There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Great Temple: Part 17 of Vietnam North to South


After two posts in which That War figured not all, this one returns to it with a vengeance.

We set off early towards Cu Chi some 50 km north of Saigon. Ten minutes from our hotel we passed an unremarkable crossroads with a small shrine on one corner commemorating Thích Quàng Đúc, the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire here on the 11th of June 1963. We first encountered Thích Quàng Đúc at his monastery in Hue where you can find the full story.

The shrine of Thich Quang Duc (far corner of the road)
Ho Chi Minh City

We drove north along a flat, straight road across land that had been forest before Agent Orange was sprayed all over it. The awful effects of that action we had seen at the War Souvenir Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

Trang told us more stories of the trials and tribulation of his family through the long years of war. They were not dramas, there were no heroes or villains, they were just stories of how people’s lives are buffeted and blown off-course by the storms of war. I will not reproduced them here, they are Trang’s stories and I feel he has a right to tell them to whoever he wishes but I should not pass them on second hand and mutated by the fallibility of memory.

Roadside scene north of Ho Chi Minh City
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a major tourist attraction, so we arrived at a car park that already contained several buses.

After paying our entrance fee we walked through a long concrete underpass and emerged in a wooded area.

During the war, Cu Chi, mid-way between Saigon and the Cambodian border, saw intense Viet Cong activity among the large number of American bases.

For protection, the Viet Cong built an extensive network of tunnels, popping up to ambush the Americans whenever they could. The Americans, understandably, devoted considerable effort to smoking the Viet Cong out from their hiding places (often quite literally).

‘Can you see the tunnel?’ Trang asked as we stood beneath a clump of trees on a patch of leaf strewn grass. We could see nothing suspicious, but then a soldier arrived. Moving Lynne aside he brushed away some leaves from where she had been standing to reveal a wooden hatch. He dropped down into the tunnel, lowered the hatch over his head and disappeared.
Into the tunnel, Cu Chi

The photograph above could almost be of a model, rather like the plaster dog’s backsides people put on their lawns to make it look as if a Jack Russell is disappearing into a hole it has dug. But this is not a model, it is a real person, the upper half is attached to a lower part and he really did slide through that tiny entrance.
Disappearing into the hole, Ch Chi

A continual game of cat and mouse had been played. The Americans liked to drop grenades into the tunnel entrances so the Viet Cong provided them with fake entrances. The Americans used dogs to detect the real entrances, so the VC put aniseed round the fake entrances, and so it went on.

Lynne by a real hole/fake hole/smoke hole for a distant kitchen?
Cu Chi
We were shown round the easily accessible parts, visiting underground kitchens, hospitals...

Hospital, Cu Chi tunnels

... and command centres.

Trang takes command, Cu Chi tunnels

We saw a man making sandals from used tyres....

Making sandals from used tyres

 putting the ‘heals’ at the front and the ‘toes’ at the back to confuse attempts at tracking.

Sandals with 'toes' at the back and 'heal' at the front

We drank the ‘tea’ they brewed from jungle plants and ate the boiled sago which was their staple diet. It was not unpalatable and a good source of carbohydrate, but I am sure I would quickly have tired of it.

Tea and sago at the Ch Chi tunnels

At one point we were invited to crawl along some the tunnels themselves. Of course they had been cleaned and swept so that we did not have to share them with the spiders and snakes the VC encountered, and they had been enlarged to accommodate our oversized western arses. The Americans formed a ‘tunnel rats’ unit, but in the confined spaces the larger Americans were always at a disadvantage against their smaller, slighter adversaries.
In the (enlarged) Cu Chi tunnels

It was all good fun in a Boy’s Own  sort of way, and it was easy to see the VC as Robin Hood figures and the Americans as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men, but there were some sections that made me feel uneasy.

