Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam: Cao Dai, Cu Chi Tunnels & Costco
We only have 8 full days here in Vietnam and they are busy ones. We managed to arrive safely via Tiger Airways and were met at the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) airport by our friend Bay Bristol, who I (Loey) have known for the past 24 years. Bay is from Vietnam and comes back to visit her family as often as she can swing a trip from Colorado, but it’s been three years since she’s last visited. We are staying at Loi’s home (Bay’s brother) with his wife Lien, their daughter Bich Nhi, son Thanh, son Vu, daughter-in-law Ngoc, and 3 week old grandson Nguyen. There is also a never-ending parade of other relatives, including Bay’s older brother Sau and his wife Hanh and a number of in-laws and friends. It is a busy house that seems to accommodate whatever growing number of guests arrive, as well as provide some fantastic food for everyone.
Our first day included walking around District 1 of HCMC (Saigon is actually the central district among many in HCMC) and do some shopping. We’ve already traveled the Vietnamese way, by motorbike, since the family doesn’t own cars and does all of its transportation on the back of a bike.
On the 3rd we rose early, at 4:30 am, and went out to see the Cao Dai Temple, the Cu Chi Tunnels and a Costco in the duty-free zone on the Cambodian border. Actually, it wasn’t a Costco per se, but it was selling Kirkland brand products and had the same layout as a Costco in the US. Apparently this is a new development in Vietnam and it’s attracting people from both sides of the border to sample the glory that is Costco. It was probably the last place we ever thought we would visit in Vietnam, but seeing Bryer’s ice cream, chicken pot pies and packages of 36 rolls of toilet paper kind of made us homesick in a pathetic sort of way.
One of the more interesting stops was at the Cao Dai Temple. The Cao Dai Temple is famous since it is the home to a religion only found in Vietnam. Cao Dai is a mix of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, and some native Vietnamese spirituality thrown in for good measure. The religion was founded in 1926, and its house of worship looked like something Liberace might have designed, given the robust colors, fantastic use of stars on the ceiling and the all-seeing eye on the face of a huge globe. The ultimate goal of those practicing Cao Dai is to escape the wheel of reincarnation by adhering to it’s basic tenets.
We visited the Cu Chi tunnels which were used by the Viet Cong during the American war. The Vietnamese do not call the war we have memorialized in movies such as Apocalypse Now or Platoon “the Vietnam War,” probably because we were one of many countries the Vietnamese have had to fight to remain sovereign in their country. China, Japan, France and the United States have all claimed Vietnam as theirs to keep or save, and the people here have had a long and exhausting history of repelling the invaders. We were in the village of Ben Duoc, where we could see how the Viet Cong lived, and had a chance to appreciate the tightness of the tunnels and the immensity of the craters left by the American bombs dropped trying (but failing) to eliminate this VC stronghold.
Our host Bay in the tunnel
Barely fitting through a tunnel entrance
Two things will stay with us forever when remembering Vietnam. The first is the heat. Right now it’s the stifling 36 degree C (95 degree F) weather that is exhausting us, and making us wonder how the locals survive this without air conditioning. The second is the noise. Like the rest of Asia, driving has a whole different flavor here. Outside there is a constant cacophony of horns and any minute we expect to hear the crash of metal on metal, since driving is more of an extreme sport than a means of transportation. Horns are used as turn indicators, warning for passing on any side, and sometimes just for the hell of it, if it’s been too quiet. Lanes are often ignored, and the mightiest trucks/buses win any road game of chicken. There are few private cars, but huge hordes of motor scooters compete with any other vehicle on the road for driving space.