Friday, June 8
My airplane landed in Ho Chi Minh City last night at 10:15. Father Quy met me at the airport, and we came straight to the monastery. Due to all the time zone changes, I barely slept.
Morning prayer and Mass started at 5:15, followed by breakfast, and then came the morning English class, which lasts from 8:00 to 10:00. Today, I was among the students. I will teach next week.
Lay Dominicans who are fond of St. Albert’s Priory in Oakland will be pleased to find similarities here at Holy Rosary. Do all monasteries have central courtyards? Perhaps it dates back to the Benedictines.
I have taken some first photos from the courtyard. There is a prominent statue of St. Dominic. Below are photos of the St. Dominic statue from the left and from the right. The third photo is of a small garden in the corner of the courtyard.
Saturday, June 9
On Saturday morning, many of us went from the House of Studies (Holy Rosary Convent) to the “Church of the Three Bells” (Church of St. Dominic), also in Ho Chi Minh City. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the ordination to the priesthood of Father Joseph Nguyễn Văn Hoà, the Provincial. The celebration began with a beautiful Mass, with a Dominican bishop and many concelebrants. There was a fine choir. At the end of the Mass, gifts were presented to several priests who were celebrating anniversaries of ordination. Then there was a party in the parish hall with a superb lunch.
Later in the day, as I was hanging laundry to dry on the flat roof of the monastery, I took a photo of flowers growing on the top of a tall tree right next to the building. These are called “peacock flowers.”
Sunday, June 10
Pardon the lack of photos for this June 10 blog entry, but be assured that other posts will contain blizzards of snapshots.
As the representative of the Western Province Lay Dominican D.E.E.P. program, I am accompanied this summer by three young friars from the U.S. Central Province, who are also teaching English here at the Dominican House of Studies in Ho Chi Minh City. They are Brothers Loren, Jordan and Isaac. Brother Loren came to the U.S. from Vietnam at the age of twelve and is bilingual. He has taught here before and exercises a leadership role among us teachers.
On Sunday, the four of us were taken to visit the House of Postulancy (seen below), also in Ho Chi Minh City, still informally known as Saigon. (This is a sprawling city. The House of Studies is in the Go Vap district. See map further below.)
The grounds are beautiful at the House of Postulancy. We were met by the Prior and the Master of Postulants, who — after a refreshing snack of fruits and tea — showed us around and introduced us to a group of young men who were engrossed in study. It took us a while to grasp that they were studying to pass an exam in order to become postulants. Once they are accepted into the postulancy, they will spend two years in this house before taking another exam to demonstrate that they are ready to enter the novitiate.
Friday, June 15
From Monday through Friday, we have English classes in the morning and in the afternoon. During this first week, I have had to familiarize myself with the strengths, weaknesses, interests and expectations of the students and then try to adjust my lessons accordingly. I have been helped in this adjustment by Brother Jordan from the Central Province, who has expertise in teaching methods.
After class on Friday morning, I have the opportunity to go with the three friars from the Central Province to visit the house of the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation here in Ho Chi Minh City. A couple of the brothers from the House of Studies also accompany us.
This particular convent was founded by sisters from the Philippines, and there are two Filipino sisters at the convent to meets us as well as about eight Vietnamese sisters in various stages of formation. (For the friars here, the road from start of postulancy to ordination easily takes 10 years. For the sisters, I suspect the formation period is considerably shorter, but I am not well oriented.)
The community is not large, nor is the convent in which they live large. We reach their convent walking down a narrow road (that I — perhaps inaccurately — would call an alley.) As we walk along this narrow road, we encounter an exquisite front gate.
We enter the convent, which is not large, but very pleasantly furnished. While lunch is being prepared, we are seated in the parlor, equipped with elegant hardwood chairs. The parlor opens up onto a veranda within a small but beautiful garden.
A most tasty lunch is followed by cordial conversation in the parlor. Though we have come empty-handed, our gracious hosts are very pleased with a short song sung by Brother Isaac, who — though he prefers the ukulele to the guitar — performs admirably.
