The Big Trip: Day Two - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The previous night, I’d booked a day trip with Sinh Cafe, one of the many tour companies in the Pham Ngu Lao district of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was a trip to visit the Cao Dai Temple as well as the Cu Chi Tunnels. The trip cost 130,000 Vietnamese dong, or the equivalent of about $7-8. The cost didn’t include lunch or the entrance fee to the tunnels.

The bus departed at 8:15am, so I had to be at the Sinh Cafe offices at around 7:45am. There weren’t too many of us on the trip, so our tour guide disposed of the microphone and/or megaphone (I wasn’t sure exactly what he had planned to use) and just spoke to us in a loud voice. The tour company provided each of us with a small bottle of water (which supplemented the big bottle of water I brought along) and a pack with wet wipes (one piece) in it. We would find out later that day just how useful the wet wipes and water would be.

The Cao Dai Temple is in Tay Ninh, a couple of hours away from Ho Chi Minh City. The tour guide informed us that there would be a rest room stop on the way to the temple. We were taken to a place where Vietnamese handicrafts were being made, and naturally, there was a souvenir shop. In fact, in order to exit the compound with the rest rooms and return to the buses, you had to pass through the shop. It was a pretty good ploy to try and get tourists to part with their cash, but I didn’t bite because the prices were much higher than at the market. The shop had a lot of lacquerware, some great art stuff that would look good on a wall, assorted vases and such, chopsticks and chopstick holders, keychains of all sorts, and pearls. It was a nice stop, but again, way too expensive compared to the markets.

souvenir shop
After experiencing a bit of tourist-baiting, we made our way to the Cao Dai Temple. Our tour guide explained a little bit about the Cao Dai religion, which is a fusion of religions including Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The devotees prayed four times in a day: 6am, 12nn, 6pm, and 12mn. They would go to the temple and pray there. We were going to arrive at the temple before noon, so we had time to explore the temple and take pictures, and we would also be able to witness a Cao Dai prayer ceremony before heading out for lunch and the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Because we were headed to the temple shortly before their time of prayer, we witnessed the many Cao Dai devotees on their way to the temple. They were all dressed in white, and it was quite a sight to see so many people in white heading in one direction. Of course, our bus was faster than their bicycles, so we arrived at the temple ahead of most of the devotees.

The temple itself was a massive and colorful building. There are lots of columns both inside and outside the building. The Cao Dai religion believes in the mysticism of the number nine, and that is manifested in the temple from the dimensions to the number of steps and levels inside the temple.

Cao Dai Temple (front)
Cao Dai Temple (side)

The interior of the temple is massive and very ornately and colorfully decorated. Each column has something (a dragon? I’m not quite sure) snaking around it.

inside the temple
The emblem of an eye is also everywhere, so it feels like it’s watching your every move from every corner of the temple.

the eye
There’s also a painting at the entrance of the temple with the three saints of Caodaiism. These are Nguyen Binh Khiem, Sun Yat-sen, and Victor Hugo. Yes, THAT Victor Hugo.

the three saints
After exploring the temple, it was time to clear the grounds, go up to the balcony, and watch the Cao Dai prayer ceremony. The ceremony was a colorful affair, with its priests wearing different colored robes (yellow, blue, red, and white) representing the different religions comprising the Cao Dai faith. The devotees, all in white, were all around, separated by gender.

prayer ceremony

The ceremony itself was interesting. There was a little choir (though I didn’t actually SEE the choir) singing and playing music which resonated through the temple. The smell of incense filled the air. And the prayer itself was quite reverent.

After a couple of minutes, it was time to leave the Cao Dai Temple. We had lunch at a little restaurant just outside the temple. During lunch, I met two fellow travelers: Denee from the UK, and Seamus from Indiana, USA. They actually thought I was Vietnamese, which pretty much summed up my travel experience: Fellow travelers almost always thought I was a local. In any case, I talked to them, and by the end of lunch, I’d made two new friends as we headed into the Cu Chi Tunnels.

new travel friends

There was an entry fee of 80,000 Vietnamese dong to enter the Cu Chi Tunnels. Upon arrival, we were treated to a documentary/propaganda film that explained what the Cu Chi Tunnels were all about. According to the film, before the Americans came, Cu Chi was a small farming community full of simple, happy folk whose lives were ruined when the American began their offensive. The people of Cu Chi had no choice but to protect themselves. Everyone in the community became a fighter, and the film showed us some of their proudest moments, such as rigging landmines in order to stop incoming tanks. The film called the Americans “a bunch of wild devils” who shot anything and everything in sight, from livestock to pots and pans to the ground itself. The film also showed us why they built the tunnels, and (in a nutshell) how they worked.

Our tour guide then took us to see one of the entrance/exit holes. It was tiny.

Cu Chi Tunnels - the hole

One of the guides then demonstrated how one got in and out of one such hole.

Cu Chi Tunnels (tour guide demonstration)

Many of those with the tour, myself included, decided to try getting in and out of the hole. It was such a tight fit, I was amazed at how small the Viet Cong must have been in order to get in and out of the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels (Ren in the hole!)

Next, we were shown an example of one of the many traps the Viet Cong laid for the American combatants. It looked like an ordinary patch of grass, but once you stepped on it, the panel swings open, and you land on a bunch of spikes. Yeouch.

it's a trap!

We saw a lot more in the complex. We saw the air vents where oxygen came in and smoke from their kitchens underground went out. We saw how the Viet Cong repurposed some of the bombs and weaponry of the Americans and made it their own. We saw how exactly the Viet Cong lived, both above ground and underground. We even saw more examples of traps, including the door trap (which they would swing at any soldiers entering their homes through the front doors at night) and the souvenir trap (called such because once you stepped into it, it’s hard to remove).

souvenir trap

Throughout the tour, we would hear various gunshots in the background. It was a little uncomfortable and unsettling, and made us wonder (jokingly, but also a bit nervously) if there were still some Viet Cong around who thought the war wasn’t done yet. We even joked about how Seamus and I – Seamus especially – would be targeted because of our respective countries’ involvement in the war. As it turns out, the reason we heard assorted gunshots was because there was a shooting range nearby, where visitors can pay to shoot using various weapons. Payment was by the bullet. None of us went for it. Not only was it expensive, but after seeing how nasty war can be, picking up a weapon wasn’t exactly an appealing idea.

The we got to the main event: We were going to get a chance to crawl through a 100m stretch of tunnels. There would be three levels, each one going deeper into the earth. There is an exit option after each level if you feel you’ve had enough, or you’re beginning to feel claustrophobic. Seamus and I swapped cameras so we could “shoot each other” as we crawled through the tunnels. It was an excellent idea.

Cu Chi Tunnels (inside the tunnel)

The tunnels were made bigger so that large tourists such as myself can crawl through without getting stuck. It was still pretty tight, though, and without the occasional flash of a camera and shout-out to (or from) Seamus, it would have been easy to get claustrophobic, or worse, lost. It was a great experience, thought. The first level had a little light to guide us, but once we got to the second level (and getting down there was TOUGH), there seemed to be a lot less light and the tunnels seemed to get a little smaller. The occasional flash of light from the cameras definitely helped light the way. Somehow, we never got to the third level (I was at the back of the pack, so I guess the front of the pack decided to exit after the second level, and everyone else followed). Still, that was about 60m or more that we crawled through, and it was exhausting. Not only that, but dust from the tunnels was sticking to me; thankfully, there was a little faucet where we could wash off some of the dust from our arms.

Cu Chi Tunnels (posing inside the tunnel; thanks, Seamus!)

Once we were “clean” – this was where the wet wipes came in handy, to wipe the dust away from our faces – we were treated to a VC Burger. This was what they Viet Cong ate to survive in the tunnels. It was tapioca, and not in its usual pearl or “sago” form. Nope, it was just the plain root crop. No wonder they could fit into those tunnels. The tapioca itself was kinda bland, so we had something to dip the tapioca in. It was a dry mixture with peanuts and sugar, among other things. We also had some tea to wash it down.

We had a little time to take a few more photos, posing with the Viet Cong mannequins and such around the area. We also passed by a couple of souvenir shops selling everything from keychains to postcards to supposedly authentic GI Zippo lighters. They were also selling some cold, cold drinks, which we gladly indulged in.

photo op

On the way back to the city proper, we encountered some heavy traffic. This was where I saw first-hand just how bad rush hour can be in Ho Chi Minh City. All the motorcycles were out in full force. It boggled the mind seeing so many of them out in the streets all at the same time. It seemed like such the quintessential Vietnam experience, to be in the midst of all these motorcycles.

When we finally got back to the Sinh Cafe office, I made one last goodbye to my new friends Denee and Seamus, and made my way back to the hostel to rest up a bit and freshen up before dinner. I had another delicious Vietnamese meal, and capped the day with another bottle of Saigon Beer.

Saigon Beer

You can view all the pictures of my trip at my Flickr photostream. Enjoy!