Martial arts buffs are known for their dedication. In Gus Roe’s case, dedication comes in the form of two years of travelling around Vietnam gathering authentic material for his new book on the traditional fighting skills of this country.
Titled Martial Arts in Vietnam: An Overview of the Histories and Styles and published in Vietnam, Roe’s book is the first English-language publication of its kind to delve into the systems, styles and histories of Vietnamese martial arts and their related practices.
Roe’s work is the culmination of years of research into traditional martial arts in Vietnam and “getting beaten up in various scenic locations, then taking notes.” The book draws extensively on Roe’s own knowledge and experiences of a number of the styles featured in the book. Roe is an instructor in the southern Vietnamese style of martial arts called Buu Son Phat Mon Quyen, or Dharma Mountain Martial Arts. He has also trained in various other Vietnamese styles including traditional wrestling, Binh Dinh regional martial arts, Nhat Nam style martial arts and Vovinam, among other foreign martial arts.
Martial Arts in Vietnam is informed from first-hand sources, including interviews with masters, students and academics across Vietnam to provide the most detailed and up-to-date written work on the history and culture of martial arts practices in Vietnam.
Almost all of the research undertaken by Roe for his book took place in the field, often with little or next to no information available in English, which was one of the major hurdles he faced in getting the book to print.
“Often I would have just the name of a village or person, go there and ask around until someone could point me in the right direction,” recalls Roe, who is based in Hanoi. “A lot of the places I visited were well off the beaten track, so people were often quite shocked to see a random foreign guy walking around and asking about local history and families.”
While Martial Arts in Vietnam isn’t breaking new ground in a literary sense — Roe admits himself that he deliberately avoided being what he calls “too academic in his writing style” so that Vietnamese or other second-language speakers would find the book accessible and engaging, just getting the content together has been a significant undertaking that has taken Roe the length and breadth of Vietnam.
“Some research that I’d done led me to Binh Dinh Province, which is renowned for martial arts,” says Roe. “My research turned up the name of Long Phuoc Pagoda as the place to be, but we had nothing else to go on. After driving around for hours and getting hopelessly lost in these tiny countryside hamlets, some kids with kung-fu uniforms sped past us on their motorbikes and signalled for us to follow them. We arrived at the pagoda [just] as a martial arts demonstration was beginning.”
Going the extra mile
Indeed Roe’s book demonstrates the lengths he’s gone to in bringing the information together. Including an introduction which provides an abridged history of Vietnam and its people, there are seven chapters tracing the histories and styles from the north, central, south, ethnic minority, Sino-Vietnamese and Chinese, and foreign schools of martial arts in Vietnam.
Each school is introduced with a brief history and a focus on its grand master and founder, followed by information on the school’s characteristics, its uniform and facts. While Roe has painstakingly put together a lot of facts about each school of martial arts and succeeds in his goal of “sharing what I’ve learned... and in doing so making Vietnamese martial arts more well-known and accessible to foreigners,” perhaps the book could have been more insightful had Roe offered greater discussion relating to his own thoughts and experiences.
For example, his introduction reinforces just how much war has shaped Vietnamese society throughout its history, but Roe misses an opportunity to showcase the development of martial arts in Vietnam’s formative years in favour of a chronology of Vietnam’s development instead.
Further, sticklers for academic robustness may be critical of Roe’s lack of referencing throughout the book, but given the amount of primary research Roe has undertaken, surely he can be forgiven for now.
Despite these lapses, Roe has achieved something that many of us have dreamt about for years, but have never done anything about. That’s to write a book and get it published.
Martial Arts in Vietnam: An Overview of the Histories and Styles is available at Bookworm Hanoi, 44 Chau Long, Hanoi and Nha Xuat Ban The Gioi, 46 Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. For more information on where to purchase a copy, visit facebook/themartialartsofvietnam
Lead photo by Sasha Arefieva