HO CHI MINH CITY AND AROUND || AROUND HO CHI MINH CITY
With public transport slow and erratic, day-trips are best arranged through a tour operator. The single most popular trip out of the city takes in one or both of Vietnam’s most memorable sights: the Cu Chi tunnels, for twenty years a bolt hole, first for Viet Minh agents, and later for Viet Cong cadres; and the weird and wonderful Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh, the fulcrum of the country’s most charismatic indigenous religion. While it’s possible to see both places in a day (indeed, most people do), be prepared to spend most of the day on the road.
Another enjoyable day (or half-day) out can be had at one of the water parks that are located on the fringe of the city and make a great antidote to the dust and heat of Ho Chi Minh City. Southwest of the city, a new highway runs down to My Tho, where you can catch a glimpse of the Mekong River; while to the northeast, it breezes up to the dreary orbital city of Bien Hoa, from where Highway 51 drops down to the beaches around Vung Tau.
THE CU CHI TUNNELS
During the American War, the villages around the district of Cu Chi supported a substantial Viet Cong (VC) presence. Faced with American attempts to neutralize them, they quite literally dug themselves out of harm’s way, and the legendary Cu Chi tunnels were the result. Today, tourists can visit a short stretch of the tunnels, drop to their hands and knees and squeeze underground for an insight into life as a tunnel-dwelling resistance fighter. Some sections of the tunnels have been widened to allow passage for the fuller frame of Westerners but it’s still a dark, sweaty, claustrophobic experience, and not one you should rush into unless you’re confident you won’t suffer a subterranean freak-out.
There are two sites where the tunnels can be seen – Ben Dinh and, 15km beyond, Ben Duoc, though most foreigners get taken to Ben Dinh.
A brief history
When the first spades sank into the earth around Cu Chi, the region was covered by a rubber plantation tied to a French tyre company. Anti-colonial Viet Minh dug the first tunnels here in the late 1940s; intended primarily for storing arms, they soon became valuable hiding places for the resistance fighters themselves. Over a decade later, VC activists controlling this staunchly anti-government area, many of them local villagers, followed suit and went to ground. By 1965, 250km of tunnels crisscrossed Cu Chi and surrounding areas – just across the Saigon River was the notorious guerrilla power base known as the Iron Triangle – making it possible for the VC guerrilla cells in the area to link up with each other and to infiltrate Saigon at will. One section daringly ran underneath the Americans’ Cu Chi Army Base.
Though the region’s compacted red clay was perfectly suited to tunnelling, and lay above the water level of the Saigon River, the digging parties faced a multitude of problems. Quite apart from the snakes and scorpions they encountered as they laboured with their hoes and crowbars, there was the problem of inconspicuously disposing of the soil by spreading it in bomb craters or scattering it in the river under cover of darkness. With a tunnel dug, ceilings had to be shored up, and as American bombing made timber scarce the tunnellers had to resort to stealing iron fence posts from enemy bases. Tunnels could be as small as 80cm wide and 80cm high, and were sometimes four levels deep; vent shafts (to disperse smoke and aromas from underground ovens) were camouflaged by thick grass and termites’ nests. In order to throw the Americans’ dogs off the scent, pepper was sprinkled around vents, and sometimes the VC even washed with the same scented soap used by GIs.
Living conditions below ground were appalling for these “human moles”. Tunnels were foul-smelling, and became so hot by the afternoon that inhabitants had to lie on the floor in order to get enough oxygen to breathe. The darkness was absolute, and some long-term dwellers suffered temporary blindness when they emerged into the light. At times it was necessary to stay below ground for weeks on end, alongside bats, rats, snakes, scorpions, centipedes and fire ants. Some of these unwelcome guests were co-opted to the cause: boxes full of scorpions and hollow bamboo sticks containing vipers were secreted in tunnels, where GIs might unwittingly knock them over.
