The Historic Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels is one of the major offensive weapons of the Vietcongs during the Vietnam War. It is an underground network of tunnels that served as the center of operations of the Vietcong to resist the American armed forces during that time. Now, it has been converted into a tourist spot and is a major venue for tourist activity in the city of Ho Chi Minh.

The weapons gallery.

After you have paid the entrance fee of USD 4, the first thing you’ll see is the Weapons Gallery. It contains all of the types of guns and weaponry both the Americans and Vietnamese used during the war. After that, you’ll go through an underground tunnel which is like the official entrance into the forest. You’ll be given a sticker which says that you’ve paid for the entrance fees. And then, the tour of the jungle starts.

A trap door.

One of the best things the Vietcongs did was to make trap doors camouflaged into the floor of the jungle. If not for the tour guide pointing it out, we would not have notice it was there. The Vietnamese then were just about 4 feet tall. That worked into their advantage because we know that Americans are big people. The tunnels have levels so you won’t get trapped into one if the Americans decided to gas one of the levels. I tried to fit into one and it isn’t comfortable at all. But given my size, I was able to enter it easily. I would have wanted to go to the lower levels but there is no light there and I was afraid that I could not be retrieved if something happened.

A trap for the American dogs.

The Vietcongs also built traps for the dogs used by the Americans. These are made from pointed bamboo sticks. There were also different traps for the Americans which were mainly used to injure and not to kill. Maybe because they wanted to kill the Americans themselves. This is the other side of the fence of the story told in the War Remnants Museum. The Americans weren’t all at fault or maybe the Vietcongs did this for revenge.

 

A tank remains.

Around the camp are tanks that remained after the war. There are also diorama detailing what the locals were doing during those times. There was also a workshop where they transformed bombs into weapons of their own. At the end of the tour there  is a shop for souvenirs and a gun rental shop where you can shoot using weapons used during the war. Of course, I did not rent a gun. What if I enjoyed it and wanted to buy one myself?

The entrance to a tunnel.

The highlight of the tour was for tourists to experience the tunnel for 100 meters. That doesn’t sound so bad. But, when you learn that the tunnels are small and narrow, you would be claustrophobic. I suggest that you do this part with a friend because it is easier that way. Also, you get to the back of the pack so you would be able to take pictures of yourself and your friend while inside the tunnel.

A picture like this.

I was sweating profusely because the tunnel was narrow and hot. Since it is cramped, you’d get to gasp for air. But since you’re with a friend, you get the most out of it. I was squatting so it feels like exercise. My legs didn’t hurt after so what others may have told you about this could be exaggerated.

The whole adventure is great. I have learned more about the war and the tactics of both sides. The tour guide helped too given that he was part of the war himself. The trip is definitely worth it. Even if we just visited two places in one day, we learned a lot from the culture and history of Vietnam.

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The Majestic Cao Dai Temple

On the province of Tay Ninh stands a temple for a religion that is unique to the Vietnamese people. It is called Caodaiism. It is recently established and follows teachings from three different religions – Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. It is in this countryside that our tour for the second day began. Actually, Tay Ninh is just meters away from the border separating Vietnam and Cambodia. We could very well cross the border and create a new adventure altogether. But Cambodia is reserved for another trip abroad.

The Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh

The temple stands on a big patch of land in the countryside. It is inside a compound that (maybe) houses its worshippers. They have their own city that has the temple in the middle. In front of it is a plaza and parade grounds. There is also a forest nearby where you can see monkeys playing near the fence.

The interior

The interior of the temple is very intricate. The pillars have very colorful designs and the designer was just so delicate in putting all of the details. The temple is a very long hall with pairs of pillars every one-or-so meter. At the front is the altar that has the world with an eye in it. You will not be allowed to enter the hall and be with them up close. Instead, there’s a balcony where the ‘choir’ is situated and a make-shift terrace that will give you a bird’s eye view of the whole temple.

 

A view from above.

When we arrived, they were doing a ceremony. Believe it or not, they do this three times a day before meals. The very first one will be 6 in the morning. Imagine the discipline of the parishioners if they have been doing this for a long time. Anyway, the colored robes represent the different religions followed by Caodaiism. The blue stands for Christianity. The red stands for Buddhism. And the yellow stands for Islam. Or I might have confused the red and the yellow.

This is one of the best things I like about visiting new places. We learn more about their culture and their way of life. Even if we weren’t able to talk to them (the celebration wasn’t even finished when we were about to leave), we got a glimpse of how others have been spending their days. Who would have known that in this part of rural Vietnam flourishes a religion like no other.

Even if I am a Catholic, I dearly respect what and who they believe in. After all, the different religions are just versions and transforms of a belief in a Higher Power that somehow controls our daily lives.

The Saigon Central Post Office

The Post Office

The Central Post Office is one of the places in the tour of Ho Chi Minh City. I was never fascinated with post offices because there is nothing much to do but to send mail. Well, that’s what the post offices in the Philippines do. However, Ho Chi Minh did a good job in transforming their own post office into a tourist spot.

Pillars.

In the pillars of the building, names of some scientists and public figures are engraved. They have Laplace, Faraday, Volta, Arago and some others. We were wondering what these meant.

An airy inside.

The inside is big and airy. The center is a souvenir store. The sides contain the counters for sending mail. At the front, there are also telephone booths for international calls and automated teller machines. On the wings are more souvenir shops. It is indeed like a small souvenir store. At the back wall, a framed photograph of President Ho Chi Minh can be found.

I really liked the thought of converting the local post office into a big tourist spot. No only does it spark interest, it also helps maintain the structure of the building.

The Notre Dame Cathedral

The facade of the cathedral.

If you know the Notre Dame Cathedral of France, it has a sister in Vietnam. Given that Vietnam was under France’s rule, some of the building architecture in the city is based on the mother country. This one included.

It is very surreal to be in the presence of such church, even if it means that it’s just a copy. It is also the only Catholic church in the vicinity of Ho Chi Minh City. Isn’t that cool?

The inside.

The good thing inside the church is it does have a ‘fence’ where tourists who want to take photographs can stay. When you go inside the church itself, you can’t take pictures, you can only pray.

The altar looks good on the concave at the back of the church. It has a Vatican City feel to it. Plus, the light from the outside provides it with a natural spotlight as seen in the picture above.

The sides.

On the sides of the church are mini stalls where the Stations of the Cross are located. There are also Thank You messages from parishioners.

It would have been nice if we were able to attend mass. But, I guess, a prayer and a wish was enough. The earliest mass was 5:30 AM. It’s in Vietnamese and the only one available for our schedule. Too bad, we were so tired from the flight that we weren’t able to get out of bed in time.

The Independence Palace

The Independence Palace

This place checks off one of the things in my bucket list – visit an Amazing Race pit stop. Of course, they did visit the Philippines once but that should not count. The Independence Palace is the site of home and office of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

The Press Room

There a lot of rooms in the building – mostly are for meetings. Above is a photo of the press room. It has a stage and a lot of chairs. The chairs are very comfortable. As of the present, it is used as a briefing room for tourists.

Another meeting room.

The building has four floors. The first floor houses a general meeting room, dining room and the press room. The second floor has the office and individual meeting rooms. The third floor has the residence of the president and includes rooms for entertainment. The fourth floor has the ballroom and rooftop with helipad.

I admire the preservation of this building. The carpet and the furniture look like they are in top shape and could very well be used in the present.

A view from the top.

The experience is a bit out of the ordinary. The building too provides a different experience in looking at a government building. It is fresh and airy. It is also very ornate and very definitive of the culture of Vietnam.

The Chaotic Binh Tay Market

The facade.

The Binh Tay Market is one of the two famous markets of Ho Chi Minh City. It is located in the city’s Chinatown and was founded and built under the aid of Chinese businessmen. It is very much like the Divisoria of Manila where you can buy goods at a cheap price and they are cheaper once they sell it to you on a wholesale basis.

They sell a variety of items from hats, to helmets, to scarves, to cloth. You name it, they might have it.

Practicing the art of haggling.

Haggling is one of the important aspects in shopping. And we were able to try it out in this market. They were looking at hats and they tried to buy it at a very cheap price. The price offered was 140,000 Vietnamese Dong which was roughly 280 Philippine Pesos. They asked for price drop to 50% the original price. In the end, they weren’t successful. They say that if you don’t haggle, it’s considered an insult to them. But, you can only haggle for a number of times before they become irritated.

A woman wearing the famous Vietnamese salakot.

It was also my first experience with the Vietnamese populace. Since it’s the market, there are a lot people going around their business. Excuse me cannot bring you to places. I learned from them that they would rather be pushed so that you can make your way clear. They wouldn’t mind. Also, they might not understand ‘excuse me’. I also noticed that they sell a lot of hats. I wondered what the fascination was. It turned out, they don’t use an umbrella to battle the heat. They make use of hats and caps. Oh, we Filipinos really have an attitude.

I was able to buy silk scarves for my sisters. We thought of maybe going back but we didn’t have enough time. It would have been a different experience if we went shopping here.

The Thien Hau Temple

The Goddess Thien Hau and how she saved the people lost at sea.

In Ho Chi Minh’s Chinatown is a temple made for the Lady of the Sea by the beliefs of the Southern Chinese communities. They decided to create this temple as gratitude for saving the Chinese when they ventured out to sea and discovered what is now Ho Chi Minh City.

The temple courtyard.

The temple has an open courtyard in the middle where the incense burner is located. On the roof of the courtyard are diorama depicting the Chinese during the 19th century – what their roles in the community are and how they went about in their every day life.

An old Chinese couple offering prayers.

Coiled incense, the altar and a lot of incense burners.

Near the altar hang a lot of coiled incense for special requests. There is also a great piece of art made out of bronze. The tour guide wasn’t able to explain much about the items and art found inside the temple.

I like the temple so much because it isn’t as conservative and the the people are open to having their photos taken. The old couple actually saw me taking photos of them and they gladly posed for the camera.

The Depressing War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

The first stop in our tour was the War Remnants Museum. As said in the name of the place itself, it houses the remnants of the Vietnamese War that happened during the 1960s. You need to pay 15,000 Vietnamese Dong to enter the museum.

A tank, a chopper and students on their field trip.

On the grounds of the museum, you will see replicas of the different vehicles and military equipment used during the American involvement in the Vietnamese war. They are all displayed outside.

Japanese posters against the war.

On the open air first floor of the building, you will see a lot of propaganda supporting Vietnam. They all want the US presence to be diminished and they want the US to not participate in the said war. They also hold an exhibit for children’s art pertaining to peace and anti-war support.

Photographs depicting American war crimes.

On the second floor was a display of photos pertaining to American war crimes. They depicted how the American soldiers treated the Vietnamese in general. There were photographs of people being dragged by tanks and a soldier holding body parts after being blasted by bombs.

The Agent Orange section was colored, guess what, orange.

On the third floor was a section dedicated to the Agent Orange mission. Agent Orange was a chemical that was introduced to deprive guerillas of food and cover so they wanted to clear the vegetation around the cities. This brought about different genetic malfunctions to the generations born after the war.

You will learn a lot from the museum itself. They have a lot of stories to tell and you’d realize how the Americans treated the Vietnamese. However, I feel like this is a bit anti-American in a way. Of course, this is a war. The Americans aren’t the only ones doing the damage. There should also be the part where we learn how the Vietnamese avenged their losses.

The museum is depressing especially when you learn the effects of the war and Agent Orange. The good thing though is that the Vietnamese seemed to bounce back easily as this happened not too long ago. And as one local said, they forgive easily because of their belief in karma. The towns affected by the war and the chemical warfare seemed to have recovered and are back to the natural order of things.

Impressions on Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The first thing I noticed about the city is the traffic and the driver discipline. We were fetched at around 1:30 AM from the airport. Normally, there will be less cars and vehicles in the streets and that the car will be free to just cross any intersection. However, the driver followed all of the traffic lights that we encountered. Also, crossing the streets of Ho Chi Minh was such a delight. Despite the fact that they have a lot of scooters and it seems daunting, it was thoroughly enjoyable. The scooter drivers will adjust to how you cross the street. So, once you start crossing, you can never go back because that will just cause accidents. The tip is to not look at them and just go straight to the other side of the street.

Every time we cross the street, we do a mini celebration because we are still alive. Actually, I feel safer here despite the number of scooters and the higher risk of being run by them. That was all because the drivers here have more discipline that the ones at home. Also, they don’t drive scooters without helmets!

The second thing I like about Ho Chi Minh is that they are not as commercialized as the bigger cities of the Philippines. You don’t find brands and famous fast food chains in every corner of the city. Although there’s the usual Starbucks or KFC or Burger King, they aren’t as many as you would expect them to be. They will still patronize the good old hole-in-the-wall. They have a lot of stores owned by families. They also have an abundance of local restaurants and several branches of home-grown coffee shops.

Ho Chi Minh City could be one of the healthiest places to live in. They have a lot of vegetables and fruits in their diet. The streets have vendors that offer baguette sandwiches and different food like the ever-famous pho. The fruit shakes are made out of real fruit and you’d know they didn’t add water and sugar just so they can increase the size. Another thing is that you can walk for miles and not be bothered about smoke and pollution. There aren’t any! Of course there are but it isn’t as noticeable. They have parks and green spaces that will give the citizens their daily supply of clean air. The government also provides programs for a healthy lifestyle. Every morning, there are people who exercise at the park in front of the hotel. The park also has badminton court markings for those who want to play. And, the government provides for the net, the citizens will just have to bring their own shuttlecock and racket. Great, no?

Lastly, the food. They provide big servings to their customers. Even for a big eater like me, the serving was enough for two people. They include vegetables in all of their dishes even if it is just a regular fried chicken. Also, they don’t really create an explosion in your mouth because they are a fan of subtle tastes. They make you responsible for how your food will taste by providing you with condiments.

They advised us to be weary of snatchers and robbers but I wasn’t so keen on that. I felt relatively safe even during the night.

All in all, I fell in love with the city. The tropical climate of Manila was added with a whole new perspective – disciplined drivers and non-polluted streets. Out of my home city, Marikina, I like this one the best.