Phoenix Island, S. Vietnam. On a floating pagoda near this lush island on the great Mekong River there lives a strange man with many names and hundreds of followers. He is known to some as Cau Hai (Uncle Hai) and the Prophet of Concord. Others regard him as one of the world's unique living tourist attractions. Most everyone who has heard of him knows him as Dao Dua, or the Coconut Monk.
Followers regard him as a saint, or at least a holy man. Detractors regard him as a crank, an impostor or a mad monk. In the past he has invited world leaders to the conference hall on his floating Christian-Buddha pagoda to settle the problem of peace in Vietnam. His airy abode is located near My Tho in the Mekong Delta, about two hours by car from Saigon over a good highway, but world leaders haven't shown up yet. When the Paris Accord was announced in 1973, the Coconut Monk invited the Joint Military Commission to his conference hall so that "peace will come three hours later." The helipad on his sunny pagoda was ready to receive the JMC helicopter with American, Communist and Saigon dignitaries, but for undisclosed reasons the Joint Military Commission did not arrive.
The Coconut Monk, appearances notwithstanding, is not the product of an Oriental fairy tale. In fact he is a former well-to-do French-educated engineer. (His floating pagoda is a pleasant and very clever construction). Since his retirement from engineering he has been especially attracted to publicity, Jesus, Buddha and the meat and juice of coconuts. It is believed that he subsists, as a coconut vegetarian, on nothing but coconuts.
According to an official estimate, the Coconut Monk has 3,516 followers in the Mekong Delta's Dinh Tuong Province. (The estimated Protestant population- there is 3,512). Of his 1,000 disciple monks, most are young "deserters from both sides," according to Dao No, a brown-robed young monk. The floating pagoda is recognized as a sanctuary, and the Government (of Republic South Vietnam) has maintained a hands-off policy. The young monks who leave the pagoda, though, are liable to find themselves exchanging their brown robes for olive-drab fatigues. Most of them seem content to remain here.
The man responsible for it all, the Coconut Monk, was born Nguyen Thanh Nam sixty odd years ago. In 1971, during the national elections, he decided to run for the Presidency of South Vietnam. But he did not make much headway. Today, despite his strange statements, he is allowed complete freedom, so long as he remains on his floating pagoda in the fertile Mekong Delta.
Our press contingent arrived too late for a spoken interview with the Coconut Monk. He observes a daily two-hour period of silence from noon till two o'clock, but will give written replies to questions.
The young brown-robed monk, Dao No, led us to his master. From My Tho we had reached the floating pagoda and Phoenix Island by motorized launch. The green-brown waters of the great Mekong glittered in the tropical sunlight. Aboard the pagoda Dao No guided us through a pop-art maze of towers, pennants, Christian crosses, Buddhist swastikas and colorful ornaments. It resembled a kind of Delta Disneyland with religious overtones.
Dao No informed us that in 1969 the old Coconut Monk set out on a one-man peace mission to Hanoi, by bicycle. He pedaled up through the Mekong Delta, continued north of Saigon and got as far as the highlands, about 300 kilometers from his floating pagoda. In the highlands a tribe of Montagnards intercepted him and he was forced to turn back.
The monk's self-assigned peace mission to Hanoi was thwarted, so he decided to make the trip symbolically. Dao No showed us two towers rising from the floating pagoda. One represents Saigon, the other Hanoi.
"Now in his small world he can go from Saigon to Hanoi."
Dao No said that his master makes these Saigon-Hanoi-Saigon. round trips often.
We arrived in the breezy open air reception room. The wizened little Coconut Monk was sitting on a raised dais designed with dragon motifs of Vietnamese lore. In greeting he thrust an index finger skyward. A humorous sparkle crossed his eyes. In front of him stood a wood carving with huge buffalo horns which he hoped to present as a gift to President Nguyen Van Thieu.
On sheets of paper His Coconutship penciled replies to questions. Dao No agreed that the monk had nothing new to say. To achieve peace and a satisfactory cease-fire it was still necessary for the hostile parties to hold direct negotiations under the Coconut Monk's auspices. But the Prophet of Concord made one concession. He seemed willing to hold the peace parleys within the framework of the Joint Military Cornmission provided by the Paris Accord.
So far, the Joint Military Commission has not announced an appointment with the Coconut Monk.
We asked for details on how peace would come if the Joint Military Commission agreed to convene here beneath the tall painted figures of Jesus and Buddha.
The Coconut Monk picked up his writing pad. Bright pennants fluttered in the Mekong winds on the sunny deck and helipad which is ready to receive a JMC helicopter. In an airy cage to the monk's right a fine-looking baby bear and white-haired ape were co-existing peacefully.
Dao No read the written reply:
"The Coconut Monk has a plan but cannot reveal it yet."
After bidding farewell we left the floating pagoda and coasted by launch past green Phoenix Island and back to the languorous Delta town of My Tho where they serve excellent shrimp and prawns.