For my web TV Show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” I try to show little known, and culturally interesting martial arts, in unusual locations, which few people are familiar with. We have all heard of China and Japan, and everyone has seen or studied some Kung Fu, Karate, Judo or Jiu Jitsu at some time in their lives. But few people know about the martial arts of Vietnam.
When I worked with some of the big budget American shows, I suggested that they do episodes in Vietnam, but they refused. Both of the big American series had formulas whereby the climax of each episode was a fight between one of the hosts and a local. In Vietnam, there isn’t a lot of fighting. It would have been difficult or impossible to find a fighter who could stand up to the experienced MMA fighters who hosted these shows. So, Vietnam was cut from the production schedule.
Luckily, “Martial Arts Odyssey” has no budget, and no schedule, and I can do anything I want. So, I returned to Vietnam, Hanoi this time, to film episodes on VoVinam, Vo Co Truyen and a host of Sino-Vietnamese arts, or perhaps Vietnamized Chinese arts. I knew that the level of fighting would be low, but that shouldn’t detract from showing the art and the culture.
The problem for me personally, training in Vietnam for several months, is that I can’t keep fit. Without the serious cardio and impact training of fighting arts, Muay Thai and Bradal Serey, I am gaining weight and losing my fitness. The diet is also a problem. In Thailand, Taiwan, and Cambodia, where I spend most of my time, it is not difficult for me to find a diet of only vegetables, fruit, and meat, while avoiding rice, noodles, and bread. In Vietnam, if I cut rice, noodles, and bread out of my diet I will starve to death.
When I first arrived in Hanoi, my friend Ling arranged for me to train with his Vo Co Truyen master in a temple in Hanoi. That was a very cool experience. Then I met a VoVinam teacher and a Wing Chun teacher at my gym and they invited me to train with them in the park.
The first day I was in the gym, the Wing Chun master came up to me and wanted to knock forearms and also shins with me. He hit me really hard, and it hurt, but I hung in there. Next, he wanted to knock knuckles and I absolutely refused. I can see some practical benefit to this type of body conditioning of forearms and shins, because you need both of those for blocking in real fights. But like a surgeon or a piano player, I don’t want to risk getting my hands damaged and not being able to box.
This brings up a number of questions that I have when I get around traditional martial artists (TMA) (as opposed to fighters). First off, although I believe shin and forearm conditioning can be beneficial for a fighter, why are these TMA guys doing it? I have never seen Muay Thai or Bradal Serey guys conditioning any part of their body except their shins. And, they fight and train for fighting all of the time. I have seen TMA guys conditioning all different parts of their body, allegedly because it is good for fighting, but then they don’t fight.
When I refused to let the Wing Chun master knock knuckles with me, he laughed. A crowd had formed, and he felt he had won some type of victory. I think the problem with TMA is that he believes his hands are harder than mine, and thus, he can fight better. While I agree that his hands are harder than mine, a fight is a fight. It will be won or lost in the fight, not before and not after. It will be based on who can knock whom out or who collapses from lack of cardio or physical toughness. Hard or soft hands won’t really matter. I have said in a number of articles, pro boxers tend to have really soft hands because they are wrapped, steamed and babied all of the time. But they are the best punchers in the world.
Next, the Wing Chun master started punching all of the metal exercise equipment in the gym, to show me how hard he could hit. He invited me to punch metal and I refused. He laughed again. Now he had won two public victories over me. But once again, I don’t know ANY real fighters who stand in a static position, such as horse stance, and punch a metal target with their bare-hands. It has nothing at all to do with fighting. As a fighter, I only hit the bag, the pads, or another person. I am moving when I hit, and the targets are moving, and of course, I am always wearing gloves, or at least hand-wraps. These TMA guys generally stand still and hit a stationary target over and over and believe this somehow has something to do with fighting.
This all calls to mind the famous quote from Bruce Lee about why he didn’t hit boards. “Boards don’t hit back.”
Next, the Wing Chun master made me understand he was going to hit and kick me. He took up a static stance and started throwing strikes at me. I really wasn’t sure what we were doing. Were we sparring? If so, I was going to move, and strike back. Or was he showing me something? I had no idea. Also, in Asia, there are so many issues related to face that I was afraid if I did anything that caused him to lose face, he might attack me.
So, I walked away. Everyone laughed. Now, he had won three victories without even stepping in a ring.
I trained a few times with the VoVinam master and he had me spar some of his guys. I was careful not to hurt them, just touch sparing. It was evident to me, as I had anticipated, that they couldn’t fight at all. They were all good martial artists. In fact, they were much better than me. Their kicks were beautiful. Their stances were perfect. They had dedication. They all conditioned their body parts… There were so many admirable qualities to the way they lived and trained, that is why I put them on my show.
But, they couldn’t fight. Again, I have written about this question extensively, but does it matter that they can’t fight? Does everyone need to fight? Do we only do martial art to fight? In the Jet Lee remake of the Bruce Lee film, “Fists of Fury” he is training with a Japanese Karate master and refuses to learn a particular karate movement. He says, “My Chinese kung Fu is faster to win a fight.” The Japanese Karate master answers, “The fastest way to win a fight is with a gun.” His point was, if you just want to win fights, then there are a lot of things you could do that would be easier than martial art. Clearly, we practice martial art for some other reason.
