article. It is a biography about the man who founded our style. It
has his perspective of the Vietnam War, and a lot of other interesting
For those of you not familiar with the Cuong Nhu timeline, O'Sensei
finished his degree in 1974 and returned to Vietnam, where he was
captured by the Communists in 1975 and placed under house arrest until
his escape in 1977.
The Tallest Tree
Written By: Gail Malone
As a teenager, Ngo Dong frequently left his home in Hanoi flanked by
two of five older brothers and with a half dozen issues of LIFE
magazine stuffed inside his shirt.
These privileged sons of Ngo Khanh Thuc, then attorney general of the
northern sector of Vietnam, were not bound for the library but for the
back alleys and cheap dives of the city and an almost certain run-in
with the small-time hustlers and professional streetfighters they
would encounter there. They would sit and down quantities of beer, all
the while looking to fight. So the hefty magazines - three covering
the lower back, three across the chest - did not offer the brothers
information or enlightenment, but protection against the homely
weapons of the street: knives, chains and bottle shards.
Though they were favored products of Vietnamese aristocracy, Dong and
his young allies were far from soft. With a messianic idea to rid the
world of "hoodlums and thugs" they fought again and again, gaining
strength and experience; becoming themselves cautious and savvy
streetfighters. Yet at the same time they were mindless and
destructive, little better morally than those they sought to
But it has been years since those early bloodlettings in the streets
of Hanoi and Ngo Dong has come a long way. Now 36, Dong is a husband,
the father of four, a respected university professor, the author of
over ten books, and has been characterized by many as a hero of the
South in his country's relentless civil war. He is also the master of
a number of martial arts, holding black belts of varying degrees in
Judo, karate and Aikido.
Indeed, Dong has become many things over the years, not the least of
which is the moral and spiritual leader of over 3,300 students of his
own Cuong nhu karate. Close to 350 of these karateka are Americans --
students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida in
Gainesville where Dong is currently working toward a Ph.D. in
entomology;1 and where the Sensei spends countless hours instructing
four karate classes three nights a week in the basement of Florida
Gym, or on the Astroturf of the Florida football Gator's home field.
Two decades from streetbrawler to Sensei, the master of his own style
-- the change in Ngo Dong has been radical. But it has been subtle as
well, for no single event turned the hotheaded, arrogant boy into the
controlled, self-assured man. Still, it has not been an uneventful
twenty years. Ngo Dong has by no means led an ordinary life, likely
because he is an extraordinary man.
Dong was always good in a gang fight; even better than his brothers.
He had to be good, as did most young Vietnamese men, for then as now
streetfighting in the cities was rampant.
"I was taught other martial arts in school a long time before I took
up karate," says Dong. "All Vietnamese children are instructed in
martial arts because in my country streetfighting takes place anytime,
anywhere, daily, and so everybody has to learn something to be safe."
Dong learned and practiced Vovinam, the Vietnamese martial art, but so
did most of his contemporaries. Vovinam was no real challenge to the
strength, experience and sheer indifference to pain displayed by
hardened streetfighters; nor would it be very effective against even
crude weapons. So Dong was "very cautious, very careful" not to let an
opponent gain what might be the fatal edge. He never went out alone or
unarmed. He trained himself to "recognize who is the professional
streetfighter" in an instant and be ready to attack.
Dong's brothers eventually were injured. One stopped a knife with an
elbow block; the other took a blade full in the stomach. Dong was
never hurt; he was "too wise, too quick." Yet after his brothers were
wounded, he was wise enough to see that continuing this life for very
long would be foolish. Dong had rationalized the recurring violence as
a social necessity; as a way to purge society of those who were evil.
"But it is no good if you behave the same way as the hoodlums you are
fighting," says Dong. "In the same time I fight with them I become
just like them -- a hoodlum."
Moreover, Dong found that even the most incessant fighting was a
painfully slow way to rid the world of hoodlums, for no matter how
many are eliminated "others will always grow to replace them." "It was
a social problem," says Dong, "and you cannot eradicate such a problem
at the top. Like a tree, you have to eradicate it at the roots."
So Dong put an end to three years of senseless fighting. The decision,
he says, "came with maturity." He was just eighteen at the time.
