His bizarre life on Phoenix Island remains his most enduring legacy

On a sliver of island in the 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.

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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.

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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 spring of the famous novelist John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, and Hollywood icon Errol Flynn. Steinbeck’s son, John Steinbeck IV, shared his father’s name, but not his political views, which were staunchly pro-war and anti-communist. Steinbeck, Jr., however, remained against the war throughout, essentially bullied into the war by his father (he was drafted and served in the army as a war correspondent). Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn, would end up disappearing in Cambodia on assignment some years later, his body never found, believed to have been executed by the Khmer Rouge, along with a number of other photojournalists who disappeared into the chaos of that time.

With the help of others, Steinbeck and Flynn started up their own news reporting service, Dispatch News Service, and ended up breaking the story of the My Lai massacre. It was during this stint of reporting while in Vietnam that he came under the spell of this strange island and its coconut guru.

Of his disciples, most were young, with many deserters from both sides burnt out from years of war and struggle trading their military fatigues for brown monastic robes. His devotees did not kill animals and gained as much of their nourishment as much as possible from the sacred white fruit: the flesh, the milk, the juice, the oil and leaves, cultivating groves of coconuts for this purpose. The Coconut Monk as exemplar of this new way of life subsisted on nothing at all other than coconuts, becoming a “coconut vegetarian”, extreme even by vegan standards.

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The continued generations of conflict, it is widely stated, opened the way for such eccentric religions and cults as the coconut religion to spring up in the region, with another notable example being the Cao Dai faith (a religion which counts, amongst other notable saints, William Shakespeare, Neil Armstrong and the Prophet Muhammad). With all orthodoxy shattered, people were open to trying new things, no matter how bizarre they may have seemed on the surface. It was an extraordinary time.

In the year 1969 the Coconut Monk set out on a one-man peace mission to Hanoi—by bicycle. He snuck off the island under cover of night and pedaled his way from the Mekong Delta, getting as far as the southern highlands before he was intercepted by a tribe of Montagnards and sent back to his island.

The Coconut Monk built a helipad onto his floating pagoda to receive delegates from the Joint Military Commission, awaiting their arrival to convene “beneath the tall painted figures of Jesus and Buddha” on his island, and broker for peace. While he fruitlessly awaited their arrival he crafted a plaster map of Vietnam, scaled to the size of a long table and complete with mountain chains and carved rivers, which he would walk over daily with his stick, prodding the various painted landmarks, praying for reconciliation and peace. “Now in his small world he can go from Saigon to Hanoi,” his aide said in an interview from the time. A trip his Coconutship made “often.” The map is still there today.

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With his star on the rise, and in an effort to demonstrate to his followers his extraordinary devotion to his new faith, the Coconut Monk constructed a globe-shaped cage of wrought iron, which he suspended above a lotus pond. He then preceded to live and meditate from within this cage, taking his coconut meal and preaching from it to his gathered disciples. There was even a small opening in the bottom for him to defecate. The cage also still remains, swinging to this day in the Mekong breeze before his man-made grotto.

Cosmic Aspirations

But the war days were coming to their close, and his Coconutship couldn’t seal himself away in meditation from Cold War history in his cage forever. The conflict ended, and with the new government taking power, the Coconut Monk and his followers were declared a cult, and his religion abolished. So ended the brief reign of the coconut kingdom.

The site today sits largely forgotten and in decay. The river has silted up beneath the once-floating temple, so that it’s not floating anymore. But the colorful pillars, minarets and grottos, though weather-stained and peeling, still remain in place. And hanging from a white metal tower hangs his very own Apollo 11, testament to his cosmic aspirations. The only moon it is ever likely to land on, though, is the husk of some fallen coconut beneath.

The pagoda and its surrounds have become swallowed up by the Mekong Delta tourism machine, encroached upon by a coconut candy factory, a thatched museum dedicated to various coconut enterprises (with those of the Coconut Monk, bizarrely, rating no mention at all), bamboo restaurants, and souvenir stalls catering to the masses on their daily whistle-stop boat tours from the big smoke.

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On my visit to the island, after taking a hired boat over from the My Tho jetty, I encounter a kind of corporate team-building exercise in action, two opposing companies stripped down to their glistening brown bellies and wading through a muck of muddy water up to their knees in a man-made stream, wicker fish traps in hand, in a competition to see which can catch the most fish. A man shouts down instructions and encouragement through a handheld megaphone while the company women wave printed banners. Just beyond this spectacle, past a crowded table host to a food-cramming competition, the once-golden dragon pillars of the Coconut Monk’s kingdom poke up over the coconut palms. If anyone would take it upon themselves to inspect them at all, they might be forgiven for assuming it simply to be an abandoned addendum to the festivities, some kind of forgotten Disneyland in miniature, never entirely constructed and left to rot before it could coalesce into something that quite made sense.

A monsoon storm rolls over and the patrons, domestic and foreign alike, take shelter where they can, many, in the covered walkways once belonging to his Coconutship’s pagoda, oblivious to their significance.

I take the chance to slip into the painted grotto and scale the fenced-off stairway spiraling up the sides of the Coconut Monk’s holy mountain to a kind of inner sanctum where he once orated at length with his young guests, such as Steinbeck and Flynn, and couldn’t help but draw some connection from them to myself. Bemused, curious, enraptured as they by this strange tropical land of coconuts and incense.

EXPLORE PHOENIX ISLAND

EXO Travel and THE ISLAND LODGE, located on Unicorn Island (near Phoenix Island), offer a relax & explore two day, 1 night package: Day 1: Depart in the morning for a 1.5 hours drive in a private vehicle from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta, through paddy fields landscapes, to Unicorn Island. Settle in at THE ISLAND LODGE, enjoy a swim followed by a set-lunch (Western or Vietnamese). In the afternoon enjoy an optional three-hour exploration by boat and bicycle ride (minimum two guests). Choose from different bicycle routes 7-13km, easy, medium or difficult. Overnight at THE ISLAND LODGE, Unicorn Island, in a shared twin or shared double room. Day 2: Enjoy breakfast at the lodge, followed by an optional 8km off-road cycling adventure (minimum two people). Transfer by boat to Ben Tre, ride through a small village market, visit a family cocoa plantation and a local pagoda. Noon checkout. After lunch (at own account) transfer by road back to Ho Chi Minh City. For rates and more info, contact saigonagency@exotravel.com or visit www.exotravel.com.

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN