A Ec­cen­tric Religion Based on Co­conuts and Space Ex­plo­ration



WASH of the Mekong, just out­side of My Tho, sits the ob­scure re­mains of one of the more bizarre chap­ters in Viet­namese his­tory. The is­land is Con Phung, Phoenix Is­land, and the man at the cen­ter of our story is one Nguyen Thanh Nam, oth­er­wise known as “Ong Dao Dua” (Co­conut Monk).

In the war days, with the coun­try locked in the midst of blood­shed and tur­moil, a cult sprang up on this is­land, founded by the idio­syn­cratic and French-ed­u­cated fig­ure­head. A cult cen­tered around three sim­ple pre­cepts: peace, har­mony, and of course, co­conuts.

Like Gandhi and Un­cle Ho, the Co­conut Monk’s ori­gin story be­gins humbly enough, with a Western ed­u­ca­tion. The young Nguyen stud­ied chem­istry in France, a pe­riod where he also de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in religion, ar­chi­tec­ture, and the Apollo space pro­gram. Pre­sum­ably fair­grounds and theme parks also, judg­ing by what was later to come.

The turn­ing point came af­ter his re­turn to the home­land, and a pro­longed med­i­ta­tion in soli­tude atop Sam Moun­tain, just out­side the city of Chau Doc in the Mekong. Nguyen took a vow of monas­tic si­lence and for three years med­i­tated alone on his moun­tain­top, at the end of which he had for­mu­lated his bizarre new religion, a blend of Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­ity, Hin­duism, Tao­ism, space ex­plo­ration, and an abid­ing love for the co­conut.

With his new­found fol­low­ers, he set up res­i­dence on the tiny Phoenix Is­land, and be­came, in a sense, the Walt Dis­ney of his very own Dis­ney­land. His tem­ple, like a float­ing theme park in minia­ture, has been de­scribed as a “pop-art maze of tow­ers, pen­nants, cru­ci­fixes, swastikas and color­ful or­na­ments.” There were or­na­men­tal dragon pillars sup­port­ing gi­ant sculp­tures of blos­som­ing lo­tus flow­ers, pink minaret tow­ers, painted globes, even a hand-wrought replica of Apollo 11, scaled down to the size of a dodgem car, all of it em­bla­zoned in ri­otous colors. And at the cen­ter of this bizarre amal­ga­ma­tion of sym­bols and ar­ti­facts was con­structed a man-made grotto fash­ioned af­ter Sam Moun­tain, a pa­pier-mâché peak from which he lorded over his co­conut king­dom.

But al­though founded by a her­mit, it was no her­mit king­dom. All were wel­comed to the is­land, re­gard­less of faith or creed: paci­fists, draft dodgers, and the sim­ply cu­ri­ous alike. The float­ing tem­ple be­came a sanc­tu­ary from the war and per­haps the only arms-free zone in a coun­try torn apart by con­flict. Through­out the war years the gov­ern­ment main­tained a hands-off pol­icy and mostly left the is­land to it­self. The Co­conut Monk and his fol­low­ers were per­mit­ted com­plete au­ton­omy, pro­vided the monk re­mained on his is­land and kept his meddling in af­fairs off the main­land.

At the height of his in­flu­ence, the Co­conut Monk could count more than 4,000 dis­ci­ples amongst his ranks, Viet­namese and for­eign­ers alike, from both sides of the con­flict. And among those drawn to his co­conut phi­los­o­phy were some sur­pris­ing per­son­al­i­ties, in­clud­ing the off-

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