chaum lam pagoda saigon ho chi minh city

Prologue to a journey: One night in Saigon

by Michael on September 2, 2013

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While we seek an agent or publisher, we are providing excerpts from the first two chapters of our forthcoming book in progress: Changes in Longitude: How One Couple Chucked it All to Travel the World.

PROLOGUE

During a nighttime stroll we had gotten lost in the dimly lit, maze-like streets of old Saigon. 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 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, like wayward mice that still couldn’t find the cheese.

saigon street at night

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.

Chaum Lam Pagoda altar (575x477)

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, since we come from Italian and Russian ethnic backgrounds, where we were trained well by our grandmothers that refusing the offer of food is considered an insult to the host, 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 in her mouth, and then pulled out the seeds, which she gracefully dropped into Michael’s hand. By then we felt like family, so he eagerly gobbled them up. The Master grasped each of our hands; her skin had the appearance of a weatherworn saddle but was as smooth as a newborn calf as she gently held onto us.

saigon tet buddhist temple hands

After finishing our impromptu dinner, she led us to another table to fill out prayer cards. The sisters would pray for us and our family members back home. We asked them to pray most fervently for our daughter. 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.

saigon ho chi minh city tet holiday

Dozens of small red votive candles and strings of sparkling white lights illuminated the shrine, on which worshippers had placed humble offerings of oranges, flowers and, somewhat incongruously, a dozen round tins of Danish butter cookies. We pressed our foreheads gently to the marble floor as we tried to mimic the movements of the saffron-robed worshippers around us.

During our prayers, the same thought occurred to each of us: “We’re two middle-aged people from Philly. How did we end up here?”

You’ve just read the Prologue to our book in progress—Changes in Longitude: How One Couple Chucked it All to Travel the World.

To read more go to: Chapter 1: Gonna Fly Now (Part 1)

Please leave any feedback below.

We are still seeking an outlet for this book. Interested agents and publishers can reach us by clicking the “Contact” button near the top of this page.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

John D May 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

Thanks for sharing. That same question applies to all of us, How did we end up here?

Good luck with the book.

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Michael May 13, 2013 at 9:23 am

Very esoteric thought. Thanks John.

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Sam May 6, 2013 at 8:57 am

Great start. I look forward to the rest of the book.

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Michael May 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

Thanks Sam. We’ll keep writing.

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Val @ThisWayToParadise May 6, 2013 at 11:10 am

So,cool!! Your description makes me feel like I was right there with you!

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Jens Laursen-Schmidt May 6, 2013 at 11:40 am

So looking forward to this coming as a book.

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Marybelle Moore May 6, 2013 at 12:12 pm

It was so real! I could feel and smell everything!

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wandering educators May 6, 2013 at 12:20 pm

love this!

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Jennifer May 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I really enjoyed this chapter of your story as to how you decided to chuck it all to travel the world and reboot your lives. More, please!

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Terry at Overnight New York May 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm

The most magical part of travel is serendipity. How cool that you stumbled into a buddhist convent on a red letter day.

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Steve May 6, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Excellent first chapter. Happy to read much more

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Bethaney May 7, 2013 at 7:54 am

I’ll definitely read your book Larissa and Michael!

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Dale May 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Great opening prologue guys, really interesting situation to find yourself in & those are always the best kind when you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

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Cat of Sunshine and Siestas May 8, 2013 at 3:07 am

So looking forward to reading!! I often have those moments when you think…WTF am I doing teaching preschoolers English after a long lunch where I drank far too much beer? Amazing where life leads us!!

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noel May 14, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Aloha,

That was a great start, so cool to accidentally ‘drop in’ to these events or gatherings and be welcomed. Sounds like the rest of the story gets better?

Noel

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Sheila May 26, 2013 at 8:30 pm

I love your prologue… the wandering that leads to such a warm and welcome place, the juxtaposition of cultures, the vividness of your description… what a wonderful way to invite us along on your journey! Can’t wait to read more!

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northierthanthou June 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

Nothing quite like getting completely lost in an interesting place.

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures September 5, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Wow what an adventure!

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Karen P December 23, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Beautiful description of what is unknown to most of us – I’ve been to a lot of places but never a Buddhist convent! – but brought it all home. It’s about the loving smiles, warm hands and well wishes. The human thread. Wonderful.

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Jim April 22, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Reading this made me feel like I was there. It made me feel humble. This is something I have always wanted to do.Thank you for sharing the stories of your life.

Enjoy Life to the Fullest.
Jim

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Michael April 23, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Thank you so much Jim.

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