Nov 12-15, 2014
Counsel with the Wise Old Man of Bao Loc - Nguyen Duc Son
GPS waypoint: 11°33'03.0"N 107°48'31.6"E
Location: Bao Loc City, Lam Dong Province, Central Highlands, Vietnam
Bao Loc was completely unplanned. When Tuyen took me to Cafe V to meet her couple friends, Mi and Son, both Vipassana meditators, the conversation turned to the old wise man of Bao Loc - Nguyen Duc Son, who they fondly call Son Nui. They invited us to come along. The following day, we were already on the sleeping bus en route to Bao Loc, roughly 6 hours north of Saigon. This would be the start of a series of unplanned travels that took Tuyen and I to the rest of Vietnam.
I was surprised when I arrived at Bao Loc. This was the first Vietnam city I've been to after Saigon. I was still under the impression that all of Vietnam was bombed out of the map by the Americans (even though the war ended 40 years ago). Bao Loc is a never-heard destination in Vietnam. From Saigon, tourists only pass through Bao Loc on their way north to Dalat or Hanoi. But Bao Loc is ideal for many reasons - the climate is cool almost all year round - it doesn't get too cold like Dalat, and it doesn't get too warm like Saigon. It wasn't too progressive but it wasn't sleepy either. It seemed to find that right balance between a working city and a place of quiet retrospection. With its placid lakes and unhurried pace, it's a place you want to get to know better. The energy felt assuring and calm. I was told that Vietnamese people who seek to meditate find refuge in Bao Loc. It is clean, orderly, spacious and uncluttered. The soil is fertile. Coffee and tea grow in abundance. A beautiful place like this that's not visited by tourists? I would get my answer upon arriving Da Lat (in a future blog).
Nguyen Duc Son
At 78 years old, Son Nui (as friends call him), is secluded in his forest hamlet where he remained for the last 40 years. He is heralded as one of the three great minds of Vietnam - celebrated poet, an eccentric, a recluse, an anti-war activist, a philosopher, intellectual provocateur, social commentator, political analyst, author, environmentalist and sadly, perhaps the last of his kind.
He goes by many labels to his detractors - vulgar and rude, because he speaks his mind, calling a spade, a spade, without mincing words nor apologizing for it. He can care less about being politically-correct.
Son Nui commands the elegant use of the Vietnamese language in a way a true poet can articulate root causes of what lies at the apparent level. With his sharp mind, he enjoys a witty play of words to convey his ideas in a unique fashion. His poems are not for this generation alone, but for all generations that are yet to be born.
Last of his Kind
There used to be a lot of intellectuals, philosophers and poets in Vietnam. But they seem to be a dying breed. Many of his contemporaries have left Vietnam or have passed on. Some who chose to remain have chosen menial jobs (repairing shoes in the public market!). Many things from the past will forever be lost. Perhaps the next of his kind will not happen until the next 500 years. I would often say that the next magnificent life I have yet to meet lies just around the bend. I chose the right bend, this time around.
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- Vietnamese smokers will smoke in air-conditioned establishments, air-conditioned buses packed with people including women, children and babies. They also smoke inside hospitals with no smoking signs.
- Vietnam ranks almost the same as Thailand and Cambodia for cheap price. Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia cost more
- internet speed is generally fast and reliable but during important events like Tet holiday, election, etc., it slows down
- Vietnamese generally do not speak or understand much English. It will be a challenge.
- only Vietnamese Dong is accepted as legal tender (change your dollars into Dong)
- best to dress appropriately, not revealing too much skin (Saigon is an exception - the ladies there set the trend in very short shorts)
- remove your shoes when entering a home or place of worship
- ask first before taking someone's picture. If they say no, don't persist or offer money
- best to carry your hotel's business card with you when going out. You can just show it to the cab driver or XeOm driver if they don't understand English
- leave your valuables, passport, travel tickets, etc. with the hotel's safety deposit box
- when lying down, don't point your feet or the soles of your shoes to anyone or to a family altar
- carry only enough cash for your needs that day
- don't lose your temper in public - Vietnamese people are warm, generous and polite. They look down on people who lose their composure
- don't take pictures of military installations
- refrain from taking videos of minority people until permitted to do so
»» next story: Exploring Da Lat, Vietnam
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