The last two days of our trip were spent exploring places outside of Saigon. Unfortunately, I was so congested and miserable at this point that I really just wanted to go back to Kuala Lumpur to get some fresh air (that should put the pollution in perspective for you). Luckily for me, the day trips (at least one of them) ended up being worth the less-than-ideal traveling conditions.
Our first day trip was a packaged tour to visit the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels, two unrelated, yet equally fascinating destinations I knew very little about. Unfortunately, our guide was terrible. He could barely speak English but insisted on talking incessantly with the high-strung enthusiasm of a small bird (that I wanted to squash). Also unfortunately, neither the temple nor the tunnels had much to read about on location, so we were pretty dependent on our guide for information. (Thank goodness for guidebooks, the Internet and fellow travelers…).
The Cao Dai Temple was unlike anything I have ever seen before. Upon walking inside, I felt like I was entering into a Dan Brown novel. The whole building is huge and colorful with bright pink and yellow walls, a ceiling painted to look like a mystical blue sky and columns with bright, cartoonish dragons encircling them. What was most fascinating, albeit creepy, however, was that the whole thing is covered in EYES! Yes, eyes! Specifically, the temple is covered in individual left eyes that seem to be watching over everything and, apparently, represent the all-seeing eye of God. In the back of the temple is also a massive orb with a huge eye in the front of it.
If the building in itself wasn’t interesting enough, the worshippers themselves definitely were. Nearly all the men and women were dressed in pure white garments, though some of the men had more elaborate outfits in bright blue, yellow or red accompanied by tall hats with eyes on them. The men and women were separated from each other on either side of the temple and entered in straight corresponding lines with the colorful men first followed by everyone else according to rank. They then proceeded to sit down on their knees and perform a combination of chants and bows.
At this point, I was so confused. I had thought this was going to be a Buddhist temple but this was completely different than anything I’d ever seen, and I had been unable to decode the incoherent babbling of our guide. Apparently, Cao Daism is a monotheistic religion that is a mystic COMBINATION of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Islam and, as far as I know, is the only one of its kind in the world (though it has an international following). Like the Catholic Church, the religion has a hierarchical structure, including priests, bishops and a pope. Like Eastern religions, they believe in reincarnation, karma, ancestor worship and strive for the eventual attainment of nirvana like the Buddha. I found the entire thing unbelievably fascinating and plan to research it a lot more soon.
After the temple, we headed out to the trip’s main destination: the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were part of a massive tunnel network throughout Vietnam used by the Viet Cong to win the Vietnam War. The whole system was quite complex, consisting of several layers of tunnels on top of one another full of trap doors, booby traps and airtight seals that allowed them to go undetected by the South and the Americans for a long time. Some of the tunnels were built right underneath American military bases, leaving them puzzled how the Viet Cong could so easily attack them. Apparently, the tunnels were like mini-cities, full of hospitals, schools and dormitories that allowed the Viet Cong to stay under for days (though the conditions were miserable).
Unfortunately, the site had very little information available to read, and we were, again, woefully dependent on the “expertise” of our guide. The site is also full of more anti-American propaganda, and I distinctly remember hearing the words “those crazy American devils” in the introductory video. However, the cool thing about the site is that you actually get to go into some of the tunnels and explore. Like most of my group, I decided I would walk through the long tunnel open for tourists that ran throughout the site. It wasn’t until two minutes in when we were crouching underground in the dim light with increasingly thick air that I realized how claustrophobic I was and started to panic. All I kept thinking and saying was, “Where is the exit? I have to get out!” Luckily, there were escape stairs available periodically throughout the tunnel, and I ran out the first chance I could. I’m glad I did, because you apparently have to crawl on your stomach at one point, because the space is so small. What boggles me is that some of these tunnels have been EXPANDED to accommodate tourists, who, I guess, are mostly bigger than the Vietnamese. At any size, I can’t imagine anyone staying down in those tunnels for more than a few minutes, let alone a few days. The tunnels we saw were paved and lit, but when they were actually used they were full of insects and snakes. I also read that the Viet Cong would often put dead bodies in the tunnels to deceive the Americans and, therefore, they often smelled like rotting flesh. I cringe at the thought…
As interesting as our first day trip was, our second day trip to the Mekong Delta was unremarkable, mostly involving a boat ride along the river and a bunch of super-tourist destinations where you watch them make honey and coconut candy. Nothing life-changing there.
Thus concluded my Chinese New Year trip :).