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Cuckoo for Coconuts

Posted on 3/7/2017 12:32:00 PM in Travel Trivia

The Coconut Monk on his barge in 1972—approximately one year after running (unsuccessfully) for president of South Vietnam and one year before inviting Henry Kissinger to Phoenix Island.

Question: Which “coconut vegetarian” tried (to no avail) to get Henry Kissinger to use his helicopter landing pad?

Answer: Dao Dua, the Coconut Monk of the Mekong Delta

Though the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, with the hope of ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the actual end of the conflict didn’t come for Americans until 1975. Perhaps that’s because nobody listened to the Coconut Monk.

Born Nguyễn Thành Nam, and known as Uncle Hai and the Prophet of Concord, Dao Dua (Coconut Monk) was a self-styled mystic who had transformed the Mekong Delta’s Phoenix Island into what he called “the floating pagoda.” Here, he created an open-air temple to his own Coconut Faith, which melded the beliefs of Christianity and Buddhism, and featured iconography of both East and West. The island was full of flags, crosses, and brightly colored sculptures with a Pop art feel. Vietnam magazine at the time remarked, “It resembles a kind of Delta Disneyland with religious overtones.”

When the Paris Accords were announced, the colorful iconoclast issued a press release stating that he had prepared a helipad for primary negotiators Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ to come receive his advice. He boasted “peace will come in three hours.” Unsurprisingly, the helipad did not get any use that day.

While he didn’t lure in any dignitaries, Dao Dua did have a following. Some 3,500 people considered themselves his followers (not bad, since that was roughly the entire local population), though very few practiced the “coconut vegetarianism” he promoted. Word of his eccentricities made his island a tourist attraction (though he preferred to think of his visitors as pilgrims). He died in 1990 and the Coconut Faith faded well before that, but his island remains a trove of visual delights for visitors of all kinds today.

A Dozen Fun Facts about the Coconut Monk

  • Before he was a monk, he was an engineer, educated in France, with a wife and children he left to build his island temple.
  • For three years, he sat on a stone slab beneath a flag pole meditating round the clock.
  • His followers were told that his “coconut vegetarian” diet was absolute: he claimed to subsist entirely on the meat and water of coconuts.
  • At the peak of his popularity, he was attended by 1,000 novice monks, many of them deserters from either side of the conflict.
  • In 1969, he left the island to bicycle between Saigon and Hanoi on a one-man peace mission. It failed when a remote tribe intercepted him mid-trip and chased him away.
  • After that failure, he built towers on his island to represent Saigon and Hanoi so that he could make the trip any time he liked.
  • In 1971, he ran for President of South Vietnam, quite unsuccessfully.
  • He observed a two-hour period of silence every day beginning at noon; he often received visitors at this time and would only reply to their questions by scribbling answers on paper.
  • Visitors would find him seated on a raised dias covered in dragon motifs, positioned between elephant tusks, next to a cage shared by a baby bear and white-haired ape.
  • The island’s features included columns wrapped with dragons, geometric sculptures, a metal globe, and an Apollo rocket model, intermingled with statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and iconic Buddhist women.
  • Despite Communist prohibitions on religious practice, he was promised complete freedom—as long as he never left his island. Eventually, he was arrested and imprisoned anyway.
  • Today, the most notable attractions are a pool crowded with crocodiles and a coconut candy factory, the last reminder of Dao Dua’s faith.

Witness life in the Mekong Delta when you experience our Inside Vietnam adventure.

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