Everybody Find Your Happy Place

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

Loading Map
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

In a tour office/internet cafe on a rainy, cloudy day, the Backstreet Boys are singing another love song through a small stereo system. Actually it's not the Backstreet Boys, but as I found out while playing pool with Kevin, Karen, and Ben in Saigon, every overplayed boy band song I thought was the Backstreet Boys was some other immensely popular boy band I didn't know.

"I don't care who you are, where you're from, what you did, as long as you love me..."

Who sings this?

Despite it being a completely cheesy song, it kinda, sorta fits the way that Vietnam has bounced back from the American War. As eight of us--Karen, Kevin, Nate, Ben, Nancy, Noah, Sam, and I--took a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels and the Cao Dai cathedral, our tour guide said that "the Vietnamese people consider the war to be a mistake of governments. We have put the past behind us and look to the future."

He also called the toilet the "happy place" where you can drink, smoke, and get rid of bad things; gotta love the Vietnamese sense of humor. "Ok, everybody happy now?" he said after we all visited the happy place.

For some millions of South Vietnamese, the happy place might be their Cao Dai cathedral. No, not that happy place. We visited the cathedral/temple, where the Divine Eye is always looking at you from somewhere, as part of our tour. Initially, the religion seems to be some strange cult that considers Louis Pasteur, Napoleon Bonaparte, and William Shakespeare as spirit intermediaries. Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen are also patron saints. Combined with the ever-present Divine Eye, the dragons, the pink and turquoise paint job and, yes, it seems like a cult.

Somehow, however, Cao Daism has spread throughout this small portion of Vietnam, with temples in many village centers.

Perhaps it is popular because it espouses, in a way, what many people in South Vietnam already believe: a little bit of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism wrapped up with a universal God. Looking at the temple, you can see the influence of these three philosophies/religions as well as Christianity and even Islam. The basic vision, revealed to its founder, Ngo Van Chieu, was that God sent mediums--Jesus, Mohammed, Lao-tzu, Confucius, Buddha--down to earth to reveal messages to mankind. These mediums were tailored specifically to each culture, place, and time.

The happy place for Vietnamese, however, was definitely not the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were dug to survive the war, not for happiness. By the end of the war, over 250 kilometers of tunnels had been dug, including tunnels under nearby U.S. military installations. Above-ground, the United States military was making conditions difficult, thus the need to dig, to live like moles. Vietnames statistics from the War Remnants Museum that Kevin and I visited several days before state:
3 million dead
2 million wounded
300,000 missing
70 million liters of toxic substances (44 million liters of Agent Orange) dropped
2 million hectares of forests destroyed
4000 of 5778 villages cities bombed
153 of 233 district towns ruined
29 of 30 provincial centers "heavily inflicted"; 10 razed to ground
6 industrial cities leveled
100 train stations, 15,100 bridges, 2932 high schools and universities, 350 hospitals, 484 churches, 465 pagodas destroyed.

All this can be summarized in a single statement: "There's nothing like the smell of Napalm in the morning." (Apocalypse Now)

For most of the war in the Cu Chi area, the United States and South Vietnamese forces controlled the daylight and above-ground while the Viet Cong or Liberation Army troops controlled the night and below-ground. While the U.S. scorched the earth, bombed the landscape until it looked like chickenpox scars, and evacuated entire landscapes of people, the Liberation Army set deadly traps, infiltrated bases, turned UXO into anti-tank mines, made shoes from US tires, and continued to dig intricate tunnels. Our tour guide likened them to the Seven Great Wonders of the World.

U.S. soldiers called Tunnel Rats infiltrated the tunnels, met with traps, poisonous snakes, and scorpions. The tunnels, designed for the smaller Vietnamese frame, however, proved too inhospitable and difficult for most of the Tunnel Rats. It's no wonder, given the terror of the night and the underground that soldiers were happy to smell Napalm in the morning.

Located just 65 kilometers from Saigon, the Cu Chi tunnels provided the Liberation Army with a pocket of resistance close to the center of South Vietnam's capitol. Ultimately, it was the resistance of simple peasants, like those surviving in the Cu Chi tunnels, that led to the end of the war and the end of western colonialism in Vietnam.

It's ironic that Ho Chi Minh and his Declaration of Independence quoted the United States Declaration of Independence. In essence, although each side had its own reasons for the war, I can see parallels between Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, in South Carolina, land of my alma mater, and the Liberation Army in Vietnam. Each used guerilla tactics and survived extremely harsh conditions in order to survive for the right to a "happy place."

We all toured the Cu Chi tunnels, with Nate leading the group through 100 meters of hot and stifling. Living for years in these tunnels would have been extremely difficult. Perhaps the next SURVIVOR episode should be in Cu Chi...SURVIVOR: Vietnam. We'll see.

Back in Saigon, we passed the KFC as the U.S. invades once again with its brand names. Or does it? At closer look, Colonel Harland Sanders looks strangely similar to Ho Chi Minh...

I guess what it comes down to is that everybody needs their happy place and their happy song, whether it's the Backstreet Boys or whoever: "Ok, everybody happy now?"
Slideshow Report as Spam
  • Your comment has been posted. Click here or reload this page to see it below.

  • Please enter a comment.
  • Please provide your name.
  • Please avoid using symbols in your name.
  • This name is a bit long. Please shorten it, or avoid special characters.
  • Please enter your email address to receive notification
  • Please enter a valid email address

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: