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:

Baguettes

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.

Traps

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

Arsenal

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:

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:

Musicians

Delicious.

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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Saigon tour

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006 | All Things, Travel

Got an early start my first full day in Vietnam. After deciding to forgo a group organized city tour, I took a traditional Vietnamese breakfast of rice noodles with fish sauce, spring rolls, and iced coffee at the hotel, and set out to explore on my own. First photo stop: view of the Saigon River, as seen from the rooftop bar of the Majestic Hotel, erected in 1925 and a fine example of Graham Greene-era glamour that once attracted guests like Fran├žois Mitterrand and Catherine Deneuve:

Saigon River

Along my stroll on Dong Khoi Street, known in French colonial days as Rue Catinat and once considered the most refined and fashionable stretch of road in Saigon, I was inundated with offers for private city tours. I opted to take in the sights from the vantage point of the locals, i.e., from the back of a Honda Om motorcycle. Ho Chi Minh City is swarming with “xe om” motorbike taxis, which outnumber cars by at least a three to one margin. That combined with the distinct shortage of discernable traffic lanes, traffic signals and crosswalks often makes just crossing the street a dicey proposition.

The view from my guide Hong’s purple xe om:

Honda View

I’ll admit that the ride was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but after a few minutes, I grew accustomed to the traffic weaving and startling proximity to other vehicles, large and small. Not a helmet in sight, by the way.

The Hotel Continental, for decades a gathering place for foreign journalists and another stop on “The Quiet American” tour. On the right, situated perpedicularly on Lam Son Square, is the French colonial-style Opera House:

Hotel Continental

Inside the Reunification Palace, formerly known as the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, or Independence Palace. One of the few pure examples of 1960s architecture in Ho Chi Minh City. A replica of the tank that crashed through the palace gates the day Saigon fell to the North is now parked outside.

Reunification Palace View

One of the many rooms I got to peek on the guided tour of the building. This one was used as a sitting room for visitors. Perhaps more interesting, though less visually striking, was the elaborate basement bomb shelter/bunker complete with map rooms, transmission rooms (outfitted with rotary phones and metal desks), and general purpose “war rooms”.

Palace Sitting Room

Presidential gifts. Yes, they’re real elephants’ feet:

Elephant Feet

In front of the War Remnants (formerly War Crimes) Museum. Exhibits inside within were rather graphic in their depictions of American atrocities during the Vietnam War:

Air Force
Tanks

Notre Dame Cathedral:

Notre Dame

Midday showers brought my District 1 sightseeing to an end, so after a brief respite back at the hotel, I hopped a taxi (car, this time) to Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, about five kilometers west of the city center, but very different in feel. Chaotic jumbles of low-rise dilapidated buildings, narrow alleys and decidedly grittier streets, which may account for tourists appearing fewer and farther between.I asked to be dropped at Cholon’s famous Binh Tay Market. Inside the close aisles and jam-packed stalls was every variety of everyday goods, offering glimpses into modern Vietnamese life. And in the surrounding streets, stands and stands of dried goods, produce, meats, and seafood (many still squirming):

Market4

Market3

Market1

Market2

Market5

Market6
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Arrival: Saigon

Monday, June 19th, 2006 | All Things, Travel

No photos tonight… Just set foot in the hotel about half an hour ago and writing this from the lone computer station off the hotel Front Desk.

Almost missed my flight from HKG; I had forgotten what an inordinate amount of time it takes to pass through Immigration in Hong Kong, coming or going. After racing into the plane minutes before the doors closed, we proceed to sit on the runway. And sit… and sit. After about half an hour, during which the passengers sat in silent confusion/annoyance, the pilot came over the PA with an announcement of a “customer issue” causing the delay, which brought to mind the mysterious “sick passenger” announcement on the NYC subway. Whatever the “issue” was, it was resolved minutes later and we were off.

Uneventful flight… and upon arrival in SGN (half an hour late), I collected my luggage and stepped into the greeting hall where I was met with one of the most chaotic scenes I’ve ever encountered at an airport. Masses of people, some with signs, most shouting and gesturing. Within seconds, I was accosted by three rather aggressive taxi drivers, offering to assist with my luggage, asking about my destination. I tried to decline as politely as possible, secretly wishing I had made arrangements with the hotel for a meet and greet upon arrival, but two of the three continued to tail me as I exited the airport gates, searching for the taxi line. As I made my way to what appeared to be the end of the line (or rather, crowd), both drivers asked my destination. Considering my options, I announced it and asked the price, to which they responded simultaneously with “$12” and “$15”. The hotel had approximated the cost at $6-7, so uh… no, thanks. This seemed to set off an argument between the two (I’m guessing over how to more effectively engage in collusion), at which point I spied a fourth taxi driver — this one in an official SaigonTourist uniform. He offered to deliver me to my destination for $6. Done.

The driver spoke decent English and during the fifteen minute ride, we chatted briefly about Vietnamese history as he pointed out the attractions we passed along the way. At the hotel, I was greeted with smiles and a bottle of very cold water.

Whew.

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