Frustrations of a Brooklyn Monk in Saigon

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2011 at 4:30 am

If I don’t leave soon, something’s gonna die.

By Antonio Graceffo



I feel like the Incredible Hulk. Every time I get a job, and an apartment that I like, and I start building a life for myself, someone pushes me. The anger unleashes the beast within and someone looses some teeth. Then I have to move on to the next town.


If I don’t leave soon, something’s gonna die.


Living in Vietnam has been a constant frustration for me. I struggle to learn the language, and no matter how well I learn it, I can’t use it, because no one outside of the classroom understands anything I say. In all honesty I think I am functioning only slightly better, or maybe a bit worse, than the first week I arrived in the country.


I asked the guy at the gym which days they would be closed during New Year holiday. He made me repeat the question fifty times. He finally answered something unrelated like, “Rock mostly, and some hip hop.”


My teachers aren’t much better. They generally answer “Yeah?” to every question I ask. “Does this word mean hot or cold?”

”Do you want me to burn your house to the ground?”


In one of our texts, we learned a phrase which meant “To quit smoking.” So, using my learning brain, I formulated a new sentence, “To quit drinking.” The teacher looked confused and disappointed in me for being so dumb. “No, this word means ‘smoking’. Don’t you see? This sentence says, ‘quit smoking.”


“I understand.” I countered. “And now, to practice the word, I am making a new sentence. ‘I quit drinking.’”

“S-m-o-k-i-n-g” She said, sounding out the word. “This word means ‘smoking.’.”


Apparently, smoking is the only thing you can quit in Vietnamese language.


This past week, my Saigon life improved a bit because I started training again. I found a boxing and Muay Thai team in China Town and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the coach understood me when I spoke Vietnamese with him. The main coach was a squared-away guy, about 35 years old, smart and dedicated. But, the main trainer is a guy named Tuan (for purposes of plausible deniability). He is 27 years old and has a huge beer belly. Apparently, as recently as four years ago, he was super fit, and fighting in big championships in Thailand. But now, he is unemployed and apparently drinks a ton of beer.


The first two days of training went well, because the coach was there. The only weird thing was, because it was Vietnam, the trainer kept trying to get me to drink beer after training. Thanks to my friend who drove me, I was able to escape. But, they are so insistent about having you drink with them, that it borders on rudeness to get out of it.


On Saturday night, they were trying to get me to drink beer, before training! To add insult to injury, they still follow those 1950’s football training books that tell you it’s not good to drink water during training. The training room isn’t air conditioned. So, the temperature is about 30 degrees or more, and yet they scold me every time I drink water.


I don’t have a degree in sports science, but, if I had a choice between drinking beer before training and drinking water during training. I would have to guess that drinking water during training is the lesser of two evils.


The other trainer is a guy about 50 years old and proper fat. He tried to take my water bottle away from me saying, “Drinking water during training will make you have breasts like a woman.”


I think the only way that guy gets access to a woman’s breasts is by paying money.


Neither of these guys attribute their fat bellies to the fact that they drink beer every single day.


The young guy kept pushing me, wanting to step on my thighs when I was stretching, and bouncing on my stomach when I was doing sit-ups. All during training and exercises, he kept kicking me in the gut. I know how to train. That’s why I am still in the game at my age. I know my limits, and I don’t go beyond them.


He just kept saying, “No good. No good. Not professional.”


On the second day, he wanted me to spar with the best student. I told them, again, “I have been out of training for six months. This is the second day back. I will go slowly until I am ready. Maybe next month I can spar this guy, but not today.”


Of course they didn’t understand. Instead, they yelled at me for drinking water. And the twenty-seven year old can’t see that I am forty-three and still training, and that I am doing just fine. Not only does he not train anymore, at twenty-seven, but I would be surprised if he were still alive at forty-three.

On Saturday night, the trainer was drunk and wearing street clothes when he entered the gym. He kept interrupting my training, to take me over to the wall, and show me the poster of him when he was fit, and fighting in Thailand.


“Yes, that picture gets better every time you show it to me.” I told him.
Toward the end of the session, he started harassing me, like he wanted to fight. He may be out of shape, but he is a 90K ex champion, who is nearly twenty years younger than me.  I am not stupid enough to fight him, so I took him down and choked him out. Then I helped him up and bowed, so he wouldn’t loose face and kill me. Next, he took me down and tried to do a leg submission on me. I grabbed his belly fat, pinched it and twisted it till he screamed and released me.


