its kind. Crossing the Mekong by ferry between major cities and provinces is a particularly gruelling experience, and in recent years there had been a number of deaths caused by over-full cars and buses plunging into the river from the ferry or the jetty. The bridge was viewed with genuine gratitude by the Vietnamese people, and was responsible for a tremendous amount of good will being built up between Australia and Vietnam.
When it was opened I was invited to visit Can Tho by some Khmer friends in Saigon. We hired a car, and everyone was very excited to be crossing over the bridge for the first time. There were signs all over the bridge warning vehicles not to stop at any point. Exactly halfway across, my monk friend Son Thua ordered the driver to stop so that we could all get out and take a photograph. The driver was hesitant, but he didn't dare disobey.
And so we got out and stood in an outer lane, traffic whizzing by us dangerously, and took some snaps to commemorate this special bridge and our special trip.
Laky, on the left, had only just left the monastery. The monk Son Thua these days lives in Burma, where he has mastered English and become something of a meditation master.
I am still in touch with both.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Banh Mi Op La

One of the yummiest - and simplest - breakfasts I enjoy while I am in Vietnam is the humble Banh Mi Op La. This is a simple fried egg served with a baguette (I always ask for an extra straight up). You then make it your own with the judicious addition of soy-sauce (or, more properly, the enhanced soy-sauce which is normally served in Vietnam callen nuoc tuong), chilli sauce and salt & pepper. Using the bread as an eating implement, you eat your fried egg (necessarily with a runny yolk) and you are all ready for the day. It's perfect if you've grown a little tired of the more exotic options and want something that is closer to a western breakfast.
Banh mi op la is readily available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, though I'm not so sure about other cities.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Van Hanh Buddhist University

One of the places I mention in Destination Saigon, and a place that has had a significant influence on my spiritual formation, is Van Hanh Buddhist University in Ho Chi Minh City.
It was here that I met one of my great spiritual mentors, way back in 1996. Back then it was a dusty and rather ramshackle place. Originally established by Thich Nhat Hanh in the 60s, it hadn't been renovated much since then, and was a tacky collection of wooden buildings that hosted scores of Buddhist monks and nuns studying there from all over the country. I used to just go there and hang out (there was a cafe on the premises back in those more permissive days), and I made so many friends. It was quite a sexist institution then, and monks got to study in the relative cool of the morning, while nuns were forced to do their classes in the hot afternoon. By 1999 the rules had changed, and each year the order of classes was swapped around - nuns got mornings one year, monks the next.
These days Van Hanh is a thoroughly modern co-educational institiution, and monks and nuns attend the classes together. It is quite a unique place in that monastics from all the Buddhist schools and sects study together. A couple of years ago lay-people were allowed for the first time to study there too, which was something radically new.
Until 2000, as I mentioned, the facilities were basic, at best. The grounds also housed a resident monastery, and in a distant corner a walled-off nunnery that served as a hermitage for Su Ba Tri Hai, one of Vietnam's most revered religious figures. It was in this peaceful little hermitage that I used to take my lunch with my elderly grandparents when they would visit me in Vietnam. The Elder Nun Tri Hai lived as a recluse, and she sadly died a few years ago, killed in a car accident on Vietnam's incredibly dangerous roads. She and her sister nuns were returning from doing some charity work at one of Vietnam's leprosariums.
In recent years a Taiwanese Buddhist group has pumped a lot of money into Van Hanh, and it is filled with big, beautiful new buildings and classrooms. There is still a resident monastic community, but the nun's hermitage was demolished after Su Ba Tri Hai's death.
If you wanted to visit it now you would probably have to have a good reason, as visitors are no longer encouraged on the grounds, and there is no where to hang out at any rate. The temple functions as a working house of worship, so prayers are held there every evening, and anyone can attend them - if you arrive early it might give you a legitimate reason to have a look around the place.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Vietnamese words in place of Chinese characters

I did a talk at the Theosophical society last night, in the course of which I showed this photograph.

