Mekong Monk, portrait of Cao Dai monk at the Ngoc Son
Quang temple in the Mekong Delta, August 30, 2008,
photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
It is only fitting that I find peace inside a temple on a canal in the Mekong Delta. We’ve gone there on a small canoe while our boat travels further up the river to pick us up later.
An old man dressed in white cotton shift and pants comes out to greet us. He talks to me as if I understand everything he says. He points to a bright blue spiral staircase opposite the temple. I nod and bow slightly, but before I head up the stairs I point to my camera and then to him to ask if I can take his picture.
Yes, yes, he nods enthusiastically. He stands very still and very erect. I snap a shot then turn the viewfinder so he can see himself. He breaks into laughter—he has exactly three teeth—and he points to the camera, looking around to find someone to show.
I noticed as we floated along the Mekong Delta, the children ran to edge of the bank and yelled, “Halo, halo!” They waved, and when I waved back they laughed and did it again. Some of the men and women would nod to acknowledge my nod to them. A sort of “Hello.” We passed so close that I could see their faces, the checked shirts and blue pants that hung from lines on the decks of their boats, their bare feet. I saw them washing or working or lying in hammocks.
But a few of the men we passed didn’t nod back. They kept their mouths shut in a tight line. One man took a stick and banged it on a steel barrel. Another man threw broken bits of brick onto the corrugated tin roof of his boathouse.
I wonder if these men assumed I was American or whether they dislike all foreigners. I don’t blame them in either case. This is the place where American soldiers came and fought, and before that there were others who laid claim to the country.
Tourism is a conquest of a different kind. I feel guilty floating by on a small yet clearly luxurious cruise boat.
The old monk at the Ngoc Son Quang temple points to the frogs jumping on the concrete floor three levels down. He talks excitedly, motioning with his arms. The guide says that when it rains the small channels will fill with water and the frogs will make baby fish. I smile and nod. “Frogs bring good luck,” I say, although no one translates my words.
We climb down the stairs and there on the ground level are a whole host of monks and nuns. The old man grabs me by the arm and leads me to a younger monk who has sad blue eyes and a beautiful face. Again much talking and pointing, and the guide tells me the old monk wants me to take a picture of him and the younger man together. “Yes,” I tell them.
The sun will soon set somewhere behind the clouds and the light is quickly draining from the day. I motion for the old man to move in closer to the younger one. He moves in a couple of inches. “More,” I say. Two more tiny steps. I snap the shot, turn the camera so they both can see themselves. “A-ha-ha-ha-ha!” The old monk laughs and laughs.
They take us inside and soon I am being asked to take a picture of this thing and that thing. They ask me if I like the color. They explain that the women pray on one side and the men on the other. They are generous and eager to share. A neighbor, who has specifically asked to have his picture taken with the Divine Eye tells the guide that he wishes to buy me a drink. We politely decline. We must return to our canoe; the cruise boat is waiting for us.
As the monks walk us to the gate they tell us that in November of every year there is a special ceremony to pray for peace throughout the world. Thousands of people come to the temple.
“Maybe I’ll come back then,” I say. I bow slightly to thank them. They nod to me, “Yes, yes.”