Later, on Friday evening, I went with the friars from the House of Studies to a Dominican parish not far away to attend the Confirmation of a class of about 30 children about 12 years in age. The picture below was taken in the parking area.
During the Mass and before the Confirmation, the bishop asked the children questions from their catechism. The congregation gave the children polite, congratulatory applause for answering well. I was among those in the congregation who were most easily impressed by answers the children offered, having no idea at all what anyone was saying.
After the Confirmation and the Mass, the parish served — you guessed it — a multi-course dinner. The prudent among us paced themselves carefully. Then we returned to the convent. On Friday, if I were a little piggy, I’m afraid that I’d be the one who went to market. I slept well that night anyhow.
Saturday, June 16
Today, I had my first view of Vietnam outside of the big city. Nine of us — the four English teachers (counting me), Jean the French teacher, and four friars from the House of Studies — took a guided tour of the Mekong Delta. We drove to a travel agency here in the city, where we boarded a bus for the Mekong Delta. Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling place, and it takes time to drive out of town. The 70 km trip to the Mekong Delta took almost two hours.
This is a very standard tour, publicized on the Internet. The uncompromising adventurer may not have the patience for it, but it is an extremely practical choice for those who want to start in the morning, see something, and get back to the city by the late afternoon.
When we got off the bus, we got onto a riverboat to sail down a major branch of the river to visit Unicorn and Phoenix Islands. The tour goes to a few stops on the islands. For instance, there is a tea house with musicians playing folk music. In the photo below, the young woman is playing a one-stringed instrument. (You can’t quite see the string here. It runs the length of the instrument, down the center.) Probably the coolest part of the tour of the islands was navigating the channels amidst the lush growth. (No, it is not untouched wilderness by any stretch, just moist tropics.) Where we stopped for lunch is where you see the goofy picture of me next to a large thing hanging from a skinny tree. It is a jackfruit. Lunch was quite good and featured elephant ear fish. After lunch, why not visit the crocodiles? Kids dangle catfish on fishing poles and watch the crocodiles snatch them. I wasn’t quick enough to catch the demise of a catfish on camera. Nearby you can watch folks with baskets catching the catfish in a breeding ditch. The catfish do their best to slip away in the muddy water — and with good reason, since their next stop will be the jaws of a crocodile.
On the way back from the river, the tour bus stops at a Buddhist temple with well manicured gardens.
After the bus got back to the city, we wandered about a bit downtown, stopping finally to eat, not far from the House of Studies, at an eatery that is known for its phở.
Wednesday, June 20
Sunday after the Mekong Delta trip was the quiet day on which I caught up with my blogging. Sundays in general are very peaceful days here at Holy Rosary Convent.
Here is a photo that I took on Sunday of a (usually) quiet spot on the monastery grounds. (It is right next to the soccer court, and therefore not always very quiet.)
It may be disappointing that there are no pictures of the church. The church is undergoing reconstruction. It is not a small project and is unlikely to be finished before my July departure. In the meantime, the friars are saying Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours in the auditorium.
On Monday, it is back to class. Before the morning class, I frequently go to the computer room on the second floor to print materials. Down the hall is a common room, a pleasant place to gather in the morning for coffee or tea.
Today, Dương gave me directions to Gia Định Park, which is just a short walk from Holy Rosary Convent. It was too hot in the late morning, but after the afternoon rains, conditions were rather pleasant for walking.
Friday, June 22
The construction work on the church tends to generate a good deal of noise in the daytime hours. This week, my classes are being held right outside the convent in the school building of Holy Rosary Church.
Here is a picture of the school building and a group shot on the balcony of the second floor of the school. The old guy in the back is not a ghost. (Then again, in Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis didn’t think so either.)
Beneath that is a photo of a popular statue of Our Lady in front of the school. (No, the thing in front of the statue is not an enormous mushroom. It is a stone covered with wax from melted votive candles.)
The school building is right next to Holy Rosary Church, pictured here from the front.
Some (though not all) of you may be concerned: if I am down here in the tropics, why have I not featured more creatures? I am not encountering a lot of them here in the convent. Brother Isaac from the Central Province saw a mouse-eating spider, but it is not given to all of us to have such visions. However, I will keep my eyes open. Here is a fuzzy little fellow (about 2″ long) who was moseying along on the sidewalk in front of my room this morning.
