After about a week in Sài Gòn, Misou and I decided we should get out and see more of the surrounding area. So we went down to “Whiteyville” (our affectionate name for the few blocks surrounding the Sinh Tourism office in Sài Gòn, where all the Australians, Frenchmen, Americans, and Russians hang out and eat shitty Western food) and booked a daytrip to the Cao Đài temple and the Củ Chi tunnels north of Sài Gòn.
On the way to Tây Ninh, we stopped at a lacquer factory run by the government that employs only disabled people. Their handiwork was impressive (not to mention ubiquitous in the markets throughout the south), but we felt rather uncomfortable being paraded through their workspace.
We were soon back on the bus and headed to the Cao Đài temple. Đạo Cao Đài, or the Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation, is—frankly speaking—a cult founded in 1926. Their Holy See was built in Tây Ninh from 1933 to 1955, and they have 2-3 million adherents, mostly in the south of Vietnam and in émigré communities around the world. Their beliefs are a grab bag of ideas taken from Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam: their three saints are the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, the Vietnamese poet and sage Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, and… wait for it… Victor Hugo. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Neither did we, and we stood scratching our heads in front of a portrait of these three signing a covenant in French and Chinese with God.) The symbol of the religion is an eye of Horus, but with a big black eyebrow. Though the Mass we attended was lovely in a way, with some atonal music and young girls singing in the background, it was mostly odd.
After a lackluster lunch at a roadside nhà hàng, we continued on to Củ Chi. Misou was not at all happy to be there, but I found it interesting despite the fact that we were forced to sit through a twenty-minute communist propaganda film on the great “American killers” from the War of American Aggression. Most of the film consisted of smiling young girls toting carbines through rice paddies, and smiling young men carrying mortars, and smiling children with their smiling mothers smiling as they harvest and thresh rice to feed the patriots living in the Củ Chi tunnels. It was somewhat over the top, but after all the victors get to write history.
The tunnels themselves are truly impressive. Running for hundreds of kilometers from the north into the south, they were first dug out during the war against the French and were later expanded. Over 16,000 people lived underground in them during the Vietnam War, and many of them were killed by U.S. B-52 bombers (you can still see the craters left behind by the carpet bombing, though now they’re all full of bamboo and coconut trees). It was from these tunnels that the final assault on Sài Gòn was led, and ultimately the South was forced to surrender at Independence Palace (now called Reunification Palace).
The tunnels were ingeniously designed, and after crawling through one of them, we could hardly imagine how the Củ Chi warriors managed not to go mad with claustrophobia or get lost in the ant farm–like maze. It was, however, very easy to see why the Southern and American forces found it so difficult to find the enemy and resorted instead to carpet bombing and Agent Orange. (More on this soon when we post the pictures from Matt’s and my visit the War Remnants Museum.) The crudely painted backdrops of American servicemen falling into bamboo spike pits or getting their legs impaled with tiger traps were a bit much, but hearing the Communists’ take on the war was certainly interesting. Also, I got to fire an AK …