At the height of the Vietnam War, a renegade monk created a haven for peace on an island in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Deserters from all sides of the conflict found refuge there. Among those who regularly visited the island during these dark times were two sons of famous fathers, John Steinbeck IV and Sean Flynn, and a U.S. Army veteran photographer named Roger Steffens. David Stewart revisited this mysterious place with some guidance from Steffens, who is putting together a book of his letters and photographs from that time.

Eighty miles south of Saigon, along the Mekong Delta in the Ben Tre Province, lies Con Phung Island, known as Phoenix Island. The 123-acre island is now a day-trip destination for international travelers. They can see coconut candy and milk being handmade by the residents, ride rented bikes around the perimeter of the island, and feed the Siamese crocodiles with raw meat attached to bamboo fishing poles, among other touristy activities.

However, a far more unique history of the island resides in a courtyard where columns of painted dragons line the area and a tower, not unlike the Watts Tower of Los Angeles, marks the spot where a hunchbacked monk named Ong Dao Dua—known to those as the Coconut Monk—used to pray with his followers to end the Vietnam War. Beyond the coconut candy and milk, Con Phung Island was a refuge for the soldiers and journalists disillusioned with America’s involvement in Vietnam during the years of that protracted war.

The Coconut Monk in Jan 1969- Lance Nix photo.
Coconut Monk in his tower at the east end of his “floating” platform refuge at the very eastern tip of his island in the Mekong River near My Tho, VIetnam. via Lance Nix | Flickr

CUT TO: Saigon, 1969. Roger Steffens had been in country for over a year and a half. Working in the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations Unit (Psyops) helping refugees displaced after the Tet Offensive, Steffens was armed with a Canon FT camera and took photographs from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to the Mekong Delta. The Delta was split into two factions; the north bank was controlled by U.S. forces while the south went to the Viet Cong. It wasn’t until Steffens met John Steinbeck IV, the son of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, that he saw another side of the war on Con Phung Island.

“In 1968, Steinbeck returned to Vietnam after serving there to be the liaison between the Coconut Monk and the US Embassy in Saigon,” Steffens recalls in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “He then introduced me to Sean Flynn. We jumped in a big station wagon and drove to the island.” After driving from Saigon to a boat in My Tho, it was just a two-mile journey by river to reach Con Phung Island.


A hybrid of Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism, the Coconut Religion caught on with those who wanted to escape the war-torn jungles of Vietnam.


Upon reaching Con Phung Island, Steffens marveled at the tower where Ong Dao Dua was praying along with the 6,000 Taoists in saffron robes. The 60-foot-tall tower was decorated with a giant globe, a cross, Buddhist swastika, and various religious symbols where the monks prayed every three hours of the day and night.

“They prayed to all of them,” Steffens said. “Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tse, Confucius, even Sun Yat Sen, Victor Hugo, and Winston Churchill.”

Melted-down cannon shells were used as gongs that tolled daily from a giant bell tower as the meditative drones shook the island, stifling the sounds of artillery, gunfire, anything that had to do with the war. Steffens saw the island as “a spiritual Disneyland.” When he became a regular visitor to the island, Steffens would drop acid and lie under the bell tower, tripping out on the calm resolve that was desperately needed in Vietnam.


“They prayed to all of them,” Steffens said. “Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tse, Confucius, even Sun Yat Sen, Victor Hugo, and Winston Churchill.”


Legend had it that Ong Dao Dua had not laid down since 1932; he was always standing in his Buddhist robes with a giant crucifix hanging around his neck. With a Cheshire cat grin, he would proclaim, “Morality will bring peace to Vietnam and the world.” A former engineer educated in France, Ong Dao Dua started the Coconut Religion in 1963 after meditating in total silence for seven years in a coconut tree. Upon his arrival at Con Phung Island, Dao Dua and his followers erected technicolor temples, bridges, and a series of towers overlooking the Mekong Delta, including a tower devoted to the Apollo space program that resembled a rocket ready for takeoff. The Pop-Art designs, wrought-iron towers, and staircases resembled the pagodas Dua had meditated from on Sam Mountain, 120 miles west of the Mekong Delta, before making Con Phung Island his home. A hybrid of Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism, the Coconut Religion caught on with those who wanted to escape the war-torn jungles of Vietnam.

“It was basically to set up as this colony of pacifists who refused to be part of the war machine,” Steffens recalls. “And that was the primary function of the island. If you shared those views, you were relatively safe.”

The Vietnamese government gave Dao Dua and his followers total control of the island so long as Dua stayed away from the mainland. If he was found on the mainland, the police would escort him, by force if necessary, back to the island.  Despite the risks of arrest, the Coconut Monk could not stay away from Saigon, especially during a time when he was attempting to bring peace treaty talks to the island. Anticipating a meeting with world leaders, he’d installed phones in his tower and a helipad for dignitaries to fly in for the peace talks.

An eight-sided table was made with eight different pieces of wood, whose names when mispronounced would indicate a feature of the leader who would sit in front of each.  In the center was the map of Indo-China with a yin-yang entwining it in an “S” shape. Steinbeck had suggested this to the monk, because he said there was water in land (Tonlesap Lake in Cambodia) and land in water (Hai Nanh island in the South China Sea, just like in the ancient symbol, each side containing the essence of its opposite.  It meant, he suggested, that this is where Buddha intended nirvana to be achieved on earth.

However, to the South Vietnamese government, Dao Dua was a much of a nuisance as Abbie Hoffman was for the Nixon White House. Both were pranksters trying to exert influence on the Vietnam War. During flights over the Mekong, helicopters sometimes flew over Phoenix Island, dropping tear gas canisters on the praying monks.

