It’s a long bus ride from the centre of Saigon out to the Cao Dai temple complex at Tay Ninh. As with most Explore Worldwide trips (and this is my only real criticism of their excellent operation), there have already been rather too many long bus rides over the last couple of weeks. This had better be worth it.
Still, there’s something mesmerising about gazing out of the window at the endless thick stream of two-wheelers coming into the city. The way that the traffic here somehow manages to flow efficiently and seemingly without incident is a constant marvel. Forget mirrors. Forget hand signals. Forget helmets. Forget lanes. They barely exist. Instead, the entire traffic system seems to get by on calmness, co-operation and consideration. There is no road rage here (something which would in any case have been unlikely in a culture which shuns public displays of emotion). Yes, everyone uses their hooters constantly – but not in frustration or anger, and only as a means of alerting other road users of their presence. Although the traffic here looks at first sight like a terrifyingly undisciplined free-for-all, I have come to the conclusion that most Vietnamese road users are actually exercising unusually high levels of due care and attention. Mind you, there’s really no other option open to them.
The Cao Dai temple complex is indeed a strange place. The garishly ornate temples, all of which look more or less brand new, have something of a Buddhist Disneyland quality to them. The intention of the Cao Dai faith (which only began in 1919) is to fuse a new synthesis of the world’s great religions, taking the best aspects of each. One aspect of this is a highly eclectic collection of saints and spiritual mediums, including Christ, the Buddha, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Sun Yat Sen and Charlie Chaplin. (Who next, I wonder? Geri Halliwell?)
We are here to attend the big noonday service in the main temple, which visitors are allowed to observe from the long first floor balconies. Although visually impressive, it turns out to be an entirely static affair, which fails to hold the attention of most of the massed ranks of gawking, immodestly dressed non-believers. For my part, I find the service rather mesmerising. But, it has to be said, maybe not quite mesmerising enough to warrant such a long return journey.
It’s a good job we packed plenty of Immodium. K’s digestive system is playing up something rotten today. Everybody else in the group is fine, though. Hang on. What was it that K ate last night, that nobody else touched? Scorpion, wasn’t it? His condition becomes known to all as Scorpio’s Revenge (and later, as Scorpio Rising – oh dear).
Over lunch at a roadside restaurant, we are joined by an elderly Vietnamese gentleman who is an old family friend of Kim Phuc – the girl shown running naked down the street in the wake of a Napalm attack, in the famous press photo which has become one of the iconic images of the “American War”. He shows us his photos and, although we have been instructed not to bully him with too many pressing questions about the war, is keen to talk to us of forgiveness, reconciliation and laying the past to rest.
The afternoon is spent at the Cu Chi tunnels, which seem to have been turned into some sort of Vietcong theme park. Our guide, in pseudo-combat fatigues, leads us past various vicious looking man-traps. While we wince in horror, a large Spanish tour party behind us seems to find them all hugely comical, pointing and laughing as they move along. This is a coping strategy like any other, of course. Maybe if we hadn’t been to Mai Lai, we too would be reacting differently.
While the rest of the group dutifully clamber through some of the original underground tunnels used by the Vietcong, K and I opt out of the experience. When everybody else re-emerges only a couple of minutes later, matted in sweat and grime, we are deeply glad to have wimped out.
Our evening meal is a rare disappointment. We’re not striking it very lucky for food in Saigon. The restaurants are considerably foofier in appearance, but the food and service are noticeably lacking, when compared to the delights we have been enjoying up until now.
Just one more day to go, then. And yet another bloody early start in the morning. Holiday my arse!