Within the multi-level tunnel complexes, there were latrines, wells, meeting rooms and dorms. Rudimentary hospitals were also scratched out of the soil. Operations were carried out by torchlight using instruments fashioned from shards of ordnance, and a patient’s own blood was caught in bottles and then pumped straight back using a bicycle pump and a length of rubber hosing. Such medical supplies as existed were secured by bribing ARVN soldiers in Saigon. Doctors also administered herbs and acupuncture – even honey was used for its antiseptic properties. Kitchens cooked whatever the tunnellers could get their hands on. With rice and fruit crops destroyed, the diet consisted largely of tapioca, leaves and roots, at least until enough bomb fragments could be transported to Saigon and sold as scrap to buy food. Morale was maintained in part by performing troupes that toured the tunnels, though songs like “He who comes to Cu Chi, the Bronze Fortress in the Land of Iron, will count the crimes accumulated by the Enemy” were not quite up to the standard set by Bob Hope as he entertained the US troops.
The end of the line
American attempts to flush out the tunnels proved ineffective. Operating out of huge bases erected around Saigon in the mid-Sixties, they evacuated villagers into strategic hamlets and then used defoliant sprays and bulldozers to rob the VC of cover, in “scorched earth” operations such as January 1967’s Cedar Falls. Even then, tunnels were rarely effectively destroyed – one soldier at the time compared the task to “fill[ing] the Grand Canyon with a pitchfork”. GIs would lob down gas or grenades or else go down themselves, armed only with a torch, a knife and a pistol. Die-hard soldiers who specialized in these underground raids came to be known as tunnel rats, their unofficial insignia Insigni Non Gratum Anus Rodentum, meaning “not worth a rat’s arse”. Booby-traps made of sharpened bamboo stakes awaited them in the dark, as well as “bombs”made from Coke cans and dud bullets found on the surface. Tunnels were low and narrow, and entrances so small that GIs often couldn’t get down them, even if they could locate them. Maverick war correspondent Wilfred Burchett, travelling with the NLF in 1964, found his Western girth a distinct impediment: “On another occasion I got stuck passing from one tunnel section to another. In what seemed a dead end, a rectangular plug was pulled out from the other side, and, with some ahead pulling my arms and some pushing my buttocks from behind, I managed to get through “I was transferred to another tunnel entrance built especially to accommodate a bulky unit cook.”
Another American tactic aimed at weakening the resolve of the VC guerrillas involved dropping leaflets and broadcasting bulletins that played on the fighters’ fears and loneliness. Although this prompted numerous desertions, the tunnellers were still able to mastermind the Tet Offensive of 1968. Ultimately, the Americans resorted to more strong-arm tactics to neutralize the tunnels, sending in the B52s freed by the cessation of bombing of the North in 1968 to level the district with carpet bombing. The VC’s infrastructure was decimated by Tet, and further weakened by the Phoenix Programme. By this time, though, the tunnels had played their part in proving to America that the war was unwinnable. At least twelve thousand Vietnamese guerrillas and sympathizers are thought to have perished here during the American War, and the terrain was laid waste – pockmarked by bomb craters, devoid of vegetation, the air poisoned by lingering fumes.
Cu Chi: The guided tour
The guided tour of Ben Dinh kicks off in a thatched hut, where a map of the region, a cross-section of the tunnels and a black and white movie bristling with national pride fill you in on the background. From there, you head out into the bush, where your guide will point out lethal booby-traps, concealed trap doors and an abandoned tank. There are several models showing how unexploded ordnance was ingeniously converted into lethal mines and traps, and a demonstration of how smoke from underground fires was cleverly dispersed far from its source.
When you reach the shooting range, you have the chance to shoulder an M16 or AK47 and shoot off a few rounds, or stop at the adjacent souvenir and snack stalls. Finally, you get the chance to stoop, crawl and drag yourself through a section of the tunnels about 140 metres long (with frequent escape routes for anyone who can’t hack it). It only takes 10–15 minutes to scramble through, but the pitch blackness and intense humidity can be discomforting, so when you emerge, you’ll be glad you don’t have to live down there for weeks on end as the VC did.
