Down to earth in Cu Chi and searching enlightenment with the Cao Dai
Cu Chi Travel Blog› entry 3 of 15 › view all entries
Today is a day Iâ€™ve been waiting for, one of the reasons I wanted to go to Vietnam. The tunnels of Cu Chi. Itâ€™s 5.30 am and I jump out of bed like a little boy that goes to an amusement park with his parents for the first time in his life.
Our bus leaves at 7. It takes quite a while to get out of the city, even this early the streets are crawling with traffic. When we approach the highway a scooter passes us on our left side, to make a quick right turn in front of our bus, slamming into the scooter that is overtaking us on our right hand side. There are no serious injuries, but all the goods that were stacked on the mopeds are scattered all over the street, waiting for their owners to collect them.
The rest of the trip will be quiet and uninterrupted. We arrive at the complex at about 8.45 am and the first things we see are two MIGs on display in front of the main building. Once through the entrance itâ€™s a short walk on a dirt track (that certainly is swept every day, because thereâ€™s not a single footprint on it, just the long strokes of a broom) to a shack where some dummies stand wearing the same clothes as the Cu Chi guerillas did during the war. Right next to this is a storage of rocket launchers, clustergrenades and other weaponry the American army has left behind. The Vietnamese used the bits and pieces they found to build new weapons of their own, and they are proud to tell that they were fighting the American â€śinvadersâ€ť with the weapons the GIâ€™s brought into the country.
After another short walk through the forest of relatively young trees, the old ones have all died in the war, in a building without side walls, the Vietnamese guide explains in English (as well as possible) everything he knows about the area and the tunnels.
The video we are shown is nothing short of pro-Vietnamese propaganda, which of course we cannot take seriously nowadays. Titles like â€śHero American Killerâ€ť and â€śHero Tank Destroyerâ€ť are used by the voice-over in such a dead serious tone, that all I can do is smile about it. Itâ€™s just too much. The rest of the film is interesting though, showing how the guerillas lived underground, explaining how they cooked (without the enemy seeing the smoke) and how they brought in supplies through underwater entrances from the river.
Once outside again the guide tells us that the ventilation holes were camouflaged as termite hills made out of mud from the Saigon river. The original entrances are invisible to the unknowing eye, but when the guide sweeps away some leaves and pulls up a latch of 22 cm by 30 cm everyone is stunned. We were practically standing on top of it! But then again, the American army built an entire base on top of the tunnel complex, never knowing it was there...
Everyone who wants to can try to squeeze himself through the tiny entrance and both Trudy and I manage to get in (it takes some squirming to get my shoulders through, though).
Once in open air again walk past a reconstructed booby-trap with very sharp stakes at the bottom, you only have to think of stepping in that to make it hurt.
A little further on we get to go to the underground hospital and command centre. From here starts a fifty metre long stretch of tunnel that hasnâ€™t been resized at all since the days of the war. Only three people of our party want to go through that, Caroline, Trudy and myself of course. This part of the tunnel system doesnâ€™t see too many tourists, thereâ€™s no light at all (thank God we brought some ourselves) and the bats that are hanging from the ceiling are startled by our presence and start flying about.
Once reunited with the rest of our party we walk to the private quarters of the commanding officer, here he worked and rested. In here we get to eat the food the guerillas ate, itâ€™s not bad, but itâ€™s nothing special either: chunks of sticky rice and tapioca cubes you can dip in a mixture of ground peanuts, salt and pepper. Fortunately thereâ€™s tea to flush it all down.
The sandals the Vietcong wore were made of old car tires, and for the sake of the curious tourist someone is still making them here.
We wash up a bit and leave Cu Chi at 10.15 am to go to the Cao Dai temple near Tay Ninh, which is about a one and a half hour drive. Cao Dai is a mixture of several religions and ways of life, using the good parts and leaving out the downsides. The Great Temple is set within a large complex of schools and administrative buildings and is built after European cathedrals, but with a clearly Asian finish. Once youâ€™ve seen a Cao Dai temple, youâ€™ll never forget it, they are colourful beyond imagination, not a single square cm has been left unpainted.
We canâ€™t jĂşst go in, there are guidelines.
Service starts at noon and lasts for approximately 35 minutes, so weâ€™ve got plenty of time to admire the interior of the temple and try to find all the dragons and the important figures of every significant world religion that are depicted here (from Confucius to Jesus Christ).
The monks are all dressed in colourful garments, red signifies Confucianism, blue represents Taoism and yellow stands for Buddhism.
On the balcony above the entrance of the temple sit the musicians that provide the music during the service, using a single stringed instrument called a dan co.
When we are back in the bus at 12.45, Michel tells us that the Cao Dai used to be much more powerful, but because they didnâ€™t obey the government, many of their possessions were taken away or destroyed.
Within minutes the bus pulls over and we have lunch at a local restaurant.
At two pm we get on the bus, with our bellies nicely filled, and start heading back for Ho Chi Minh City. After a while we stop at a brick works, where everything is still done by hand: shoveling clay on carts, chucking it in the press that stands inside the building, cutting the blocks in the right size, and then taking them outside again on another cart to lay them in the sun to dry. When the blocks have dried long enough theyâ€™re baked in an oven that is fuelled by rice chaff, which is brought here by boat.
When we enter Ho Chi Minh City the engine of our bus suddenly falls silent. Nothing serious, weâ€™re out of fuel, thatâ€™s all. Weâ€™re in luck, weâ€™ve stopped across the street from a gas station, so all the driver has to do is get a canister of diesel fuel and poor it into the fuel tank of the bus.
Weâ€™re having dinner in De Tham Street again. A different restaurant, a different dish. This time itâ€™s a combination of beef, paprika, broad beans and cashews with white rice, which isnâ€™t bad at all. A glass of delicious freshly squeezed pineapple juice is our desert.
Last thing we do today is make a phone call home, letting my folks know everything is o.k.