SAIGON PART THREE: In which PetStarr has a weird religious experience and discovers she has claustrophobia.
Phew. I hope you guys are enjoying these photos; it's taken me nearly three bloody hours to put all these postings together (see SAIGON parts ONE and TWO and photos from Hong Kong.) Still, the night is young and many beers are yet to be consumed, so all will soon be well.
Today I hopped on a tour bus and took a day trip out of HCM, under the charge of the fabulous Mr Thong. This guy was a real character, and seemed to have memorised the entire Aussie slang book as every few minutes he'd come out with a "Shake a leg, everyone!" or a "I'm flat out like a lizard drinking today!" or my personal favourite: "So many people on this tour, I'm as busy as a one legged man in an arse-kicking contest!" Absolutely classic. His English, as you can no doubt tell, was near perfect - he used to teach English in the Mekong Delta for 23 years before moving to HCM to work as a tour guide. Now he likes to learn new phrases from his travelling companions, so I taught him "Going off like a frog in a sock" and "To go like the clappers", which he found very amusing.
Our first stop was to the Cao Dai temple of the Holy See - a beautifully ornate temple about 50km out of HCM where monks and followers practice Cao Daism, a small and strange religion that counts for about 2% of Vietnam's religious makeup.
According to Mr Thong (and my Rough Guide), Cao Dai is a mixture of several other religions, inluding Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. As Mr Thong said: "They believe in everything." Nothing like having an each-way bet on getting into heaven, eh?
A worshipper at the entrance to the temple.
Priests outside the temple.
This woman was so old, her little face looked like a dried apple.
If that's not strange enough, they also worship three saints, one of which is Les Miserables author Victor Hugo. What the?
The man himself, author and (apparently) religious leader, Monsieur Hugo.
We had a look around the grounds, into the topiary and bonsai garden and also inside the temple itself, which is what I imagine Disneyland would look like if it were a temple: brightly coloured with statuettes and carvings everywhere, and with sprinklings of glittery stars on the roof. When this dotty religion dies out, this place will make a kick arse nightclub.
Inside the Cao Dai temple. The girl in black was stepping illegally onto the centre aisle, and was later taken outside and shot. Kidding! They just bashed her around a bit.
A dragon carving outside the temple.
We stayed to see a bit of their worshipping ritual which they practice every day at noon. This involved dozens of men and women in white robes and turbans kneeling in the great hall and bowing occasionally, while a band played in the balony with a choir of young girls singing. It was quite beautiful.
The male worshippers before they processed into the hall.
I was lucky enough to capture this lovely moment before the ceremony started. Another contender for cutest photo of the year.
After lunch, we travelled to Cu Chi to see the infamous Cu Chi tunnels. Carved out of the earth by Viet Cong guerillas during the war, the VC used the tunnels to hide from bombings and travel from place to place unseen. There were around 250km of tunnels at the peak of the war; some even went right under the US army base so the VC could gather intelligence by listening under the floor. Now there are only a few tunnels left, and the only one open to the public is this 100m stretch in Cu Chi.
Before you get to the tunnels all tourists are forced to sit through a seemingly interminable black and white video made in 1967 about the VC, that is rather anti-American (to put it mildly). Filled with such insightful phrases as "The G.I's attacked the peaceful village of Cu Chi like wild animals, firing the bullets of Washington D.C into women, children and animals." Hmmm... moving on to the tunnels...
Originally just 60 x 80cm wide, the tunnels have been widened to accommodate fat Western arses - but they're still far from comfortable.
Obviously this one hadn't been widened yet...
Being a big strong girl and not afraid of the dark, I knew I could make the full 100m stretch and enjoy the full tunnel experience. As it turned out, I couldn't, and escaped at the first exit 30m along. The tunnels are an absolute hell hole: incredibly dark, musty and dank. I can't even imagine what they would have been like originally. People lived in these things for weeks on end, only coming up to shoot the enemy before going back down again.
Mr Thong showed us all manner of booby traps set by the VC - horribly ingenious bamboo-sprung traps with 9 inch spikes nailed into them, designed to clamp around your leg or waist when you fell through the camouflaged top. Nasty.
Anyway now I'm back in backpacker land, and after three hours of blogging and uploading photos I think it's time for dinner and a drink.
Tomorrow I'm off to the Mekong Delta for two days, then it's back for one more night in HCM, then off by plane to Nha Trang on the 11th.
Keep sending me text messages, they keep me company and make me feel good.:)