A friend with an eye for detail approached me later and asked me about the words running up the sides of the shrine. I explained that they were Vietnamese words shaped to look like Chinese characters. Monks have always been able to read Chinese, but have for centuries pronounced them in the Vietnamese language. These wonderful little motifs take the translation a step further, writing the actual words in Vietnamese, but leaving them roughly the same size, shape and look that the Chinese characters would have taken.
It was the first time in a long time I'd thought of this peculiar phenomenon. When I first went to Vietnam in the early 90s this was a very common motif in popular art (especially in Lunar New Year decorations), and it really struck me at the time. The words take on a wonderfully goofy 60s look, which is when I imagine they were first designed. Obviously the use of them has a vaguley nationalistic undertone, i.e. "We have perfectly good words in Vietnamese, we don't need to use Chinese to convey lofty sentiments."
I also realised that this convention is dying out in contemporary Vietnam. Partly because I imagine it appears dated to modern-day Vietnamese, bringing back as it does memories of the harshest days. I also think that with the ubiquity of Chinese-produced goods - especially in the area of Buddhist paraphernalia and New Year decorations - it is simply cheaper and easier to buy the mass-produced Chinese stuff.
So I imagine this quaint tradition is a dying art, but I have suddenly fallen in love with it.
IN a less decorative manner, I noticed that the memorial tablets on Cao Dai shrines are decorated with rather unadorned Vietnamese words. Usually such tablets would be written in Chinese.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lu Dongbin

This pic was taken at my friend's Taoist Feng Shui Fortune Telling business on the West Lake in Hanoi - a place that I talk about in my book, Destination Saigon. It is a statue of Lu Dongbin - a figure I didn't know much about until I encountered him in my friend's shop.
It seems that Lu Dongbin is something of a Patron Saint to practitioners of the Taoist arts.
He is also one of the most commonly appearing deities in the world of Chinese folk religion, though he is almost completely unknown to non-Chinese. It seems that in the early part of the 20th Century the cult of Lu Dongbin was particularly popular in Southern China, which explains his presence in so many temples in Hong Kong, and among the Chinese diaspora abroad.
Interestingly, a fable about Lu Dongbin is retold in Liao Fan's Four Lessons - one of my favourite books:

"Lu Dongbin was being taught the art of transforming iron into gold. They would use this gold to help the poor. Dongbin asked his teacher,"Will the gold ever change back to iron?" Li Jung answered, "After five hundred years, it will return to its original form." Dongbin said, "In that case, I do not want to learn this art for it will harm those who possess the gold five hundred years from now." Li Zhong said, "To become an immortal, one must complete three thousand virtuous deeds. What you have just said came from a truly kind heart. Your three thousand deeds are fulfilled.""

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thich Ca Mau Ni Phat

In Vietnamese, Sakyamuni Buddha - the historical Buddha - is known as Thich Ca Mau Ni Phat. He is the principle figure in most temple shrines. I often wonder about this, as most Mahayana Buddhists in Vietnam have Amitabha and Kwan Yin as the central focus of their worship. And yet Sakyamuni remains as the central figure of physical reverence and the object of chanting and repentance.
Monastics take on the name Thich as their family name once they enter the monastery - Thich being the first part of Sakyamuni's name, thus signifying their leaving their earthly families and entering the family of the Buddha.
The naive Buddhist art of Vietnam is dying out now. Once upon a time each town could boast of a small workshop that made quite primitive looking plaster statues of the Buddhas. These have almost disappeared from the shops,and people favour the more expensive, mass-produced porcelain figures manufactured in China.
Temples will also often feature a large statue of the infant Sakyamuni. More properly this figure should be called the Bodhisattva, as he was yet to achieve enlightenment, but most simply call him the Baby Buddha. This statue comes into its own during the festival of Vesak (Phat Dan), the celebration of the Buddha's birth, when it becomes a special focus of devotion.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Theravadin Monk, Dong Nai

This pic dates back to 1999, when I was in Vietnam studying the Vietnamese language at the Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University in Saigon. Back then I was really involved with the Vietnamese Theravadin community, which is reasonably small. In fact, I had taken refuge with one of Vietnam's leading Theravadin masters, and this young monk was one of his charges.
We became great friends, and used to spend a lot of time together. He was always slightly naughty, so it was no surprise when I returned to Vietnam a couple of years later to hear that he had left the monkhood in order to get married.
This photo was taken during the Kathina celebration at a forest monastery in Dong Nai, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Walter Mason at Shearer's Bookshop

Walter's talk tonight was another full house.  In fact some had to be turned away.  It was a great event, thanks to Barbara (below) and Tony at Shearer's.

Special mention to all the friends and family who came along and also the wonderful author, Stephanie Dowrick (below).

Walter Mason speaking at MCC Good Shepherd, Sunday 21st March

Walter giving a talk to MCC Church about his spiritual journey in Destination Saigon.

