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Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 13 Feb 2007

Location: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam


"What is the only good tiger?" asked the tour guide while the rest of the bus rolled their eyes in a 'Oh god, not another crappy joke!' way. "A tiger beer". Groan. At the risk of generalising, why are ALL tour guides more annoying than unscheduled stops at tourist workshops?

A few moments later the bus stopped for half an hour at a tourist workshop.

I had finally made it onto the tour to see the Cao Dai temple and Chu Chi tunnels. Religion and War on the same trip. The two sites have little to connect each other, but the broader issues certainly do. I doubt the organisers had the intention of teasing out the links and even though i would like to, i think such a discussion is slightly beyond the scope of this post.

It took a few hours to reach the temple which was 100km outside of Ho Chi Minh. This provided ample time to fall asleep, dribble on my top, lose the use of all my neck muscles and thus bang my head repeatedly on the window.

Cao Dai is a relatively modern religion. It developed in the 1920s. A group of Vietnamese men claimed to receive direct communications from God, who instructed them to establish a new religion that would commence the Third Era of Religious Amnesty.

I had never heard of the religion until i came to Vietnam; it is largely confined within the country's borders, though communities do exist in Cambodia, the USA and Australia. It has ambitions however to spread worldwide and beyond its current membership of 3-6 million (sources vary).

It is a theologically fascinating religion. It encourage seances, believes there are 72 planets harbouring intelligent life (number one is closest to heaven and 72 closest to hell), and encompasses teachings from most of the main religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Christianity are all represented; a fact reflected in the temple where, above the altar, is a mural with Buddha, Confuscius and Jesus amongst others.

Indeed the central principle of Cao Dai is that all religions emanate from a single divine source (Allah to Muslims, Yahweh to Jews, God to Christians, Tao to Taoists etc.), hold a single ethic based on love and justice, and are simply different manifestations of a single truth. Cao Dai is thus a universal religion which is unique in allowing members to continue practicing as a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu and so forth. This radical idea means there is no requirement on converts to relinquish their original faith.

The religion is thus an unusual, radical and pressing movement; the current cultural climate, in Britain at least, is dominated by religious groups that too readily stress what divides, rather than unites.

Even more unusual, Cao Dai consciously draws on figures not commonly associated with religion, such as Shakespeare, or were actively athesistic, like Lenin. Their assembly of saints is headed by Victor Hugo. The French poet and author of Les Miserables is considered an ambassador for the religion in the West and is highly revered by Cao Dai followers due to his concern for the poor.

Cao Dai is centred on the Holy See, a Vatican City in miniature and a functioning community complete with houses, a hospital, a kitchen, an amphitheatre, as well as religious buildings such as the Pope's Office (though there has only ever been one Cao Dai pope). This Cao Dai 'town' may evoke images of brainwashed cults, but this is unfair. The term cult is a political tool used negatively by those in authority. After all, what is the difference between one of the world's major religions and a small group of people worshipping a leader who claims they are God? Size and power!

The main building is the temple which mixes architectural styles as much as the religion's teachings. Ruth described the building as a religious version of the Disneyland castle, an apt description with its bright pastel colours and cheery looking statues.

We arrived in time for midday prayers and were ushered upstairs to a gallery above the inner sanctum. The colour pallete continued in here. The roof was sky blue, with fluffy clouds and mirrored stars, green dragons curled themselves around towering pink pillars, and the walls and windows were decorated with red flowers or yellow sunbeams. The symbol of Cao Dai, a kitsch depiction of the supreme Being's all-seeing, all powerful eye stared down from every direction.

From the far end of the hall a group began to play an enchanting music on instruments i could not identify. Worshippers began to file into the temple dressed in robes of red, blue, yellow and white and wearing a variety of different hats all denoting rank within the Church's hierarchy (which resembles the structure of the Catholic Church).

