CamBinh Nguyen keeps Vovinam martial arts alive in San Jose

San Jose ( San Jose Spotlight):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.”