Of Dragons, Ancestors and Birds

HCMC is laid out with some large, and often tree-lined, streets dating back to the French colonial period. Behind these boulevards there is a maze of alleys and passages easy to get lost in. It is here that the city’s life can be best seen.

In the morning I decided to visit the Cholon district which used to contain the old Chinese quarter. Relationships between Vietnam and China have not had a smooth path, deteriorating in outright war in 1979 when many Chinese fled from the city. However, Sino-Vietnamese relations are OK now and China has even started relocating some of its factories in Vietnam because of cheaper labour costs.

There is more to this, however. The Vietnamese people have something which is in short supply in the modern Chinese economy and that is innovative creativity and not just imitative slavishness.

This is seen particularly in the pagodas, or temples. I spent the day exploring the world of Vietnamese beliefs.

Vietnam is a plethora of different religions, each living in harmony with the other and often syncretizing with each other. The earliest established religions in Vietnam were Mahayana BuddhismConfucianism, and Taoism (called the three teachings or tam giáo). Furthermore, most of the Vietnamese practice their own native religions worshipping spirits, gods and mother goddesses. Like Mongolian Buddhism (which I was able to witness in 2008 during my visit there) these religions have experienced significant revivals in recent times as the old communist past has loosened up.

Buddhism remains the second-largest religion followed by Roman Catholicism. There are also small numbers of Hindus, Mohammedans and Protestants.

But officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam remains an atheist state…

I visited two temples or pagodas in the morning: the first one was particularly conducive to meditation and free of any sightseers (except me!) It was quite touching to see how devotees approached their deities and ancestors with an absolute pure heart. In the midst of the city chaos there was this quintessential oasis of calm and reflection.

The temple or pagoda is dedicated to the goddess of the sea, Thien Hau, Ha Chuong Pagoda and along with the Thien Hau Pagoda and Quan Am Pagoda, worshippers specially here come to give offerings to Thien Hau who is also known as the “Lady of the Sea”. I was reminded of another attribute of the Virgin Mary as protectress of the seas and of the ceremony we saw at Tarquinia Lido last summer when the statue of the Virgin was brought out onto a boat and sailed around the bay

Here are some photos of the temples I saw in the morning. I also got the chance to buy a captive bird and set it free a la Saint Francis. Some other worshippers had bought an entire cage! Does the escape from prison of the little swallows mean something similar to the setting free of the soul from the cares of this world?

In the afternoon we met up with a very knowledgeable Italian friend married to a Vietnamese lady and who has been dealing with antiques for many years.

First we passed by another popular religion in Vietnam, Roman Catholicism, with a sweet church painted in what my friend termed condom-pink. The colour was, indeed, a bit overdone. The interior had some lovely stained glass and it was good to be reminded of the prevailing religion of the country I had left to come here.

It was touching to remember that my artist neighbour and friend, Giberto Malerbi who, all those thousands of miles away in the little appennine village of Longoio, was looking after my cats and ducks, had sculpted his beautiful Vietnamese Madonna:


P. then took me to see a superb temple with a particular Taoist emphasis. Taoism wasn’t too popular among the Chinese in particular as it went against the hierarchical precepts of the state religion.

In the centre of this pagoda are four ornately designed pillars decorated with dragons which are unique as they were carved in China, and then brought to the temple by boat.

This pagoda was rather crowded with devotees as it was a special festival day. Among the following photos you can see the amazing turtle pond, the worship of the ancestors, the horse god (now it’s the year of the horse!) whose bell one rings, a beautiful bodhi tree of Buddhist enlightenment, wonderful examples of old Vietnamese script (they too used ideograms, like the Chinese, before the French introduced the western alphabet), the writers of horoscopes and ancient carvings of the various torments one is likely to receive if one lands up in Hell.

It was all quite overwhelming and all quite wonderful.

After this most splendid of temples I went to attend a show at the water puppet theatre which is located in the building once housing the old French colonial club and recreational center (notice the game of Petanque).

Water puppetry (in Vietnamese “puppets that dance on water”) dates back as far as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam – indeed, the company in HCMC actually comes from Hanoi – and is one of the most original variations on the ancient Asian puppet tradition which stretches from the far north of China down to the shadow puppet theatre of Java..

The puppets are made from wood which is then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool with a long large rod supporting the puppet under the water used by the puppeteers, who are hidden behind a screen, to control them.

The effect is quite enchanting. The puppets seem to be moving over, under and along the water with a life of their own. Evidently, this entrancing art originated in the rice fields which were used, when flooded by the villagers, to entertain each other.

The stories of the puppet plays deal mainly with everyday village life and also include folk tales which grandparents tell their grandchildren about the harvest, fishing and festivals.

Legends, myths and national history are also narrated and there are a lot of humorous stories too which come through directly even if one is not fluent in Vietnamese – so vivid is the presentation of the puppeteers and the wonderful orchestra playing on traditional instruments.

In the space of little under an hour I saw dragons, giant and small fish, water buffaloes, water nymphs, ducks of all varieties, princes and peasants. It was all very charming and very skillfully done – truly appealing to all ages and with an utterly captivating naivety. I was remind of all those years past when I first saw water puppetry in Greenwich park and felt quite privileged to see it again, this time in the country which has originated the unique form of puppetry.

Here are a couple of snippets of the show I saw that evening.

The dance of the sacred water nymphs:

and the grand finale complete with fireworks and a lot of splashing…

After the show I had a beer by the pool which once served the French ruling classes during the colonial period and thought about their elegant but arrogant life-style here.



One thought on “Of Dragons, Ancestors and Birds

  1. Wonderful wonderful wonderful I do hope to visit soon when you revisit the area and you can then show me around those enchanting places- Well I remember the visit of the puppets in and in fact we have an musical instrument the frog with stick that you use to scratch the jagged back of the frog and which then emits a frog sounding noise! Seems to me a most relaxing morning well spent visiting temples and churches good for the soul!

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