Biography of the Grand Master Nguyễn Văn Thông (1925-2019)


Biography of the Grand Master Nguyễn Văn Thông



          • Supreme White Belt (1996).
          • Direct disciple of the Master Founder Nguyễn Lộc.
          • Former President of the Youth Federation Việt Võ Đạo.
          • Member of the Supreme Council of Masters

          Grandmaster Nguyễn Văn Thông was born on 28-10-1925 in Hanoi, North Vietnam, died on 7 September 2019 in Saigon. He was a direct disciple of the founding master Nguyễn Lộc, he started Vovinam in 1953 at Hàng Bông Street, Hanoi



Photo 1955, Thủ Đức, Sud Vienam

Việt Nam National Guard Training Center - from left to right:

Nguyễn Văn Thông, Trần Đức Hợp, Lê Sáng, Nguyễn Lộc, Bùi Thiện Nghĩa, Nguyễn Cao Hách, Nguyễn Dần


He recounted his debut at Vovinam: [[1]] 

« "... It is a chance for me to know Vovinam. In 1950, civil servant (intelligence officer) in Hanoi, I had under my orders Mr. Nguyễn Hải, younger brother of the master Nguyễn Lộc. Hải took me away to the Hàng Bông club and introduced me to master Nguyễn Lộc ... Master Lộc asked me if I am interested in martial arts. Due to my enthusiasm and affirmative answer, he accepted me as a disciple. From that day, I come to train regularly with him ". 

In 1954, following the Geneva Agreement [[2]], he emigrated with his family to South Vietnam and continued training with master Nguyễn Lộc at the club Thủ Khoa Huân, in the 1st district of Saigon. 

mebinh ngvanthong 

Photo 2010, Saigon

Grandmasters Phan Dương Bình and Nguyễn Văn Thông

He says: "… At that time, the assistant of the founding master Nguyễn Lộc was Master Phan Dương Bình [[3]]. Although we are trained by Master Bình, it is Master Lộc who supervises the teachings with attention… Later, Master Bình returned to the North for family reasons… the Thủ Khoa Huân club moved several times with the help of Master Lê Sang before settling in Building Everest [[4]], where Master Nguyễn Lộc lived before passing away in 1960… Then, it is Master Trần Huy Phong who is the true successor of Master Lôc, continued to direct the Vovinam[[5]]".



Photo 1964,

1st Council of Masters of Vovinam-Việt Võ Đạo

From left to right: Ngô Hữu Liễn, Phan Quỳnh,

Nguyễn Văn Thư, Lê Sáng, Trần Huy Phong,

Nguyễn Văn Thông, Trần Bản Quế

From the official creation of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao in 1964 [[6]], he was appointed president of the Finance Commission of the 1st Council of Masters (Central Directorate). At that time, during the establishment of the rank system [[7]], he obtained the red belt Chuẩn Hồng dai (4th dang) at the same time as the other master leaders such as: Mạnh Hoàng (1938-1967), Ngô Hữu Liễn, Trần Bản Quế, Phan Quỳnh, Nguyễn Văn Cường, Trần Thế Phượng, etc.

During the period of development (1964-1975), he was responsible for Vovinam classes at the Chu Văn An public high school as part of the teaching of martial arts within the National Education (1966-1968), then he opened other classes in the private high school Trần Hưng Đạo from 1967 to 1975. He was red belt 2nd degree (6th dang) in 1975.



In 1973, for international development needs, Master Trần Huy Phong, President of the

Viet Vo Dao Youth Federation, replaced Master Patriarch Lê Sáng to lead the Vovinam-Viet Vo Dao Formation Federation while chairing the International Development Office [[8]]. Master Nguyễn Văn Thông was appointed to replace Master Trần Huy Phong as president of the Viet Vo Dao Youth Federation until 1975.


Photo 1973, 13th foundation celebration.