Author ecounter @ Lindfield Library : Walter Mason

Author Encounter at Lindfield Library with Walter Mason

When: Wednesday 24 March
Venue: Lindfield Library, 265 Pacific Highway, Lindfield
Time: 10.00am for a 10.30am start
Cost: $5.00 (includes light refreshments)
Bookings are essential and can be made at all branches of Ku-ring-gai Library, by phoning 94240 428 or emailing us at lind.library@kmc.nsw.gov.au
Books will be available for purchase and signing by the author.

About the talk

From the crazy heat and colour of Saigon to the quieter splendour of Hanoi, Walter Mason gives us a rare, joyous and at times hilarious insight into twenty-first century Vietnam. Seduced by the beauty and charm of its people, and the sensuousness of its culture, we can almost taste the little coconut cakes cooked over a fire in a smoky Can Tho kitchen, or smell the endless supplies of fresh baguettes and croissants just out of city ovens.

Travelling off the beaten track to far-flung villages and lesser-known towns, we cruise along the Mekong, board hopelessly overcrowded local buses or perch perilously on the back of motor-bikes. Behind-the-scenes visits to Buddhist monasteries reveal a quieter and more transcendent world beyond the busy day trips of tourists. And in the process we begin to see the country through the eyes of its people.
Join us as we get a taste of the real Vietnam and its people on a sometimes funny, always fascinating journey from the bustling cities to out of the way villages, into Buddhist monasteries and along the Mekong - a real delight for armchair travellers and those contemplating their own adventure.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What shoes to take to Vietnam

Sometimes I think it's the really small details, the truly mundane, that you forget to ask about before you go to visit a foreign country. You'll spend months researching the religion, the culture and the history of your intended destination, but you'll forget to find out what people eat for breakfast, or is toilet paper readily available, or can you buy Mentos at short notice. And, ironically, it is these little things that can make a real difference to how you travel and the quality of your trip.
So I see myself as something of a shoe ambassador. Shoes are an important consideration in Vietnam.
Now, it's obvious that when you go on holiday you're going to be doing a lot of walking, and so you will need a pair of shoes that will facilitate that. Most Western travellers tend to plump for desert boots or fancy lace-up sports shoes when they travel. But both of these are a disaster in Vietnam.
Because, as in most countries in Asia, the Vietnamese are sticklers for the removal of footwear, often in the most unexpected places. I mean, it's obvious that you are going to have remove your shoes when you visit a temple or sacred shrine. But do you know that if (God forbid) you have to visit the dentist in Vietnam you will be required to remove your shoes?
So those expensive walking shoes you thought were just perfect for foot slogging will soon become a curse as you find yourself hunched over for the thriteenth time that day lacing them up at some doorway or other.
When I go to Vietnam I only pack two types of footwear. Some comfortable leather casuals that slip on and off easily. Skechers or Hush Puppies are perfect, as they can be streetwear, walking shoes or going out shoes. And I also carry a pair of casual leather flip-flops for when I am hanging out - they are cool (i.e. not hot), and flip-flops are what about 95% of Vietnamese wear. If you buy nice ones, you can wear them almost everywhere. Because you almost always leave your shoes at the door, you can even team them with quite a dressy outfit.
Am I sounding like Carson Kressley?

Border's Special - Destination Saigon

Very excited to see Destination Saigon one of a group selected for Border's 3 for 2 special in March.  Destination Saigon was prominently displayed at Borders Chatswood today (top right hand side below).  Hope the other Borders have it in equally good possie.


Destination Saigon continues to surprise.  The first book, by first time author, Walter Mason is 47th in the top 200 sales charts for Independent Bookshops in Australia!  Yeah!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tiger outside Customs House

How's the Year of the Tiger going for people? I have been delighted to discover that the Customs House, right on Circular Quay, is continuing a really wonderful art installation based around the theme of the tiger. If you haven't seen it yet I would go now, as it must be finishing soon.
The Year of the Tiger is shaping up to be a terrific one for me, with "Destination Saigon" selling like crazy and roaring up the bestsellers charts (pun intended!).
I hope everyone else is experiencing a wonderful year, and I send you all my blessings.

Walter Mason, Guest Author at Sorlies Literary Lunch today

A full house turned up to see Walter Mason, author of Destination Saigon at Sorlies Literary Lunch, Glen St Theatre, Belrose.