Monday, June 25
What a treat! This weekend we went on a two-day trip to Ba Ria – Vung Tau province, east of Ho Chi Minh City. A driver with a van was hired for the occasion. Eight of us left right after lunch, and once we got out of the city, we took a scenic route through the countryside.
Our first stop was in Ba Ria at the home of Brother Anh, who has been doing pastoral work during the month of June. His family treated us to local fruit and local cashews. Anh then joined us, and we went to the Binh Chau Hot Springs, where we swam in the 37°C pools until about sundown, (which comes around 6:00 here.) The picture below, taken at the gates of the resort, features Brother Huy on the left. He will be ordained in August and expects to serve in France after his ordination.
Our next stop was the home of Brother Chuyen, also in Ba Ria. The family treated us to a true feast: prawns, followed by octopus, followed by a very savory goat and okra dish, then of course hot pot, all capped off with fresh jackfruit. After dinner, we got to meet and feed the family goats.
We then went to spend the night at the church in nearby Bông Trang, a Dominican parish. (It seems to be quite common for parishes to be entrusted to Dominicans here in Queen of Martyrs Province.) We woke up the next morning and went to Mass. There was a procession in honor of St. John the Baptist. After Mass, we had coffee in the rectory. At this time, I took a couple of quick photos, (but not inside the church, because it was busy.) Below is a photo of an outdoor shrine in honor of St. Martin de Porres and a snapshot of two handsome residents of the fishpond outside the rectory.
Next it was off to breakfast at a little restaurant in Ba Ria, where they were serving fish soup. Plus, VIP’s received a fish head, a labor intensive delicacy (especially for the chopstick-challenged.) From there, we went to the beach to swim in the ocean. Of the two photos below, one looks across Ba Ria beach to a casino in the distance, and the other shows a bit of the beach resort as seen from the water. The water was very pleasant. Stand there and get massaged by waves. And many thanks to Brother Loren for bringing sunscreen.
Don’t think for a minute that the stay at the beach was all swim and no eat. Once again, food was plentiful, and this was the stop on our trip where we lingered the longest.
Our final stop was Vũng Tàu, where we climbed the statue of Christ the King. Reminiscent of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the statue was started in 1974, finished in 1993, and stands 32 meters tall. There is a staircase inside the statue leading up to the arms, where one can stand and take in the view of the city and the surrounding sea.
Wednesday, June 27
The friars who are studying English this summer have been divided into four groups, and each week we rotate the teachers, so that each group gets a different teacher each week. In this way, they are exposed to a variety of native speaker voices. Here we have two photos from this week’s class — once again, in a classroom of the parish school — taken by the ever affable Brother Hien.
Saturday, June 30
This morning, we went to visit the provincial curia, but first we visited a coffee house operated by a niece of Father Quy, and we met Father Quy’s sister who lives in Texas but is currently visiting Vietnam with her daughter and two grandchildren.
After the coffee house, we made a short stop at another Buddhist pagoda.
From there, we went to the curia, where I had the good fortune of meeting the secretary of the Lay Dominican Provincial Council. Brother Hien came with me to act as interpreter and photographer.
And then came lunch. Below on the left, the Father Provincial is sitting to the right of Father Quy (with Brother Isaac from the Central Province on Father Quy’s left.) Below on the right — along with Brothers Loren and Hien — we see two young priests in the foreground who will soon be traveling overseas for additional study, one to the Philippines and one to France.
Sunday, July 1
Yes, we went to a wedding reception yesterday evening at a hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. It was stunningly opulent. We were all greeted by the bridal party at the front steps leading into the hotel.
This was one of the three tables of Dominicans at the banquet. All together, there were about 60 such tables in the banquet hall. I believe it was the largest private party I have ever attended.
The menu fit the venue. All told, were there seven courses? I can still pack it away, although at this hour in the evening, a bit of restraint might have served me well.
