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Published: April 17th 2012
Saigon can only be digested in increments and so I had to get out for a few days.
In Vietnam, making money is the ultimate goal in their rising economy but unfortunately this new love for capitalism has brought with it an increase in swindling and a decrease in morality, particularly considering tourists. Vendors in the street sell pirated everything and their uniformed brothers are no better: organized tour companies have found a skill in wording advertisements so I think I'm in for an adventure but really just purchased a seat on a rickety bus or overheated boat. And though I've found it difficult to temper by cynicism, overall the experience of getting cheated and taken is one I am glad to have had. I'm telling myself it's all for educational purposes...
So, back to my escape from Saigon. My first tour took me to see a great Cao Dai temple, which is uniquely a Vietnamese religion that combines beliefs from Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Their revered saints span the globe from Vietnamese poets to Victor Hugo and Shakespeare (Curious to know the connection. Seems rather far fetched to me.) The temple itself is gaudier than
Disneyland, with color combinations from every Easter egg store imaginable and a colorful carpet leads my bare feet up and inside. 18 pink columns line the nave, sinuous dragons wrapped around each, snarling at anyone daring to pass between them and towards the altar where the all-seeing eye awaits. Sky blue walls with white puffy clouds surround and look down on these 18 pillars, 2 for each step towards Nirvana. Worshippers are the only ones allowed in the nave and tourists can watch from the balconies above as young girls sing and old men play traditional instruments and lead the prayers. The music is nasal, the voices pushing the limits of human, but blending with the instruments somehow makes it all slightly mysterious and enchanting. I don't leave a convert, but a bud of curiosity has begun to open up inside.
From religion to war, such is the landscape and history of Vietnam and in my next stop I go to explore the Chu Chi tunnels, used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War (or if you are in Vietnam it's the American War) to fight against the Americans in favor of the North and Communism. The network of
tunnels was once expansive enough for families to live, cook, give birth, and fight below ground but now there are only two tunnels opened to the public and these have been enlarged to fit the girth of Western tourists. Before becoming a VC mole we are led around to various sites in the jungle where we get to see how anti-tank weapons were made and other explosives that would detonate at a touch; old traditional spiked traps that caught unaware Americans by ankle, knee, even groin with sharp bamboo spikes driven deep into flesh (if you aren't the imaginative type there's a colorful mural behind the displays that depicts Barbie Ken GIs bleeding from puncture wounds); an old American tank now rusting after being caught by an anti-tank explosive, its five occupants long ago shot down as they tried to escape.
Then we arrive at the tunnel and my first thought is "If these have been made bigger, how flippin small were they before!?" Smooth stone steps lead down into the entrance, which is lit by a small red light reminding me a bit of a beady vampire eye, and I have to hunch over nose to knees to
Vietcong Tiger/American Trap
Bamboo spikes were soaked in pig excrement and made poisonous
get through. It's a 100 meter stretch, with 6 turnoffs for the faint of heart. It's never a straight line but bends and twists, even moving up levels so that sometimes I have to lift or lower myself bodily to the next level, my eyes blinded by darkness. The air is cramped and hot and sweat drips down my face as the rocks above scrape against my back. Near the end I'm forced to get down on all fours and crawl the last stretch and then there is sunlight and heat and my panic bursts like a bubble but I smile for the photo anyways. No wonder America chose to bomb instead of infiltrate: the latter would have been impossible. (Not condoning here, just observing.)
Now I move away from war and back into culture to explore the Mekong Delta, the great rice producer of Vietnam. This tour was less than worth it, but I got a peek into a few Vietnamese traditions. A boat takes me from Saigon to My Tho, a three hour boat ride across four rivers, the shores lined with shacks raised on stilts and the river traffic full of barges transporting fruit and dirt.
Switching boats at My Tho we float our way over to Unicorn Island, one of four islands with equally mythological names (Unicorn, Turtle, Phoenix, and Coconut) that still adhere to local agricultural products and industries. On Unicorn Island we visit a bee honey farm, where the honey tastes no different from the kind I get from Mr. Honey Bear, but I fear my taste buds are not too discerning. You can purchase miracle honey butter that cures everything from wrinkles to cholesterol, though again I remain dubious. From bees we move towards water, taking a walk down the dirt paths of the island. Vegetation all around is green and lucious, unhindered by the sweltering heat above. We reach the channel where yet more boats await, these ones rowed by locals wearing the traditional coned hat. They take four of us down the channel at a time, boats scraping against each other yet traffic flowing smoothly so we never once stop, the guide behind me gladly pointing out a coconut tree for the price of a tip.
Another boat transfer takes us to Ben Tri where we watch handmade coconut candy being made. And when they say handmade, they most
definitely mean it as each piece passes through not one, not two, but at least five sets of hands. Doesn't taste too bad either!
Last stop of the day is for fruit and traditional Vietnamese music. Decided that dragon fruit should be named something else, maybe sawdust berry. Bananas so small they fit in the palm of my hand and mush out from beneath their peal. Pineapple with chili-salt as s dipping sauce...at least fish sauce wasn't given as an option. The traditional music... Well, it isn't something I'd go home and add to my ipod because I am rarely in the mood to listen to nasal, glass-shattering notes. But on the other hand, in the given setting with dirt paths, tropical green trees giving shade, the lapping water around the island it came across as perfect and picturesque. But I will gladly not take it with me.
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