Monday, November 22, 2010

Destination Saigon on the Beach

Summer approaches, gentle readers, and what better entertainment to take to the beach than a copy of Destination Saigon, available at all good bookstores.
My friend Leonard was convalescing recently, and he found the healing process was speeded up significantly by a constant perusal of Destination Saigon.
This wonderful photo proves it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Inner West Courier: Newtown Festival

Chance to hear writers speak volumes at Newtown Festival
Inner West Courier, 11th November 2010

STORIES from across the globe are being shared at the Newtown Festival’s Writers’ Tent this Sunday.

Presented by Newtown book store Better Read Than Dead, speakers will be discussing fiction, crime, social responsibilities, the world and politics.

Organiser Derek Dryden said they’re back for the seventh year as it’s the shop’s literary gift to the readers of Newtown.

“There’s authors to make you think, authors who will amuse you and plenty of authors who will simply entertain, but most of all it’s fun,” he said.

“It’s not the Miles Franklin or the Premier’s Literary Awards, it’s a group of authors having a fun day out at a great festival.”

Cabramatta travel writer Walter Mason will be in conversation with his publisher Maggie Hamilton at the tent about his latest book Destination Saigon.

“It’s very prestigious and it’s a tremendous privilege (to be part of the festival) as an author as Newtown is my readership,” he said.

Mason spent four months travelling from the south to the north of Vietnam to see the countryside, discover religions, and experience the culture and humanity of the people.

“I fell in love with it the first time I went there in ‘94 and have been back 11 times in 16 years,” he said.

Mason said the book is about friendships more than travelling and the experience of the people.

He said one of his favourite experiences was visiting a friend, who is a monk, who took him to stay at a temple on an ocean cliff. “Every night, with his fisherman friends, they would say a prayer for me and the people of Australia,” he said.

“I thought that was such an amazing gesture because they didn’t know me, they didn’t have too, but I felt so included.”

Mason will not only speaking about Destination Saigon, but will also be speaking about the writing process for all budding authors in the audience.

Mason said he’s looking forward to seeing the two speakers he has been placed between, Geesche Jacobsen speaking about crime and political commentator Annabel Crabb.

Mason will fly to Cambodia in a couple of weeks to start a new adventure and write his second travel book.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vietnamese Kitsch: Lacquered Religious Pictures

When I first visited Vietnam in the mid 90s, lacquerware was just about the only handicraft item available. It was sold everywhere and lacquer factories were ubiquitous. These were Dickensian institutions, with small, thin boys, their hands and arms blackened with lacquer, toiling away in hot warehouses with sad faces. It was an old-fashioned, labour-intensive process.
Ten years later Vietnamese lacquerware became ubiquitous - not the traditional black stuff with inlaid gold and mother-of-pearl in traditional designs, but groovy rice bowls, trays and jewellery boxes. You could buy them anywhere, from Newtown to Nanjing. Indeed, even now when you go shopping for handicrafts in China a great many of the items available come from Vietnam.
Last time I was in Vietnam, however, lacquer seemed to be distinctly out of fashion. The brighly coloured, more modern items were still in evidence,but the traditional boxes and paintings had almost entirely disappeared.
What had cropped up instead were lacquered religious pictures, available very cheaply at temple and church gift shops. I bought this wonderful image of Di Lac Phat (Maitreya Buddha) at Phap Hoa Temple, and I used to hang it in my office. My friends at work called it "The Gay Buddha" - and I can kind of see what they meant.
I am a sucker for this kind of thing - I love religious imagery at the best of times - the more gaudy, the better.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nuns Chopping Firewood, Ho Chi Minh City

I found this beautiful old photo that I took back in 1996.
I don't remember where this particular nunnery was, but it was somewhere in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City. It was in a side street, and by chance I was riding past in a cyclo and I got the driver to stop so I could check out the temple. When I peered in through the closed gate I saw the nuns hard at work chopping firewood. One of them let me in to the courtyard, and they all giggled as I photographed them at their hard, hot work. One of the sisters put on a proper outer robe and took me into the prayer hall so I could pay my respects to the Buddha.
In Destination Saigon I write about this industriousness much in evidence in nunneries in Vietnam. Traditionally, women's communities have attracted less lay support than men's, and so the nuns have always relied on some form of industry to keep their temples going. The chopping and selling of firewood is quite unusual work - though I do know of a men's community in Phu Nhuan who have a full-scale lumberyard in operation! Nunneries more typically manufacture incense, produce vegetarian delicacies for re-sale, make rosaries, sew religious clothing, produce and copy Buddhist CDs and DVDs and operate vegetarian restaurants. Ironically, this has seen women's communities grow prosperous, particularly in the bigger cities.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong - Hue

One of my favourite places in Hue is the sleepy and little-visited monastery in the Old City called Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong.

