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.

Test Day

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.

Conference Day

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.

Final Day

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!

grandmasterlesangMaster Lê Sáng's family originally resided in Thanh Hóa Province, but he was born in autumn of 1920 in a house on the banks of Trúc Bạch lake in Hà Nội, the oldest son of Mr. Lê Văn Hiển (known professionally as Đức Quang, 1887 - 1959) and Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Mùi (1887 - 1993). His two sisters are Lê Thị Xuất and Lê Thị Hương.

In 1939, after suffering a severe illness which left him walking with difficulty, he followed his mother's advice and began studying martial arts in order to strengthen his legs and improve his physical health. Good fortune steered him to Founding Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc's Vovinam class at the Hà Nội Pedagogical College (Ecole Normale). Due to his natural ability, intelligence, and diligent practice, after just a few years he was chosen by Founding Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc to take part in the work of training others in Hà Nội. From then on, he became as close to Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc as a younger brother is to an older brother, sharing in his labors and his hardships, following him as he taught the discipline of Vovinam in many places…

GocPhongVsCMIn 1968, the house at 31 Sư Vạn Hạnh (Tổ Đường) intitially has only a ground floor. In 1992, the housing structure was added another level and the open top balcony area.  A few years later, upon the open top balcony, the altar hall was constructed with a joint office for Grandmaster Lê Sáng to work and rest. This project was managed by Master Kiều Công Lang's construction company.

Upon entrance to the 3rd floor, you will see the Founder's altar hall.  Walking along the balcony, passing the altar hall you come to the Grandmaster's living quarter.  The room is hardly spacious; the steel singles were nailed to the roof as ceiling; the space area is 4.2m x 3.5m and the restroom 1m x 2.4m.  Initially, the room has only an automated fan; and not until 2001, an air conditioner was put in.

The tiny space of the private quarter is quite airy with one entrance, one window parallel to Sư Vạn Hạnh street and another window parallel to Nguyễn Chí Thanh street.  Stepping into the room, on the right side is the altar of Grand master's parents. On the left is a leaning chair where he sleeps and rests, placed facing Nguyễn Chí Thanh street.  A number of books, newspapers, magazines, pens, tea pot... set on a rectangular table located on the left (along the window facing Sư Vạn Hạnh street); next to a small chair with its back placed against the wall, for a guest; In front (of the chair) is the TV, a VCR, and right below is a feet-rest stool.  Surrounding the room many photos and images are hung on the wall, a bookshelf full of books (not including the several bookcases in the Founder's altar hall. Grandmaster reads many different types of book ranging from philosophy, region, history... to many saga of classic writings of eastern and western cultures.

He values books preciously. In a poem title "the soul of books" (Hồn Sách) he opened it as follows:


All essence of heaven and earth distilled to this

These pages so thin yet they carry loaded thoughts,

Pen may be senseless, but the soul takes command,

Writer not here, but these words are  my substitute teacher...


During a conversation at Tổ đường, Grandmaster recalled: "On the journey from Hà Nội to Sài Gòn, I brought a long a number of precious books. Later, I kept those books along with a number of documents and writings of the Founding Master in several wooden chests. During Mậu Thân new year (1968), my mother was concerned about the house may get burned down and she brought it to be kept at a neighbor's home.  Unfortunately, the neighbor's house was burnt, while my rented house on Minh Mạng street (now called Ngô Gia Tự street) remained unharmed.  Those book chests, I miss them dearly!..."  On 24-10-1993, Grandmaster autographed the Chu dịch (set of 2 book volumes) authored by the respected Sào Nam Phan Bội Châu, published by Khai Trí Bookstore in 1969.  This set of books are still kept at my private book collection as a precious heritage.

Within this tiny room, for the past 15 years, Grandmaster has read multitude of books, contemplated deep thoughts, wrote and updated võ đạo teachings, inscribed memoirs, created beautiful poems... In the early morning or at unoccupied times, Grandmaster came to the stone table set in front of the Founder's altar hall to relax and read newspapers.  Besides the guest room, at this stone table set, he received guests and welcomed his visiting students.  The plant pots stay constantly green, thanks to Grand master's daily diligent care and love.  Occasionally, he came down to shop for household items or to walk around at Hòa Bình park near Tổ đường.