I felt compelled to take the photo below of what I believe was Course #3, a fish simmered in broth before us. I was told that this is Hong Kong-style. I think the flower emerging from his mouth is a peeled pepper. The “net” in which he is wrapped is a papaya lattice.
And now it is Sunday, a quiet day. When I am finished blogging, I will consider lesson preparation for tomorrow. It will be a new group of students for the month of July, but I will be here only for the first week.
Monday, July 2
Well, I did get out and around yesterday. In the afternoon, Brother Duy took me to a coffee house that is owned by his old friend. (They were neighbors growing up in Nghe An province.) It is a spacious, open air coffee house, with an awning to provide shade, which is crucial. His friend has a five year lease. (Duy talked to me about the cost of opening up the business. I don’t know if we were talking about a loan or an up-front payment.) I hope things go well for his friend. We came in the quiet of the mid-afternoon, but I am told that it is a busy place in the morning and in the evening. This is the sort of place where an old-timer can sit back and sip his iced coffee.
The coffee house is in a neighborhood on the other side of the Saigon River, which flows through the city. (I seem to be able to confuse myself even reading a map, but I believe Go Vap is on the west bank and that we crossed over to the east side to get to the coffee house.) Although it is not far from the mighty Mekong, the Saigon is a decent sized river in its own right, as the photo below of the bridge can attest.
On the way back, we stopped at a road-side restaurant and had a bowl of bun bo. Duy asked whether I had had bun bo before and whether I liked it more or less than pho. “How are they different?” “The flavor. Completely different.”
Know your limitations! This is something that we discovered at our house long ago. If you are looking for a reassuring compliment, ask me how I like your cooking. If you are looking for a sophisticated palate, look elsewhere. (We have a friend who says, “I think you added a dash of nutmeg, didn’t you?” I believe she has a bionic tongue.)
Tuesday, July 3
Here are photos of the brothers at the Office of Readings this morning. Most of the priests are away this week on a retreat.
Thursday, July 5
Yesterday morning, Father Quy took us to Biên Hòa, where we first visited the convent of the Dominican Sisters of the Sacred Heart and later visited the novitiate and the St. Martin de Porres shrine and retreat center.
When we arrived at the convent, we were greeted by Sister Mary, a former Mother Superior. She took us on a tour around the convent, beginning with a stop at a small museum that they have in the basement, showing the life of the community since its founding in 1958. Below, Sister is describing a miniature model of the convent, while dolls model habits worn by novices and professed sisters over the 60 years since the founding of the community.
We also visited the chapel and walked around the fairly extensive grounds. Aspiring sisters come here for formation. There is also a large conference hall as well as a nursing home for elderly sisters.
Also in Biên Hòa is the novitiate, where 13 novices are finishing their year. The novitiate is right next to the St. Martin de Porres Shrine and retreat center. Butterflies were out and about at Biên Hòa, both at the convent and at the novitiate. Unfortunately, the sun was starting to get to me at this second stop, and my photography slacked off, although a Vietnamese fig tree caught my eye. I had never before seen any kind of fig tree and was fascinated to see fruit appear to emerge from the bark of the tree.
Saturday, July 7
On Thursday evening, July 5, I went to a restaurant with Brothers Tam and Duy and Duy’s cousin Sang. The restaurant had good reviews, but they weren’t 100% sure where it was located. It turned out to be right in the neighborhood, not far from the House of Studies. It is a pleasant place on a side street, but I have forgotten the name.
After dinner, we returned to the House of Studies by means of some side alleys — about three feet wide, with sudden right hands turns. To navigate these, it is best if you know where you’re going, as Tam did.
On Friday, Father Quy took a larger group of us downtown for a gourmet lunch. We got back in time for my final class of the summer program.
This was followed by my final evening prayer with the friars, and then came packing. I had been given an extra bag to hold my loot — gifts of coffee and tea and religious articles, all tokens of appreciation for the efforts of a Lay Dominican who had not taught English in 35 years.
Early Saturday morning, it was off to the airport for the long series of flights — from Ho Chi Minh City to Tokyo, then to San Diego, then to Boise. Brothers Duy and Tam graciously accompanied me to the airport, where I had a final bowl of pho before disappearing into security clearance.