Saturday, February 2, 2008

Traveling in Vietnam

Read first installment here.
Read second installment here.
Day Tour to Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple. Saturday morning a comfortable air-conditioned Toyota Corolla complete with driver and guide picked me up at my hotel for a day trip into the delta. The destinations were the tunnels of Cu Chi and the Cao Dai Temple. We drove out of the city in the general direction of the airport, about 100 kilometers northwest to the area near the Cambodian border. Both destinations are near the province capital of Tay Ninh.

The drive itself was fascinating. It was mostly through countryside and small villages. The rice patties were incredibly green and we saw many fields planted with rubber trees. Some were being tapped and others appeared to be too young. Hai, my wonderful guide, pointed out that this area had been bombed extensively during the war, with population scattered and farms and forests destroyed.

I remembered the tunnels being in the news during the war but knew little about them. Both the extensiveness of the tunnel system and the small size of the tunnels themselves were amazing. At the height of their usefulness there were three levels with small living spaces, workshops, and kitchens. Tourists can enter the tunnels if they wish, but they are small and dark. Please see my slideshow on Flickr for more photos.

We reached the Cao Dai temple in time for the noon worship ceremony, which visitors are welcome to attend. The Cao Dai religion is a fusion of many religions, both Eastern and Western, with the goal of religious harmony and peace. The ornate temple is full of symbolism. I stayed for about half the hour-long ceremony of meditation.

If you are interested, there are numerous sites that have further information on both the tunnels and the Cao Dai religion and the grand temple. I’m not giving links because I’m not qualified to judge which are authoritative, but I’d encourage you to search for more information and photos.

I was then taken to a restaurant in one of the small towns for luncheon. It was the usual Vietnamese multi-course feast with soup, several types of seafood, spring rolls, noodles, rice, wonderfully fresh greens, and always fruit to finish. The restaurant obviously catered to the tourist trade, with a fixed menu that could be served quickly and efficiently. The tourists around me seemed to be eating just as happily as I was, but I wondered if many of us would have known what to order. This type of meal was a good solution, although as always, I could have done with fewer courses.

Hai managed to divert me from the statuary shops I had seen on the drive out of the city that morning. I had seen lions and dragons and Buddhas that must have been as tall as I, and I though one of them would look wonderful in my garden. Even at the reasonable Vietnamese prices shipping would have been a major issue, so it’s probably just as well I didn’t get there. Most people in the shops in Saigon have at least a few words of English, but a native speaker would be necessary to help negotiate a major purchase like this.

Back in Saigon, he helped me satisfy my shopping urge by taking me to the government-run lacquerware factory. The factory promotes this traditional craft and provides work for people with disabilities. Tourists can take a guided walk through the factory which, of course, ends in a well-stocked store. There you can find anything from small bowls and vases to large platters and wall plaques to beautifully inlaid pieces of furniture. It’s well set up for the tourist trade and they are happy to ship the larger pieces.

I arrived back at the hotel mid-afternoon tired, laden with lacquerware purchases, and very pleased to have seen this slice of Vietnam.

As a footnote, I’d point out that I signed up for a tour, but I turned out to be the only client that day. Labor costs in Vietnam are low and they don’t cancel outings for one or only a few people. That was fine for a day trip, but women traveling alone should take note and make decisions that are comfortable for them.
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