Those who became part of Dao Dua’s congregation were deserters from both sides of the conflict. Some were from the South Vietnamese Army, and others were from the U.S. Armed Forces. Most surprisingly, though, some were members of the Viet Cong—South Vietnamese aligned with Ho Chi Minh and the North.

Barry Abrams (far left) with John Steinbeck IV, Crystal Eastin, and Sean Flynn (Far right).

In 1969, “Vietnamization” went into effect—President Richard Nixon’s policy to draw down the numbers of American troops while giving the South Vietnamese full control over their military—and, during this time of transition, the island posed more of a threat to the South Vietnamese government. The demoralizing impact on their war effort of soldiers from the North and South throwing down their AK-47s and M-16s to pray for peace with the Coconut Monk was unacceptable. When Dao Dua and his followers protested outside the U.S. embassy in Saigon, naval patrol boats would raid the island, arresting some of the monks before Dua was escorted back by the police. Still, Dao Dua’s notoriety attracted the likes of Richard Avedon, who photographed the monk’s portrait, and Steffens’ compatriots, John Steinbeck IV and Sean Flynn, were also drawn to the mystique and solitude of Phoenix Island.

John Steinbeck IV and Sean Flynn shared a common bond; they both wanted to escape from the shadows of their famous fathers. The last time John saw his father, he had just been busted for marijuana possession. To much media attention, he also testified to the Senate Armed Service Committee on Drug Abuse, and penned a controversial article in The Washingtonian titled “The Importance of Being Stoned in Vietnam”. John Steinbeck’s disappointment in his son’s drug bust went unresolved, and the famous novelist died of a heart attack in his New York City brownstone in late 1968.

Years before Vietnam: John Steinbeck IV at 15; Sean Flynn starring in The Son of Captain Blood at 16.

After his father’s death, John returned to Vietnam as a journalist living in Saigon with Sean Flynn on Tu Do Street- the same area where Graham Greene penned The Quiet American. He and Flynn started Dispatch News Service, the news outfit that broke the story of the My Lai Massacre. In between assignments, John was a regular visitor at Con Phung Island, and the Coconut Monk became a sort of surrogate father to him. He prayed with him and protested alongside him outside the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Sean Flynn had been trying to live up to his father’s lust for life ever since he was a teenager. Known to the world as Captain Blood, Errol Flynn was more of a companion than a parent to young Sean. Absent during his childhood, the Hollywood swashbuckler made up for lost time with Sean during his teenage years in Europe where he lost his virginity in one of the finest brothels in France. When Sean was 18, his father died of a heart attack. Carrying on Errol’s globetrotting joie de vivre, Sean quit his aspiring acting career and went to Vietnam in January 1965 as a correspondent for CBS News.

[From top, the Coconut Monk, Barry Abrams, Sean Flynn and John Steinbeck IV]

 

After covering some of the biggest battles in the war, from the Battle of Da Nang in 1965 to Ben Het in 1969, Flynn was so turned on to the spiritual aura of Phoenix Island that he started reading about Zen meditation and Buddhism thanks in part to his friendship with John Steinbeck IV. Sean’s newfound spirituality was short-lived. On April 6, 1970, Flynn and his photojournalist friend, Dana Stone, went on their motorcycles across the border into Cambodia as they tried to cover the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the ongoing civil war. They were never seen again. In 2010, the remains of  journalists covering the war were found buried in Cambodia. The remains of Sean Flynn have never been found, although his roommate, noted war photographer Tim Page, is still actively searching for them.

Steinbeck continued to visit Phoenix Island until he returned to the States in 1971. In his posthumously published memoir, The Other Side of Eden: Life With John Steinbeck, he recalls his final encounter with his surrogate father, the Coconut Monk. “When I saw him for the last time we didn’t say goodbye,” Steinbeck wrote. “He touched his eye, indicating a rare tear. Then grinning, he pointed to the sky where he lived. Memories are obsolete and I can’t forget.”

When Saigon fell in 1975, signaling an end to the Vietnam War, Ong Dao Dua was arrested by the NVA and his followers were forced to disperse. Dua lay down for the last time in 1990 when he died at the age of 81. One year after the Coconut Monk’s death, John Steinbeck IV died in California after complications from corrective back surgery. The island itself has since become more of a tourist destination than a thicket of religious solitude.

The Island of the Coconut Monk, Vietnam8mm silent film footage shot in January 1969 by Roger Steffens. He shot this on his first trip to the Island of the Coconut Monk.

As for Roger Steffens, he left Vietnam in 1970 for Morocco before traveling to Jamaica where he immersed himself in the Jamaican culture and becoming a  leading scholar of reggae music. In 2015, his children digitized his entire collection of photographs for the Instagram page, The Family Acid. His daughter, Kate, who runs the webpage, said her friends told her, “We’re like the Waltons on acid.”

A forthcoming book, containing Steffens’ photographs and letters from Vietnam, is expected to be published next year. More than fifty years after his experiences in Vietnam and on Phoenix Island, Steffens says, “It was a million dollar experience that you wouldn’t give ten cents to do over.”

≠≠≠

Roger Steffens Instagram

The Family Acid – Website

http://www.pleasekillme.com

MORE FROM PKM:

THE BALLAD OF CATHY WAYNE: KILLED ON STAGE IN THE VIETNAM WAR

KILLING FOR PEACE: THE CASE OF TWO SONGS FROM THE VIETNAM ERA

THERE MUST BE SOME KIND OF WAY OUTTA HERE – A VIETNAM SOUNDTRACK

 
Like this? Follow us for more!