It all started with the baguettes. As most of you know, Michael is a sucker for baked goods and from the moment we touched down in Vietnam he was itching to try the French-inspired bread used to make banh mi, the country’s famed sandwich. We had gone for a stroll our first night in Ho Chi Minh City in search of a bakery.
One turn led to another and, after finally spotting a bakery in a residential neighborhood and making a purchase, we realized we were lost. The dimly lit, maze-like streets of old Saigon had slowly drawn us in; a series of turns led us into a narrow alley whose sole purpose seemed to be connecting to other alleys. The winding streets felt as though they were laid out by a two-year-old chasing a kitten.
Space is dear in the congested city, so sidewalks act as ad hoc home extensions. Old women hunched over woks as they stir-fried vegetables, while the tantalizing aroma of chargrilled meat encircled us. In the incessant heat, locals squatted on small plastic stools, trying to catch the occasional faint breeze. They looked at us with amusement, while small children stopped their games for a moment to point at us and giggle; obviously, we were well off the tourist path.
One elderly man, sporting a wispy Ho Chi Minh beard, waved us away from one alley and pointed to another. We followed his advice, but ended up at a blank wall, two wayward mice that still couldn’t find the cheese.
We spotted an open-air building off to the side. A slight woman in her twenties, head shaved clean and clad in a plain gray robe, approached us and calmly said, “Come in.” She smiled serenely, like a saint in the stained-glass window of a medieval church. Because we had no idea where we were, and only a vague idea of how to get back, we took her up on the offer.
Somehow, we had stumbled into the Châu Lâm Pagoda, a Buddhist convent, on the busiest day of the year—the Tet holiday. Dozens of pairs of flat straw sandals were lined up outside the entrance. We removed our thick-soled hiking shoes, which stood out like Hummers in a row of bicycles.
Sister Huê Chi led us inside to meet the Master of the convent, an elderly woman with a commanding presence. She was barely four feet tall. In the background, a nun struck a gong at regular intervals as the others chanted prayers to Buddha. Fragrant sandalwood incense from burning joss sticks wafted over us.
The Master led us by the hand to a table, where other nuns scurried to present us with traditional Tet dishes of sticky rice and bright orange mangoes. We had no idea what was going on. However, we both come from ethnic backgrounds, where refusing the offer of food is considered an insult to the host, so we dug into the simple meal.
Michael had trouble shelling a bowl of watermelon seeds, so a novitiate was called over to help him. Our young assistant cracked the shells with her teeth, then removed the seeds, which she gracefully dropped into Michael’s hand. By then we felt like family, so he eagerly gobbled them up. He tried to offer the baguettes as our contribution to the meal, but the Master gently pushed the bag away with a shake of her head. As the host she would not countenance her guests providing their own food. She grasped each of our hands; her skin had the appearance of a weatherworn saddle but was smooth as a newborn calf as she gently held onto us.
After finishing our impromptu dinner, she led us to another table to fill out prayer cards, which we learned were traditional on this holiday. The sisters would pray for us and our family members back home. The sisters then clipped red pieces of paper inscribed with blessings to our hair. Thus adorned, we entered the sanctuary.
Nuns bowed in rows behind small silver tables bearing prayer books. Their hands remained clasped together and their heads lowered as they shot curious sideways glances at us—the only Westerners there. Whenever we made eye contact we were met with a soothing smile. A few minutes later, we knelt in front of a yellow-and-red altar dedicated to Buddha. We had become the accidental Buddhists.
Dozens of small red votive candles and strings of sparkling white lights illuminated the shrine, on which worshippers had placed humble offerings of fruits and flowers. Nestled among them, somewhat incongruously, were a dozen round tins of Danish butter cookies. Perhaps this would be a fitting place for our baguettes? Mid-prayer did not seem the optimal time to disrupt the arrangement of the shrine, so we pressed our foreheads gently to the marble floor as we mimicked the movements of the saffron-robed worshippers around us.
Unlike the Christian ceremonies of our youth, no one led the service at the front of the room. Nor was there much in the way of talking or music, just the low hum of whispered chanting and the occasional muted gong. Without understanding Buddhism—or the language—we followed along until eventually the hushed atmosphere lulled us into quiet contemplation.
The serenity of the pagoda provided a counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the city outside. Perhaps it was this balance that enabled the Vietnamese to lead such industrious lives. We saw a city that was bustling and growing, a far cry from the war-torn ravages depicted on the nightly news of our childhood. These gentle, introspective people we prayed alongside tonight might very well be zipping by on motorbikes tomorrow morning, en route to building a new skyscraper.
All too soon the ceremony ended. (Was it minutes or hours? We had lost track of time.) With a quiet shuffling the sanctuary emptied; sandals in the vestibule were reunited with the appropriate feet. When only our gargantuan hiking boots remained, we sought out the Master again. She made it clear through our novitiate interpreter that she would accept no cash donations—this was Tet after all, and it was their “job” to welcome travelers. Upon presentation of the baguettes, however, she relented with a smile and a gracious nod.
Newly equipped with directions back to our lodging (it was closer than we thought), we reflected on our experience. We’ve sought out bakeries all over the world and discovered some delicious treats, but none that had provided inner peace such as this. And we hadn’t even taken a bite.
Note: This post has been sponsored by World Expeditions as part of their #WEVentureOut series. We are proud to have our “Accidental Buddhist” adventure featured in this series, which encourages travelers to step outside their comfort zone and experience more of the world. For more information on trips to Vietnam and other unique destinations, visit the World Expeditions website.