In Vietnam: The Nuns of Chua But Moc

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As a continuation of my previous post on ethnographic research conducted about nuns in Hanoi, I thought it would be appropriate to share some stories of people I met on this particular journey. Most poignant were my encounters with a pair of welcoming nuns, carers for a small temple, or chùa, located alongside Văn Chương lake in the Đống đa district.

The name Bt Mc is an abbreviation of ‘bt mc t đá lên’ which, when translated, means ‘Buddha growing from the rock that grows’. The present pagoda is a new structure but, in its initial locale, a rock that grew visibly bigger every single day had been found. As such, the pagoda is famous for the lotus-shaped pond situated in the courtyard: the mystical rock can be found in it, surrounded by the sculptures of three devotees.

Numerous mornings and afternoons were spent in this quaint temple, and I could be found either conducting interviews in my halting Vietnamese and trusty recording device, or simply whiling away the time. Whilst I was there, several women from the neighbourhood popped by from time to time, dropping off vegetables and fruits or helping with the cooking and the chores. All of them seemed tickled by my presence, and immediately asked the question that the bulk of the Vietnamese population had come to equate to be the only reason why a foreigner would decide to learn Vietnamese: “Do you want to marry a Vietnamese man?”

This half-joking, half-sincere inquiry started to take a life of its own as the nuns grew more comfortable with my presence. On one occasion, I was ushered into a sanctuary as soon as I had arrived, hurriedly informed that there was a handsome, young man paying his respects. I stood there awkwardly with a beaming nun whilst the admittedly handsome and young man displayed some mild confusion in his eyes before exiting unceremoniously.

Another memorable incident occurred when a dinner was engineered to advance the nuns’ matchmaking agenda. The day before, the nuns had made me promise to turn up for dinner. When I arrived, a cousin was introduced with great gusto, emphasising his singlehood and ownership of a motorcycle. The evening ended with him sending me home on his Honda at the nuns’ insistence.

We often mistakenly associate renunciation with austerity and stern-faced religious devotion. As I would learn later with nuns in Zanskar as well (read more here), there is an astonishing amount of joie de vivre and amiability when women come together to live in dedication and commitment to their religious practice. It is a warmhearted space where everyone is made to feel at home, even the earnest foreigner who speaks awful Vietnamese but harbours not-so secret hopes to spend the rest of her days in Vietnam with a local man.

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