Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam
A clumsily directed chorus of many-timbred honking panned away into the background behind me as I ambled down a side street off the main drag.
I skipped and jumped around muddy puddles, topped off by a recent rain.
Google—not content to screw me merely on a macro, prviacy-invading, website-deranking, proclivity-tracking level—was now leading me in circles on one of its so called maps.
Groups of Veitnamese men huddled around tables along the sidewalk in squatting repose, quaffing iced drinks. A listless woman with smiling eyes and hard set lips made soundless overtures at the fruit laid out on blankets in the foyer of what looked to be her home.
But I was not in search of pasty persimmons or luscious longans. I was fruitlessly looking for Dung Pham BJJ.
I pinged Dung on Messenger. “I’m lost,” I confessed. He sent me a pin.
And so I wandered down another winding alley towards the little red dot on my phone screen.
I peeked into the houses in open voyeurism, telling myself that eavesdropping is more forgivable when it comes in the form of a traveler’s wide-eyed, earnest curiosity.
I arrived at a juncture and looked up from my phone to find a lady smiling at me and giving me a come hither Asian wave. You know the one: palm turned down, patting the head of an imaginary doggie.
God knows what this woman wanted from me, so like an obedient little drone of the technofuture, I buried my head into my mobile device.
I’m at the pin, dammit. Yet I can’t see anything even remotely resembling a dojo in this ostensibly residential area. I decide to wander around a bit and head towards the waving lady. As I come near she points inside her house.
And there in the anteroom I see a whiteboard on the wall, with a gym schedule and “Dung Pham BJJ” written in blue magic marker. Aha! Sunday no gi open mat is on.
I remove my shoes on the waving lady’s gentle insistence and ascend the staircause of the house. I glance into rooms and smile meekly at the random people milling around, an offering of warmth in exchange for my intrusion into what is obviously their home.
I arrive at the top floor of the house, which is covered in blue mats, humid as balls, and circumscribed by beautiful vistas of the city through its windows. I proceed to introduce myself to the homies who’d already arrived, get changed, and begin stretching while making small talk.
One of the homies is a friendly and serenely calm French dude living in Hanoi who I’d competed against a few months prior in Duman Saigon.
I also meet the blue belt who runs the school in Dung’s absence and learn that he’s the son of the waving lady whose house it is. Presently, Dung arrives.
Dung—for the uninitiated—is the head instructor of the eponymous dojo. But he’s not always in Hanoi. Hence his blue belt lending a hand from time to time.
It’s hard to dislike Dung. A German-raised Vietnamese guy with a big smile, and a humble demeanor that belies his deadly jits. Other qualities include: a shaved, shiny head that naturally repels collar ties, a Bruno-esque (albeit far less flamboyant) accent, a crossface that would make your old ass Brazilian professor proud, and an uncanny ability to survive fully locked in submissions while you gas yourself out just before he makes you the price.
I’d fought Dung once in a no gi match in Bangkok. I recall he scored about 500 points on me in that match.
In short order we dispense with the pleasantries and begin the ritual comparison of our metaphorical junk. It fails to suck.
So much so, that on Monday I return. Dung and the boys kindly invite me to show some techniques. So I show some top half guillotine details using the pretzel grip, followed by some bottom half details using a cross grip on the pants that my professor learned back in the day from Luis Roberto Duarte (aka “Bebeo”).
Afterwards we rolled and I got smashed good. I was blown away by the fellas. These dudes were not only surprisingly technical, they were also warriors to the bone.
After training we sat around by the lake drinking sugar cane juice.
On Tuesday I didn’t feel weel so I stayed in my hotel and caught up on work, leaving my room only for more Vietnamese coffee and refreshing glasses of tea.
On Wednesday I came back for no gi and was again invited to show some stuff. This time I was a bit better prepared, having anticipated this possibility, and worked out a competition-proven sequence from closed guard.
We then did four rounds of positional sparring in each of the intermediary positions of the sequence. We followed with free sparring.
Once again, all the guys showed tremendous receptivity to learning, genuine inquisitiveness, and lots of heart in the rolls. Dung and I went at it and again, he smashed me with a big smile.
We ended class by taking some pictures. Someone then handed me a doob, at which point I decided—and actually heard myself saying in my head—”I love Vietnam!”
I meandered down the alley towards our post-training rendezvous point and glimpsed an old dude sitting in his living room, hunched over a piece of sheet music, practicing a lovely melody on a wooden flute of some kind.
I opened Telegram and sung the melody into a recording for myself. “The basis of a new song perhaps?” I ponder in my inspired state.
I arrived at the outdoor hang out spot and perched up on a small stool around the table. There I sat, understanding aught, but thoroughly enjoying the musical exchanges of the homies in their native Vietnamese tongue. One of the homies was taking copious rips from a giant wooden bong that looked like a bassoon. (You see, these outdoor refreshment areas often have wooden bongs and shag tobacco on the table for to smoke.)
We sat there talking shit and quaffing some kind of insanely refreshing spiced iced tea. The night was warm and balmy. We’d just trained jits. Life was good.
Eventually, we wrapped it up and I headed back to my hotel where I proceeded to order a big ass burger via Vietnammm. That too, failed to suck.
In fact, the whole trip kicked ass. I’d always enjoyed my trips to Vietnam as a man enjoys a brief dalliance. But this time was different. I caught feelings.
Thank you to Dung and the homies for making my trip unforgettable and for the great training. Oss.