It started with a destroyed tank. A group of tourist were laughing and having their photograph taken beside it, then it was our turn and Trang took the picture below. As he did so I wondered about the tank behind us: had it been brought here, or was this where it had been destroyed? What about the men inside? Were tourist snapping photos and laughing in the place where young American conscripts had died?
Destroyed tank, Cu Chi tunnels

 And then there were the booby traps. Bombs and mines are bad enough but there seemed to be something vicious and personal about the improvised traps on display. A soldier kicks open the door of a house and a plank swings down at him bristling with barbed iron spikes. It is easy to stop: he takes his rifle in both hands and holds it out in front of him. But there is an extra piece hinged on the bottom bearing another barbed skewer which then swings upwards into the soldier’s groin. I have difficulty understanding how anybody who could design or deploy something that would do that to another human being.

They showed off a line of booby traps buried in the ground, all of them based on the same barbed spikes. A wooden box with a spike in the bottom and four more angled down from the top corners was the simplest and in some ways the nastiest. Slip into that and as you cope with the pain from your impaled foot, you slowly realise that you are going to be trapped there for some time, possibly the rest of your life, and even if your comrades can get you out, it would probably be with one leg fewer than when you stumbled in.

Examples of booby traps
Cu Chi tunnels

I have no difficulty coping with the Un-Hollywoodlike idea that the Americans are the baddies and the Viet Cong the goodies, what I cannot comprehend is how you can dehumanize your foe enough to do that to them.

We left Cu Chi in a thoughtful frame of mind and drove a further 40 km north, parallel to the Cambodian border and into Tay Ninh Province.

The Cao Dai religion was founded in the Mekong Delta in the 1920s when a superior spirit called Cao Dai (literally ‘High Place’) made himself known to a medium. Cao Dai had previously visited earth as Lao-tzu, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Moses, Sakyamuni and Confucius (though not necessarily in that order) but was displeased by the outcome and had since being working through a series of saints – an eclectic group including Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur and Winston Churchill. Emphasising prayer, veneration of ancestors, non-violence and vegetarianism, Cao Dai is a pick ‘n’ mix of major world religions and seems largely benign if distinctly odd. The estimated 2 or 3 million adherents mostly live in the Mekong Delta and in Tay Ninh where they have their headquarters.

We arrived at the Cathedral of the Holy See – the leader of Cao Dai likes to style himself ‘pope’ – in time for the 12 o’clock service. Odd or not, large sums of money have been made available to build a Cathedral midway in style between a church and a Buddhist temple, though the decoration - reminiscent of the Vinh Trang pagoda - is typically southern Vietnamese.

Approaching the Cao Dai cathedral, Tay Ninh

Along with many other tourists we were crammed onto a balcony. At midday the worshippers processed in, the leaders in brightly coloured robes, the rank and file in white.

The assembled faithful, Cao Dai Cathedral
Tay Ninh

They settled themselves down and chanted. For maybe ten minutes the chanting continued unchanged, then there was a minor, though well-choreographed change in seating plan and the chanting resumed.

Endless chanting, Cao Dai cathedral, Tay Ninh

Fifteen minutes later we realised nothing else was going to happen and the repetitive one-line chant was beginning to grate, so we made our exit. We were far from the first to leave.
Inside the Cao Dai cathedral, Tay Ninh

Lunch was at a tourist feeding station; Trang apologised but there is nowhere else suitable locally. There was nothing wrong with the food, and there was plenty of it, but it was bland and designed to offend no one.

Driving back towards the city down a long straight road through flat farmland we passed several smaller Cao Dai churches, one of them in the village of Trang Bang. In June 1972 the North Vietnamese took the village and a group of civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers who had been sheltering in the church made a run for the South Vietnamese lines just outside the village. Mistaking them for Viet Cong fighters the South Vietnamese air force napalmed them.

Cao Dai church, Trang Bang

Nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc tore off her burning clothes and ran down the road naked and screaming. Nick Ut’s photograph of this event shocked the world (it can be seen here). My photograph shows where it happened, though the road has been rebuilt and widened since 1972. It is difficult to believe that such terrible events could have taken place in such a banal setting.

