On our last day in Vietnam in 1995, my son Nick and I took an excellent day tour (organized by the Sinh Café) from Saigon that went first to Tay Ninh, the home of the Cao Dai religion, and then to the tunnels at Cu Chi.
I was especially interested in seeing the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion because in 1964/65 I had lived for several months in the home of an elderly Cao Dai couple in Tân Ba. Each evening the old man came to me and asked who exactly would be sleeping in the house that night so he could light the correct number of incense sticks on his Cao Dai altar, one for each person in the house.
Well, the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh did turn out to be a bit garish, but I was still quite moved by it because of having known the old couple thirty years before.
Cao Dai is a religion that was founded in Tay Ninh in 1926. They say the “noble effort of Cao Dai is to unite all of humanity through a common vision of the Supreme Being, whatever our minor differences, in order to promote peace and understanding throughout the world.”
As I have mentioned before, Cao Dai has three saints: the Chinese revolutionary and political leader Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and the Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm (1491–1585).
The French words on the poster mean: God and Humanity, Love and Justice. And I assume the Chinese characters mean the same.
On the way back from Tay Ninh to Saigon we stopped at the Cu Chi tunnels, a huge network of tunnels that were dug over a period of thirty years, first to provide refuge from the French army in the 1950s and then to provide protection from American firepower during the 1960s and 70s.
Eventually the tunnel system reached a total length of over two hundred kilometers. It had numerous camouflaged entrances and exits so that Viet Cong fighters could appear from just about anywhere and disappear quickly in case of danger.
Some of these tunnels have since been widened slightly so that we Westerners can crawl through — not recommended for people with claustrophobia, however.
Our tour guide from the Sinh Café was a former South Vietnamese naval officer, and the man who met our group and introduced us to the tunnels was a former Viet Cong fighter, but they both assured us that they were now friends and that the former antagonisms had long since been overcome.
Cu Chi turned out to be only about thirty kilometers from Tân Ba. I think it’s just as well that I didn’t know this when I was living there.
Thanks to my son Nick for the photos from 1995. I revised the text in 2017.
See more posts about Vietnam.