When he stood up, his street clothes were all wet and dirty. “This, no good.” He kept muttering.


“Why did you attack me if you didn’t want to get dirty?” I wanted to ask.

After training, he was so aggressive about demanding I go drink beer with him, that I am not sure if I want to go back to training next week.

And that was the best part of my life in Saigon.


The following morning, I felt really sick. I find that when someone kicks me in the stomach or bounces up and down on it, I am not quite at the top of my game the next day. It took all my energy and all my resolve to stagger out of bed in search of food. But I have come to dread leaving my room. Every interaction with Vietnamese people becomes a frustrating chore because of the language issues.


I went to Family Mart (a Japanese chain, like 7/11) because I figured it was the place where I could buy food, but interact with Vietnamese people the least. One of the items I chose off of the shelf was a cream pastry. When I went to pay for it, the checkout boy opened the package and stuck his nose inside. Before I could protest, he said, “This food is no good.”


He led me back to where I had got the pastry, and he put right back on the shelf, to sell to the next person. Next, he opened several other packages, sniffing, finally concluding, “All bad.” But he left them all on the shelf.


While I appreciated the interest he took in me, and that he prevented me from eating something that would make me sick, I also felt like he was screwing with me. First off, he only spoke English to me. Next, he chastised me. “You should always sniff food before you buy it.” He ordered.

“Yeah, how about you stop selling bad food instead?” I asked.

His answer was, of course, “Yeah?”


Next, I wanted some instant noodles. Normally, the staff mix in the hot water for you and by the time I walk home, the noodles are ready to eat. I asked the boy to put hot water in my noodles and he asked “You want water in your noodles?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Hot water?” he asked.

“No, cold! What are you, a comedian?” I asked. But he didn’t answer. So, I gave in and played his game. “Yes, hot water.”

“I think you can do it yourself.” He said.

“Yes you do.” I agreed. “But I think you can do it for me.”


“The water machine is over there.” He said, pointing. When I got to the machine, I didn’t know how to operate it. Seeing me struggling, a high school girl stepped in to do it for me. Once again, I appreciated the help, but while she was pouring the smoking, hot water into my soup, she said, “Careful, it’s hot.”


“Oh, yeah? Thanks. I didn’t know that smoking hot water for soup is hot. In my country, smoking, hot water for soup is cold.”


If this had all been in Vietnamese, I could have tolerated it somewhat, because at least I would have been practicing the language. But because it was in English, it just graded on my nerves. I wanted to shout, “I am twice your age and better educated than you will ever be! Stop talking down to me.”


I am not a dancing money!


I got home, and locked myself in the sanctuary of my room. I popped in my original Star Trek TV show, DVD set, and flipped on the internet. But Asia found me.


Last fall, when I was in Cambodia, a Hungarian guy called a press conference in Phnom Penh, to announce that he was making a Hollywood movie, about Cambodia, staring jet Li, John Cena, Angelina Jolie and some other unlikely famous people like Humphrey Bogart and Hunter S. Thompson. He said the budget for the movie was 70 Million dollars and it would be the most expensive Hollywood movie ever made.


The Khmer not only believed him, but they lauded him. The politicians and hangers on were crawling over each other to get next to this guy.


Apart from the Khmer press, the story only ran in English in one Phnom Penh paper and the Xinhua News Agency from China. You would think with such a huge movie, more American press would have covered it. And possibly, you would imagine that the press conference would be held in Hollywood. And, that some of the stars would have been aware of the fact that they are in this movie.


Soon, this story was picked up by Khmer exile media all over the world, with momentum building, and people from Australia to France, writing in and saying things like, “Finally, the world will see our Great Khmer Empire in a major motion picture.”


I couldn’t take seeing the same Xinhua News Agency story reprinted and rehashed for months, with people believing this myth, so, the previous day, I published an article, explaining, in painful detail, that this movie doesn’t exist and that the story makes no sense.


I posted it on a fan-made facebook page, dedicated to the movie. The first comment that appeared on my article was “I am very happy about this movie, because I want the world to know story Cambodia.”


No one can help them.


People often ask me what percentage of my stories are true. And the answer is, everything in this story is true except one point. Earlier, I said, “I am not a dancing monkey.” But actually, I am.


Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.


Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.







Brooklyn Monk fan page


Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at


Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)



Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)


Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: