Saturday, 15 September 2012

Cao Dai and Cu Chi

Yesterday I went on my trip with the HCMC Sinh Cafe tour agency to visit a large Cao Dai temple near the Cambodian border, and then to the Cu Chi tunnels used by Viet Cong fighters, not far from Saigon. It was an 8.15 departure from the travel agency, and my group was around ten people of all different nationalities. Our guide, a warm and jokey Vietnamese man, spoke to us in English, with a very strong accent that was hard to follow, although luckily he repeated everything he said two or three times anyway. I dozed off during the journey and when I awoke we were in a village on the outskirts of the city and the sun was shining brightly. We were paying a visit to a workshop that produces artwork made by, and in aid of, people born disabled by the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical weapon used by the USA during the war. A mixture of herbicides and defoliants, this chemical was supposedly intended to destroy forest cover to reveal the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the North Vietnamese army (NVA) to transport weaponry and supplies to Viet Cong fighters in the south, but which subsequently killed or maimed at least 400,000 Vietnamese and continues to be passed on to new generations through the 3 million people who were affected by it (Vietnam Red Cross estimate). Besides this, the chemical caused higher rates of miscarriage and stillbirth in women, and at least 150,000 children have since been born with extra fingers or toes, cleft palates or mental health problems as a result of the dioxin in the chemical. On the streets of Saigon today you can see disfigured people begging on the streets, quite likely as a result of  the effects of Agent Orange.

This workshop, aptly named Handicapped Handicrafts, was established in 1976 and produces artwork and ornaments using eggshell and mother-of-pearl. We watched this process take place across the length of the workshop. Firstly, wood boards are treated and covered with a black tar-like paint before being polished to resemble a marble slate. A design drawn on tracing paper is followed and pieces of mother-of-pearl are sawn into appropriate shapes for the design. In other places, crushed eggshell is carefully applied to the black boards to create textured hut roofs or Vietnamese hats, with the tones of the shells used to create shading effects. The rest of the board is hand-painted to create the finished product, which are on sale in an adjoining room. The disfigurements of the artists were not immediately obvious, although there were several wheelchairs besides the benches where they were working. I was impressed by the intricacy of the technique I saw. I had already seen this sort of product sold in Saigon but had not thought to appreciate the talent behind creating these complicated pieces.

The Handicapped Handicrafts workshop
Sawing mother-of-pearl shells
Hand-painting the boards to create the completed artwork

Swan shapes made from mother-of-pearl

Using eggshells for textured patterns

Our next stop was the Cao Dai temple, just over an hour's drive west to the edge of the Vietnamese border with Cambodia, to a province called Tay Ninh, where most people follow the Cao Dai religion and speak Khmer (the national language of Cambodia) as well as Vietnamese. It was here that the Cao Dai religion was established in 1926, and is now followed by approximately 2 million Vietnamese. The religion, as best as I can comprehend, takes into account Taoist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Confucian practices, and worships every god of these religions, becoming collectively a transcendent supreme being known as Cao Dai ( meaning high tower or platform). The core belief of the Cao Dai movement is to unite world religions in order to create peace. Followers use prayer and vegetarianism to seek the highest spiritual attainment of Buddha status, in order to 'break the cycle of life and death'. A unique religion to Vietnam, with a strongly nationalist political character, members of the religion had fought French colonialism and Vietnamese communism, and the religion has only been recognised by the Vietnamese government since 1997. Cao Dai temples have become tourist attractions due to their uniqueness to the country and their beautiful and intriguing architecture.

To my eye, the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh (also known as the Great Temple or the Holy See) was like a sugar-sweet palace with its pink, blue and yellow hues. The architecture combines the structure of a typical Catholic church with an oriental pagoda style. Inside, you will find patterned tiled floors, yellow walls and a pretty blue ceiling painted with clouds and stars. Pink-coloured pillars extend across the length of the interior, coiled by three-dimensional dragons. The altar is extremely extravagant, centred around a huge blueish sphere with an eye at the front. The left eye, outlined by a thick dark eyebrow, is the symbol of Caodaiism, representing the eye of God. Around the altar are gold vases, flowers, fruit and incense. Above the altar you can see images of god as depicted by different religions, although of course not by Islam as it is forbidden to depict the prophet Mohammed.

