Vietnamese martial art: meeting a master.
Rows of children kneel on the floor, dressed in black, green belts tied around their waists, swords and staffs spinning around their heads. They move through a sequence of movements, their belts swishing with every swift turn. It’s nearly sunset as we pass the youth club, stopping to ask the teacher if we can photograph them. “The class hasn’t even started yet,” he tells us. There’s still half an hour to go. Yet here all the children are, lined up, diligently practicing while the teacher watches quietly from the side.
They’re practicing the art of Võ cô truyên Viêtnam – Vietnamese martial arts. “They learn for three reasons: to exercise, to avoid sickness, and to defend themselves,” their teacher, Mă Vĩnh Trinh tells us. We ask him what makes a good practitioner and he responds in the same military manner. “One: loyalty. Two: respect for others. Three: modesty.”
Mă Vĩnh Trinh is not just anyone. At the age of 80, he’s a master of this martial art. “You can look me up on Google you know. I’ve been practicing Võ cô truyên Viêtnam most of my life, since I was six. I’ve studied under several fighting masters and lived as a Buddhist monk for many years. I’m also a poet.”
“Many things have happened to me in my life. I was orphaned very young during the French-Vietnamese war. At the same time, practicing martial arts was banned and many of my teachers were killed – it became very difficult to study. But I learned secretly with a Chinese master while I was a monk, and since leaving the pagoda, I have earned money, always as a martial arts master.”
The choreographer for numerous martial arts films, the trainer of some of Vietnam’s biggest film stars, and the subject of a biopic, Mă Vĩnh Trinh delivers information about himself in the same way he delivers instruction to the kids in the courtyard. We ask him to recite one of his poems and immediately he proceeds to sermonise. “What’s it about?” We ask our translator. “You. It’s about you, standing in front of him in his playground.”