Those in white sat at the back, those in other colours, far less numerous, sat at the front. Every few minutes or so, for half an hour a gong would sound. As it did so, the crowd would bow their heads in a simple liturgy.

I would like to have asked some of the worshippers about their religion, but Cao Dai is viewed suspiciously by the authorities. Still the trip was an interesting one after so many buddhist temples.

After lunch we headed to the Chu Chi tunnels, one of Vietnam's top tourist destinations. Like the B52's in Apocalypse Now, the tunnels are just another example of the war's exploitation in the new struggle for tourist pounds and dollars. Portrayed as a conflict against capitalist imperialism, the war is now ironically a marketable commodity.

We were introduced to the site by a fair and balanced black and white movie in a small wooden shack. "Cu Chi, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round...Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside...The Americans wanted to turn Chu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die." The commentary needs updating. No one speaks like this in Vietnam anymore.

Originally created during the resistance against the French the tunnels are a revolutionary-historical site important to the Vietnamese war effort - it was here that the Viet Cong reportedly planned the Tet offensive. Set deep in the earth and built by hand over many levels, they stretch like a cobweb for nearly 200km. The huge and ingenious complex contained living quarters, storage facilities, command centre kitchens, meeting areas, field hospitals, schools and even a tiny cinema - all under the noses of the American military. Literally. The 25th Infantry division built their base directly on top of a tunnel section. For months they were baffled at how the enemy could shoot at them from inside the perimeter of their fortified base.

It is unsurprising that the network remained a mystery for so long. The entrances to the tunnels were practically invisible. Our guide brushed away some leaves to reveal a tiny trapdoor the size of an A4 sheet of paper. A Viet Cong fighter could emerge from the so-called 'spider hole', fire a few rounds at the enemy, then disappear into thin air as if by magic. I volunteered to go down. Just large enough to squeeze in if i raised my hands above my head, I did not stay down in the claustraphobic, pitch black hole for long.

We followed our guide through a path in the forest which was littered with these hidden entrances, huge B52 craters, and a rusting shell of an M-48 tanks. I stuck close to the group after we stopped to see a 'tiger hole' at the bottom of which were foot long rusting spikes.

The tunnels themselves are not for the faint of heart. At just over a metre tall and about 80cm in diameter (widened apparently for fat tourist bottoms) they are cramped and hot. I knelt down and began to waddle through. There was no space to turn around. All i could do was keep moving forward and try not to panic. After a few metres my back began to hurt, so i crouched onto my heels, my bum scraping along the floor. This was how the Viet Cong lived, worked and fought, yet within a minute my legs began to burn. I blame it on different toilet styles. Vietnamese people use squat toilets, and thus have thighs like oxen. My puny western legs were the product of luxurious and lazy sit down lavatories.

Though cramped and dark the tunnels were surpringly smooth. I expected dirty soil and insects, but the tunnels were dug in dry, hard red clay. But 50m was enough, especially having to follow and speak to the are of the perosn in front of you (thank god the women did not stop suddenly). I couldn't imagine crawling for any longer. 200km these tunnels once stretched too!

Afterwards, for those who wanted to play Rambo and satisfy primitive testorone urges there was an opportunity to fire an AK47 at a shooting range. $1 a bullet. Throughout the tour i could hear the unnerving rattle of gunfire, a jarring sound in the middle of a battleground with the signs of conflict all around. It was clearly disrespectful, but others evidently did not realise or care and eagerly took up the opportunity.

For the more thoughtful the tour ended with a cup of tea and a slice of Tapioca, a starchy ingredient which was nutritionally important to the Vietnamese during the war when rice was hard to come by. The scottish girl i sat next too dipped it in her tea thinking it was a biscuit. Even by itself it was vile.

The tunnels were a fascinating experience and demonstrated just one of the means through which a small, undeveloped country could square off and survive against the world's foremost power, with all the technological, military and economic advantages at its disposal.

So ends the last post on the Vietnam War. I promise.