12: From Religion to Tunnel Rats in Vietnam
2 May 2002
Good morning from Vietnam!
After spending several days in Saigon (now officially called Ho Chi Minh City), we’re taking the train up along the coast towards Hanoi. Right now, we’re ensconced in the delightful city of Hoi An.
After the traffic in Cairo, we fearlessly braved the insane motorcycles of Saigon. Same principle – just close your eyes and keep walking at a consistent pace across the road and trust that everyone will avoid you. Saigon is much more pleasant, however, from the pleasant bicycle cyclos ambling around to the wide tree-lined boulevards surrounding the Reunification Palace. You may remember the dramatic scenes of the Communist tanks crashing through the iron gates of the palace when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. The palace today has been preserved so that it remains almost unchanged (so I’m told) from then. What the Americans call the Vietnam War is here called the American War. We visited the War Remnants Museum (formerly called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes) which mainly has sad, disturbing pictures of children mangled by US napalming and bombing and lots of torture and massacre scenes.
We were in Saigon for the April 30th Liberation Day holiday. Bright flags of the Vietnamese yellow star on red background, as well as the Communist hammer and sickle, lined all the streets. People were gathered around through the closed streets, shopping at impromptu stores and sidewalk eateries. Little carnival-like rides were set up for the kids. Everyone seemed to be happy and smiling, probably because they’re getting 2 days off work.
From Saigon, we made several day trips around the area. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network of tunnels over 250km long that the Viet Cong used during the war for living, attacking, and spying. Part of the tunnels have been enlarged by 30% to “accommodate western sizes” so we were able to clamber through to see what it was like. Parts of the original tunnels still existed, and I squeezed through uncomfortably on my hands and knees – passing what looked like a squashed tarantula – I didn’t linger long. It’s quite amazing to imagine people living down there for months, carrying their wounded through such a tiny space. As part of the tourist effort, you can also emulate the soldiers by firing AK-47s at cutout men figures. We passed on that.
The Best of All Possible Religions?
Near Saigon, we visited one of the main temples of the strange Caodai religion. The temple is a rainbow-colored, kitschy building with pink-and-green dragons curled around endless columns. The ceiling is an unnaturally bright blue with mirrored stars scattered everywhere, somewhat resembling a mirrorballed club. It was quite amusing to watch their noontime “mass” of worshipping disciples with 70-some tourists on the balcony above. The ceremony was punctuated by flashing cameras that went off every 30 seconds.
Caodai is a mish-mash religion. Believers of Caodai worship Laotze, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Jesus and Moses. They also keep in contact with spirits who are messengers of Salvation. For example, frequent communication occurs with Victor Hugo, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, and Louis Pasteur. I guess they’ve certainly got all the bases covered.
We also took a brief trip down the Mekong Delta which I didn’t find terribly impressive. It felt a little contrived as we were herded through a variety of different boat transports that started out with a small motor boat, then led to an even smaller and lower motor boat before finally culminating in a tiny 4-person rowboat to squeeze through the shrinking waterways. We took a “walking tour” that went somewhat like this: 2 minutes of walking. Stop at a honey-bee plantation. Drink tea for 15 minutes. See the bees! Buy some honey? 2 minutes more of walking. Stop at a coconut candy “factory” (one-room shack thing). Drink tea. Taste coconut candy. Buy some candy? 2 minutes more of walking Stop to hear traditional Vietnamese music. 5 minutes of walking. See the fruit trees! See how lush the Mekong Delta area is!
The Reunification Express
Our overnight train from Saigon to Danang, a coastal town in the center of Vietnam, was surprisingly pleasant. That was probably due to our being in the most expensive air-conditioned cabins and paying a “foreigner surchange” on the train tickets. We were in a four-person cabin and were initially delighted that we had the room to ourselves. Unfortunately, the various train personnel kept coming in and out of our cabin to sleep in the unoccupied top bunks as they changed shifts all night. Good thing I sleep like a log!
Now we’re in the wonderfully quaint town of Hoi An. It’s the cutest little traditional town, with tiny streets of traditional wooden houses and French balconied facades. At night the streets are hung with brightly colored lanterns and the whole town looks magical. It’s a lazy, relaxing sort of place. Every other shop seems to be a tailor, making cheap suits and outfits for the tourists in a couple of hours. The people are mellow and cheerful as they lazily bicycle by or sit down to enjoy their coffees.
From Hoi An, I visited the ruins of My Son. This is supposed to be Vietnam’s version of Angkor Wat, but it is a comparison that requires a great stretch of the imagination. My Son looks like one of the most minor of Angkor’s temples, although it has quite unique carvings from the Cham people’s Hindu religion. Lots of cows and dancing gods! The temple complex was supposedly a lot more impressive, but unfortunately was used as a base by the Viet Cong during the war and was then duly bombed to bits by the Americans. The best part of My Son is that it is located in a lush verdant valley surrounded by pretty mountains and vegetation. I think I’ve been spoiled after Angkor’s ancient ruins.
I’m off to eat more yummy food here… Tomorrow we continue up to Hue and then Hanoi by train where we’ll meet up with my friend Linh. Poor Josh will have to get used to a ton of exuberant wild behavior as Linh and I get a little crazy when we’re together.