Trip-tastic temple and tunnels

Trip Start Oct 03, 2011
Trip End Dec 25, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, November 21, 2011

We arrived back from our tropical paradise with a bump into the metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh City: home of seven million motorbikes. That afternoon we revisited our favourite cafe Sozo (the one where eating a muffin helps local people) before a bit of retail therapy is followed by another look around the affecting war museum (our first visit saw us get round about half of the exhibits). Michael is delighted to end the day in Mumtaz, scoffing a combination of Thali and
Beer Lao.

The next day (our last in Vietnam) we are up early for our day-trip. The area where we are staying is backpacker central and as such every other shop houses a tour company. We arrive early at our randomly selected operator and are ushered down the road to wait for the bus with the others in our group. An hour or so later and our bus has arrived and taken us on a tour of the city steadily filling up all remaining seats. The ones directly behind us are occupied by a Japanese family with two rather noisy boys. How long until our poorly air-conditioned bus gets to the first stop you ask? Three pretty long hours!

Around noon we disembark into the blinding sunshine for our 30 minute stop at Cao Dai temple. The temple is the spiritual home of the small religion which was founded in 1926, and is one of the largest places of worship in the country. Followers pray in the temple 4 times a day, our
arrival is timed for one such session. From the entryway tourists peer in to watch robed members kneel in unison. Upstairs a small band and singers provide the musical accompaniment. Michael gets beaten with a stick by one of the over-zealous officials while taking a picture for not quite adhering to the strict one-way system. The over-all effect of the place is stunning: vividly decorated and packed with worshipers the brightly coloured temple was worth the trip. We learn that the French writer Victor Hugo (of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame fame) is one of their three saints. Strange. Outside we meet a teenager that comes to the temple each day not to pray but to practice his English by talking to the visitors, something we have found in many places - an eagerness to learn English in order to earn a better salary and escape from a life of farming.

We drive 10 minutes to the lunch stop. A restaurant with a badly designed ordering system but good Vietnamese fare which is eaten while chatting to the other tour members while sitting around a large table within a tree house. Very nice. We set off refueled for the 2 hour drive to our next stop: the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Cu Chi district contained a large group of Viet Cong during the American war (you might know it as the Vietnam war...). The vast network of tunnels was home to 16,000 people, 3,000 of which were soldiers. We arrive to a propaganda video produced in 1967 showing young children fighting in the conflict, some of which have been bestowed with the American Killer honour medal. As we walk around the complex we are shown examples of Vietnamese trenches with holes too small for Americans toclimb through which connect with the main network, as well as remnants of American bombs, tanks and planes. Also on the tour are examples of ingenius traps containing gruesome metal and wooden spikes underfoot. We see a replica kitchen: all meals were cooked early morning in the tunnels so that smoke emerged undetected from a series of chambers as it mixed with the surrounding mist. We clamber through a small section of tunnel (wider than most sections) and emerge hot and gasping for air with a new respect for the years of suffering endured, and the determination to withstand it, of the people who lived there. We decline to pay for a session on the shooting range with a feeling that the museum may be glamourising the conflict a tad at this point. We sample the food and drink which sustained people during the war before once again getting on the bus back home. It seems trivial to now bemoan the 8 hours of bus journey today has included after seeing the living conditions in the tunnels. None the less worn out, we treat ourselves to some noodles at Pho24 before turning in.

Tomorrow: crossing the border to Cambodia.
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