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  • Editor's Note: The following was written by Larry Fisk in June of 2009. This was originally posted as part of a blog/essay series on, maintained by myself. The site has long since been down, and since Larry's passing in 2011 I have been looking for a new venue for his writings about his time in Vietnam. Cowbird seems like a natural place for it. This was his first entry.

    Adam Tran’s cousin Ngoc practices dentistry in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and serves three clinics in which she provides free service to the poorer members of Vietnamese society. On a visit last week I complained of a tooth which bugs me by collecting its inordinate share of stringy substances, be they vegetable, meat or fish bones. This was a family gathering but within moments I was ushered upstairs while a masked and fully prepared professional was ready to examine my teeth. Forty-five minutes later she had replaced a cracked filling, filled a gap on a receding gum and cleaned the plaque and done a bit of polishing. All this effort was accomplished without the assistance of a dental assistant or technician, without freezing (and for me largely without pain) for the special family rate of 250,000 dong or $16.00 Canadian. I was back drinking tea and eating sweets within moments.

    A couple of days later I received a visit from Diep, 29 year old mother of two, who makes her living as a seamstress/tailor and rice farmer. For a mere 150,000 dong (about $9.50 Canadian each) she had fitted me exactly with two pairs of lovely dress pants. She also successfully copied a Tibetan collarless wrap-around shirt that she had never worked on before and it too fit almost unerringly. Even with the work of designing something for the first time the final cost to me will be something like $15.00. She is making a second shirt, this one with short-sleeves out of another lovely piece of Asian designed material with the Tibetan wrap-around technique. I had earlier purchased the material at one of the outstanding garments stores in a market in Ba Ria. Diep makes the buttons and button-holes by stitching together the material. It seems and feels to me like limitless creativity for a woman who lives crowded with other loving family members in a palm-leaf roofed house, mixed concrete and dirt floor, surrounded by rice fields, motorbikes, white ducks and a huge shrimp pool.

    The brother-in-law owner of this house walked home with me the other night arm in arm for a kilometre along the one metre wide pathways dividing rice fields. He is a loving man like so many here and if one can’t welcome the embraces of genuinely affectionate members of the same sex who show their care for you physically, well then traditional Vietnam would not likely be the most comfortable place for you.

    Last night I rode to Long An City, about one-half hour motorbike ride some of it on what we used to call the worst and most rut-ridden muddy roads of rural Alberta or Saskatchewan. There was just enough gravel that one could weave one’s way around the huge puddles in the road for the first half of the trip. Then into the busy paved streets of the town traveling just inches away from fellow motorcyclists and bicycle riders. As I’ve noted previously those motorbikes carry ladders, doors, dozens of 50 kilo bags of rice, huge lengths of pipe and of course groceries and children.

    We traveled via two motorbikes: Kim Oanh and I and five year old Be Bi; while mother con Ut, Adam and two year old Be An traveled on the other. We spent much of the return journey riding side by side trying to keep Be An awake nestled between Con Ut and Adam. Come to think of it I’ve seen grown adults sleeping behind their driving companion and it reminds me of how we manage not to fall out of bed even when the space is most limited. Something in the sub-conscious is at work, eh wot?

    The trip, as delightful as it was, served to signal to me that I had best not plan to travel the 120 km from Long An to HCMC by motorbike. My older bones, bottom and back just aren’t quite up to it. I will travel by car to HCMC and take some of the family with me on Saturday to Ho Chi Minh City and then take a rough and tumble public bus to Xuyen Moc.

    There are so many moments when I find myself on the verge of joy-filled tears wishing that more of you dear family and friends could share the quiet visits of simple homes and the hustle and bustle of the busy streets. I write these little essays because I happen to believe that you, gentle reader, will sooner rather than later have an opportunity to come and experience something of what I have been deeply privileged to experience. Please make sure I talk to you about the ever-ready possibilities if you are interested.

    As I write Kim Oanh and her family are sealing off some space in an adjoining building which has up until now housed supplies, a primitive wood-stove setting and all the paraphernalia for Ba (Kim Oanh’s incredibly capable mother) to make home-made rice wine. If you dared to drink the 100% proof stuff that first emerges from the steam you’d be knocked off your feet by even a miniscule tumbler. That first draft you just don’t drink. But mot, hai, ba, vo (one, two three yeo) is a delightful clinking tumblers exercise, seemingly reserved for the men in traditional areas although it works well with two-year old Be An to get her to take her cold medicine. She clinks her small tumbler with Adam and my Vietnamese coffee mug and downs her medicine like a tiny trooper.

    Saturday I return to Xuyen Moc and a week or so with the students, monks and adult friends there. The local authorities have asked me not to stay in a Pagoda. Thay (the Venerable Thich Vinh Phuoc) is a progressive spiritual leader for the whole of the Ba Ria/Vung Tau region of Vietnam. I have written before of what this beautiful human being has meant to me even when I couldn’t understand his language. Now I have had the privilege of traveling more with him and learning what he thinks by having a reliable translator in the person of Kim Oanh.

    Thay is currently in Calgary. He will be traveling to Ottawa as a guest of the national independent Buddhist organization of Canada and will be returning to Calgary on July 26th. He does not plan to return to Vietnam until September 12. I have been urging my dear friends on the Adult Spiritual Development Ministry (ASDM) at St. David’s United Church to make good use of Thay on a Monday night educational evening and in a worship service on a Sunday in August. I will return in time to help organize what I think can be an amazing spiritual adventure and exercise in cultural exchange or understanding for anyone no matter what your religious background or lack thereof.

    I will close by saying that my young friend Adam is doing an incredible job teaching some English to any person living in this traditional community who wishes to learn. Everything I personally ever cared about in terms of a healthy pedagogy is at work here. The children love Adam and they love learning from him in the comfortable and informal setting of Kim Oanh’s family home. He makes good use of their skills and at least one young teen-ager, My, shows tremendous promise as a beautiful teacher.

    Some of you know that I have joined Facebook to better facilitate the propagation of my photos to family and best of friends. If you haven’t yet joined Facebook you might consider it just for sharing notes and photos amongst family and good friends. I have learned through good advice that it is important for me to keep the privacy settings restricted to family and friends. I just call this to your attention because I have posted two photo albums one on Long An and the other on the family children here in this physically paradisiacal, and culturally extraordinary setting.

    Love and good wishes to you all,

    -- Larry/Dad/Grandpa/Uncle/Brother/Friend

    Originally written June 15, 2009.
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