Saturday, July 17, 2010


Across Asia karaoke is ubiquitous. Vietnam is not immune to the great attractions of communal singing, and those who have read Destination Saigon will know that I too have been known to succumb to its lure.
Back in my undergrad days, while doing Asian studies, I actually spent quite a bit of time looking at the academic study of karaoke (confined, for the most part, to Japan and Korea), and so I find it not only socially attractive, but intellectually fascinating.
This is a pic of my good friend Thien, who is in fact an industry insider. He is head waiter at a karaoke palace in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City, and was always packed full of good karaoke gossip whenever we met. The things that go on in karaoke bars in Vietnam would make your hair curl.
He would also book a room for us on a slow afternoon and invite the entire waiting staff to join us for an afternoon's revel (beer paid for by me, naturally).
My advice to anyone planning to spend any time in Asia is to work out a karaoke repertoire now - you will almost certainly be called upon to sing in public. Best to be prepared.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Di Da Phat

The name you will hear most consistently if you spend any time in Vietnamese Buddhist temples is that of Amitabha Buddha - or A Di Da Phat in Vietnamese.
The vast bulk of Vietnamese Buddhists practise a basic form of Pure Land Buddhism, and for the most part the monks advocate recitation of Amitabha's name as the most effective form of religious practice for lay-people. This is what all of those wrist malas and long prayer beads are for.
Within the temple, Amitabha's name is also a kind of shorthand replacement for everything. When you say hello, you say A Di Da Phat, when you say goodbye, when you want to attract someone's attention and when you express surprise. Once I was at temple when one of the large vases that are found in the main prayer hall tumbled over and smashed, and a number of monks looked up and exclaimed, as one, A Di Da Phat!
The true form of Buddha recitation is, of course, Nam Mo A Di Da Phat. This is enunciated clearly during communal temple worship, but at other times it is shortened to Mo Phat, and this is in fact the standard greeting amongst Buddhists, both monastics and laity.
Despite his name being constantly on everyone's lips, statues of Amitabha Buddha are not normally very prominent at temples. It is rare to have him as the main object of devotion in the prayer hall, and he is rarely seen on other shrines. Normally there is a printed image of him on the wall in the monks' offices, or a small statue on a shelf somewhere. People seem to set much greater store on statues of Kwan Yin and Sakyamuni Buddha.
One place where an image of Amitabha does become important is at people's death beds, which is why monks always have a small-ish statue of him to hand to take to hospitals and houses of the faithful, should the need arise. It is thought that if the dying person lays eyes upon an image of Amitabha, they will be reborn in his paradise.
The image with this post is from a very unusual Amitabha tower at Hien Nam Pagoda in Quy Nhon. This is the only construction of its kind I have seen in Vietnam, an 8-storied pagoda with large statues of Amitabha looking out over the four directions on each storey. It is quite beautiful, and was designed by the Abbott himself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Red River

Strange to be reviewing a Chinese film here?
Not when it's a fascinating - and exceedingly quirky - movie about illegal Vietnamese workers in a Chinese border town. I found Red River quite an insightful, though naturally melodramatic, look at the fascinating dynamics at work in these border areas.
Set in 1997, it is the story of a mentally disabled Vietnamese girl who is smuggled into China by her aunt and set to work at a massage parlour. Tao is an eternal innocent, and is protected by her aunt by being put to work as a cleaner. Nonetheless, she captures the eye of local Vietnamese crime boss Sha Ba.
The movie shies away from any commentary on the sex industry, though Tao, the innocent young Vietnamese girl, is bought and sold several times by improbably respectful men. These elisions aside, it is a fascinating commentary on the experiences of poor rural Vietnamese girls and the struggles they face. The film's setting in 1997 is exactly right, as rural poverty in Vietnam was then still quite stark, and China was only just beginning to prosper.
The film's blurb attempts to cast it as some kind of post-colonial love story, but ironically it is much more a commentary on China's neo-colonialism, and the difficult financial realities that confront women across South-East Asia.
It is silly in parts, but also frequently touching, and ultimately quite complex - and hence realistic. Well worth watching, though it is no masterpiece. And why on earth couldn't they find a Vietnamese actress to play the lead role?

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