Crouching tiger, hidden dragon

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Msster Trung at home in his family's studio in Ho Chi Minh City's Go Vap District.

The Lam family has lived at the end of a small alley way in Go Vap District since the 1930's.

Lam Huu Hoi, a prizefighter and gangster, built the home as the center for his very own style of martial arts Long Ho Hoi (Gathering of dragon and tiger).

The home has evolved with the family from deadly bruisers to disciplined professionals.

For a time, the modest home contained the most infamous martial arts school in Saigon.

A legend

Master Lam Huu Hoi was born in 1907 in the Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu.

Hoi left home to study Shaolin Kung Fu under a number of hermetic Chinese masters in and around An Giang Province's Ta Lon Mountain.

He made a name for himself among Southeast Asian martial artists when he knocked out Surivong, a Muay Thai champion, in the heart of Bangkok.

Hoi became one of the most notorious bodyguards for the owners of the Dai The Gioi (Great world) casino in Saigon's China Town. He developed a gambling addiction and racked up a mountain of debt.

Overloaded by loans and harried by creditors, Hoi had to hide out at a relative's house.

To repay the favor, Hoi taugh t the man's sons to fight. Soon, he had a whole stable of students waiting to fight with him.

Hoi resettled in Saigon and established his school, some time in the 1930's when brutal prizefighting was popular throughout Vietnam and the region.

Long Ho Hoi's students competed against local and foreign contenders to win money.

One of the most favorite adherents was a poor Indian named Moustaza.

The young man came to him at the age of 15, wanting to train. Moustaza, his brother and two other students preserved Long Ho Hoi's great reputation in countless competitions from 1950 to 1975.

Moutstaza died tragically from a drug overdose in 1970.

Following reunification, Hoi ceased teaching prizefighters.

As the years progressed, the tall master became something of an icon in Saigion. Dressed in a felt hat and faded denim suit, he was seldom seen without a Camel cigarette in his mouth and a pair of big sunglasses shielding his eyes.

The school lives on

The large veranda in front of the Lam home now doubles as a children's playground and training arena.

The art has been passed through Hoi's line and remains in the family.

Trung, Hoi's 26-year-old grandson, is currently the acting heir and master of the storied school. Strangers occasionally arrive seeking traditional remedies for broken bones and injuries. Others arrive just to hear about the legend of Hoi.

A faded photo of Hoi peers down from a small altar, overseeing the proceedings. Every day (with the exception of Sundays) classes meet from 6 to 8 p.m.

Students arrive, dressed in comfortable clothes.

All of the students are men. Everyone who has been accepted here has been recommended by a former student and pledged not to earn a living from fighting.

Long Ho Hoi's martial art builds on a fighter's instinct. Students are not required to adhere to any strict code of physical or mental discipline. The style is designed to train brawlers and prizefighters.

"We never parry an attack," Trung said. "We neutralize it."

The fighting style is based on developing quick instincts and fluid movements. There are no hard rules or rigid forms.

"The style varies from person to person," he said. "In general, it is really hard to explain and that's why we do not accept children."

Trung, who spent eight years studying the art before he came to run the studio, says that Long Ho Hoi instructors merely introduce the students to different fighting techniques.

"It is the student who finds one that suits his physical attributes, interests and sense of utility," he said.

A small fraternity

All of the newcomers to the school have experience in other kinds of martial arts. As they progress in the school, they come to think of one another as siblings.

"Brothers always help their family," Trung said. "That is exactly what Long Ho Hoi's members are doing. They do different jobs to make their living, but they all set aside time to support the club by teaching the students taking turns."

The senior masters here studied under Lam Huu Hoi and his son (Trung's uncle) Lam Huu Binh, who died just six months ago from cancer.

Binh's widow, Thu, helps manage the school and collect student fees.

The first course of study lasts for about six months and costs just VND2 million, she says.

The second course costs the same amount and takes roughly the same amount of time to complete.

The third course is free - a gift for those who find their destiny within the art.

Thu says it takes several years to achieve mastery in the art.

At the moment, the club has around three masters and around twenty students. Trung is pursuing his own career as an electrician and says that he has no plans to expand the club.

"I just want to maintain the club for my grandfather and my uncle," he said. "Many people have read or heard about Long Ho Hoi's fame. But to me, the club is an indispensable and sacred part of the family. Just let it be what it is, a house for those who have real love for Long Ho Hoi."

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