by Cong Thanh
|Mind over matter: Students learn traditional Vietnamese martial arts at Bao Long Martial Arts School in Co Dong Commune in Son Tay Town. — VNS Photo Hoai Nam
Nguyen Huu Thuong, 12, has been a full-time student of the traditional Vietnamese martial arts at Bao Long Martial Arts School in Co Dong Commune in Son Tay Town for the last two years.
Thuong, whose mother died when he was an infant, is one of five students at the school on a full eight-year scholarship provided by the management board.
He hopes the scholarship and a lifetime annuity will help him fulfil his dream of becoming a martial arts coach.
"I have had a great passion for martial arts since I was a child. I spent my childhood growing up with kung fu films when I lived with my grandmother," Thuong said.
"I was recruited by the school a year after it opened in 2008. The school management board did me the honour of giving me financial support for life because I come from an underprivileged background," he said.
The school, which has 450 primary to high school students, is now recruiting for its two-year vocational training course in Oriental medicine.
The school's assistant principal, Nguyen Nhu Thuong, said: "The school aims to promote and preserve the country's traditional martial arts. The regular martial arts training course will help students buttress their morals, develop a strong body and a courageous mind."
The assistant principal added that the school had attracted students not just from Ha Noi and Son Tay, but from the southern and mountainous provinces as well.
Spirit and morals
Every student must be trained in morals before practising martial arts.
As usual, students study mainstream subjects in the morning, while in the afternoon they train in martial arts for three hours.
Nguyen Thi Duyen, another student at the school, said she found martial arts training confidence-boosting and fun. "It's really interesting. Martial arts training involves physical and mental exercises."
Duyen, 14, has been learning Vovinam for a year.
"I'm the second of three children but I'm the most active daughter with my waggish tricks. Kung fu films and sports such as football and shuttlecock are my passion," Duyen said, adding that her sister and younger brother also practised martial arts.
Duyen is one of only two girls who enrolled at the school this year.
Bui Thi Huyen, 13, from Chuong My District, 60km from Ha Noi, is also a student at the school.
"My parents want me to practise martial arts not just for the health benefits, but to make me brave," Huyen said.
"However, the moral lessons and the beauty of the native Vietnamese martial art fascinates me. It's not just about fighting skills, it's about personal development and humanity."
Teacher Mai Xuan Thuong, who has coached students at the school since it opened, said the martial arts course was tough, demanding great fitness and commitment.
"I always teach our students about morality and correct behaviour first because morals are the most important factor in martial arts," Thuong said.
"Martial artists have to learn how to do good things. They have to behave correctly and say the right things to help people avoid troubles in life."
Duyen said training involves a great deal of stretching, overhead kicks and qigong (breathing correctly).
"I hurt my thighs and calves doing muscle stretches when I first came here but I gradually got used to the training," she said.
Nguyen Kim Anh, whose son enrolled at the school in 2009, said she was astonished by her son's development.
"He was a lazy boy but no longer. He actually enjoys full-time education and martial arts," she said, adding that her son lost his father when he was just two years old.
Anh, 40, who lives in northern Lao Cai City, said she hoped learning martial arts would help her son become a confident and independent person.
"I hope learning martial arts will help him become a real man. His fitness has improved greatly, and he is happy to live away from home," she said.
Aspiring martial artists take part in annual contests on which they are graded. There are 14 levels of expertise.
"The best students will become a coach if they have attained grade 14. It means that they are permitted to open a martial art class themselves according to the Viet Nam Traditional Martial Arts Federation," he said, adding that when students attain the top 18th grade, they are considered a master.
The school's curriculum also includes training in karate, kung fu, taekwondo, wushu and pencak silat.
The school has signed a co-operation deal with the Xiao Long Xiao Lin Zi Academy in China under which Chinese coaches will lecture students in kung fu.
"We are proud to sustain and develop traditional martial arts in Viet Nam, while educating students with lessons in morals and bravery," Thuong said. "We respect martial arts. It is a precious thing. All students here should learn how to behave. They should know that martial arts will help them grow as human beings."
The school plans to enrol students from other Southeast Asian countries and Ukraine in the future.
The school receives support from the Viet Nam Traditional Martial Arts Federation.
"We provide technical support to the school's management board on martial arts examinations every six months. The best students will be promoted to a higher level every year. Hopefully they will become coaches after eight years of training," said Dam Danh Tuan, the Viet Nam Traditional Martial Arts Federation's general secretary.
He added that the school was the only facility to offer a full-time programme of formal academic education and martial arts training," Tuan said.
Thuong meanwhile is now at the 10th level. He said he hopes to eventually become a martial arts trainer. He is full of gratitude for the training he has received.
"We live away from home but that has helped us become a strong group and to overcome any personal hardships. Here, I feel safe. Very safe." — VNS