Friday, July 9, 2010

A Tour That Deserves A Post In Itself

Our visit to the Cao Dai temple and Cu Chi tunnels was so interesting that Jenni and I thought that it deserved a post in itself to attempt to do it justice. We had originally organized to go on the trip during our first stay in Saigon, but due to changing our travel arrangements, moved it to the second day of our second stay in Saigon. 

Early in the morning we piled into a large tour bus with a stack of other foreigners where our tour guide introduced himself to the group. His Vietnamese name was Thong, but he insisted on calling him by his Aussie name of "Slim Jim", so named by an Australian traveller years back because "he eats like a bird and smokes like a chimney." Jim was about 60 years old; an English school teacher in his earlier days, but decided to become a tour guide in the mid 90's for a change of scenery and to help improve his English. The Aussie traveller that anointed him as "Slim Jim" had also provided him with a book on Aussie slang, of which Jim was very adept at using and threw it into his speech at every opportunity. He had the entire bus in stitches exclaiming that "we could leave our bags and valuables on the bus as it will be safe with the driver; it's no wuckin furries". The previous day he was "as happy as a pig in shit" because he had an all English speaking tour group, although "he was as busy as a one legged man in an ass kicking contest." At the end of the trip he even explained that after the tour he was intending to "head down to the rubba dub dub to sink some piss." Not only did he have a great sense of humour, he had many interesting stories to tell as he was one of the most knowledgeable guides we have met and was also around to experience the Vietnam war. He actually fought in the war against the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong, supporting the South Vietnamese army and the Americans, but decided to pull out from the fighting to become a school teacher instead.

Our first stop on our tour was the largest Cao Dai temple in Vietnam, located close to the Cambodian border. Cao Dai is one of the most interesting religions that we have come across on our travels.  Cao Dai is a combination of Buddhism, Catholicism and Confucianism. Followers of the religion worship Buddhist deities, God, Jesus and the prophets and follow the teachings of Confucius. It was founded by a Vietnamese man who had a vision in the 1920's. He founded the church and became its first and only pope. During the period of war in Vietnam between 1945 and 1950, Cao Dai had its own independent army which fought against both the South Vietnamese army and North Vietnamese army in an attempt to gain independence from both. Upon its defeat, the pope was forced to flee north to Cambodia, where he remained until his death during the 1990s. Since his death, nobody within the faith has been deemed worthy enough of replacing him as the pope. 

Upon arrival at the temple, we could immediately see how the 3 different faiths had influenced the architecture of the building. Most temples that we have seen  thus far on our trip have had a similar style of architecture as well as a similar colouring scheme, typically black and red. Cao Dai uses 4 main colours to represent certain aspects of the faith, Red for Catholicism, Yellow for Buddhism, Blue for Confucianism and White for Cao Daism. The temple utilized all of these colours, both on the inside and the outside, to give it a very bright and vibrant look. A large Red, Yellow and Blue striped flag was hung over the entrance which was flanked by statues of Buddha, Jesus and Confucius. On the sides of the temple, the sign of Cao Dai, the "holy eye", was carved into the open air windows. Speaking about statues and signs, Jenni and I learnt on this trip that the backward swastika symbol that we have frequently seen on Buddhist statues is the Buddhist sign for re-incarnation. Learning this put to rest our concern that there was some unusual Buddhist fascination with the Nazis.

The tour group was fortunate enough to be allowed to sit in on and observe the Cao Dai noon service. Services are held 4 times per day, one in the early morning at 6am, one in the middle of the day at 12 noon, one in the evening at 6pm and the final one at midnight. We were told that some of the elderly members of the Cao Dai daily attend all 4 services, leaving very little time for them to eat, sleep and watch Neighbours on TV. Female members entered the temple from the left hand side, where they remained for the duration of the service, while the men entered the temple and remained on the opposite side, facing the women. All general Cao Dai members wore robes of pure white. The Cao Dai always wear clothes of pure white when leaving the house as a sign that they are a part of the faith. Upon learning this, we started to spot some of the members while we were out and about in Saigon over the next few days. Senior Cao Dai members wore robes of either Red, Yellow or Blue, to represent each respective religion. 

