The blog is not finished! But after the Theft (yes, capital letters), the want/need to update the blog took second fiddle to dealing with the Theft and just finishing the trip sans computer. Since being home, it's been hard to get that motivation to complete it. But I will. Ever so slowly. Please be patient!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

War and Religion in Western Vietnam

One of the most popular, and common, day trips out of Saigon(aka Ho Chi Minh City) is a quick tour of the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple. Although, in retrospect, the Cao Dai temple is really only a popular/common trip as it is usually rolled up in the same package tour as the Tunnels.

It is an interesting mix of sites when you think about it. First you have the wonder and curiosity of a religion that mixes many different major religions into one. Then you have a sobering tour through a major Viet Cong stronghold from the Vietnam-America War. I don’t think it would be too bold of me to say that it was this area that really began the slow loss of the war by the Americans. And it gives an interesting insight into some of the thoughts of the locals.

Staying on Pham Ngu Lao in the center of Saigon, one has a plethora of travel and tour agencies to choose from. And the only real difference between the agencies and the tours they offer is the price. With a suggestion from a guy in my dorm room, I went with Lat Hong Tours as it was a bit cheaper than the hostels offering through Delta Adventures. To my surprise, and inner delight, Lat Hong tours sends its sign-ups with the Delta Adventures group. So for $3 less, I got the same tour if I had booked through the hostel.

IMG_3871The first stop, after a two hour drive, was the town of Tay Ninh where the Cao Dai Temple is located. CaoDaiism is a mixture of Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Don’t ask me how that works either because I have no idea. What I do know is that there are six different prayer times in the day – one every four hours. It is not mandatory for worshippers to attend all, but it is expected for them to show up for at least one a day. The most heavily attended prayer time is at noon, which is when all the tour groups show up.

NIMG_3896ow here is where I get a little put off. While it was fascinating to watch from the balconies above the main chamber, I couldn’t help but think that it was more of a show for the tourists than anything else, and here’s the main reason why: there were a number of people with coloured armbands that were basically the "line patrol guards.” They were the ones making sure the worshippers where standing in the right place, that they were all in neat little rows and columns, and so forth. It seemed just a bit too staged. But perhaps that’s just a part of the religion. I don’t claim to know the answers.

And on that topic, while I did take photos of the ceremony, I made sure to keep my flash off, unlike a lot of the other tourists. In my head I thought of how I would feel, in the middle of prayer, if a dozen or more flashes were going on around me. Just felt a bit disrespectful. You don’t have to believe the same beliefs as the people, but it deserves the same respect as you would wish your beliefs and customs to be given.

IMG_3916When the ceremony was finished, the tour took off to the main event – visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a series of elaborate underground tunnels carved by the people from the town of Cu Chi during the Vietnam-America war. The people of Cu Chi, while living in the Southern, American controlled part of Vietnam, were sympathetic and supporters of the North Vietnamese fighters. The Cu Chi area was a huge strategic area that both sides were trying to control as it was the last area of defence for Saigon. In order to survive and attack the American Troops, the people of Cu Chi built the tunnels, using them as shelter from the air raids as well as tools for sneaking up behind enemy troops.

IMG_3951Only a small section of the tunnels are open now  for the public. Most of them have collapsed. What is left is a short, 200 meters + section that had been widened to accommodate us Western tourists. Even then the tunnels were tiny. And it was not necessary to commit to the full 200 meters. There were numerous exits along the way for those that felt claustrophobia setting in. Of the fifteen of us that entered the tunnels, only five – myself and four Aussies – went the whole distance. It wasn’t easy. But the end I was on my hands and knees, having to squeeze through a few tighter areas.

IMG_3937The entire area was actually quite fascinating and informative. They had an entire outdoor exhibit showcasing the different kinds of traps that the locals had created to ensnare and kill troops walking through the woods. Some of them  . . . hell, who am I kidding . . . ALL of them were horrific. Built to inflict the most amount of pain and suffering.

And for fun in the area – a gun range. Myself and four others decided to share a clip of bullets for an AK-47. None of us were any good though and all failed to hit the target. It was loads of fun though. Surprisingly loud, but amazingly fun.

IMG_3943Before piling back onto the bus back to Saigon we watched an old documentary of the Cu Chi Tunnels that looked to have been created in the 1970s, soon after the war ended. The bias was intense in the film, with the narrator showering praise on the civilians that took up arms and killed many “American invader soldiers”. It makes for an interesting time as you see people around you squirming with slight discomfort from the obvious slant of the film. Though, perhaps it was more of a sudden realization that this is what our films probably sound like to others than it was a discomfort for being a member of the “white invaders.”

No comments:

Post a Comment