The Hanoi Kendo Club (HKC) is housed in a gymnasium of the Hanoi University of Architecture on Nguyen Trai Street, Ha Dong District. When a class or training session is in progress the sounds of bamboo swords clashing and feet stomping capture the robust energy of the martial art.
Kendo classes are held Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings, and the club has been a regular rendezvous for aficionados for over 10 years.
HKC President Nguyen Xuan Vinh said that when the martial art was first introduced to the capital city in the late nineties, it was only taught to children of Japanese expats.
"It was only in 2004 that some Vietnamese started to practice the sport and went on to establish this club. At present, the club has 40 members including professionals and beginners."
In Japanese, Kendo means ‘the way of the sword’. It uses bamboo swords and protective armor in combat. Millions practice the sport worldwide, but it is a nascent sport in Hanoi.
The HKC offers classes in two groups – beginner and advanced. In order to be in the advanced group, a member will have to practice at the club for six months and pass an exam.
Members of the advanced group will have to wear the protective armor in combat.
"Kendo is not just a martial art or sword fight, but a way to discipline oneself and build one’s character. Practitioners of Kendo must have the spirit of learning and treating people with respect. They should also respect the tools of the trade, including the armor they wear," said 30-year-old Do Thi Van, who has practiced Kendo for eight years.
Victory over oneself
Van recalled the moment that she passed the test to be in the advanced group at HKC. She had cried the first time she’d put on the protective armor and practiced fighting with the teachers.
"When I took the first few hits, I cried inside the armor because it was too painful. After a long time practicing, my physical health and endurance got much better. I don’t have to use painkillers anymore," Van said.
At the start and end of a training session, the members and the teachers sit down in two opposite rows to greet each other with respect.
Kendo practitioners, called kendoka, need to keep their mind calm while making fast, accurate moves. The body and the sword become one. For a kendoka, victory over oneself is more important than defeating the opponent.
The beginner group is taught by high-level members in the advanced group. There is no age limit to join and practice Kendo. The club welcomes everyone – children and adults, locals and expats.
Minor injuries are common when practicing Kendo. Since it is a barefoot sport, medical tape is used to bind the feet to increase friction and make it easier to move.
A full set of equipment and clothes used in Kendo include a face mask, armors to protect the shoulders, hands, forearm, torso, groin and leg, a training jacket, training trousers, a belt, a cotton towel, and the bamboo sword (shinai). A shinai is made with four bamboo slats held together by fittings and strips with a metal tip.
The Kendo system includes four techniques that aim for the head, wrist, torso and throat of the opponent. The last mentioned is an advanced technique. In order to master these skills, kendokas have to patiently practice for a long time at different levels of difficulty.
Technical achievements in kendo are measured by the dan grading system created in 1883. The dan levels go from first to the tenth dan. There are six grades below the first dan, known as kyu. The kyu numbering done is in reverse order, with first kyu graded right below first dan, and sixth kyu being the lowest level.
To reach the first dan, practitioners have to be at least 13 years old and must have practiced kendo for at least six months. One year after the first dan, the practitioner can take an exam for the second dan. The levels increase in arithmetic progression. It takes two years from the second to reach the third dan level, three years from then to reach the fourth and so on.
These days, the eighth dan
is the highest grade that can be attained in Kendo. The ninth and tenth dan are
no longer given. It requires at least 10 years of training after receiving the
seventh dan and a minimum age of 46 to get the eighth dan.
Tsuchiya Takehiro, Counselor at the Embassy of Japan in Vietnam, is currently one of 10 foreigners who teach Kendo at the club. He has been practicing Kendo for 35 years, teaching at HKC for two years and is currently at the sixth dan level.
"Previously, I worked in Indonesia for some time and taught Kendo to a group of people there. But the level of Vietnamese is much higher. When I first came here, I was surprised and impressed because some Vietnamese were so good they could even teach Kendo. People here are quite open and enthusiastic, which helped me learn Vietnamese easily and understand more about the culture here," Takehiro said.
Reflecting on her personal experience as she helped a girl adjust her stand, Van said: "The important thing in practicing Kendo is your stand. If it’s balanced, the other movements will be accurate."
Once she gets home after a training session, Van takes the armor to the balcony to dry. The uniform can be washed but the armor can only be wiped off with alcohol.
Apart from improving her health, Van has been able to make friends with many people in the Kendo community and learnt the value of teamwork. She has also obtained a greater understanding of Japanese culture. Furthermore, she said, competing abroad has given her a lot of memorable experiences and broadened her horizons.
HKC President Vinh said: "Over the past 10 years, the Kendo movement in Hanoi has developed, gradually catching up with the rest of the region. We have worked hard and practiced continuously."
HKC and two other representatives from Vietnam have won the Southeast Asian Kendo Championship in two consecutive editions – in 2016 and 2019.
Photos by Thanh Hue
Story by Tuan Hoang, Thanh Hue