Behold morning at the Cái Râng Floating Market in Cân Tho, center of the Mekong Delta, 200 kilometers outside Saigon city, Vietnam. Cái Râng translates to Teeth of the Crocodile per the mighty Phuc Nguyen, the dude on the right leveling a shot off the bow of that boat like Quint the shark killer. Mr. French Indo-China circa 1954 I call him, a nickname I find très apropos, as it references the time his Viet ancestors sent their French colonizers packing at the battle of Din Bin Pho. Phuc (pronounced Fook) Nguyen (pronounced Win) is a name akin to John Smith in the states. But in this case, it’s the common name of a very uncommon man. Over ten years ago our paths crossed in a hotel lobby in Ho Chi Minh City, the modern name for Saigon honoring the country’s iconic leader. And while the entire span of our friendship consists of hanging out for a few weeks total, some of the best days of my life have been in Vietnam with Phuc as my right arm. He’s my Nguoi an hem tinh thân, My Brother in the Spirit. After reconnecting excitedly at the airport, we jumped in the car and took one another in. “Hmmm Paul, the last time I saw you, it seems you were in the desert, crossing a great desert. But now, it seems as if… you have found the water.”
That’s one of one thousand dien (crazy) cool Phuc Nguyen-isms. Check my Facebook photos around 2008 and you’ll see a picture of Phuc on the machine-gun range at the tunnels of Cu Chi, a section of the immense network of tunnels that underlie much of Vietnam. My private guide that day, he recounted some incredible - and incredibly dark - history from the American War, the name VN people dub the conflict. The caption to the photo reads: This is when I realized Phuc was a Genius. As soon as we were together in the car on Wednesday, the jokes flew, prompting me to ask: “Phuc how do you say Comedian in Vietnamese?” He laughed – hi hi hi is the way they script laughter in VN– informing me that, “Haì Huõć is like the professional comedian. But Vui Ve is the funny man.” Being so Pro and at the same time so demure, Phuc embodies both. “Paul, you have no idea how many times I have heard the tourist call to the home and say, ‘We have a Vietnamese comedian for a chaperon’”. The language being totally tonal, he speaks in a croaky, sing-song voice that escalates musically. and lends itself to funny interpretation.. Phuc doesn’t say “Ok Ok”once or twice when he understands what you’re trying to convey; he says it seventeen times, “Ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, ok (etc.). When I start echoing him and we get going, it rises into a chorus of OK’s and laughter, a concurring wellspring of joy that can fill the South China Sea.
Three things define Phuc Nguyen, three things that, in my mind, define most Vietnamese people: humor, humility and class. On my second visit, he asked, “Mr. Paul (the respectful name he used for me prior to our friendship), I have the question for you: Why is it the Westerners all come here looking like such slobs? You are well-to-do people, so why can’t you put on a collared shirt?” I looked down, considered my ripped-up Replacements T-shirt, Adidas shorts and flip flops and replied, “Let me give that thought and get back to you Phuc.” We enjoyed a visit to a wonderful, peaceful farm after the floating market where the owner-family often finds petrified bombs in their surrounding fields. Phuc’s spontaneous bit - one of many that has me never underestimating the caliber of his creative contributions - had me holding one of the disarmed shells while he interrogated me, asking, “So your people dropped the bombs on us, and yet here we are this afternoon serving you a nice lunch.” His other routine had me hoisting old weapons from the American conflict, while he joked, “no matter how great your arsenal, against the Vietnamese con gai (girl) you will lose, you will surely meet defeat” Leave it to a seasoned Vietnamese funny man like Phuc to turn total tragedy into pure comedy, a stand-up man in every way.
‘Neath all the laughter, Phuc’s understanding of Vietnamese history, culture and spirituality played a big part in my personal transformation and ongoing quest for spiritual liberation. The first time I witnessed a funeral, on Vietnam’s central coast, it Blew. Me. Away. A slow parade of family and friends dressed in white rather than black follow the hearse, an ornately decorated, golden vehicle covered in dragons and other mythical creatures, all followed up by a New Orleans-like jazz band of drums, trombones, and trumpets blaring out unharmonious, happy tunes. Phuc observed my wide-eyed take of the scene and said, “Ah, the Paradise Car.” “Do they call it the Paradise Car?” I asked “That’s so cool.” “No, no no (etc.), they don’t it the Paradise Car,” he replied. “I call it the Paradise car.” After visiting temples and introducing me to the country’s colorful 54 tribal groups along with their myriad of religions, offering alms and releasing small birds from cages as a gesture toward liberation, I asked, “Phuc, tell me. What do you believe?” I still hear his deep, croaky reply. “Mr. Paul, I believe it all.”
As to the spiritual source of my connection to Vietnam, God only knows. I jokingly like to think that having been born April 8th, 1967 at 3:12 pm in Detroit, Michigan, USA, perhaps nine months earlier a village idiot met his demise in the mountains near Sapa, Vietnam . I’m finishing this story now at a café in Ha noi, beginning the day with a visit to pay respects to the great Ho Chi Minh, lying in state at Lăng Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh, the marble mausoleum serving as the revolutionary leaders final resting place. Well protected by a military honor guard with adults and many school children lined up for hours, cameras and photos are strictly prohibited. While It’s a solemn, honorable, contemplative endeavor, the creator in me couldn’t help being inspired by a line artistically etched into the entranceway. Unable to take a pic, I made it a mantra as I quietly filed through with the rest of the good Vietnamese people paying homage. Upon passing through the exit way, I quickly texted Phuc.
Me: Khong co gi quy hon doc lap tu - what does it mean.?
Phuc: Who says this to you!?
Me: Uncle Ho, Uncle Ho tells me! (I text this but as I do I’m laughing, imitating Phuc’s sing-song intonation)
Phuc: Nothing Is More Precious than Freedom