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Tan Dang makes a ceremonial tap as worship ceremonies begin at the Manchester Buddhist temple. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Vietnamese community finds comfort in Manchester temple


IMAGINE THAT FIERCE, religion-hating communists take over the Vatican.

They plunder, purge and create their utopia, but after about 25 years, they loosen up. (After all, the internal energy of any revolution has the half-life of a Russian winter.)

Eventually, the Red Vatican offers to send priests to Catholic parishes around the world.

What would a priest-less church do?

That’s the predicament of Phuoc Dien, the 25-year-old Vietnamese Buddhist temple squirreled away in the Hollow neighborhood of Manchester. Vietnam — which went entirely communist in 1975 with the fall of Saigon — initially repressed religion.

But about five years ago, the Vietnamese government offered to replace Phuoc Dien’s monk, said Dung Hale, the president of the temple.

No thanks, said the temple. They could be spies, said Hale, 72, who has lived in Manchester for 18 years.

“Now they (the communist government) say they can’t destroy religion, so they use religion to make people like them,” said Hale, who spent 10 years in a communist prison camp.

So the temple turned to Lanh Huynh, also 72, who also spent 10 years in a prison camp. Now a retired carpet installer, Huynh was a Buddhist monk in the former South Vietnam. When the communists took over, they forced him to marry, ending his career as a monk, he said.

He holds services in a converted factory. The worship space includes plush rugs comfortable to shoe-less feet, bright reds and yellows, and statues of multi-armed figurines and other deities. A massive bell — cast in Vietnam with the words “Manchester, New Hampshire,” evident among Asian symbols — calls people to prayer.

The temple’s Cedar Street parking lot features a statue of the quintessential Buddha — happy, fat and seated. A bowl of oranges and apples is at his feet, as well as a few sticks of burning incense. On the Auburn Street side, a patio features Quan Tse Am, a Buddha with a female figurine who is under a canopy and surrounded by palms, incense, fruit and benches where people gather to converse.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 916 Manchester residents are Vietnamese, a little less than 1 percent of the city population. Hale estimates that about half are Buddhists and the other half Catholic.

They gather at times for community events, such as 6 p.m. tonight at St. George Greek Orthodox Church, when a fundraiser will be held to raise money for Vietnamese war veterans who remain in Vietnam.

The temple also serves as a gathering place for the Vietnamese community. Older people said it reminds them of their home country. Middle-aged Vietnamese put their children in the language classes, hoping they do not lose all connections to their heritage.

The classes include three American-born adults.

“I think I’m in third grade. They tell me that once you learn the alphabet it’s a simple language,” said Kevin Georgantas, 41. The owner of a Goffstown automobile sales and service company, Georgantas is learning Vietnamese to prepare for the arrival of his fiancee.

He sits next to his future cousin, a 5-year-old Vietnamese boy.

Georgantas said he was drawn into the Vietnamese culture when he picked up his mother from a Vietnamese-run nail salon. The manicurists peppered her with questions: Is her son single? Would he like to meet an Asian woman?

He has visited Vietnam twice and is awaiting a visa for his 25-year-old wife. The Vietnamese approach family the way his parents did, he said.

“The traditional roles that my parents and grandparents had that seemed to be lost to the millennials, are very strong,” he said, “in the Vietnamese culture.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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