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On a chilly January evening, a group of students stood in formation and practiced their routine in Master CamBinh Nguyen’s backyard. She looked out from a gazebo surrounded by medals and trophies and recalled the many years she’s spent teaching generations of San Jose students the principles of Vietnamese martial arts, Vovinam.
“It’s not easy—this job requires your heart, your mind and your patience,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight in Vietnamese. “I’m still doing this because it’s my life’s calling.”
Nguyen, a teacher’s aide at Bridges Academy in San Jose, has devoted her whole life to learning and teaching martial arts. Growing up in Vietnam, Nguyen started practicing martial arts at a young age. She learned judo and taekwondo before practicing Vovinam, a form of martial arts originating in Vietnam.
Nguyen, 70, is the woman behind Vovinam San Jose, a martial arts club that also performs lion dances and Vietnamese traditional dance routines on the weekends. The martial arts class enrolls students as young as five and as old as 75. Some school-aged students in Nguyen’s class, with their parents’ permission, join her in performing dances at events across the South Bay on weekends. Nguyen’s husband, Tran Binh, also practiced Vovinam and used to help run the club, but he retired several years ago, Nguyen said.
“The dances are much more popular than the martial arts demonstration, so it helps supplement the class,” Nguyen said, adding her crew is booked up through at least February for Lunar New Year celebrations. “Whatever money we (get) goes right back to the class.”
The history of Vovinam
Founded in Vietnam in 1938, Vovinam, short for Võ Việt Nam (Vietnamese martial arts), fuses elements of traditional martial arts with techniques from other styles. A full-contact martial arts style, Vovinam is famous for its signature leg-grappling technique, called “flying scissors.” It also employs hand, elbow, kicking, wrestling, escaping and levering techniques. Practitioners also use traditional weapons such as swords, staffs and halberds.
Although most practitioners use it for self-defense, Vovinam teaches its students how to be better people and neighbors through its philosophy, Nguyen said.
“It’s a martial art style with deep Vietnamese history and values,” said Nguyen, who has practiced Vovinam for 50 years and is ranked as a master. “It’s suitable for everyone, regardless of their health conditions or ages.”
Vovinam has found a foothold across the globe in both Vietnamese practitioners and those of other nationalities. When Nguyen fled Vietnam and settled in San Jose in 1981, the 29-year-old joined a Voninam club in Campbell to continue practicing.
After the club in Campbell shuttered in the early 1980s, Nguyen sought to open her own. She taught private lessons in people’s backyards before hosting after-school classes at Kennedy Elementary School, Roosevelt Park and Franklin Elementary School, among others. Nguyen’s club grew gradually over the years, as word of mouth about a low-cost Vietnamese martial arts class taught by a strict, but passionate teacher spread far and wide. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nguyen said she taught more than 100 students daily.
Vovinam’s life lessons
Over nearly four decades, Nguyen has taught thousands of San Jose children self-defense and Vovinam’s philosophical principles of self-discipline, modesty and a sense of community. Through practicing Vovinam, Nguyen said she helped steer many school-aged students who were tangled up in gang activities away from a destructive path.
“We would spend hours practicing, and once they’re exhausted, I’d talk to them about the way to be a better student and a better child to their parents,” she said.
With the ongoing pandemic, Nguyen couldn’t host her club in schools anymore. Her class shrank down to roughly 20 students, who now practice in her backyard in a neighborhood between downtown and East San Jose.
“I just really want to keep it going,” Nguyen said. “There’s no other Vovinam classes in the area.”
Thao Nguyen’s children started practicing Vovinam with CamBinh Nguyen six months ago. She said she found the class through other community members. CamBinh Nguyen doesn’t advertise her classes anymore due to limited space in her backyard.
“I really admire her,” Thao Nguyen, who is now friends with CamBinh Nguyen, told San José Spotlight. “She does so much for everyone around her. I really don’t know how she finds the time in the day to do everything.”
Her sons, Bao and Lam, said the class gives them confidence in the new environment. The family just immigrated from Vietnam to San Jose several months ago.
“I can protect myself now,” Bao said.
Their classmate, Kayla, 6, said she also enjoys the class despite the late hour after school.
“(Master CamBinh) is a little strict, but she helps others so much,” she said.
Despite her club’s popularity, CamBinh Nguyen worries about its future as she ages. Her club, with a monthly fee of $40 per student, doesn’t have enough money to hire instructors to take over. Other local martial arts clubs charge upward of $300 a month per student.
Most students, who she spent years training and watching grow up, also left the club when they graduated high school.
“There’s no money in this, so they moved on to college or work,” she said. “One by one, they all left me. It’s sad, but I can’t quit. I want to keep on inspiring the ‘đạo’ (principles) of Vovinam.”
Thomas Than, a 75-year-old San Jose resident, started learning Vovinam with CamBinh Nguyen in 2020 after years of practicing other martial arts. He said the club is a bright spot during the pandemic.
“This is a special place that is doing a special thing,” he told San José Spotlight. “I appreciate Ms. CamBinh keeps our Vietnamese traditions alive in San Jose.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.
Vovinam San Jose: Keeping Vietnamese traditions alive
Phone: (408) 334-5452
Email: [email protected] (no updated or current website)
Social media: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008861860357
What puts them on the map: affordable Vovinam classes, lion dances