Day: June 21st, 2006

War and Peace: Vietnam edition

Wednesday, June 21st, 2006 | All Things, Travel

Today I booked a tour to visit two popular Ho Chi Minh City area sights: The Tay Ninh Holy See and The Cu Chi Tunnels. After an early breakfast at the hotel (same menu as yesterday), I had a few minutes to stroll the streets before meeting the tour bus. At 7:30AM, the streets of Saigon were already buzzing with assorted food and fruit hawkers. Here, a baguette vendor:


First stop: The Tay Ninh Holy See, home and main temple of the Cao Dai indigenous religion. Cao Dai was established in Vietnam in the 1920s; the religion combines the tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism and spirituality/ancestor worship.

Tay Ninh province is located approximately 60 miles north of Saigon — with traffic and on Vietnam’s roads (pocked by what locals refer to as “chicken holes” and “buffalo holes”), the drive took just over two and half hours.

Once there, the massive, riotously colorful temple was impossible to miss:

Tay Ninh Holy See

A common motif: The all-seeing eye, symbolizing God as He appeared in the first vision establishing the Cao Dai faith.

All seeing eye

We arrived well in time to observe the noon ceremony, one of four held at the temple throughout the day. Women arrive in traditional ao dais:

To Temple

Worshippers attend services dressed entirely in white. Clergy dress in colors: red, blue or yellow robes and white hats, based on rank. No dress code for gawking tourists, who are invited in to observe quietly from the upper balconies.

Cao Dai clergy

At the doors of the temple. Men and women enter through different doors, and all are required to remove their shoes before passing through the gates.

Tay Ninh Holy See

Inside the Tay Ninh Holy See:

Cao Dai service

Traditional music accompanies the service:

Cao Dai musicians

We slipped out halfway through the 40 minute ceremony, to make our way back south to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The first segment of this famous underground network of tunnels was dug in the 1940s by the guerrila fighters of Cu Chi province during the fight against the French. The network was later expanded and used to great (and deadly) effect against the Americans two decades later. According to the official guide, the elaborate system consisted of 150 miles of tunnels and bunkers over three levels, outfitted with secret traps and connecting narrow routes to hidden shelters, local rivers and tunnels to the Cambodian border. Thousands lived below ground, for days or weeks at a time.

Upon entering the complex, we were ushered into a bleak, windowless room to sit through a short, scratchy, black and white propaganda film (c. 1967) on the history of the tunnels, celebrating the unmatched ingenuity of the guerrilla fighters and glorifying the “American-killing heroes.”

Young Cu Chi forest and guide. This area was completely defoliated by napalm in the 1960s and 1970s; trees only returned in the past couple of decades.

Cu Chi

One of several exhibits of the rather barbaric traps used during the American war. The guerrilla fighters seem to have had a fondness for impaling (usually in pits, by metal spikes or sharpened bamboo sticks.) Informative, if touristy set-up. Other exhibits displayed a bombed out American tank and mannequins of uniformed guerrilla fighters in working/fighting poses.


Being one of the more popular sites around HCMC, there were other tour groups wandering the area at the same time I was there. I noticed that the information presented varied wildly, depending on the perspective of the guide: mine was a native South Vietnamese who supported the Americans during the war (and quietly voiced his suspicions regarding the accuracy of the “official” facts); another was a former VC soldier whose wartime job was to retrieve American corpses from the traps — a task he seemed to relish in the retelling.

The highlight of the tour is the actual tunnels. The onsite guide showed a hidden tunnel entrance and demonstrated entry and exit through the tiny opening:

Cu Chi Tunnel

Most of the original tunnels have collapsed due to disuse and lack of maintenance, but about a hundred meters were reinforced (and generously widened) to allow tourists to crawl within. Once inside, the tunnel was dirty and narrow… and although one segment was dimly lit by lightbulbs, another was kept dark to demonstrate the original conditions inside. I’ve never been claustrophobic before, but at one point, on my hands and knees in the stifling heat and pitch black, heart pounding, I had an irrepressible urge to scream and/or scramble out as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, there was a bit of tourist gridlock, and I was forced to edge along at an excrutiatingly slow pace.

Cu Chi Tunnel

Never in my life been so glad to see daylight.

Unbelievably, one of the final stops was a shooting range where for $1.60 a bullet, anyone could sign up to fire the weapon of his/her choice. Although I don’t know under what circumstance I will again have the opportunity to fire an M-16 or AK-47, I passed.
Price list


And of course, the requisite gift shop with such random offerings as bottles of snake rice wine — with actual snakes coiled inside:

Snake wine

Evening rush hour as viewed from the front passenger seat of the tour van:
Road to Saigon

Sitting in traffic:


After a desperately-needed shower to wash off the Cu Chi clay, I set off for a civilized dinner at Vietnam House down the block from the hotel on Dong Khoi Street. The restaurant is located inside a restored three-story French colonial home and features staff in traditional Vietnamese dress and live music performances on pipa and zheng:



Off the grid for the next two days while I tour the lower Mekong Delta. I’ve arranged a homestay with a local family in Can Tho, so hope to come back with some interesting village photos.

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