Down to earth in Cu Chi and searching enlightenment with the Cao Dai

Cu Chi Travel Blog

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Here we learn all we need to know about the Cu Chi complex.

Today is a day I’ve been waiting for, one of the reasons I wanted to go to Vietnam. The tunnels of Cu Chi. It’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.

Me, squirming through an entrance meant for little Vietnamese guerillas.

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 it’s a short walk on a dirt track (that certainly is swept every day, because there’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 “invaders” with the weapons the GI’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.

Projectiles made from battlefield findings.
The vast network of tunnels wasn’t built overnight, under the French regime the locals started to connect the homes in the villages with one another, so the legislator didn’t know the people's whereabouts. Later on the villages were linked, so creating an underground infrastructure beyond anyone’s belief. There were kitchens, dorms, hospitals and command centers.

The video we are shown is nothing short of pro-Vietnamese propaganda, which of course we cannot take seriously nowadays. Titles like “Hero American Killer” and “Hero Tank Destroyer” are used by the voice-over in such a dead serious tone, that all I can do is smile about it. It’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.

The colourful exterior of the Cao Dai temple.
When the fifteen minute long film has ended we walk to the first tunnel entrance, which has been widened for the tourists. It even has stairs! Underground Trudy takes a wrong turn, going into an unlit stretch of tunnel, which houses spider like creepy crawlies that are not used to human disturbance. Remco, who followed her says never to trust her again after this.

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).

Cao Dai priests chatting before the ceremony starts.
The tunnels are so narrow and the ceiling is so low that we either have to crawl or “walk” in a squat position, which is very tiring.

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 hasn’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 doesn’t see too many tourists, there’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.

The nave of the Cao Dai temple.
At the end of the tunnel the ceiling gets even closer to the ground, forcing us to get on all fours with our bellies virtually touching the ground. It’s either that or go back. This is a well thought out defense mechanism, because in this way, the guard that was sitting on the inside of the entrance could easily kill any intruders that came crawling in head first. It is tremendously hot and damp inside the tunnels and when we get out again we don’t have a dry stitch on us.

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, it’s not bad, but it’s nothing special either: chunks of sticky rice and tapioca cubes you can dip in a mixture of ground peanuts, salt and pepper. Fortunately there’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.

In the upper part of the picture the important figures of all world religions are depicted.
On our way out we walk past some more booby-traps on display (OUCH!!!), some projectiles made of found materials and some dismantled duds.

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 you’ve seen a Cao Dai temple, you’ll never forget it, they are colourful beyond imagination, not a single square cm has been left unpainted.

We can’t júst go in, there are guidelines.

This priest sounds the bell on set moments.
Ladies enter on the left, gents on the right. Shoes must be taken off, which is quite normal in the holy buildings of most religions. Visitors cannot enter the nave, we must follow the priest in the white robe with black turban that shows us our places on the balcony above the side aisle. Fortunately I’ve got a camera dangling from my neck, this gives me the right to a better spot during the ceremony (much further forward into the temple).

Service starts at noon and lasts for approximately 35 minutes, so we’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.

Everyone knows exactly what his place is and the priests in white standing against the pillars make sure everybody behaves correctly.
The most important priests wear the symbol of the all seeing (or divine) eye on their hats.

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 didn’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.

Women shovel the heavy clay on to carts.
It all tastes very well and slowly we are getting used to eating with chopsticks.

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 they’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, we’re out of fuel, that’s all. We’re in luck, we’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.

Cutting and stacking the wet clay blocks, before laying them in the sun to dry.
Without a funnel that is, because he doesn’t have one. About 75 percent of the diesel ends up inside the tank, the rest lies on the tarmac, but it will suffice to get us back to the hotel. It’s 5 pm now and we head straight for the inevitable traffic jams of Saigon rush hour, but hey, all we have to do is sit and wait.

We’re having dinner in De Tham Street again. A different restaurant, a different dish. This time it’s a combination of beef, paprika, broad beans and cashews with white rice, which isn’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.

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Here we learn all we need to know …
Here we learn all we need to know…
Me, squirming through an entrance …
Me, squirming through an entrance…
Projectiles made from battlefield …
Projectiles made from battlefield…
The colourful exterior of the Cao …
The colourful exterior of the Cao…
Cao Dai priests chatting before th…
Cao Dai priests chatting before t…
The nave of the Cao Dai temple.
The nave of the Cao Dai temple.
In the upper part of the picture t…
In the upper part of the picture …
This priest sounds the bell on set…
This priest sounds the bell on se…
Everyone knows exactly what his pl…
Everyone knows exactly what his p…
Women shovel the heavy clay on to …
Women shovel the heavy clay on to…
Cutting and stacking the wet clay …
Cutting and stacking the wet clay…
The oven is fuelled with rice chaf…
The oven is fuelled with rice cha…
The ceilings are painted with drag…
The ceilings are painted with dra…
This panel says it all...
This panel says it all...
Cu Chi
photo by: kumikob