Ong Dao Dua, the Coconut Monk, was born Nguyen Thanh Nam in the Mekong Delta, in 1909. Aged 19, he travelled to France where he studied chemistry until 1935, when he returned home, married and fathered a child. During a lengthy period of meditation at Chau Doc’s Sam Mountain he devised a new religion, a fusion of Buddhism and Christianity known as Tinh Do Cu Si. By the 1960s, this new sect had established a community on Phung Island, where the monk lorded it over his followers from a throne set into a man-made grotto modelled on Sam Mountain. The monk became as famous for his idiosyncrasies as for his doctrine: his name, for instance, was coined after it was alleged he spent three years meditating and eating nothing but coconuts.

Unfortunately, the Coconut Monk never got to enjoy his “kingdom” for long: his belief in a peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam (symbolized by the map of the country behind his grotto, on which pillars representing Hanoi and Saigon are joined by a bridge) landed him in the jails of successive South Vietnamese governments, and the Communists were no more sympathetic to his beliefs after 1975. Ong Dao Dua died in 1990.

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