For our last full day in Vietnam, Eric and I went on a tour to the Caodai Holy See in Tay Ninh and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Tay Ninh was about 2 hours outside of Saigon and although we forced onto another bus, the ride wasn't that bad and it turned out to be a fun way to end the trip.
Although clearly in the "temple" category, I was pretty intrigued with checking out the Caodai Holy See. Caodai was a religion founded in Vietnam in 1926. The founder, Ngo Minh Chieu, was widely read in both Eastern and Western religious works and incorporated elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam and native Vietnamese spiritualism in developing the Caodai philosophy. I won't go into too many details, but its actually pretty interesting - leveraging a strong base of Buddhism, peppered with seances with the dead and priests who are celibate AND vegetarian to boot! They believe in Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (as well as Buddha), but believe their messages were corrupted because the messengers were human. To avoid this "human" problem, Caodaism gets all of its mesages directly from the spirit world during seances. Interestingly, Caodai priests contact spirits of many famous Eastern and Western people, including Joan of Arc, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur and Vladimir Lenin. Pretty exclusive club, but I couldn't stop thinking about that horrible movie, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, that came out a couple years ago.
The temple itself was a bit less interesting than the details of the religion, but there was some strange imagery (lots of eyes inside of pyramids like on the dollar bill) and we watched one of the daily services which involved much chanting and bowing.
After the temple, we headed over to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong to control a large rural area that was only about 30 km from Saigon. The tunnel networks were extremely intricate and included living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, kitchens, hospitals, command centers, etc. All told there were more than 250 km of tunnels. On the tour I learned that the ground was actually perfect for constructing the tunnels because it was 95% clay - no stones or wood of any sort was used, the tunnels were dug directly into the ground. The tunnels were so well hidden that they even existed within the perimeter of the US military base at Dong Du. By all accounts, the Cu Chi Tunnels greatly frustrated the American forces and they were never able to overtake them, despite tremendous amounts of bombing and gassing.
The picture above is one of the actual tunnels. It was incredibly small - I couldn't fit in unless I raised my hands over my head. According to our guide, Americans were fat even back then and couldn't really maneuver inside of the tunnels. Later in our tour we actually went into a series of tunnels that had been created for tourists - they were larger than the real tunnels, but it was still incredibly tight (I could stand, but only hunched over so my hands were on the ground, sort of like how an ape waddles around).
The tour also included examples of the various types of home-made boobie traps the Viet Cong used to trap the Americans. I can't even imagine what it must have been like running through that jungle during the War. Despite their success in maintaining the tunnels and frustrating the Americans, the costs to the Viet Cong and the villagers who fought and lived in the tunnels was extremely high. According to our guide, only 6,000 of the approximately 16,000 Viet Cong troops survived.
On the way out we stopped by a firing range and for $5, I was given 5 bullets to shoot from an AK-47. Although it wasn't the first time I had fired a gun - we had riflery at my summer camp growing up - it was definitely my first (and hopefully last) time firing with live ammunition. And its safe to assume that my summer camp didn't have any AK-47s for us to fire.
Although I knew there would be kick back, I definitely wasn't prepared for the force of it. Right into your arm - if I wasn't at a platform, I imagine I would have dropped the gun. Better my should though, all I could think about was Ralphie and shooting my eye out! The sound was deafening - even with the guards, my ears were ringing for several minutes after I was done. Soldiers must all go deaf for days after firing their guns. There were targets out on the range, but I didn't even bother asking if I hit anything. I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that one! All in all, another thing I can check of the "things I didn't realize I'd do in my life, but since I'm in Vietnam what the hell" list...
I left Vietnam this morning and am actually writing this from Bangkok. Tomorrow morning I leave for home. I still have a bunch of pictures to post, so I'll be adding some stuff over the next week of so... and I'm hoping to maybe write a little summary once I get a chance to reflect a bit on everything (I'm thinking 20 hours on the plane might do the trick!)
But for now, "mama, I'm coming home!"