An ascetic's isle

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The people of Long Son Island follow a simple philosophy: no Gods, no temples, no books, no rules.


Living with love, trust and trueness to oneself are the only guidelines.


Such has been the way of the people of Long Son ever since the island near Vung Tau was settled by Le Van Muu, a migrant from the Mekong Delta, a hundred years ago.


As a resistance fighter disturbed by the French colonization of his homeland in the late 1800s, Muu fled to the uninhabited island sometime before the turn of the century. He and a small group of followers were the first to settle and build permanent homes amid the wild jungle of the isle.


There, Muu and his followers led a Spartan life and developed their philosophy of simplicity, which is still followed as religion by Long Son's current residents, said Tien Phong newspaper in a report last month.


Muu encouraged his people to wear ao ba ba, a simple loose-fitting shirt popular among peasants in southern Vietnam. He and his followers tied their hair into buns and shied away from anything fancier.


They walked the island with bare feet and bare heads, devoting themselves to live more harmoniously with nature.


Muu became known for going shirtless, or "o tran" in Vietnamese. Thus, he became known as "Ong Tran", or Sir Tran. His philosophy, which focuses on humankind living peacefully with what it has been given by nature, rather than always wanting more, has been called "Dao Ong Tran", or Sir Tran's religion.


"Almost everyone [here] follows Sir Tran's religion," Tu, a woman who resides on the island, told Tien Phong.


Long Son's most significant site is what's called "Nha Lon", or Big House, which Tran and his early followers built from 1910-1929 with money they'd raised mainly through fishing and farming.  The structure is communal property that all can use for free, though the most significant gatherings occur there on the 20th day of the second month of the lunar calendar for Muu's death anniversary.


Thousands of people from around southern Vietnam come to pay tribute at that time. The island settlement provides all visitors with free vegetarian meals and places to sleep for the annual event.


But the death commemoration is a silent one that passes without the reading of prayers or tolling of bells traditionally associated with Vietnamese Buddhist death anniversary proceedings.


The communal house spans two hectares and contains a school, market, rice storage, kitchens, museums, rest houses for fishermen and even temporary homes for new settlers of the island that have yet to build their own. Anyone can use the facilities and the island welcomes any and all new settlers.




The main practices of Sir Tran's religion include ancestor worship, filial piety, and working for the greater good through charity and good deeds.


A view of the Nha Lon (Big House), which was built between 1910 and 1929 and is the most significant site in Long Son Island.
Unlike the Buddhism followed by devout monks across Vietnam, Tran's philosophy does not require the pious to remain celibate.


"Sir Tran's religion is basically a way to be a good person," says Tu. "Sir Tran taught people to be kind, respectful, noble, smart, trustworthy, pious and patriotic," she said, cited by the report.


She says that Mr. Tran told his children and followers that people should lead good lives "not to become gods, but to become humans."


The philosophy holds true to many traditions of the southern region but has done away with many superstitions. Tran also said that everyone is equal in death and therefore all funerals, for both rich and poor alike, take on a similar simple style.


"When dead, everyone is the same," says Tran's grand daughter Ba, quoting the Big House's founder.


The Big House even lends the families of the dead standard coffins for funeral processions so that they don't have to buy fancy ones. Dead people on the island are not buried in coffins but covered with a mat.


Journey to the east


Le Van Muu came to Ba Ria-Vung Tau in 1891. He was in his thirties and on the run from the French as he had been a member of a resistance group whose leader had been recently arrested, the Tien Phong report said.


He worked there as a traditional medicine man and gathered a small following of people who sought not only his medical help, but spiritual guidance as well.


Afraid that the crowds would draw the attention of the French, Muu soon took his family to Long Son, which was then complete wilderness: jungles, mountains and beach.


Fresh water was rare and the land was highly salinized. But by 1900, Muu and his followers had transformed the land into rice paddies and salt fields. They also had begun to sail and fish the area's rich waters.


When the Mekong Delta was hit by a severe typhoon and floods in 1904, Muu and his people donated large quantities of rice to the victims, and thereby garnered a greater reputation and a larger following.


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