Cao Dai Grand Temple, Tay Ninh
Entering on the women's side

The interior of the temple
A priest burning incense at the altar

Around noon we headed to the upper level of the temple from where we watched the mass. There are four masses throughout the day- at 6am, 12pm, 6pm and 12am. In preparation, nuns and monks were seated on separate sides of the temple, where they sat on the floor chatting to each other. Most of these were very old but were still able to sit cross-legged on the tiled floor. At 12pm some mandolins started playing, which was soon accompanied by a beaten drum, as the troops of nuns and monks filed into the temple and made their way to assigned positions in the middle, facing the altar. The music grew and was accompanied by a choir of young girls singing, with the sound of a gong indicating for the nuns and monks to be seated and start praying.  Most of these were dressed in long white robes, besides six or seven priests dressed in yellow, red or blue robes. These colours, symbolic of Caodaiism, represent the particular branch followed by the wearer, our guide told us. Red represents Christianity, Islam and Confucianism, blue represents Taoism, and yellow represents Hinduism and Buddhism. I watched a senior monk patrol the praying monks, and on spotting a very elderly man at the back sat a little too far out of line, he tapped him repeatedly on the shoulder. The monk ignored this, and eventually this little old man was pulled roughly back into line, flashing a toothless grin like a naughty schoolboy. We watched the mass for around half an hour before returning to the bus.

It was a rough drive over bumpy roads to our final destination, the Cu Chi tunnels. Around seventy-five miles of tunnels were planned and dug by local people in the Cu Chi area, not far from Saigon, and at the time, close to a considerable US military base. The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong for military operations and to transport and store food, weaponry and other supplies. About 2 metres underground there were hospital, kitchen and other bunkers; at three metres' depth is the first layer of tunnels, the second at six metres and the third layer of tunnels is eight metres underground. We saw different entrances to these tunnels, some considerably tight as they were designed for the slender Vietnamese body, not 'big-boy Americans', as our guide put it. All the tunnels were hand-dug out out of the bare earth and were usually horribly infested with poisonous insects. As if to prove this point, a 15-cm long centipede crawled past our feet as we stood looking at one of the tunnel entrances. We had a chance to crawl through some of these tunnels. I went through a thirty-metre-long tunnel that had been made taller and wider for tubby tourists such as myself, but we were told that the tunnels are, on average, 80cm high and 60cm wide.

One of the less generous tunnel entrances
Another tunnel entrance

Something you could expect to find inside the tunnels

My turn!

We were shown examples of the amazing variety of hand-made booby-traps that were once hidden about this forest. Most involved a pit, a camouflaged swing door and "many sharp stick". A larger booby-trap was demonstrated by our guide. It was a 7-by-3-foot door in the ground disguised with leaves. When pushed at one end with a stick, it swung heavily the whole way round to reveal a deep pit below lined with upwards-pointing sharpened metal spikes. "No chance of survival", our guide said. That sent a shiver up my spine. Many of the original tunnels were also booby-trapped to catch any enemy soldiers that tried to invade them, with gaps that dropped through into deep pits that the Viet Cong knew to avoid. I found it incredible, too, how Viet Cong guerillas and Cu Chi locals alike could walk through these forests knowing where to avoid booby-traps that had been laid. As we walked through the forest I prayed there were none still undiscovered...

Demonstrating the swinging door


No. 3: The clipping armpit trap
A captured American tank kept as a souvenir
Recreation of Cu Chi fighters turning unexploded US missiles into  landmines

Ho Chi Minh sandals to fit any foot. Made of rubber  tyres, worn by VC guerillas and Uncle Ho himself

It was an interesting day and a chance for me to get some deeper insight into two very different elements of Vietnamese culture and history. The Cu Chi tunnels were gory and fascinating. I was amazed at how untrained villagers had helped to plan and build these incredible tunnels, and at the courage of guerilla fighters to live in such horrible underground conditions. In contrast, the visit to the Cao Dai temple was a pleasant and relaxing experience- a very unique opportunity to discover an interesting and unusual religion.

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