Yummy Vietnamese themed food too!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Destination Saigon in the Shops

As a first-time author, probably one of the most thrilling events is to walk into a shop and see your book on the shelves. Oh, the heaven! I just want to shout, to grab the person next to me and say "That's by me - see, we have the same name. Do you want to see my ID?" Or I want to take a copy off the shelf and walk up to the shop assistant and say "I'm the author of this book, how's it selling?"
I don't do the latter because I was myself a bookseller for many years, and it was the kind of things authors frequently did, and it was not endearing.
So I quietly smile to myself and surreptitiously take some snaps of the happy event with my phone. It still hasn't gotten old.
Of course, I have friends in the bookselling world, and they have been so wonderful, selling my book like crazy and doing everything they can to turn it into the wild success it has become.
Over at Better Read Than Dead they have made it their book of the month, with a front window and posters, no less!
And my old friends and colleagues at Adyar have constructed a little Destination Saigon shrine. Next time I come in I'm going to offer some incense and flowers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What I Wish I knew About Love

I don't think I'm giving too much away when I tell my readers that I'm a little portly. Built for comfort, avoirdupois, solid, a big man, call it what you will, I still find it hard to buy pants.
It wasn't awlays so. And in two short weeks documentary evidence of my previously slender self will be appearing in Marty Wilson's wonderful new book What I Wish I Knew About Love.
Anyone who has read Marty's previous book What I Wish I knew at 18 will be familiar with the format. The book is filled with photos of the prominent, the talented and the otherwise interesting taken when they were 18 years of age. Next to these fascinating (and frequently embarrassing) photos is a page of reflections on what they wish they had known about life at that tender age.
Being a part of the book was a lovely process, as Marty nudged my always nostalgic mind down the pathways of love and romance, and I recalled how very tormented I was about such matters at the age of 18!
The book will be available in April, and I encourage you to rush out and get it, if only to see how very pretty Walter Mason was at that age!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

SBS Alchemy with Thara Mogwe

Interview Walter Mason about Destination Saigon

Quick grab of Walter Mason about Vietnamese cooking recipes

Way2Go Magazine: Destination Saigon Extract

Way2Go Magazine, March - April 2010 edition, extract of Destination Saigon and exclusive photos by Walter Mason

Nova Magazine: Destination Saigon Review

From Nova Magazine, March 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dan Viet Newspaper Destination Saigon Feature by Ngoc Han, 12 March 2010

The Australian, Extract of Destination Saigon

Traveller (Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) review of Destination Saigon

Destination Saigon, by Walter Mason
Allen & Unwin, $24.99
Reviewed by Bruce Elder,
Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald & The Age
Saturday, 13th March 2010

When it comes to evaluating and commenting on the nature of a soceity, there is no substitute for the thoughtful objectivity of an outsider who has fallen in love with the place.

This describes Walter Mason, an Australian who followed his Vietnamese partner, settled in Ho Chi Minh City in the mid-1990s and has since visited the country 11 times.  He understands Vietnam with a level of wry fascination and when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of the culture, he speaks the language and can ask a local exactly what is happening.

Consequently, this interesting and well written book, apart from being an engrossing narrative of life in Vietnam, is full of useful and practical insights.

For example: "If you are ever looking for a hotel in Hanoi, I recommend you check the room before you agree to the tariff.  Rooms with windows can be rare in the city, so it is easy to disappear into a black hole of a room with no circulation and ample damp, and quite possibly fall asleep for days, waiting for a dawn."

And one of my favourite insights: "for a foreigner, getting a legitimate massage in Vietnam can be quite a difficult thing and I had heard horror stories of notorious goings-on even in five-star hotel spas." Do you really want to know more?

An example of quirkiness - and this is what helps make this unusual book so engrossing - is Mason's description of a leprosarium, in Binh Dinh province, that the local tourist authority has tried to turn into a tourist attraction: "As leprosariums go it is quite nice, situated gorgeously by the ocean, replete with coffee shops and restaurants run by the lepers themselves." And then, with just the right level of eyebrow-raising, he adds: "But as a tourist attraction I think it's a abit of a tough sell."

Mason obviously loves the country and it's people.  In many ways, this is his love letter to Vietnam.  More than a guidebook, it's a story full of insights that will help visitors to understand the unique cultures of Vietnam.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Talk and Signing at MCC Good Shepherd

Walter Mason will be talking about some of the more interesting spiritual adventures behind his book Destination Saigon at:

Metropolitan Community Church of the Good Shepherd
37 East St

Time: 6.30pm

Copies of the book will be available for sale, and Walter will be signing books at the end of the service

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Nova Magazine - Destination Saigon Review


NOVA, March 2010

In Destination Saigon Walter Mason has combined his sharp eye as a foreigner with the knowledge of a local and the result is exquisite. Having visited the country nine times over the last 16 years and also fluent in the
language, Walter Mason takes the reader on a sensational journey through modern Vietnam.