In that same year, 1954, political turmoil in Vietnam, finally split
the country at the 17th parallel. Dong's father moved his family from
the communist North to Saigon. The elder Ngo had become the attorney
general of Central Vietnam, headquartered in Hue. After two years in
the southern capital, Dong moved to that ancient city en the Perfume
River to make his home. He would study life sciences at the University
of Hue where he would eventually become an instructor and be named
head of the laboratory of zoology.
Never satisfied to do one thing at a time, Dong was soon involved in a
number of activities in addition to his work as a student and later as
an instructor at the University. Like most college students he went in
for extra-curricular pursuits, applying his considerable ability as an
organizer to directing the drama team and the school theater. Dong is
also an accomplished guitarist and possessed of quite a goad singing
voice that one American observer has said "can take a song and enter
right into your soul." So the young man was often in demand as a band
singer at the University, at clubs around Hue, and on radio and
television. As was his custom, Dong always performed without pay. His
refusal to take money for anything other than his instructorship was
to become a rule of thumb in subsequent years as Dong undertook other,
less frivolous, voluntary activities, including what would amount to
an avocation---teaching karate.
Dong's childhood background in Vovinam had been supplemented by
training in Wing Chun. But he began intensive training in the martial
arts only after moving to Hue. He first studied in a commercial dojo
under a Japanese captain, Choji Suzuki (later founder of Suzucho
karate) who had remained in Vietnam following World War II to teach
Takeno-uchiryu and Shotokan to policemen.
By his own admission, Dong became "fanatic" about karate, working out
in two ninety minute sessions, five days a week, and at any odd
moments he could spare. But he was more than zealous, he was a student
of exceptional skill. By the time he became a brown belt, having
surpassed classmates who were ranking green belts when he began, Dong
helped Sensei Suzuki teach the junior classes. A third advanced
session was held for Dong and one other student.
Natural ability played a large part in Dong's advancement, but he also
learned easily because he was accustomed to the hard style of
Shotokan---he'd been using similar, if less efficient techniques for
"In the beginning I had learned Wing Chun from my two oldest brothers.
But I didn't understand what good Wing Chun was for it was soft
style." says Dong. Because soft style martial arts generally take more
years of study and are primarily defensive rather than offensive arts,
Wing Chun had not been useful to Dong in his fighting days. Basing his
judgment on this experience, when he began studying karate in earnest,
he chose a hard style because he "just understood the effectiveness of
kicking and punching."
But after years of work and a fourth degree black belt in Shotokan,
Dong discovered Aikido. He learned the newest of martial arts from
Ernie Cates, an American lieutenant doing a hitch in Vietnam from 1965
to '67, who had once been a member of the United States Olympic Judo
team. During this time, Dong also took a Black belt in Judo. He had
hit stride with these most accommodating martial arts.
He finally "understood the effectiveness of the soft style," and felt
that there had been something lacking in his Shotokan training. Sensei
Suzuki had not placed the spiritual emphasis on ki that Dong found in
Aikido and its application of inner sources of universal strength that
enables the smallest person to "accommodate" and overcome the brute
force of the most formidable opponent, nor had Suzuki's instruction
been geared toward building his students' moral character.
But Dong had had enough of purposeless kicking and punching; for him,
karate had to be more useful, of more lasting value than the physical
"Breaking four boards, five bricks....what will you do with this?"
Dong says. "You can learn kicking and punching and maybe never have
reason to use it in daily life."
"I think most important are the moral characteristics you get from
practicing karate: endurance, perseverance, courage, self-esteem,
self-confidence, self-control and humility.
Dong realized that physical prowess, no matter how well developed, is
transient. It may serve a person for several years or be gone
tomorrow. In any case it can't last. But the power of the spirit, the
moral character will endure.
"In the beginning I didn't understand this," he says, "because my
level was too low. Like when you are taught philosophy in the ninth
grade, you cannot understand it. But when you get a Ph.D. in
philosophy you will understand and you can then be found your own
theory of philosophy."
