By Tammy To (Houston, TX)
Read article in Vietnamese: Đại Hội Võ sư Vovinam 2013
Day of Arrival
The first thing my teammates and I notice after stepping out of our hotel is how refreshing Florida weather is compared to the blisteringly suffocating Houston heat. Although it’s the middle of summer, the sun isn’t so unforgiving and there is a constant breeze that genuinely welcomes us with each step towards our rental car. We never experience weather like this in Houston. It doesn’t take us long to become accustomed to Florida’s winding highways and visitor-friendly scenery. There are families everywhere – shopping, en route to Disney, eating, and exploring the tourist treasures of Orlando. We’re here for an entirely different reason though. Our prime destination is the 2013 Vovinam Master’s Conference and the first stop is Master Tho’s house.
We are greeted with an audience of worldwide athletes upon our arrival. There’s the host of the house, Master Tho himself, who also owns the most successful tapioca business in Orlando. His backyard doubles as a practice area for him and his students, with the standard blue floor mats, kicking bags, and even a pull-up bar for physical conditioning. The title “Vovinam Viet Vo Dao” and our emblem are proudly emblazoned across the east wall. Although Master Tho runs the dojo in the back, his lovely wife is the commander of the kitchen, churning out delicious traditional Vietnamese meals throughout our visit.
Two boys with bleach-blonde hair wave to us as we step into the living room and we wave back. They’re from Germany. There are also athletes from Washington, upper Florida, Boston, and even Italy who greet us in turn. Someone introduces us. “Everyone – this is Vovinam Thang Long from Houston. Say hello!” We all bow to each other, smiling at the familiar and shared movement of iron hand over gentle heart. Despite this being only the first time meeting, we are all family.
The attention thrown on us feels overwhelming, but undeniably exciting. The idea of a Vovinam brotherhood spanning across the entire world blows my mind. I think to myself, “Is it true? People actually pursue Vovinam in places like Germany and Italy? The ideas and techniques of our martial arts have spread that far?” I don’t have time to process my thoughts any further before we walk through the backyard door and into the culture shock that is Australia.
The Australian group greets us with heavy accents and genuine curiosity. We spend the next two hours comparing forms, techniques, and even words. “What do you mean by a “test”?” they ask us. We tell them it means that someone is testing for their next belt level. “We call it grading,” the Aussies say. These types of experiences continue throughout the trip as we compare, contrast, and form what eventually becomes an unbreakable bond between the Houston and Australian teams.
The air is thick with apprehension on the day of testing. I don’t need to be able to speak all of the different languages to notice how worried everyone is. I feel it in the atmosphere and especially see it on the faces of those who are mentally preparing themselves for what’s to come. Physically reviewing test techniques seems to help with the stress, so the backyard is alive with the sweat and blood of countless Vovinam athletes of all different belt levels. I and a few others mostly watch and continue doing so when the test begins. There is camaraderie within those who are testing; instead of vying for the top rank or perfect score, we support and cheer our brothers and sisters on as they navigate through each hour of testing. When someone falters, we urge them on. I find that this is the beauty of Vovinam.
There are scheduled conferences and workshops galore for us to attend, so we take full advantage of the rare opportunity to learn directly from some of the best masters. One of the most important individuals, M.S. Quang, graces us with his presence as Grand Master Nguyen Loc’s youngest son and flawless public speaking skills. We are present for every panel, we listen to the questions asked during the discussion portion, and we mingle with different teams when lunch time arrives. Some speakers discuss techniques, while others cover philosophy, and every speaker is backed by an intense passion. “It’s not about your belt level,” Master Khoi of Australia reminds us, “It’s how you apply what you learn. What matters is how good your heart is.”
Every night during our stay in Orlando comes to a close with dinner at a local restaurant. We string our banner up on the wall and take turns going up onstage to express how thankful we are for not only being able to take part in such a life-changing conference, but for each other. Group singing is rampant and cake abundant. We do the one thing that we are best at, other than Vovinam, which is eating. The food comes in waves as we sample everything from clay pot fish to beef stew to bird’s nest noodles. Although everything is tasty, nothing comes quite close to Master Tho’s wife’s cooking.
Nothing compares to the electricity of excitement on the day when belt exam results are announced. I notice the collective eagerness in little things – carefully creased uniforms, the mysterious pile of certificates with hand-scripted names, and an excess of photo-taking. The camera flashes never pause as we listen to the opening speech and eventually progress onto the belt ceremony. I relish in the communal support once again as every martial artist receiving a new belt is met with enthusiastic cheers; one person’s success is everyone’s success. It’s practically a celebrity convention afterwards with people competing for group photos and posing with their favorite teams.
Dinner is especially lively that night as every single person participates in singing, chatting, networking, or the ever-present flow of picture-taking. I find myself at the Australian table with new friends and the beginnings of an unbreakable bond. After countless speeches expressing gratitude and recognition to those deserving, a wave of bittersweet good-byes flow through the crowd. It feels like the last day arrived too soon. Numbers and emails are exchanged, with firm promises to keep in touch. “It was wonderful meeting you!” is the anthem of the night. We hug our new brothers and sisters and slap them on the back with congratulatory gusto, so unbelievably proud of each other.
We will always support one another, no matter the country, belt level, or skin color!
We are Vovinam Viet Vo Dao!
We are family!