Martial Arts School:
Back in 1968, when I was in the 10th grade at Hung Dao High School, Saigon. One day, there were 2 gray uniformed guys in there early 20's who asked my teacher's permission to give them a few minutes to do some kind of presentation. They were Mr. Thanh and Mr. Nhơn who introduced Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo to our class. Many of my classmates were so impressed with their professional presentation. My friend Sinh and I decided to join Vovinam.
There were 2 classes, one started at 18:00. My class started at 19:30. There were over 110 students the first day of class. I remembered so clear that I counted 10 students in front of me and 11 lines to my right, the entire class was new students. Our instructors were Mr. Thành and Mr. Nhơn (the ones who gave the Vovinam presentation that morning in our class).
At the beginning of the class, we were taught how to tie our belt and to do 10 basic warm up exercises. We did that for about a week. The following week, we started to learn how to punch and block. The offense techniques started the 3rd week. Instructor Thanh had a very special talent in offense number 1. The whole class applause when he demonstrated this technique. Instructor Thanh and instructor Nhon taught us more than martial art, they mixed Vovinam program with some of the scout leadership training. I thought that was very neat. However, some of our classmates came from different backgrounds, because our class was opened to the public. I noticed that the very first group who gave up the class did so due to the rules and regulations of the class.
After six months of practicing all the requirements for the first test of the blue belt with one yellow stripe, I felt confident to take the test, when the testing date approached. Most of the students had the same feelings like happy to see the results of our hardwork but then we all had to face the challenges. I did not know if the judges used the bell curve system to grade the students because there was always about 5% to 10% who could not make it. I ranked 28th for my first test. As usual, we had a week or 2 break after the test.
When I came back to school. I was so surprised that half of our class quit. Two main reasons that I could think of were:
1. The test was tough, and probably so many students did not want to get hurt
2. I knew for sure that these students came to learn martial arts and forget about the way or the philosophy of Vovinam tests.
A short time after coming back to the school. Instructor Thanh had to do his duty and instructor Nhon was transferred to another school. My new instructor was instructor Tam. Tam was about 5'4" tall but he could move. I meant he moved fast and also very brainy. He was a medical student at that time, but he did not stay with us for very long for unknown reasons. My second six months went by so fast that I did not remember much about them, even the test. All I could remember was the ranking, I ranked 18th over a couple hundred of students at the same level, blue belt two stripes. One thing that instructor Tam said to me: " I think your future with Vovinam will be very bright." That statement did some encouragement for my 'Vovinam career'.
After blue belt with two yellow stripes, my class was down to about two dozens students. That is how high the drop out rate was. In other words, Vovinam is very tough, at least all the requirements directly from the altar during my time.
During the last six months from the blue belt two yellow stripes to blue belt three yellow stripes, we had many different instructors taking turn to run our class until instructor Nguyễn Minh Hải took over. He became our permanent instructor. At that time, our class was mixed with all levels due to lack of instructors. Just two months before my blue belt three stripes test. The "spirit" of Vovinam kicked in. I practiced so hard that I caught some of the instructors' attention. They helped me out by practicing with me and they encouraged me to practice six days a week and I did.
Talking about exhausting, bruises, bleeding etc....No complaint (probably a little worse than Jackie Chan). Only one reason that I could think of was most Vovinam friends of mine were all behind me for the first place. It was scary to think about it but then when many instructors keep pushing you that 'You can do it' attitude and 99.99 % of the kids in our class supporting me.
Here it came testing date. This time it was not just high school students but many, many were from colleges and the worst of all, many were from the Army. I guessed that I did not have a choice then. Vovinam students or disciples filled the altar and packed the neighbor-hoods' street (I never heard any complaints from the neighbors).
It took three days to complete the test. I did not have transportation to get to the altar to take the last day of the test. My cousin Lu from Trà Vinh gave me a lift to the Altar (test site).
Grand Master Lê Sáng was the main judge for that day. Each contestant had to wrestle three different opponents in order to complete the test. After several hours, Grand Master Lê Sáng stopped the test and announced that anyone who had wrestled three opponents could get up and go home. I only wrestled two opponents and I sat on the floor waiting for the third opponent. Suddenly Grand Master Lê Sáng called my name: Trịnh Bỉnh Khôn, you can go home. That was my best memory in my entire 'Vovinam career'. Being called by the Grand Master, that was very, very special. I was so happy and so proud of myself.
It was not that I needed to wrestle another opponent in order to complete the test, the prior two days I was chosen to wrestle with more than four opponents. Wow, Grand Master Lê Sáng kept records of every disciple. He was sharp.
As usual, we had a break after the test, when we came back to the class. Instructor Hải told our class that we had three ties for the first place this time but he did not say who they were. All the younger kids in the class asked instructor Hải at the same time, was I one of them? (I thought the kids were more excited than I was) instructor Hải just smiled, walked back and forth for a minute or two then he nodded his head a couple of times. The kids screamed and congratulated me. We talked about the joyfulness at that moment.
My last class was a special training for instructors class at Vovinam Altar, Master Lê Công Danh (we used to addressed him as brother Danh) was the instructor for this special class. I stopped practicing Vovinam with a same reason as instructor Thành. Did my duty.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my instructors, especially instructor (now) Master Nguyễn Minh Hải, Master Lê Công Danh and better yet, special thanks to the most respectful Grand Master Lê Sáng who has sacrificed his entire life for Vovinam. It is a form more than just martial art that helps me to overcome many obstacles in my life.
Since late 70's. Master Hải and I live in San Jose, California. We still see each other once in a while more often during the Vovinam's founder Nguyễn Lộc's memorial ceremonies.
Many Vovinam disciples are very happy and glad to see Grand Master Lê Sáng who is making many trips around the world to visit as many disciples as he can.
My Vovinam Journey will continue someday.
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