Trần Hưng Đạo High School Club

Nguyễn Chánh Tứ (1), Nguyễn Văn Thông (2), Trần Văn Nhiêu (3)

In 1995, in response to the appeal of the master patriarch Trần Huy Phong [[9]], the masters of the former Council of Masters in 1964, published on September 16, 1995 the Declaration to officially create the Council of Masters for the leadership of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao. This council is the precursor body of the World Council of Masters and the World Federation of Vovinam-Viet Vo Dao which were created at the 2nd World Congress in 1996 in Paris, France. On this occasion, master Nguyễn Văn Thông, as a "member of the Traditional of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao" [[10]], was promoted to the title of Grand Master, Supreme White Belt and member of the Supreme Council of Masters.


On the other hand, Master Thông is also known in Vietnam as a photographer. He was the one who took many photos retracing the history of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao. In the years 1965-1975, his works of both artistic and historical value were published in numerous journals and books of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao. 



Photo 1970, 10th foundation celebration, Center Hoa Lư

From left to right: Ngô Hữu Liễn, Trần Đức Hợp, Nguyễn Văn Thông

Lê Văn Phúc, Trịnh Ngọc Minh

Very humbly, he expressed as follows: "... You can say that in life, I am often called " Master ", because I have 2 master titles: master of martial arts and master of photography ...".

 Self-taught passionate about photography, in the years 1945-1950, he was lucky to receive the teachings of a friend, Mr. Nguyễn Văn Chiếm, and Mr. Bùi Quế Lân, owner of a photo studio in Hanoi. He is so passionate that he dared to spend 10,000 Indochina Dong (equivalent to 10 taels of gold nowadays), to buy a camera. Subsequently, he became a renowned photographer, having collaborated with Mr. Đỗ Hân, president of the Hanoi Photographers Association, to organize 2 exhibitions in 1953 and 1954 in Hanoi. 

Once immigrated to the South in 1954, alongside the Vovinam activities, he joined forces with photographers from the South and immigrant photographers like him to form the group of photographers from Saigon and teaches this art at establishments: Binh Dan Polytechnic School, Association photo Vietnam-USA and Lasan Taberd high school [[11]].


In 1958, he became famous by winning the Medal of Honor (above the gold medal) with the photo "Sea trip" (Ra Khơi) organized by the Ministry of Information of the Republic of the South Vietnam. This photo also received the gold medal in Mantes la Jolie (France) as well as other awards in England, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

On the other hand, one of his famous photos is that of Venerable Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself on fire in 1963, at the intersection of Le Van Duyet and Phan Dinh Phung streets, 3rd district, Saigon. [[12]]. 

According to him, this self-immolation scene was photographed by 3 people. The 1st person is himself, the 2nd person is an American journalist, Mr. Malcolm Browne [[13]], and the 3rd person is a bonze from Giác Minh Pagoda (who is his photography student). As Mr. Malcolm Browne is a professional journalist, his photos quickly spread around the world, earning him the International Photography Prize in 1963 [[14]]. As for Master Nguyễn Văn Thông, his photos were not sent to international competition until 1964. He thus won a silver medal in England and a bronze medal in Finland.


In 1975, under the regime of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, he was sent to a re-education camp for 8 years (1975-1983). When he leaves the camp, he has no opportunity to resume his activities because Vovinam is still banned. As for his career as a photographer, he is requested by Mr. Lâm Tấn Tài [[15]], president of the Arts Council of the Vietnamese Association of Photographic Artists in Vietnam, member of the Communist Party, but loves art, to be his collaborater. From 1984 to 1996, he was in charge of the training team, thus opening 14 sessions to train photographers in the southern provinces. Despite his retirement in 1996, he continues to teach whenever the school needs his skills. It is for this reason that most of South Vietnam's photographers are his students today. 

Grandmaster Nguyễn Văn Thông passed away on September 7, 2019 at the age of 95, leaving behind 8 children: 3 boys and 4 girls. His wife, Mrs. Lê Thị Dậu (1921-2006) is also the aunt of the great master Lê Trọng Hiệp (California, USA). 

Grandmaster Nguyễn Văn Thông is a shining star of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao, a star that remains forever engraved in our hearts because he left many precious works. His passing left many people and organizations with great regret, a great loss not only for Vovinam Viet Vo Dao but also for the artistic world of Vietnam. 