In essence Dong had received his Ph.D. in karate, and was qualified in
terms of rank and teaching experience to found in his "theory." If his
teacher "had been a good one from an ideological point of view," Dong
might never have broken away to develop his own style. As it was he
saw the need to blend the spiritual and physical aspects of karate
into an ideological framework that would offer a pattern for living.
"For me, Karate is a way of life," he says. "It is a tool to use, not
an end in itself."
He didn't abandon Shotokan, however, but modified and combined its
techniques with soft styles he'd learned and in 1965 founded Cuong Nhu
(hard-soft in Vietnamese) karate. Cuong Nhu caught on quickly,
attracting over 3,000 students in less than five years. It soon became
the third largest martial arts school in Vietnam, ranking behind Tae
Kwon Do and Judo and was the largest school in Dong's city of Hue.
Cuong Nhu Was clearly more than just another style of karate. It
proved an ideological touchstone for its students--- young people who
had grown up in a sadly disjointed and war-torn society that was
hard-pressed to meet their spiritual needs. Dong taught karate
techniques to help his students "improve themselves, to build
themselves up physically, to perfect their personalities and to use
all this to achieve something in daily life and to serve society."
Vietnam was certainly in need of popular cooperation to improve in
expressively heart conditions brought about by the years of conflict;
so the principal Dong taught we're getting more than lip-service, but
they were put into practice by master and students. For such public
service the communists would offer a bounty of 600,000 piasters
($8,000) for Dong's life.
The people of Hue had for years held themselves apart from the South
Vietnamese anti-communist effort. Hue University students and local
Buddhist leaders in had been particularly vocal in opposing the
government in the south. But following the 1968 Tet offensive and the
mass murder of over 4,000 civilians by communist forces, the people of
Hue according to Dong, "woke up from a dream." (The three week siege
was so intense and that most citizens in the city could not leave
their homes. One morning at 4 o'clock during the height of the
offensive, Dong's daughter was born. Because of the danger, Dong could
not move his wife out of the house, nor could his next door neighbor,
a Physician, come to Mrs. Dong's aid. So, assisted by his
brother-in-law and armed with a single page of instructions smuggled
from the doctor, Dong performed the delivery himself.)
If the citizens of Hue were far from satisfied with the Saigon regime,
and neither were they willing to become so much cannon fodder for the
North. Dong and his students were soon in the forefront of an effort
to mobilize the people in and around Hue in their own defense. After
the old Citadel had been re-secured from the North Vietnamese Army,
Dong organized his Cuong Nhu students, other students from the
university and high schools, and later laborers, farmers and
government workers into a division of the South Vietnamese Peoples'
Self-Defense Forces (PSDF). Appointed by the chief military officer of
the province, Dong commanded fifty and hundred-troop units, which
ultimately totaled over 27,000 male and female volunteers.
These groups were trained to not only as defensive forces, but for the
first time under a Dong's leadership were used as a means to create a
sense of community among the people. Dong took teams of PSDF
volunteers into surrounding hamlets for "Sunday Help Programs" where
they distributed food, worked with villagers to restore roads and
buildings, administered first aid for minor wounds, and organized
chorales and plays that dramatized government efforts to protect the
Because these community programs were highly successful, Hue's PSDF
and Commander Dong became major irritants to the communists. Dong's
thereat to the North was doubly great for a number of reasons, so to
stop him and the PSDF from obstructing communist progress in the
south, and to discourage other potential volunteers of Dong's stature
from following his example, the communists put a sizable price on his
head---one thirty times greater than his annual salary as a professor.
Despite the danger, Dong continued his activities because the poor
people in the countryside that he had come to know as a PSDF commander
had won his lasting affection.
"I love the farmers and the poor people," he says. "They are poor but
their hears are very clean, very simple. They will share anything with
you, help anyone they can."
And Dong wanted to go on helping them by improving their country,
making it more responsive to their needs, but this would require
further education. A master's degree and a doctorate in entomology
(the study of insects) what enabled Dong to advance his country's
agricultural economy to raise the standard of living.
So after obtaining the necessary funds through the Agency for
International Development, Dong took six-month crash course in English
and in March 1971, traveled to the United States to take the advanced
degrees. In addition, he came determined to expand his style of karate
to the West and took the first opportunity to found an American branch
of the Cuong Nhu Karate School.