Any museum visit in Vietnam will inevitably include some mention of the American war. The interpretation is often humorously biased with lots of rhetoric involving ‘imperialist pigs’ and ‘American aggressors’ and nary a mention of possible Vietnamese wrong-doing. But some of the exhibitions are still informative and manage to bring the war closer than any picture of Uncle Ho hugging a child possibly could. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a great example.
Cu Chi is a province north west of Saigon towards the Cambodian border, where the Viet Cong built a vast network of tunnels using nothing but wood-handled pickaxes and small reed baskets. With their rudimentary equipment they still managed to advance about two metres a night and ended up excavating over 200 km of tunnels. Bomb craters and rivers were the most popular areas to dispose of the accumulated dirt. They built hospital rooms, sleeping rooms, bomb shelters (special triangular shaped rooms, reinforced with bamboo walls), kitchens and living rooms underground. The tunnels themselves are an incredible feat of engineering, done without the help of special tools or engineers, but even more ingenious are the entrances. Obviously they didn’t want the imperialist pigs to find their network and with the nearest U.S. base only 5km away, that was a real concern. To avoid detection, tunnel entrances where disguised and often booby trapped.
The booby traps were all pretty simple but painfully effective, such as this fake grass door. Step on it and drop down into a pit full of metal spikes. Lovely.
There were other innovations like that, nearly all of them involving spikes in some form or other. Needless to say, there was probably not a lot of volunteering going on when it came to finding tunnel entrances. But once they found them, they’d send so-called tunnel rats down into the maze to kill any enemies left and destroy the tunnels. Obviously these weren’t real rats but soldiers small and wiry enough to fit into the tunnels and still be able to maneuver cause there ain’t much space:
Apparently the tunnels and their amazing history aren’t enough for some tourists so the Cu Chi tunnel tour also includes a shooting range where you can pop off a few rounds from a M-16 to an AK-47 or even one of those helicopter machine guns if you so desire. The fun doesn’t come cheap but as you can see from the floor, it’s a popular choice nevertheless.
These tunnels have been widened for the fat tourists, so imagine the original ones even smaller. There are 200 meters of widened tunnels and rooms to explore but exits where provided every 20 meters for the claustrophobic. Back in the day, to avoid suffocation and heat stroke, the Viet Cong included small air shafts made of hollow bamboo sticks and disguised up top with termite mounds. The openings were usually rubbed with chili and garlic or contraband American soap so that the sniffer dogs would either shy away from the stink or think it smelled just like their owners and leave it alone. Cooking smoke was another dangerous give-away so chimneys were laid through several chambers with small holes to the top in order to diffuse the smoke slowly and over a wider area. Still, cooking was only allowed between 3 and 4 a.m.
Since we chose the full day tour to the tunnels, our trip also included a stop at the Cao Dai temple or as I’d like to call it “The love child crack baby of Disneyland and Scientology”. Cao Dai is a religion/cult founded in Vietnam early last century and there is so much craziness involved that it’s difficult to pick a place to start. There are some not-quite-so-crazy-rules such as women get the left side of the temple, men the right. Never ever step into the middle part of the temple, stay on your side. (Although tourists are allowed to walk around the whole outer circuit, regardless of sex.) You can take pictures all you want but you cannot pose in a picture inside the temple because that means you’re putting yourself on the same level as the gods in the picture. So far so good.
Now for the whacky stuff: the Cao Dai believe in many different teachings, including Buddha, Sage and Saint. These are represented by Confucius, Laozi and Jesus. They really covered all their bases on that one. Then there’s the omnipotent and all-seeing eye which is the head of it all, i.e. God. (Anyone else getting a “Lord of the Rings” flashback here?) The head priests dress in red (confucianism), blue (taoism) and yellow (buddhism) while the head nun dresses in white just like the rest of the disciples. I think the best way to convey the craziness is with pictures: