Saturday 9 October

Wake at 7 am and discover a huge market going on in the street down below. Whereas yesterday the traders more or less confined themselves to the pavements, now the whole avenue is filled to capacity. Breakfast consists of coffee, french bread, and a fried egg. At the tour agent office, we find that the Da Nang flight is full, but we can get on the one to Hué instead for the same price. This means back-tracking down the coast in order to visit Hoi An, but we decide to accept this rather than forfeit a day later on due to spending an extra day in Ho Chi Minh City.

The bus to Tay Ninh takes us slowly through the moped-crowded streets of Saigon, then gradually out into the suburbs. Hondas gradually give way to bicycles, and buildings to green rice-fields and water buffalo. Priority on the road seems to be strictly determined by size, which means that we forge straight ahead down the centre of the road while bikes scatter either side like mosquitos, until we meet a large military-type truck approaching us the opposite way. Our guide tells us that Saigon has 2 million scooters. They cost between $1000 and $2000 to buy, and many people have to save for 20 years before they can buy one. Many of the mopeds seem to be carrying whole families, though not all of the drivers look old enough to have been saving for 20 years. Others are loaded to the gunnels with goods, huge sacks strapped on to the back.

Cao Dai Holy See

Cao Dai Statue

We arrive at the Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh. Our guide apologises that he is not able to explain the Cao Dai religion very well, but since they mix together Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, and Confucianism in equal measure with a healthy dose of mystery, they believe almost everything. We have one hour to look around. Inside, the temple is somewhat like the nave of a small cathedral, with a high pitched roof and galleries along the two sides and the back. But the similarity stops there. Brightly coloured serpentine dragons coil around the pillars; every corner is adorned with bright reds, yellows, and golds. Tourists are welcomed, and are ushered in through side doors and up to the gallery. Women enter one side and men the other side.


Roof Eaves

Downstairs, the worshippers line up in preparation for the midday service facing inwards underneath the galleries. At the signal of a large bell, they step into the nave area and sit cross-legged on the floor, attended to by stewards ensuring each is in his or her proper place. Music throughout comes from a small band in the rear gallery, and a choir leads the singing with great gusto. Down below, the congregation seem to join in with slightly less enthusiasm, and the sound rises up in gentle waves.

Noodle soup makes an adequate lunch, and then we are on to the Cu Chi tunnels. We stop first at a firing range where tourists may pull the trigger of an AK47. After the War Remenants Museum yesterday, the bang-whoosh of the bullets is an unnervingly chilling sound.

At the tunnels, the local warden first shows us a range of booby traps that were concocted by the Viet Cong Army to halt the advance of American troops. The deadly potential is only too clear—trapdoors, spikes, iron sprung toothed jaws, and so on. Some of them bear more than a striking resemblance to medieval instruments of torture. We cannot see the tunnel entrance until our guide clears some leaves to reveal a 40 cm by 20 cm wooden trapdoor in the ground. He deftly demonstrates entry and egress, followed by the less successful attempts of some of the tour group to much amusement all round.

We have the opportunity to follow a special tunnel, dug with concessions to the larger western frame. After experiencing this, I have only admiration for the people who lived under there during the American raids, in the heat and darkness, in cramped conditions for days on end.

That evening, we attempt a walk from our hotel to the water front. At the bottom of Nguyen Thai Hoc, the bridge appears to have become a shanty area that we don’t care to enter in the darkness. In any case, there is so much debris on the river that we might have been able to cross without requiring a bridge.