Tunnel Rats And Jesus

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.

Once the top goes on, it's virtually impossible to find the entrance.

Fit to be a tunnel rat, just about...

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.

Oh my...

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:

Inside the main temple

The EYE sees it all, don't even try to hide...

Noon worship

Buddha and Jesus, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

The EYE is omnipresent

This painting, depicting Victor Hugo as one of the signatories of the third alliance between God and mankind, is found in the foyer of the temple. It doesn't get much better than that...

2 Responses to “Tunnel Rats And Jesus”

  1. Alex says:

    I love the main deity representation, Jesus and Buddha and Confucius and I’m guessing the fourth dude is Lao Tse. All sitting together, awesome.

    Guns: are they glued to the wall or what’s the story there? How come the M16 is floating in space with no one attached to it?

    For you gun buffs, the M16 shoots 5.56mm rounds, the AK47 shoots 7.62x39mm which are a bit more powerful. The ammunition is no interchangeable.

    The technologically superior M16, which was standard Army issue during the Vietnam war, had a very bad reputation for jamming in the field, while the AK47 would shoot even underwater. Later some experts blamed it on the type of gunpowder used in the 5.56 rounds which were being loaded with standard ball powder instead of the specified Dupont IMR powder.

    Or it might have just been a case of ‘simpler is better’ like during the Space Race when the Americans spent millions of dollars creating a space pen that would write upside down and the Russians simply used a pencil.

    Interestingly, the AK47 which gets its name from the designer (Kalashnikov) and the year it was mass-marketed (1947), then was updated in 1974 and that model is known as the AK74 (gotta love those Russians) is the most widely used assault rifle in the world.

  2. Kuru says:

    Claustrophobia with the tunnels. Scary. How on earth did Fa get out again?
    Delighted with the temple. Amazed at my son’s knowledge of guns- or was that jut wikipedia? Glad to see someone listens to me sometimes- am talking about pencil vs. pen. 🙂

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