He also loved flowers and ornamental plants.  About a month before he was hospitalized for the last time, Grand Master requested to buy more plants and Nguyễn Tấn Trung brought in over a dozen of potted plants including miniature coconut tree, Bougainvillea, Ixora... Tấn Trung recalled emotionally: "That day, Grandmaster was particularly happy!"  While giving care to the new plants, he said: "Arrange, decorate these lovely plants.  When I move on, I will be contented..."

In this tranquil space, living alone in this top floor quarter, no doubt, more than once he was feeling lonely in his old age, particularly at late night. Occupied by my own life, I did not have many chances to visit Grandmaster and talk with him as much as I would like... That would be my sore regret!

After going through "peritoneal dialysis" at the hospital for some time, he asked master Sen to clean up the room so it would become the memorial place for his parents and for him. He said to master Sen: "Remember me until you pass on, that should be sufficient!"  After cleaning and sorting, master Sen invited me and master Khoa to see the room. However, upon his returning (from the hospital), he moved back a couple bookcases, put up some photos and rearranged the room according to his liking.

After his passing, what did he leave behind? "Things of this world I’ll leave behind, press on my journey with empty hands" (Thanh thoát poem).  According to the inventory of October 07, 2010: A small amount of cash, souvenirs, gifts, photos, 75 potted plants... several bookcases with over 500 valuable books.  Personal belonging includes nothing of high value: 2 leaning chairs made of rattan, 1 old luggage, 1 TV, 1 VCR, 1 small refrigerator, 1 tea table, 1 auto-fan, 1 air conditioner... However, the spiritual value of his belonging is so vast, difficult to measure and estimate.  His contribution includes the enhancement and systematization of the võ đạo teachings with universal humanity values and the technical system of Vovinam-Việt Võ Đạo left behind by the Founding Grand master Nguyễn Lộc.

I hope the Council Master Trustee will keep this room as the "memorial chamber of the Grandmaster" that will help masters, instructors, and all students everywhere who visit Tổ đường can visit and see Grand Master's living quarter where he worked, rested and imagine a humble life he has lived.


Môn sinh Nguyễn Hồng Tâm

[ Vietnamese | English | PHOTOS ]



(Translation by Trinh Do)

Tall, strong, dignified, possessing a piercing gaze that reflects deep conviction and confidence, having a deep yet friendly voice, a warm and gentle smile, and a generous, forviging heart – These are the characteristics that define Grandmaster NGUYỄN LỘC – a revered teacher, a founder of a martial arts discipline, and a man with a mission to preserve, protect, and grow the legendary martial art tradition of the proud, indomitable Vietnamese people. Grandmaster NGUYỄN LỘC was an innovative and creative pioneer who embarked on a great conquest of the century, seeking the way to triumph over one’s own physical and mental weaknessess and overcoming all challenges and adversities. These extraordinary characteristics defines the lasting image of our late Grandmaster NGUYỄN LỘC, the founding father of VOVINAM VIỆT VÕ ĐẠO.



Nuesto querido y respetado Gran Maestro Lê Sáng, se ha ido para siempre dejando tras de sí una profunda pena y dolor. Dio toda su vida por la disciplina. Sin ninguna propiedad ni familia - todos los estudiantes son considerados sus hijos, nietos y queridos parientes... en cada latido y respiración se dedicó en cuerpo y alma a cultivar y desarrollar el Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo.

Me encanta y aprecio el Vovinam Viet Vo Đạo porque siento en sus artes marciales un ideal noble y gran amor por la humanidad.Tras reunirme con él, me doy cuenta de que su filosofía de vida y enseñanzas son tan fuertemente cautivadoras porque provienen de un alma noble con mucha vitalidad e inteligencia, además de un enorme valor.

Nuestro maestro realmente se ha ido, me siento perdido como si el viejo y gigante árbol que proporciona refugio a las tormentas hubiera desaparecido. A partir de ahora ya no volveré a escuchar su voz enseñándome y corrigiéndome, pero sé que el espíritu de mi Maestro estará conmigo para siempre.

Un estudiante de Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo