The Cao Dai religion is unique to Vietnam and, luckily, the largest Cao Dai Temple is located very near Saigon. This allows for an easy day trip in combination with the historically fascinating Cu Chi Tunnels.
Being a very independent traveler, I usually avoid group tours but in this case, I made an exception and am so happy I did. Our guide, the infamous Mr. Bean, is a living legend and made the experience so much more interesting and alive!
Meet Mr. Bean
Mr. Bean was born in South Vietnam and defected to America during the early days of the war. Once there, he joined the US military and returned to Vietnam to fight against the Communist North. He was captured by the North Vietnamese Viet Cong and imprisoned for six years. After the war, he spent four years in a “re-education” camp.
He had an interesting perspective on the war and was intense, funny, and very passionately opinionated about everything from the Communists (“who f***ed with my mind!”) to his hatred of the Lonely Planet guide book. He seemed like a character in a movie, only he is very real. Someone really needs to make a movie about this guy!
Cao Dai Temple
Our first stop was the Cao Dai Temple, an interestingly bizarre mix of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism found mainly in Vietnam. Established in 1926, this melting-pot religion takes Confucianism ideas, mixes in some occult practices from Taoism, adds a dash of Buddhist theories of karma and rebirth, and is organized in Roman Catholic order. Huh?
“Founded by Mr. Chieu, Cao Dai’s pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. These are honored at Cao Dai temples, along with ancestors.”
According to one Cao Dai follower:
“That’s the reason God has founded Cao Dai, in order to bring harmony to different religions. And the principle of Cao Dai is that religions are not different and if we take enough time to study deeply –deeply enough in each religion, we would see that they have one same principle, if not identical principle.“
We arrived at the Cao Dai Temple just in time for the noon prayer. They ushered us in and allowed us to quietly observe from the balcony overlooking the worship area.
Interesting, slightly bizarre, and far away from my Midwest Lutheran roots!
We stayed at the Cao Dai Temple for a while, and I wondered who and what they were praying to. The religion is quite interesting but also a very confusing and a bit of a melting-pot. So, we listened to the chants and observed the peaceful prayers. After taking a deep breath, it was time to balance the zen of the Cao Dai Temple by visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Cu Chi Tunnels
During the “American War” (as the Vietnamese call it), the North Vietnamese Viet Cong fighters used this elaborate network of tunnels as communication and supply routes. The tunnels also served as storage areas for food and weapons, living quarters, and even a hospital.
The Viet Cong spent most of their days hiding deep inside the tunnels, going out only at night for supplies and to fight off the American forces. According to Mr. Bean, ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, and spiders infested the tunnels. Tragically, many chronic diseases like malaria also invaded the tunnels resulting in many deaths.
The elaborate tunnel system is very complex, covering 200 km. The Viet Cong built the tunnels between 1946 and 1948 during the French War. It’s spread over three floors with the deepest floor being 30 feet deep.
Small Tunnels – Big Butts
The original Cu Chi tunnels are very tiny and claustrophobic. Unfortunately, the butt size of the Western tourists who visit the tunnels is usually quite large. As a result, the tunnels are now larger, being expanded in the interest of expanding tourism. Even with the expanded tunnel size, my long American legs had a hard time navigating the small spaces. (This part of the tour is not recommended for anyone suffering from claustrophobia!)
I grew up in the 70’s and have vague memories of the Vietnam War, so I was really excited for Mr. Bean’s tunnel tour. I was able really to get a glimpse into war history from the perspective of this legendary historian.
He also showed us some innovative torture equipment used by the Viet Cong against captured enemies. The Americans knew the Cu Chi tunnels existed. Actually, they built a large base camp right on top of the well-hidden tunnel system by accident and when they stumbled across a tunnel entrance, traps and torture were waiting for them.
Unfortunately, the Vietnamese version of the “American War” is different from the American’s version. Most war museums in Vietnam show a disturbing version of this chapter in history. Luckily, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a fascinating, balanced, and well-preserved look at this moment in time.
The “Cao Dai – Cu Chi Tunnel tour” is a great escape from Saigon. Ask for Mr. Bean and he will bring the death and destruction of this former war zone to life.