Yesterday we got up at 6.30am to go and catch our bus to the weird and wonderful Cao Dai Holy See temple and the extremely interesting Cu Chi tunnels. We spent most of the day travelling on the coach but it was really lovely to drive through the countryside in the south as it’s really luscious and green. Although obviously people work extremely hard as farmers, the pace of life seems to slow down and we saw loads of people chilling in hammocks in the shade to avoid the sun (plus it was a Saturday). On the way to the temple, we drove past the area where one of the most iconic photographs of the war was taken: of a naked little girl (Phan Thi Kim Phuc) running away from a napalm attack.
Our first stop was the Cao Dai temple. Unfortunately we had a really sweet old guide who spoke English that we couldn’t understand/had to fill in lots of gaps to get the jist of what was going on. We drove through an entrance into what I can only describe as looking like a gated suburban community (albeit an empty one). We think he said something about it belonging to the government. At the edge of this area is Cao Dai temple, which is a strange yet fascinating religious symbol to say the least.
Cao Dai (or ‘high place’) is a religion that was established in 1926 (after it was officially recognised by the French colonial administration). It is a fusion of various religions – primarily Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism but also Christianity and Islam – that propounds the concept of a universal god, with the Divine Eye as its symbol of worship. Cao Dai followers adhere to its five commandments: avoid killing living beings, high living, covetousness, verbal deceit and temptations of the flash… Some of which are great ideas, my kinda religion. The temple itself however is… unique with lots of bright colours (pinks, blues, greens), recurrent Divine Eye symbols and various icons and statues. I suppose the interior reflects the religions eclectic ideology.
Everyone has to take off their shoes and tourists are welcome but are only allowed to walk around the edge of the very large space. The alter at the end houses a huge blue sphere with the Divine Eye at the front. This is surrounded by vases, fruit, paintings and statues. The service times are 6am, 12pm and 6pm so we arrived for the 12pm service. All the worshippers wear white clothing and women and men have different entrances and exits. There were also some extremely well landscaped and attractive gardens outside the temple and when we were waiting in the shade to get back on the bus we also met some of the areas other inhabitants: monkeys! One cheeky monkey bravely came out past the gates and stole some fruit out of a plastic bag that was attached to a motorbike – he was successful and managed to get one piece before he was shooed away.
We then stopped at a local restaurant and I had my first taste of Vietnamese famous pho (basically noodle soup, I had chicken (ga) but there is also beef (bo)), which I really enjoyed. After lunch it took an hour and a half to reach the Cu Chi tunnels. I’m not really sure what I expected but I don’t think what we experienced was it. Although it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to experience, it was also very touristy, which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me seeing as its one of the most famous sites in Vietnam.
We started in a thatched hut where a large map of the area, a cross-section of the tunnels and a short black and white documentary gave us one version of the background to the tunnels (highly national and extremely anti-American as expected). We then went out into the forest, which actually was not there during the war as it was destroyed by napalm but was replanted by the government after 1975, and the guide showed us tunnel entrances (I could just about squeeze in!), home-made and extremely clever booby traps, an abandoned tank and models of life in the tunnels. Some of the group then took the opportunity to shoot various guns but guns aren’t really my scene so I passed on this.
We then had a chance to get into the tunnels. Even though they have been widened for Westerners, they were very dark, very hot and extremely claustrophobic, even for someone like me who doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia. By 1965, there were 250km of tunnels to allow the Viet Minh to link up with each other. To start with it is a feat of man that they even built the tunnels: they were carved with hoes and crowbars and had to dispose of the soil secretly eg in the river at night as well as just the practicalities of building three-layer deep tunnels underground. But how they lived in them I’ll never know, some parts of the tunnels were as small as 80cmx80cm. The tunnels were also equipped with latrines, wells, meeting rooms, dorms and rudimentary hospitals. Some people suffered temporary blindness from the darkness, they often had to lie as flat as possible just to get enough oxygen to breathe and they had to live among scorpions, snakes and rats… It’s not wonder it’s estimated that around 12,000 Vietnamese died here during the war. It was a good experience but I felt so uncomfortable.
If I had been by myself or with one other person I would have been much better because I could have moved freer but everyone kept stopping and so you were just crouched down in the dark, sweating like a crazy person with nowhere to go. I can’t tell you how hot it was down there, I felt like I was gonna pass out. This experience took about 10 minutes and I couldn’t imagine being down there for any longer than that, so I have a newfound appreciation for the Viet Minh, some of whom had to spend weeks on end underground.
We arrived back in the city about 7pm and went to a great restaurant where I had spring rolls, pho ga, mint ice cream and a banana smoothie for £5!! All in all yesterday was a really interesting and really enjoyable day.
Today was a well-deserved lie in, a trip to the supermarket, booking our hotel for Mui Ne next weekend, having a vegetarian picnic in our common area courtesy of some of the local volunteers who came and cooked for us (tasted incredible), a trip into District 3 to browse (and for some people, buy) the shops, planning my lessons for tomorrow and Tuesday and going to a local restaurant for a yummy (and cheap – £1) dinner. All in all another good day and a great first weekend in HCMC.