A few kilometres off the highway lies LONG HOA, the site of the enigmatic Cao Dai Great Temple, or Cathedral, of the Holy See of Tay Ninh District. Joss-stick factories line the road into Long Hoa, their produce bundled into mini-haystacks by the roadside to dry. Around 4km later you reach Long Hoa’s market, from where the cathedral itself is another 2km.
Cao Dai Great Temple
A grand gateway marks the entrance to the grounds of the 1927-built Cao Dai Great Temple. Beyond it, a wide boulevard escorts you past a swathe of grassland used on ceremonial occasions, to the wildly exotic temple itself, over whose left shoulder rises distant Nui Ba Den, Black Lady Mountain.
The temple’s exterior
On first sighting, the Great Temple seems to be subsiding, an optical illusion created by the rising steps inside it, but your first impressions are more likely to be dominated by what Graham Greene described as a “Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor”. Despite its Day-Glo hues and rococo clutter, this gaudy construction somehow manages to bypass tackiness. Two square, pagoda-style towers bookend the front facade, whose central portico is topped by a bowed, first-floor balcony and a Divine Eye. The most recurrent motif in the temple, the eye, is surrounded by a triangle, as it is on the American one-dollar bill. A figure in semi-relief emerges from each tower: on the left is Cao Dai’s first female cardinal, Lam Huong Thanh, and on the right, Le Van Trung, its first pope.
The temple’s interior
The eclectic ideology of Cao Dai is mirrored in the interior. Part cathedral and part pagoda, it draws together a potpourri of icons and elements under a vaulted ceiling, and daubs them all with the primary colours of a Hindu temple. Men enter the cathedral through an entrance in the right wall, women by a door to the left, and all must take off their shoes. Inside the lobby, a mural shows the three “signatories of the 3rd Alliance between God and Mankind”: French poet Victor Hugo and the fifteenth-century Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Binh Khiem, are writing the Cao Dai principles of “God and humanity, love and justice” in French and Chinese onto a shining celestial tablet. Beside them, the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen holds an inkstone, a symbol of “Chinese civilization allied to Christian civilization giving birth to Cao Dai doctrine”, according to a nearby sign.
Outside of service times tourists are welcome to wander through the nave of the cathedral, as long as they remain in the aisles, and don’t stray between the rows of pink pillars, entwined by green dragons, that march up the chamber. Cut-away windows punctuate the outer walls, their grillework consisting of the Divine Eye, surrounded by bright pink lotus blooms. Walk up the shallow steps that lend the nave its litheness, and you’ll reach an altar that groans under the weight of assorted vases, fruit, paintings and slender statues of storks. The papal chair stands at the head of the chamber, its arms carved into dragons. Below it are six more chairs, three with eagle arms, and three with lion arms, for the cardinals. Dominating the chamber, though, and guarded by eight scary silver dragons, a vast, duck-egg-blue sphere, speckled with stars, rests on a polished, eight-sided dais. The ubiquitous Divine Eye peers through clouds painted on the front. You’ll see more spangly stars and fluffy clouds if you look up at the sky-blue ceiling, with mouldings of lions and turtles.
Cao Dai services
A major attraction is attending one of the daily services at the temple (daily 6am, noon and 6pm), and most tours usually arrange their visit to coincide with the midday one. Though other times are inconvenient, they do offer the opportunity to concentrate on what’s happening without the accompanying roadshow of hundreds of flashing cameras. Before services, visitors are shepherded upstairs and past the traditional band that plays behind the front balcony, and on into the gods, from where they can look down on proceedings and take photographs. Most worshippers dress in white robes, though some dress in yellow, blue and red, to signify the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian elements of Cao Dai. Priests don square hats emblazoned with the Divine Eye. At the start of a service, worshippers’ heads nod, like a field of corn in the breeze, in time to the clanging of a gong. Then a haunting, measured chanting begins, against the insect whine of the string band playing its own time. As prayers and hymns continue, incense, flowers, alcohol and tea are offered up to the Supreme Being.