The other side of me, however, knows that these TMA guys are completely delusional and believe that they know how to fight. Part of me wants to get in a ring with them and show them that they don’t.
In addition to having more fighting experience, I was also much bigger than the VoVinam students. So, when I was fighting them I didn’t want to use any grappling, because they would have been at too much of a disadvantage. But, I felt I needed to show the masters and the other students what I could do. After all, that is why they invited me in the first place. So, I did a single take down. And once, when the student grabbed me, I did a standing choke.
When the video aired on youtube a lot of Vietnamese people wrote in. One guy apparently contacted the VoVinam teacher and wanted to fight me. So, I went to meet him at the park. When I arrived, I found two men who had come to fight, plus the VoVinam master and two of his students.
In Asian countries where I don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture I am often confused and frustrated, not knowing what is expected of me. Did they just want more touch sparring? Did they just want to see my moves? Did they want to win another victory so they could perpetuate the myth of TMA? I didn’t know. I asked several times what they wanted.
“We want to fight.” Said the taller man. “OK” I said. I put in my mouth piece, slipped a groin protector over my shorts and started wrapping my hands. The men all started talking to each other in excited Vietnamese. Finally, the tall man said, “No damage.”
“What?” I asked. I sort of knew that they now wanted a simple sparring match and no one would get hurt. But I was frustrated and annoyed at this point. They got me out of bed early and called me all of the way down to the park to fight, and now they were changing their minds. Also, I originally thought I was fighting the tall, mouthy one, but instead he wanted me to fight his friend who looked like a retired tuk-tuk driver.
There was no way I was going to fight as easily and politely as I had with the young students. The students were kind and respectful. Their master had treated me well. I wanted to help them. These guys had called me out. And since I wasn’t quite clear on what they wanted there was no way I was letting them walk away with another alleged victory.
I would fight easy, and not punch hard, since we weren’t wearing gloves, but I decided that the tuk-tuk driver was going to have an accident. The tuk-tuk drive got in a low Kung Fu stance. Although VoVinam and Vo Co Truyen are Vietnamese arts, with influence from everywhere, Chinese martial arts seem to be the largest influence on Vietnamese arts. I was just about to start kicking when the tuk-tuk driver and his tall friend interrupted to re-explain to me that we were doing easy sparring. They did this three more times. I have it on video. From the time I was standing in the circle, waiting to fight, until the time I threw the first kick was about twenty minutes because they kept on and kept on explaining to me that I needed to go easy.
I kicked at the tuk-tuk driver. His extremely low stance took me slightly out of my game, but it wasn’t much of a problem in the end. He threw an upward palm strike that hit me in the face, then he turned his back and ran out of the circle shouting in Vietnamese. I ran after him, grabbed his coat and was tapping him with my fist while all of the other men tried to pry him out of my grip. Apparently he thought he had won by hitting me once.
It took ten minutes or more to get reset and restart. This time, I kicked lazily, he grabbed my foot and came in. I caught him in a standing choke. Immediately, everyone was yelling “Stop! Stop!” but I had no intention of stopping. They made this happen, not me. They wanted to see a fight. And, I didn’t want even the slightest chance that they would walk away thinking TMA had beat real fighting. I lifted him off the ground by his windpipe.
After twenty more minutes of arguing, we reset. We exchanged a few kicks and punches. I moved in and started raining really soft blows on the guy. He turned his back and ran out of the circle for the third time.
They stopped the fight.
“Are you tired?” asked the VoVinam teacher.
“No, we have only been fighting for like thirty seconds. No, I am not tired.” I answered
The fact is, I had been in Hanoi for two months and hadn’t had any fighting at all. I was just getting warmed up and excited and wanted to keep going. The master let me fight two of his students. I went especially easy on the students, so it would be extremely clear to the tuk-tuk driver and his friend that I had gone rough on him intentionally.
The tall man said to me, “We is difficult for us to fight you because you do sport fighting, we train for street fighting.”
Anyone who has ever seen me fight, generally says it looks like a street fight. I even grabbed the guys coat while I was punching him. Apart from going through his pockets looking for change, I don’t know how could have made it anymore like a street fight.
The tuk-tuk driver said, and his friend translated, “We do low kicks on the shins and knees, which you can’t take because you do sport fighting.”
Once again, I practice Muay Chaiya, which is all low kicks. Although I throw high lazy kicks with these guys, in real fights, I only throw low kicks.
“We also strike in the eyes with our fingers. That is why my friend stopped the first time. When he hit you with his hand, he meant to hit your eyes with his fingers.
Since I started training, at age twelve, I have heard this excuse from TMA guys. Essentially what they are saying is, “Our style is so deadly, we can’t spar or go in competition.” I don’t want someone poking their fingers in my eyes anymore than the next guy, but is this really a legitimate excuse for not sparring?
When it was over, they all told me how strong I was, which made me nervous, because in Asia you never know what lies behind an empty compliment.
Later, my cameraman told me that at one point the whole crowd was considering attacking me for hurting the tuk-tuk driver.
Confused, angry, bitter, sore, tired, exhausted, annoyed, and lost, up one minute, down the next, excited and disappointed…..this is my life in Asia.
Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.