- The main building of Nghiem’s pagoda.
- A Buddhist monk stirs a bean sauce that has to sit out in the sun for a long time. I loved the colors of the monastery in the background.
- Po Klong Garai from the bottom of the hill.
- Various views from around the temple grounds and inside some of the towers.
- The view from the room that Nghiem and I sleep in at his parents home.
- Fish Sauce finds some love in the middle of stuffing tea bags.
Well I can cross drinking tea with a Buddhist monk off my bucket list! Life moves slower in Phan Rang but that does not mean that I have not been busy seeing things or meeting new people. Yesterday, I mostly sat at the cafe next door (ordering my coffee in Vietnamese!) and helped the girls with their tea assembly line, while today Nghiem took me to visit the local Buddhist pagoda and the nearby ancient Cham temple.
During my time at the cafe I was reading Mr. Vodvarka’s book on Sensory Design, enjoying the shade on a 90 degree day when the man next door noticed me and started waving. I didn’t take this as particularly unusual because a lot of people tend to stare or say and do odd things when they see me. A six-foot tall, blonde and bearded Norwegian man attempting to sit on what we would think of as a children’s plastic stool is odd outside of Saigon I guess. But the man came up to the table and to my surprise started speaking English.
He asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Vietnam and what I was studying. After answering the questions to his satisfaction he stated, “You must talk to my son!” He then returned with a boy who looked rather young to me but was actually a junior in high school. Ang, which is his name, I found to be a very bright student at an honor’s school in Ho Chi Minh City. I proceeded to talk to him about college and what he wants to do after he graduates, with his father chirping in occasionally about how important it was that his son is exposed to foreigners. Ang wants to either go into medecine or information technology and would like to go to MIT or a school in Singapore.
After a while I excused myself and headed back into Nghiem’s home to find the tea factory back in full throttle. All the girls were in the kitchen stuffing tea leaves into bags, weighing the bags, sealing them shut, putting the smaller bags into larger ones and then stapling those closed. After watching for a while they asked me, “You try?” and so I attempted to be of use for a couple hours. At first my large, sweaty hands were not helping me set the smaller tea bags into the larger packaging. What Nghiem’s sister could do in a few swift moves took me a good minute of shuffling, scooting, and shaking and my stacks never looked as nice as hers.
Today, was much more active. Nghiem and I took off right away. I donned my trusty pink and floral motorbike helmet (which the girls find hilarious) and we were off to breakfast at a small road-side restaurant to eat noodle soup and the best spring rolls I have ever had. Then we visited the town pagoda, which is a beautiful two story building just off of a major street. The grounds of the pagoda were incredibly quiet and I loved sitting in the breezy and open hallways of the main building.
We first went up to the second floor to pray to the large Buddha who is housed there. He sits in a giant glass carriage with offerings in front of him and smaller buddhavistas, like the one in Nghiem’s house, surrounding him. On the ceiling above him is a lotus flower and behind his head is a halo of LED lights, which I have found to be very common in Vietnamese altars. The entire room is very bright and open. The sunlight and wind easily move through the space but no matter how hot it was outside the room seemed cool.
Praying to the Buddha consists of taking an incense from the right of his altar and lighting it. Next, you stand in front of him and bow three times with the incense between your two hands. Then, you silently say your prayer (which can be anything according to Nghiem), bow three more times and place the incense in front of the Buddha. As you place the incense, a monk strikes a gong three times. This last part surprised me. Being used to a quiet and personal Lutheran type of worship, it was interesting to have prayer be a process that involved other people and such a large instrument.
When we came downstairs we found the head Buddhist monk, a type of mother superior figure for this monastery was all women, was waiting for us. Nghiem knew her and she seemed very happy to see him. She invited us for tea, wished us good luck and then told us we should stay for lunch, which we did. We ate lunch with an incredibly nice couple who was visiting the pagoda while they were in town. They asked me a lot of questions through Nghiem and served me as if I was a guest at their own home. It was a great honor to be treated so well and hospitably.
After lunch we headed home for a small siesta, a common thing in Vietnam, and then went out again later to the temple. When Nghiem first said temple I thought he meant another place of worship. I found it odd to go to two different churches in the same day but was down for anything. When we got to the temple I realized that he was really taking me to some ancient ruins. As we approached on the motorbike I was amazed. Po Klong Garai, as I later found out it is called, sits on top of a hill and is a huge three story temple complex of red brick. It looks just like the type of place that Indiana Jones would find hidden in the jungle.
I was almost giddy as we got off the bike. Nghiem was upset that the large complex of gift stores were closed, but I was ecstatic just being there. Ten-year-old Travis was coming out and I couldn’t wait to explore. After climbing about five minutes of stairs we got to the complex which consisted of three towers and an open plaza. Nghiem explained that the three towers were called the “Gate Tower”, “Fire Tower” and “Main Tower” and that for the Cham people who built the temple it was very important to walk through them in the right order. Each tower consisted of one room with a ceiling rose in an exact inverse of the pyramid-like roofs on the outside.
Through talking to Nghiem I also found out that “ruins” is not really the correct word either because the Cham people who still live in Viet Nam gather at these sites for holy holidays every year. They have there own new year in late September and worship their ancestors much like the Vietnamese do. At Po Klong Garai there was even a maintained altar in the main tower with prayer incense and offerings that people had left. According to the sign at the base of the hill, this site was built for a beloved king who helped the people through a lot of public works. Due to the civil engineering theme of the place, I decided to take an incense and pray for St. Paul/Minneapolis and Chicago and their future success.
Nghiem and I walked around the temple grounds for a while talking about high school and our friends. I didn’t want to leave such an amazing place so we ended up staying for a good two hours, well after the sun set and it started getting cold. We then went home and I spent the rest of the night researching about Buddhism and Hinduism (which the Chams practice along with Islam).
There is so much to learn about and see and do! I feel like I could be here for years and still not get it all. Just the Wikipedia articles on Hinduism are dizzying. Nghiem is trying his best to explain it all but it’s hard to answer questions for things that are just done a certain way and always have been. (Someone in the future ask me how the Vietnamese feel about odd and even numbers.) It’s exciting to learn all of this first hand but I also think I’m getting ready to dive into some textbooks and do some old school learning about my new home as well.