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(No.7, Vol.4,Aug-Sep 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Practising martial art of Nam Huynh Dao


Nam Chon temple fuses the
mystical with the martial



Imagine for a moment: In a courtyard stand rows of warriors, their arms extended. Despite the noise from the street, it is quiet, as though a solemn ritual has begun. You detect a small movement of their fingers. Then the hands begin to move in slow rotating motions. Soon you notice the ripple of shoulder muscles. Each muscle system is being slowly and thoroughly exercised.
At a signal from the master, the group explodes with kicks and leaps and blocks. The iron rings on their arms clink in unison like temple bells. Young men leap high in the air. Twirling like dervishes, their feet break the heads of invisible opponents. Then, row after row, they sweep across the courtyard, crouching low and whirling round and round, their legs extended like lawnmower blades mowing down an opposing army. They do not stop even when driving rain blankets the area.
Although they will be formidable warriors if needed to defend Vietnam, these students are taught first the value of their art in maintaining good health and mental discipline. They are encouraged to practice good moral lives with consideration of others. The traditional Vietnamese values of peace and harmony prevail.
The martial art of Nam Huynh Dao is a distinctive Vietnamese form first developed by General Nguyen Huynh Duc during the Nguyen Dynasty and passed down through his family. Centered in the Nam Chon Temple complex, the school is directed by Grand Master Huynh Tuan Kiet, a seventh-generation descendent of Nguyen Huynh Duc.
Nam Chon Temple is the home of the Nam Huynh Dao School of martial arts, but it is also a tangible and living neighborhood religious centre. Nam Chon Temple combines the traditional southern temple form honoring heroes from the past with a shrine to Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, considered a Bodhisattva or incarnation of the eternal Buddha. The temple was built over one hundred years ago on the site of an ancient shrine to Guan Yu, the god of war, and to Guan Yin (also called Quan Am in Vietnamese).
A brightly-painted relief of a tiger, the traditional guardian of southern Vietnamese temples, greets you as you pass through the gate into a large courtyard flanked by buildings on three sides. Inside the temple, the figure of Guan Yin dominates the gilded altar. Cranes stand on the backs of turtles, symbols of longevity. The statue of a horse suggests mounted warriors. The columns of the interior are brightly painted, with blue and white dragons circling upward, accompanied by golden phoenix. The back of the shrine holds the altar to five deified heroes, two of which were ancient generals and leaders.
One of them, Admiral Bui Ta Han (1496-1568) was a military leader who restored the Le Dynasty of Vietnam. He was admired greatly for the way he secured the lives of the common people and encouraged the further development of agriculture as well as for his military prowess.
Quan Thanh De Quan (Guan Yu) is honored as the God of War. He lived during the late Eastern Han Dynasty in China and was not only a great military leader, but was also greatly admired for upholding the values of brotherhood and loyalty. He is an important character in ‘The Three Kingdoms,’ a Chinese literary work that became a major influence in the cultures of Vietnam and China. Today he is honoured in three religious traditions: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
The other three deities are the royal Cao Cat Quang Do, the goddess Thien Yana Dien Ngoc Phi, and Lady Duong Phi, the wife of Admiral Bui Ta Han.
The five hero-gods honoured at the temple are represented by five plaques that were given by the emperor to the people of Chon Sang village in the 1850s. Fearing their loss, the people approached Grandfather Tran Van Hiep and asked him to keep them safe. Grandfather Hiep then decided to construct the temple as a safe place to guard them and as a place where the people could come to pray. It is said he brought architects and builders from Hoi An to ensure the buildings were constructed in the traditional way. I understand that one of his descendants is now the official administrator of the temple.


Photo: Nam Huynh Dao kung fu school - Nam Chon Temple dojo

Nam Chon Temple is itself something of a warrior that has withstood the attacks of time. In 2006, part of the roof of the temple was destroyed when a banyan tree in the courtyard blew over in a storm. The temple was rescued by the municipality of Ho Chi Minh City and is now under its care. Each year, the temple is thoroughly cleaned and repainted for the annual festival on the fifteenth and sixteenth days of the sixth lunar month. Representatives from government and from other temples attend as well as residents of the surrounding communities. The second day of the festival begins with a lion dance, followed by prayers and ending with a communal meal to which all are invited.
Nam Chon is a typical communal temple in that it serves the needs of the neighborhood around it, providing not only a place for spiritual worship but also for mediation in disputes, martial arts training infused with ethical teachings and principles, and a place where Vietnamese traditions and values are preserved and taught. Teachers from the school now teach the fundamentals of Nam Huynh Dao in many of the area schools. They also work with handicapped and autistic children, helping them to build coordination and a sense of belonging.
I was very impressed with the teacher and students and with the work of the temple. I enjoy learning from Mr Huy, the head teacher, about traditional health and medicine as well as the ideals of Vietnamese martial arts. Having studied other southern Vietnamese traditional temples, I found that Nam Chon Temple is unique in some ways, as is the Vietnamese martial art Nam Huynh Dao.
I am hoping to organize a Vietnamese-style Tai Chi class with Mr Huy as teacher. (Anyone interested can contact me at boutiquetourssaigon.com or contact Mr Huy at the temple. He teaches in both English and Vietnamese.)
The temple is open Mondays through Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors are welcome to visit the temple and to watch the martial arts practice at 5.15 p.m. every day.

By Jonathan Bar-On
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