Some historical photos of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao taken by Master Nguyễn Văn Thông


Photo 1955, VietNam National Guard Training Center

Courses led by the founding master Nguyễn Lộc


 1944 lecongdanh tranhuyquyen

Photo in 1964, Hoa Lu Center, Saigon

On the left: Master Trần Huy Quyền (scissors n ° 10)

Right: Master Lê Công Danh (scissors n ° 7)


Photo in 1966, martial arts teaching program within the National Education. Students from Gia Long High School (Nguyễn thị Minh Khai), Saigon

 metranhuyphong1964 dam2tay

Photo 1964

Master Trần Huy Phong

Counterattack of đấm hai tay 7th level

 metranhuyphong1964 donchan7


Photo 1964

Master Trần Huy Phong

7th Scissors





Some masterpieces by photographer Nguyễn Văn Thông

 medaillera khoi1958

1958, "Sea trip" (Ra Khơi)

Gold medal, France, 1958

Medal of Honor from the Ministry of Information



 medaille thichquangduc1963

1963, "Venerable Thích Quảng Đức"

Silver Medal – United Kingdom – 1964

Bronze Medal, Finland - 1964



[1]Interview by master Trần Nguyên Đạo on 04-08-2016 at his residence.

[2]The Geneva accords were signed on 20-07-1954 under the sponsorship of the foreign ministers of the countries: Soviet Union (Molotov), United States (John Foster Dulles), China (Zhou Enlai) and Great Britain (Anthony Eden), ending the Indochina War between Vietnam and France. Vietnam is divided into two states, taking the 17th parallel as the border. The North is under the communist regime led by Hồ Chí Minh, the South is republican under the leadership of Emperor Bảo Đại.

[3]Grand master Phan Dương Bình (1929-2020), Hanoi.

[4]Current headquarters of Minh Đức Faculties of Medicine and Human Sciences, Nguyễn Văn Tráng Street, 1st District, Saigon.

[5]During the period 1960-1964, Vovinam was banned by the Ngô Đình Diệm government because of the failed 1960 coup. Among the insurgents are masters Phạm Lợi (Judo) and Tám Kiểng (Traditional martial arts). It is for this reason that all martial arts disciplines are prohibited. During this period of prohibition, Master Lê Sáng stopped all Vovinam activity in order to go and work in Quảng Đức (Memoirs of Master Patriarch Lê Sáng, 2001), while Master Trần Huy Phong continued to operate in secret. It is for this reason that Master Nguyễn Văn Thông declared: "Master Trần Huy Phong is the true successor of the founding master Nguyễn Lộc because he continued to lead the Vovinam Viet Vo Dao".

[6]Under the regime of the Republic of South Vietnam, the Vovinam Viet Vo Dao is legally created as a National Federation headed by a Central Directorate (1st Council of Masters). 

[7]At the time when Master Nguyễn Lộc created the Vovinam (1938-1960), and the time when Master Trần Huy Phong directed it in secret (1960-1964), the Vovinam Viet Vo Dao did not yet have system of ranks as today. This system is designed by Master Trần Huy Phong and proposed to the 1st Council of Masters which approved it in 1964. 

[8] : Viet Vo Dao Internatial Central Office.

[9] : 3rd generation Patriarch from 1986 to 1990, then transferred to Master Lê Sáng in 1990. 

[10]Direct disciple of the founding master Nguyễn Lộc or member of the 1st Council of Masters in 1964. 

[11] : Today Trần Đại Nghĩa high school, 53 Nguyễn Du, 1st district, city Hồ Chí Minh Today Trần Đại Nghĩa high school, 53 Nguyễn Du, 1st district, Hồ Chí Minh city..

[12]Today at the intersection of Nguyễn Đình Chiều and Cách Mạng Tháng 8 streets, 3rd district, Hồ Chí Minh city.

[13]Malcolm Browne Wilde (1931-2012): Journalist, photo reporter

[14] : World Press Photo of the Year 1963, then Pulitzer Prize in 1964.

[15]Lam Tan Tai (1935-2001), was very active, he joined the Communist Party at the age of 12. He was sent to study at Lomonosov General University (Soviet Union), graduated from the Faculty of History of the University of Hanoi. After 1975 he became Deputy Secretary General of Photography City. Ho Chi Minh, simultaneously president of the Arts Council of the Vietnamese Association of Photographic Artists



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