Greetings from Vietnam!
Happy New Year 2013!
Dear Shambhala friends:
Greetings from Vietnam! I have been here in Danang for two months now, as the director of a new US program to help people with disabilities. We’re one of 2 projects USAID is funding in central Vietnam related to the legacy of the Vietnam War. One is digging up the soil from a football-field-sized piece of real estate near the Danang airport and “baking” it to 300 degrees centigrade to get rid of the dioxin left there from an Agent Orange dump site. Agent Orange was the defoliant sprayed on vast swaths of the country by the US during the war to reveal enemy troop movements. The other, my project, will support rehabilitation, education, and employment services for people with disabilities.
Take a look at Danang on a Google map. It’s a unique spot, bisected by the Han River flowing into a huge bay with China Beach stretching to the south, so there’s water everywhere, with mountains in the background. Very beautiful. And unlike the sleepy backwater I remember from when I was working in Vietnam 10 years ago, Danang has boomed in the years since. Besides the beaches, it’s the gateway to 3 UNESCO Heritage sites within a few hours (Hoi An, Hue, and My Son, all quite fantastic in case you are inclined to visit). So lots of development–new beach resorts on the coast, and bridges, neon lights, and high rise office and apartment buildings along the river where I am living.
It would be an understatement to say that it didn’t seem like Christmas this past week. There were certainly some Christmas trappings. While Vietnam is predominantly Buddhist, Danang has historically had a sizable Catholic population and there is a beautiful small pink Cathedral from the French days that I can see from my apartment. I walked over on Christmas Eve, but the place was too jammed to get into the midnight mass. A more curious Christmas theme has been Vietnam’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of Vietnam’s victory over the U.S. Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. It’s been a really big deal here, with lots of news stories, museum exhibitions, and interviews with aged Vietnamese vets who were manning the anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles. I had recollections of this happening, but they were pretty vague. It’s quite a fascinating story. (In case you have any interest in details you can look up “Operation Linebacker II” on Wikipedia). There were virtually hundreds of B-52s and fighters involved flying out of Thailand and Guam for 11 days, hitting pretty much every strategic target in North Vietnam, trying to bring the Vietnamese back to the negotiating table in Paris. Both sides declared victory. Vietnam claimed to have shot down 34 B-52s…….the Americans say about half that many…….but that’s still a lot. And Vietnam is celebrating it this year as the Dien Bien Phu (where they defeated the French) of the American air war.
I spent Christmas day visiting one of the many pagodas in Danang. This one is special. It’s on the side of the peninsula overlooking China Beach from the north, and is visible everywhere because of a towering 200 foot tall marble statue of Kwan Yen, the female incarnation of the Boddhisattva of Compassion. Kwan Yen seems to be the favorite Buddhist figure down here, perhaps because she is also known as the guardian of sailors and fishermen. The statue is quite stupendous as you can see from the attached picture and the spacious grounds surrounding it lovely and quiet with panoramic views to the south.
I’ve been hoping to find some kind of community to sit with, but am not too optimistic about that. There’s a strong Zen tradition in Vietnam and a few sizable monasteries that I hope to visit. And while there were some vajrayana influences at various times in Vietnam’s history, not much in evidence now that I have been able to find. So for the time being I guess I’ll just keep visiting pagodas and sitting by myself. My family hasn’t joined me here yet, so it is kind of lonely. But I’m finding that meditation and Shambhala training are helping “inoculate” me against loneliness and culture shock. The words of Judith Simmer-Brown, at one of the programs she gave at our Center, keep coming back to me. There’s a big difference, she said, in feeling alone and feeling the despair of loneliness. I can’t yet even begin a conversation in Vietnamese yet, but I encounter nice people everywhere and have warm encounters with them. Everyone is friendly and respectful, even the kids, and returns a warm smile. I would say that being here made me feel more alone in the world but not lonely. Ask me in a few months! Here’s my email address in case you’d like to say hello: email@example.com.
by Mark Rasmuson