The temple had 9 stepped levels, with the back of the temple at the lower most step, rising up the the 9th and highest step at the front of the temple. At the front of the temple was a large altar, upon which rested a large sculpture of the Earth with the holy eye in the middle. In front of the altar was 6 seats for the most senior members of the faith and a 7th seat which was raised higher than the others for the pope. Nobody has sat in the pope's seat since his exile to Cambodia in the 1950s and it has remained empty since his death because, as mentioned before, a replacement pope has not been found. The normal Cao Dai members seated themselves at the lower levels of the temple around the edges. Newer members had to sit at the very back, with long time members being allowed to sit further up the steps toward the middle level, closer to the front. Senior members dressed in colours mostly sat further toward the front around the middle levels, between the rows of central columns. All senior members start at the lowest level, but are allowed to move up to the next level in the temple every 5 years. No members at the service that we observed sat at any of the 3 upper most levels, so a small table was setup on the 6th level for the most senior member to conduct the service. The service was conducted in Vietnamese, but we were told that the average Vietnamese-speaking person cannot follow what is being said during the service because it is conducted using holy words. All I could gather was that the service involved a lot of murmuring, singing and bowing at the altar. We stayed for about 10 minutes and then left the Cao Dai members to their worship.

After a quick stop for lunch, during which Slim Jim indulged in a spot of gambling with the some of the locals, we headed onward to Cu Chi. Cu Chi is an area about 30km from Saigon and was a very important strategic area during the Vietnam war. The North Vietnamese army fought to gain control of the Cu Chi area in order to use it to transport its troops and military supplies through to Saigon, the South Vietnamese main base of military operations during the war. The South Vietnamese and Americans fought to gain of Cu Chi to use it as a bottle neck to stop the advancement of North Vietnamese troops moving toward Saigon. 

Villagers in the Cu Chi area were Viet Cong guerrilla fighters, supporting the North Vietnamese army. They supported the North because they believed that the South Vietnamese government was just a puppet government, controlled by foreign nations. To fight against the South Vietnamese army and the Americans, the Cu Chi guerrillas were provided arms from not just the North Vietnamese army, but also by its strong communist allies, China and Russia. Even though they were provided with a limited amount of arms, the Cu Chi guerrillas were still at a disadvantage to the American and South Vietnamese army since they were not trained soldiers. Thus, in order to best combat their enemy, they employed the use of underground tunnels, deadly jungle traps and hand-made explosives made from scavenged parts of detonated American bombs. Rather than fighting the enemy head-on, they would use hit and run tactics to strike at their enemies.

Upon arrival at the Cu Chi area, a Vietnamese soldier gave us a demonstration of how the Cu Chi snipers would hide themselves in a small camouflage hole in the ground, in order to quickly emerge to shoot at enemy troops, then submerge themselves again. Members of the tour group were invited to try it out for themselves, but there weren't too many takers as most people in the group would simply not fit in the hole.

We then saw an entrance to one of the original underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. Most tunnels throughout Vietnam have since collapsed, but this and another one in the Cu Chi area still remain intact. Before visiting the area we had heard that on this tour that we would be given the opportunity to try and go through one of the original sized tunnels as well as a "tourist sized" tunnel, one which had been doubled in size to accommodate Westerners. We had also heard that the dimensions of the original sized tunnel was about 60cm high by 80cm wide. I thought that a tunnel that size would be just big enough for a slim bloke like myself to crawl through on my belly, but after seeing it close up, I can assure you that I had second thoughts. Not even the small kids in the tour group were adventurous enough to have a go and I don't blame them. The hole was tiny. It was quite obvious that nobody had attempted to try to crawl through that tunnel for quite some time as, when we stooped down to take a peak, we could see that a bat had decided to take up residence inside.

Throughout the course of our visit at Cu Chi, Slim Jim demonstrated the use of various jungle traps that were set up around the area. Most traps were set up as a deep pit, filled with either sharpened bamboo stakes or metal snares, designed to either kill or inflict the most pain possible. Because not many soldiers were actually killed by the traps, most managing to escape wounded, the Viet Cong often coated the spikes in human faeces to act as a poison. Some of the snares were especially nasty. Pictured here is Slim Jim demonstrating the "souvenir trap". When someone fell into it, a deep metal spike would be driven into the base of their foot. If the person then attempted to pull their foot out, barbs pointing diagonally downward would pierce the leg, getting the mechanism stuck. The only way to get your leg free was to remove the whole mechanism from the pit and take it with you as a "souvenir" to get it sawed off.

We were also shown how the Cu Chi guerrillas used scavenged parts from detonated American bombs to fashion hand-made land mines and other explosives. A destroyed American tank that had driven over a set of these land mines was still at the sight. The treads had been blown off both sides of the vehicle and the entire back portion of the tank destroyed from the fire caused by the explosion. We were told that the American soldiers that fled from the tank were shot and killed by the Cu Chi soldiers. 