Each chapter of the book is a vignette of one of his experiences and the anecdotes are very funny. Being a large man he describes how, with Vietnamese frankness, he is often addressed as "Fatty". Also, the agony when with great regularity, flimsy furniture, particularly plastic café stools, collapses under him, and the subsequent embarrassment when all the waiters in a place gather to erect a stack of stools deemed sturdy enough to take his great weight.

But there are advantages in being the "fat foreigner", one of which is that his presence is thought to be very auspicious. Not only he is considered a guest of honour at a wedding he is taken to by a junior policeman who is meant to be escorting him out of the district, but his presence is also seen by the groom as a sign that his bride will bear him many "fine fat sons".

Within the wonderful humour of Destination Saigon the realities hit home hard. Walter Mason describes how incredibly fortunate he is considered to be because of the freedom which the West offers him, not to mention his wealth. In Vietnam, he explains, the richest person always pays, and invariably coming from Australia, he is the richest person. People are working 14 hours a day seven days a week simply to survive. One Vietnamese friend tells Walter that he does not allow himself the luxury of having big dreams because he knows that in reality not much is possible.

Walter Mason describes himself as "a passionate, devotionalist, a believer in spiritual potential and a lover of most paths to the transcendent" and running through the book is a delight in the divine. He visits many Buddhist monasteries and regales the reader with many of the less than spiritual aspects of the monks' lives, as well as moments of pure devotion. He climbs up sacred mountains, discovers Vietnam's best known Catholic shrine to Our Lady, honours Kwan Yin, known in Vietnam as Quan Am, and even finds an old derelict Hindu Temple in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, which his friend, Kien, who owns a hairdressing salon, believes is dedicated to a god who is especially benevolent to hairdressers. Whenever he returns from a visit to it, business in the salon always picks up!

Between the soft chanting of ghosts, the mischievousness of fairies and a hysterical account of a night of karaoke with a group of fishermen this book is a gem.

MiNDFOOD (NZ) - Destination Saigon Review

MiNDFOOD Magazine (NZ)
March 2010

Destination Saigon
By Walter Mason
Allen & Unwin

Get a taste for the real Vietnam in this funny and fascinating travelogue.  Fluent in Vietnamese, Walter Mason provides a rare insight into Vietnam's rich history and culture.

Courier Mail, Brisbane - Destination Saigon Review

Saturday, 6th March 2010

Destination Saigon
By Walter Mason
Allen & Unwin

Off the shelf
Vietnam was about as alien a place to Walter Mason as Mars, but love prompted him to visit and after sitting in his Ho Chi Minh room crying for three days from shock, he ventured forth and found it was a country that drew him back time and time again.

From bustling restaurants to the quiet serenity of Buddhist monasteries, this is a fascinating and entertaining read about a people and a nation that never fail to leae their mark on visitors.

One thing Mason knows how to do is eat and it's his gusto for food, be it being beaten with a baquette in the back of a bus or taking a "pleasure jaunt" through an exotic Vietnamese supermarket, that is one of Destination Saigon's greatest pleasures.  It's a worthwhile buy of you're heading that way.

Herald Sun, Melbourne - Destination Saigon Review

Destination Saigon
By Walter Mason
Allen & Unwin
(Melbourne) Herald Sun, Saturday 6th March 2010

Those lucky enough to travel to beautiful Vietnam will readily relate to many of Mason's observations.  But it is his immersion into the culture, thanks to a Vietnamese partner, that provides some amusing anecdotes.  He finds himself well off the tourist track and attending various celebrations such as weddings.  Overweight, Mason is refresingly self deprecating as he relates stories of being ribbed when he goes to cafes because of his size.  He tells of one visit when a plastic chair collapsed under him.  On subsequent visits staff made much of piling plastic chairs on top of each other so they were strong enough to support him.  Some stories are funnier than others, but on the whole an entertaining insight. C. Hearney.

Verdict: colourful

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Adyar Booknews Destination Saigon Feature: March - May 2010

Thanks to Tim and the wonderful people at Adyar Bookshop, Destination Saigon is the special feature for the March - May 2010 edition.

They've done a wonderful job!  Walter will also be doing a special event with them on Thursday, 25th March.

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