23 December 2005

Day Trip

After four and a half months, I finally got out of the city on a day trip to the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. I met up with a friend at the travel office at 8 in the morning, having bought the $5 ticket the day before. Our tour group of about 20 consisted mostly of young couples from assorted countries. We piled into the mid sized bus and after a mere 45 minutes we had left the noise and stop-and-go traffic of the city behind.

I kept staring out the window as we drove along the road lined with what one imagines Vietnam to look like. I almost yelped out loud when I saw my first water buffalo plowing through rice paddies. Having looked at the same scene in numerous photos or on TV you’d think it wouldn’t look so brand new and exciting, but it did.

It took about two and a half hours to get to our first stop, the Cao Dai Temple. Caodaism was founded around 1920, and incorporates aspects of many different religions. They use mediums and conduct séances. And anything else you want to know about it, you will have to look up for yourself. It is a popular tourist stop mainly because of the large, rainbow colored main temple that looks like nothing you have ever seen, yet has familiar features.

The interior of the Temple reminded me of a mosque with its cavernous, high-vaulted hall, and floor to ceiling pillars, except that the pillars have Chinese dragons wrapped around them. Then there is the Eye that stares out at you from inside a triangle, amongst floral designs, evoking thoughts of Egyptian gods. The ceiling is painted the blue of a sunny day in the summer, and dotted with little silver stars and wispy clouds. The symbolism is endless but we really didn’t have time to explore it for more than twenty minutes before being lead to the upstairs mezzanine. From the narrow walkways encircling the interior, we were able to watch the daily, noon-time ceremony.

Again, I don’t know what exactly was going on other than it was a religious ceremony. With men and women separated on either side of the hall, they walked slowly up towards the main alter. (Which, by the way, includes a gigantic globe surrounded by dragons, burning incense, wooden tables, and a lot of gold decorations.) Musicians and singers accompanied the devotees who, upon arriving at the designated prayer area, sat on the floor. The majority of the men and women wore white, while some of the officials wore bright red, blue, or orange.

Although we were told that it was all right to take photographs, even during the ceremony, it felt quite intrusive to do so, especially with the flashes going off. We were allowed to take pictures of the followers, but when a tourist attempted to take a picture of another tourist inside the temple, we were gently told not to do so. I really would like to have taken more time there, but the bus was about to leave. Part and parcel of a day trip.

Next, we were off to the restaurant for lunch. It was just a small, side-of-the-road, open-aired affair, but they managed to serve all of us our various orders in no time at all. Before heading out, I availed myself of the facilities. I followed other tour members out to the back where a row of doors led to the toilets.

One door was open so I walked over and looked in. Obviously, it was some sort of wash room. It had a slightly sloped floor with a bucket of water and a mouse hole in the corner leading to the outside. I waited until a vacancy came up and walked in, only to see the same type of room. I called out to the women who had just walked out of it. So we just pee on the floor? I asked. “Yes, and wash it down with water.” And I thought that I had seen every type of restroom that existed. It was way weird! And yes, you get pee in all the places you don’t want it. And what was I supposed to do with the toilet paper?

It was another hour on the bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels. At this point, I would have really questioned the point of a trip like this had it not been for our tour guide. He was incredibly knowledgeable and articulate about where we were going and what we were seeing, about the war years and where he had been and what he had done. I was surprised at his candor – there are some things that are just not cool to talk about if you were working for the wrong side in that war.

Originally, I had not wanted to go see the tunnels that were used during the war. I have met people in my life whose job in the army was to work those holes in the ground, and I had seen what it had done to them. However, I am glad I went. I really had no idea that these were more than just escape and attack tunnels. The people of the area lived underground, cooked underground and carried on everyday life there for years. The ingenuity of their construction is amazing.

It was upsetting, yet surreal to walk around an area had been repeatedly bombed and napalmed. Coming upon a US Army tank that lies in the exact spot where it had been disabled gave me the shivers. Others clamored to take photos seemingly unaware of what that dead tank signified, and what had taken place on the ground where we now stood. Several times I walked away from the group and peered out into the now, re-vegetated landscape. As our guide had repeatedly told us during the day, war is terrible.

With hopes that all those spirits are now at rest,