Next we visited a shooting range. For a few dollars, you could shoot some bullets from a variety of guns including an AK47 and an M16. I shared a set of 10 bullets (five bullets each) with an American girl. Throughout the entire Cu Chi area, we could hear the sounds of the guns firing, so we knew that they were loud, but nothing could prepare us for how loud they actually were when you were right next to them. The area where you actually shot the guns was down in a trench, which you had to walk down into from the counter where you purchased your round of bullets. When I took my first step into the trench, I had not yet been issued my earplugs and Jenni and I copped the full force of one of the bullets being fired from a neighbouring AK47. We could not believe how loud it was. Without wearing earplugs, each shot was so loud that it was actually painful to listen to and made you feel disorientated. The earth around the trenches must have deafened the sound of the guns being shot. 

Unable to withstand the loud gun shots, Jenni gave the camera to the American girl to take some photos of me shooting the AK47 and headed back up to rejoin the rest of the tour group where the gunfire was not so deafening. This was the first time I had held a real gun and I was very surprised at how light and thin the AK47 was. I am not sure what sort of calibre of bullet was loaded into the gun, but the bullets looked about 1.5 inches in length and just under 1 cm in diameter. The gun was mounted, so I didn't really experience the full force of the kickback, but I could still feel how powerful and accurate the weapon was once I pulled the trigger. I managed to land a couple of hits in the center of the camel-shaped target that was placed about 75m away, but missed the last few while attempting to go for a more accurate shot while aiming at its head. After exiting the trench, it took nearly 15 minutes for the ringing in my ears to die down.

After the firing range, we were taken to the tourist-sized underground tunnel and invited to navigate through it. Jenni, not quite feeling up to it, probably due to the heat, elected to wait with the less adventurous members of the tour group above ground while the rest us all clambered below. The tunnel was only about 100m long and was twice the size in height and width as the original tunnels. It did not go in a simple straight line, it wound around in different directions and had multiple drops to lower levels. Underground it was extremely hot. Along the way there were many junctions, leading out to emergency exits. There were no signs indicating which was the correct way to go, so I put it down to blind luck that I managed to find my way from the start to final exit. Most of the tunnel was lit with small lamps, but some parts were completely pitch black, making us all very wary while proceeding forward as drops to lower levels seemed to spring out of nowhere. Unlike the bigger guys clambering through the tunnel, I was small enough to be able to get through it by crouching very low, using my hands to steady myself on the walls. Near the end of the tunnel, the roof was so low that the only way I was able to get through was by crawling on my hands and knees. All up it took just under 5 minutes to navigate the underground maze. Even though the tunnel was double the size of the original, it was still very hard work getting through it, especially on my quads which were very stiff all the next day. I wouldn't fancy trying my luck on the original sized tunnel.

We finished off our tour of Cu Chi by watching an old video documentary about the Cu Chi guerrillas. It was interesting to see that the Vietnamese fighters were awarded medals of heroism from their government based on the number of American soldiers they killed or how many tanks they destroyed. In contrast, you typically hear of medals for heroism being awarded to American soldiers for putting themselves in danger to save a fellow comrade, not based on the number of enemies that they killed. Perhaps this Vietnamese view of heroism could be explained by the fact that this video looked rather old, with a very anti-American undertone, making it likely that it could be one of the propaganda films made by the North Vietnamese during the war. 

Our tour was complete, but there was still one more interesting thing yet to happen. On the drive back to Saigon, our bus got caught up in what was probably the biggest traffic jam that I have ever seen in my life. This was like one of those crazy traffic jams that you see videos of on you-tube or get sent photos of in a humorous email. The traffic jam was so bad that vehicles had spilled over the streets and onto the sidewalks. We spent a good 45 minutes moving less than 100m, us jammed together with thousands of motorbikes. When we finally reached the front of the jam at a traffic lights intersection, we were able to see what the cause was. Because people had become so impatient with the set of traffic lights, people travelling down one of the side streets decided that it would be a fantastic idea to wait at the lights on the opposite side of the road as their side was too crowded. Each time the traffic lights turned green, people travelling down that road in the opposite direction couldn't get through all of these numbskulls before the light turned red. Because these people couldn't get through the lights, they had to stop half way through the intersection, blocking traffic in the other directions. To make matters worse, more and more people kept driving down the wrong side of the road because they saw others doing it first, making it harder and harder for people to get through. Rinse lather and repeat for a few sets of lights and you get our traffic jam of epic proportions. In the photo you can see a silver car, along with some motorbikes, trying to drive through the sea of bloody yahoos that thought it would be a good idea to drive down the opposite side of the road.

1 comment:

  1. We also enjoyed a Slim Jim tour (2011). Very informative and fun!