A banal setting for terrible events, Trang Bang

After taking the photograph Huỳnh Công (Nick) Ut went to the assistance of Kim Phuc taking her and other injured children to hospital. Depite not being expected to survive, Kim did recover and went on to study at university in Ho Chi Minh City and then Havana. She married in 1992 and whilst on honeymoon she and her husband sought political asylum in Canada. They now live in Ontario and have two children. Kim is a UNESCO goodwill ambassador and has set up the Kim Phuc Foundation which aids child war victims. Ut was 21 when he took the picture having worked for the Associated Press since he was 15. Evacuated when South Vietnam fell, he is still an Associated Press photographer but is now an American citizen and lives in Los Angeles. He and Kim Phuc remain in contact.

Back in the city we said goodbye to Trang and our driver. We had spent a lot of time together over the previous week and had got to know Trang well. It felt like we were leaving a friend.


The next day was our last in Vietnam. We did some shopping, walking up to the Ben Thanh market where we bought various presents, some tea to take home, and some ‘weasel coffee’, the beans having passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (not a weasel) before processing. This is the ‘most expensive coffee in the world’ selling, according to the ever reliable Wikipedia for US$750 a kilo. Ours was far cheaper, suggesting either it was from intensively farmed civets who are force fed coffee beans, or, more likely, a chemically simulated ‘weasel coffee’ - in  other words, as genuine as my Ray-Bans. Civet Farms, I learned later, raise serious animal welfare concerns so I hope it was a fake. The Speciality Coffee Association of America describes weasel coffee as a gimmick and says ‘…it just tastes bad’. It may well be a gimmick but it has, we were to discover, a powerful almost rank flavour, which suits my taste better than the insipid coffees Americans seem to prefer.

Where to buy weasel coffee, Ben Thanh market, Ho Chi Minh City

Near the market is the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, one of several serving Ho Chi Minh’s small Hindu community. The gopura may be diminutive by Indian standards, but it stands out in Vietnam.

Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple
Ho Chi Minh City

Removing our shoes, we walked round the inside, and watched a steady trickle of worshippers coming and going.

Worshipper in theSri Mariamman Hindu Temple
Ho Chi Minh City 
We spent a little time watching life in the park. Several groups of young men were playing keepie uppie using a sort of elongated shuttlecock rather than a football. We had seen this game played in open spaces everywhere in Vietnam [update: a similar game is playedwith a rattan ball in Myanmar.].

We briefly watched the filming of a television drama. Two young women sat on a park bench having a quietly intense conversation while surrounded by an army of cameraman, soundmen, make-up artists and producers, not to mention a fair few onlookers. I was surprised by how low-key television acting is compared to the stage version.

In the park, Ho Chi Minh City

After attempting to photograph the cavalry charge of motorbikes whenever the traffic lights change we had our last Vietnamese meal of chicken and cashew nuts, prawns and peppers followed by a Franco-Vietnamese crepe stuffed with mango and smothered with chocolate sauce.

Motorcycles, Ho Chi Minh City

In the afternoon we eventually gave in to a pair of shoe shine boys and let them loose on our old and battered trainers. We agreed to be seriously overcharged and watched them sit on the pavement and make a determined assault on our footwear. After a further attempt to overcharge us for insoles, they returned our shoes several shades closer to their original white.

Cleaning our trainers
Ho Chi Minh City
After that there was a little time to kill before we set off for the airport for the long journey home.
& finally

Our thanks to Haivenu travel of Hanoi, and especifically to Phong, the branch manager in Ho Chi Minh City, who made all our travel arrangements with commendable efficiency. I was glad we were able to meet before we set off home.
Thanks also to our excellent guides
Truong in Hanoi
Minh in Sa Pa
Vinh in Hue and Hoi An
Trang in Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta
Also our drivers who kept us safe in Vietnam’s sometimes challenging traffic.
And, finally, the families we stayed with in the northern highlands and the Mekong Delta.

Back to part 16
Mekong Delta (3) Cai Rang and My Tho

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