The taxi pulled-up to the airport. As I hurled my luggage out of the boot, the driver yelled, “hey, can you bring back one of those Good Morning Vietnam t-shirts”! I rolled my eyes and dashed towards departures, thankfully there were no delays. After a short detour through Doha, we were Eastbound. The passenger in the middle grit his teeth and clenched his fists throughout the night, while I slept through the turbulence. As the rubber hit the road with a violent thud, I eagerly gazed out of the window. My eyes were transfixed on the blue letters nestled above the airport, which boldly read, Noi Bai International Terminal. This was only my second time in Asia but it felt good to be back. History did not escape me as I disembarked and proceeded through customs. The pristine uniforms worn by Vietnamese law enforcement, reminded me of the regalia donned by the People's Army of Vietnam during the Second Indochina War.
As I approached the counter, the immigration officials’ immaculate dark-green suite and matching visor hat rendered me completely speechless. Her gaze commanded even more authority. “Purpose of your visit,'' she asked abruptly? “Conference, uhm, Vesak...” My voice trembled as the words squeaked out of my mouth. She meticulously scrolled through each page of my passport, paused, lifted her head and fixed her eyes square into mine, “what country this (sic)”? It wasn’t clear whether she was being sarcastic or genuine. Nonetheless, I was determined to get top marks, “Namibia, it’s in South West Africa just one country north of South Africa”. She tilted her head back into the pages and proceeded to scroll. When she flipped to the end, she pointed at my picture bemused and asked, “wha (sic) happened”? I smiled and assured her that it was indeed me in the picture, sans the afro. My nerves kicked in as we approached the ten minute mark. Surely this shouldn’t take this long? I was wrong.
She pulled out a black box from beneath her counter, placed my passport under the UV light and combed through each page, again. Her eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, transfixed by the image of an Oryx luminating on the blank page under the violet beam. Eighteen minutes later and the lady standing behind me had already been assisted at the next available counter. Meanwhile, my heart palpitated. She abruptly stamped the page, handed it back and whispered, “beautiful, very beautiful passport”.
The relief on my face was visible to the naked eye and for the first time in my adult life, I rejoiced in my green passport. Whoever thought to obnubilate the Namibian coat of arms as a security feature was a genius. The angst was soon replaced with excitement as I passed through baggage claim. “Welcome to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, this way to your shuttle sir,'' exclaimed the volunteer holding a UNDV 2019 sign. An hour later, I was in my room in Hanoi’s Daewoo Hotel preparing for my first engagement.
Despite the plethora of vegetarian entrees on offer, I left the gala dinner peckish. However my early departure was solely attributed to the arduous 16 hour flight. In all fairness, this happened shortly after the keynote speech by H.E President of the National Assembly. As I waited outside for the driver with my fellow international delegates, I pondered what the actual purpose of my trip was. Why was our organisation selected to participate in the United Nations Day of Vesak? In that moment, a gentleman wearing a saffron robe approached me. “What is the time, he asked? Seven minutes later the driver pulled up and we continued the conversation on the way to the hotel.
Rev. Dr. Sumana Siri, himself a buddhist monk described the thrice-sacred day of Vesak as the celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha Gautama. On the 15th of December 1999 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution, birthing the International Council for the Day of Vesak. Fifteen UNDV celebrations have taken place since 2000, with many international Buddhist communities hosting their own celebrations. To host this event is considered a supreme honor, and the prestige often drives competition amongst prospecting Buddhist countries. To date, twelve celebrations have been observed in Thailand, two in Vietnam and one in Sri Lanka.
Feeling more confused I asked, “but why do you think we were invited? We are not even a Buddhist or religious institution, so why...”. Dr. Siri interjected halfway through my sentence, tilted his chest towards mine and said, “beyond time and space, you will find the truth”. Confusion morphed into bewilderment but it was the most auspicious moment of the trip yet. Before we disembarked the vehicle, he handed me a copy of his book titled “Realists”. He asked me to read through it and return it to him the next morning. We disappeared into our hotel rooms as the rain drizzled down.
I dashed out of the shower, put on my robe and feverishly skimmed through the publication. The first page had a note from David Ryan, Director of the Private Secretary’s Office at Buckingham Palace, with a message conveying Her Majesty’s best wishes on the forty-fifth anniversary of Dr. Siri’s Monkhood. The back cover revealed the principles of “The Realist Plan” by Kalama Sutta. It was an essential list of commandments that encouraged followers not to accept mere hearsay, tradition, report, similar scriptures, reason, inference, appearance, preconceived notions or what seems acceptable. Yet it was the final tenant that engrossed me most, “Do not accept thinking that the teacher is respected by us”. As I tucked into bed, I wondered what the second day would have in store.