It is situated on an island, and legend has it that this was once the site of the emperor's library. I'm not sure how it came to be held by the Tang Gia Khat Si, the indigenous mendicant Buddhist order, but they still have it, and the only way to get to it is via a long, narrow cement bridge over a lake. The monastery sits all on its own on the little island in the middle, quite decrepit and rarely attended.

It's a glorious little piece of old Vietnam.
I have something of an histoire with the temple. Back in 1996 I was a devout young Buddhist travelling Vietnam in the company of an eccentric Australian-Vietnamese monk who had recently ordained in the order. You must understand that the Khat Si, the indigenous Buddhist order, is still very much a religious minority in Vietnam, and is looked down upon by those who are part of the more established Mahayana mainstream. The little monastery in Hue represented at that time the order's northernmost outpost, and I'm sorry to report it wasn't doing well. It was run by an exceedingly curmudgeonly old monk who terrorised the younger monks, the temple staff and any lay-person brave enough to visit.
I had been instructed to go to the temple and stay for a while, and as soon as I arrived the old monk turned me into his personal ATM and part-time slave. I had to take him to the dentist (and pay for it), go shopping at the market for better quality food than they were used to (the temple was terribly poor), hang around all day for prayer sessions (which were often cancelled because they were all so lazy), and fend off the troops of beggars who would come scooting over the footbridge when they heard there was a foreigner there.
On days when the old monk's teeth were hurting (and he did suffer terribly, the poor old fellow) a big roll of razor wire would be tossed across the footbridge and nobody would be allowed in or out. We would skulk quietly around the damp, filthy temple and wait for the mealtimes. The temple employed a single servant, a rough-voiced, sullen midget whose gender was completely impossible to guess. After a couple of weeks I still had no idea. This poor person was screamed at, berated and occasionally hit by the old monk in his fury at various incomprehensible offences.
Apart from beggars, no-one at all came for prayer services. The good Buddhists of Hue were largely orthodox in their observance, and had no interest in the strange little cult occupying such a picturesque location. Oddly, an order of nuns belonging to the same sect lived a block away, and the good sisters kept a ship-shape temple. They made incense which they sold all over the country, and their prayer hall was gleaming and constantly being renovated and enlarged. Ours was literally rotting away, and parts were quite dangerous. The monks refused to engage in any type of commerce because the strict rules of the Order forbade it. So they festered in the most miserable poverty, relying on the kindness of the nuns who would advance them money occasionally.
When I was last in Hue I visited the Tinh Xa once again, and was surprised to see that a number of changes had been made. The place was looking positively respectable. The old footbridge had been replaced with a much wider and sturdier model.

The buildings had all been re-rendered and freshly painted.

Still, the whole place was locked up, and the only monk I saw was someone I didn't recognise.
I thought of dropping by the monks' quarters and asking after the old man, but I was with friends, and they were spooked by the place. "Why on earth would you want to come visiting a damp old dump like this?" asked my Vietnamese friend, clearly unimpressed by the romantic surroundings.
The prayer hall was locked, so I stood outside and peered in at the statue of the Patriarch and said a quick, perfunctory prayer. I remembered the old monk's teeth, the poor midget who cooked the dreadful meals, and the lines of sad beggars and neer-do-wells who would visit me day after day with their sad stories.
I blessed them all, and I went back to my hotel.


Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong
Le Van Huu St
Old City, Hue, Vietnam

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Inspired Living stand at the Sydney Mind Body Spirit Festival

A lot of people don't realise that Destination Saigon comes out under the Inspired Living imprint at Allen & Unwin.
Inspired Living is the MBS imprint that is the brainchild of my publisher and friend Maggie Hamilton - a wonderful woman and successful author in her own right.
This year Inspired Living has its own stand at the Sydney Mind Body Spirit Festival, and I was their first author of the rank, manning the stall, handing out pamphlets, signing books and providing a splash of D-List celebrity. I'm so proud to be associated with such a remarkable list of Australian authors, all of them inspiring people doing amazing work.

The Allen and Unwin team manning the stall.

Maggie Hamilton and I.
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