|A guided tour hasn't been the norm for us so far on our travels. For the most part we have been happy to avoid the confines of a tourist packed bus and launch out on our own. In Vietnam, however, they don't make it easy for you to do that and make it quite easy for the tour option. So, we say, why not? And we are rewarded.
We catch wind of the double Cao Dai/Cu Chi Tunnel tour and do a bit of shopping around at the tour agencies. In the chic part of town, where we reside, the price was at around $35 per person for this particular trip, but as we ventured closer to the Pham Ngu Lao area we saw the prices fall and fall, until we settled on a full day tour that sets us back $6 each. Well done. And enough about the money. Not like anyone cares what we spent - least of all on the souvenirs we might come home with.
One thing the Old Man is good for is getting our lazy asses out of bed in the morning. We won't miss our Majestic breakfast for much, but it is hard to leave the comfort of a real bed with white sheets. But Dad is up by five and by six he is itching to get us on the move. Up, teethbrush, to the Garden for breakfast (oh, the breakfast was so good in the Majestic I could write a chapter), down the stairs, into a cab, over to the tour office, missed the bus, wait there's another one, around the corner, hop in a cab, drive 25 meters, hop out, hop on the bus, grab a seat, three across the back, and ready to go. Dad gets the window, to be sure.
Our tourguide is a jolly fellow, a fomer English teacher from the Mekong Delta region, and eager to tell us all there is about Cao Dai religion and the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cu Chi Gators. The itinerary will bring us first to the Temple in the town of Tay Ninh in time for the noon service. The Cao Dai-ers (for lack of a better term) have prayer service ever six hours (midnight, 6 am, noon, 6pm). Service is not obligatory, but they go to the ones they can go to, which on the weekends means all four, but during the week, more likely just two. The religion itself is a hybrid religion that mixes Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Confuscianism, and a little innovation all into one. It is more recent than Mormonism and has in this particular region of Vietnam about 500,000 followers. Imagine a host of contradictions with lots of bright colors and a fairly decent sense of humor.
The bus ride takes us through the outlying industrial areas of HCMC and into the more rural countryside. My father is thrilled as we pass into rubber tree plantations and memories abound for him as this is an area much like and possibly very close to the area he was in at one time. We reach for the See City just before noon and have a bit of time to walk around the enclosed city grounds before we proceed to the temple. Strangely, or perhaps not so, the service is well equipped to handle to hoards of tourists who come everyday from HCMC to witness their faith. The upstairs balcony is reserved for these tourists and, yes, flash photography is allowed! The music and colors are the most striking aspect of the event. The string band plays a wide selection of native instruments and the small choir produces harmonizing calls unlike anything I ever heard before. Quite a sight all told, and if not the oddest thing I've seen within the rhelm of religion, the surreality of it is high on the meter.
We do not linger long in the temple and leave early so as the believers might enjoy some of their hour service without a digital camera clicking flashes every other second. We stop off to have lunch in a roadside counter and then are off to Cu Chi.
Cu Chi designates a town and a region and during the Vietnam war it marked the southern end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was a hotbed of Viet Cong insurgency and a base of operations for them. The tunnel system was initiated during the resistance to the French during the 1940s and 50s, but was elaborated during the American War of Aggression (as they like to call it). Used extensively for planning attacks and moving supplies, the main purpose for the tunnels was to act as a bomb shelter for the mass bombings committed by American forces throughout the mid to late 1960s and early 70s. Over 500 thousand tons of bombs were dropped within the Cu Chi region during that period.
Cu Chi now is a source of pride for many Vietnamese and the tunnel system has been rebuilt to support a tourist trade that attracts thousands. Actually going in the tunnels is part of the deal, and although they've been 'made big for big tourist who eat too much McDonald' you'd be surprised how small they still were. And I can tell you one person in particular who was surprised at just how small these 'tourist-sized' tunnels were.
Mandy is simply not going in the tunnels. Done. Jon doesn't really mind small spaces, and besides, he's trying to be tough. Chris, okay, yeah, no sweat - give it a try. The first one, good - no problem. Walk down the stairs, have a look around at a few crude Vietnamese manequins in the simulated hospital bunker. Next one, alright, down a little hole, poke your head out the manhole cover - can do. Oh, the long one? How long? Did he say 20m, 100m, or 120m? Oh, there's three escape stairs if you get tired? Great. Mandy, hold Dad's camera. See you on the other side.
Needless to say the experience was classic. [Just got kicked out of the internet cafe - go to go, More later.]
The photos will tend to speak for themselves, but again, the video shot beneath ground and the deep breathing of Chris Queally will speak even louder. It needs to be said that the Vietnamese tourist industry must get a real kick out of former US soldiers (and their unsuspecting kin) to go through these tunnels.
My father was willing to admit that, "If I knew what that was I wouldn't have gone." I was happy to return that this was not the first time Vietnam had drawn those words out of him.
The day was a very fine day and crawling through those tunnels like a duck behind my father was an experience I will always remember fondly. It made him sweat and made me sweat, but in the end the smiles triumphed and we both have poems to write about this one.