Anthony Bourdain of the CNN hit travelogue series, “Parts Unknown” said, “going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure; maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable.” I share Bourdain’s view. Vietnam is an extraordinary place to visit and it’s people welcoming. But there is a dark underbelly that few travelers are aware of—the continuous persecution and oppression of certain monks.
When I went to Vietnam in 2004 with my son Jason, I visited the Venerable Thich Vien Dinh, the brother of a real estate broker named Truman, with whom I once had some real estate business dealings. Truman left Vietnam in 1984. His brother, whom he hasn’t seen in 32 years is the Superior Buddhist monk of two temples. One, in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and, the other—a large 800 year old temple in Binh Dinh province in the countryside surrounded by farmland in the middle of Vietnam. During the Buddhist “Renaissance” movement in the 1920s, it was one of the most important training centers for monks and nuns.
When I visited him in his temple in Saigon as seen in the photo, he was under house arrest, but you wouldn’t know it by his calm and serene demeanor. His only crime was that he belonged to the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) and not the Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC) under control of the Communist Party. I later learned that I was being watched; followed back to my Hotel; and copies of the photos I sent back to Dinh were confiscated. They also asked him how much money I donated to the Temple. While there I was introduced to Truman’s sister who he also hasn’t seen for 32 years. She cooked for the 40 monks who resided there including a secret mole spying on behalf of government officials.
Now, 13 years later on the Festival of Tet (Vietnamese New Year), Truman informed me that his brother is still under house arrest by the government but is permitted to live in his countryside temple, where he is very happy and peaceful. Through peaceful resistance and sheer political will, he is still leader of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).