I don’t see…any method at all. (Saigon, Day Two)

The Asian conception of a mattress just doesn’t seem to translate well for western bodies. Our bed at the Rex Hotel is, technically, “soft”, but it’s a thick foam mattress that, with a body’s weight on it, compresses down to a rather unforgiving density. Add to this 13 hours of jetlag, and you have a recipie for some tossing and turning during the night: find a comfortable position, doze off, wake up 2 hours later with no blood circulation in any body part touching the mattress, turn over, doze off, rinse, repeat.

Day two began bright and early: we’d falled asleep at around 8pm, so we set the alarm for 5:30am, in order to have plenty of time to shower and dress before being picked up for today’s tour. Despite allowing nearly 10 hours for sleeping, we were both a little groggy and slow-moving as we hit the hotel’s breakfast. Luckily, breakfast was good: coffee strong enough to wake the dead, assorted western-style breads, rolls and croissants, plus Vietnamese congee, soup and dumpling, and a vast assortment of local fruits, including dragonfruit and rambutans.

Thus fortified, we were picked up in the lobby by the tour bus. Now, I’m personally kinda cool toward the group/guided tour thing, but the itinerary was one that (a) is pretty much required for any first-time visitor to Saigon, and (b) would be fiendishly difficult to do on ones own, as it involves a great deal of travel through Saigon’s more far-flung distances… which means driving. In Viet Nam. I am brave but not stupid, and we took the tour bus. The tour was led by a Mr. Son, who had obviously been doing this for a good long time: he had his speeches down pat, and knew enough English to joke around with the passengers. The group was actually mostly Japanese, with one Australian guy and, well, us making up the contingent of anglos.

It took about 90 minutes for the bus to bounce around to the first destination, the Cao Dai Temple. The journey was, for me, almost as fascinating as the destinations themselves. Once you get out of Saigon’s upmarket center, the city stops resembling a Shanghai/Bangkok-esque megapolis very quickly, and starts looking a lot more like, well, a third-world city. Saigon sprawls: we drove for an hour or more before seeing our first rice field, and most of that time we were driving through what seemed like a nonstop frenzy of new construction. The sides of the street were being dug up, apparently to sink a sewer line, and new houses and buildings were going up so fast that in several cases the front facade of the houses had been built before anything else, lending a very surreal movie-set aspect to the whole scene.

Although the city’s outskirts look superficially a lot more like Cambodia, there’s an almost instinctively different feel to it. The countryside is poor, yes, but you can almost feel it getting less poor. You can’t take more than a few steps without encountering a shop of some sort, and while the streets are often unpaved and the sewers open, every shopfloor seems meticulously well-swept, and the streets are full of Vietnamese schoolchildren who seem to have a nigh-miraculous ability to traipse around in white silk ao dai dresses or startched white collared school shirts without getting a speck of dirt on them. (We suspect that this is some generalization of the local principle of physics that allows 12-year-old boys to stage soccer games next to and occasionally in traffic without suffering any apparent injury.) It doesn’t feel dirty, just busy and in transition.

Once we got out into the countryside, the inevitable rice fields alternated with the enormous domed kilns of the brick factories that seemed to be the main non-agricultural business of the area. We passed at least a dozen of them, each with enormous piles of thousands of bricks outside, drying in the sun. Their position in the local economy is immedately visible: nearly every other structure we passed was made out of the same bricks.

After a few short breaks that seemed suspiciously tied to Mr. Son’s need for a cigarette (not, given the state of the bus seats, that I am complaining), we arrived at the first stop: the Cao Dai main temple.

Cao Daism is a young religion, and one native to Viet Nam. Deliberately syncretic, it’s a synthesis of the three major Asian faiths (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism) and Christianity. God is represented by the Universal Eye, which looks similar to the eye-in-the-pyramid logo on U.S. currency. The religion claims 3-4 million adherants in Viet Nam, plus a smattering in Thailand, Cambodia and Australia, but mostly it’s centered in one province just outside Saigon, which the church pretty much completely controls, in an often-uneasy truce with the central government (whatever the central government happens to be at the time).

The main temple of the Cao Dai beggers easy description. Even by the standards of Buddhist and Hindu religious architecture, it’s frenetically busy: the main hall is painted in bright yellows and pinks, the saints, icons and dragon motifs cover just about every available square inch, and the altar is dominated by a giant globe of stars with the Universal Eye motif in the middle, staring down. The Cao Dai monks are almost unnervingly at ease with their position as a de facto tourist attraction: they were even happy to lead me to places inside the temple where I could get better photo angles. The attitude toward the hoard of tourists is refreshingly no-nonsense: you can wander around and take snapshots to your hearts’ content (and of anything and anyone), until the service actually begins, at which point you are expected to kindly remove yourself to the overhanging gallery and stay the heck out of the way. At noon the mass started with a procession of brightly robed adherants making their way up the main gallery and bowing to the Eye at proscribed times: it was beautiful and striking.

Sadly, we weren’t able to stay for the whole service, as we needed to drive another two hours toward the Cu Chi Tunnels, Obvious Destination Number Two.

Cu Chi is a mostly rural district about 5km upriver from Saigon proper, which during the “American War” was pretty much entirely controlled by the Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, AKA the Viet Cong. The ARVN and US Army attempted to deal with the problem by turning Cu Chi into a “free fire zone” and regularly saturating the place with bombs and defoliants. Instead of abandoning the area, the local guerillas responded by literally digging themselves in: a 6 sq-km network of tunnels were built (with hand-axes and bamboo baskets) 3-4 meters undergound, complete with kitchens, field hospitals, arms factories and meeting rooms. In the tunnels, upward of 15,000 VC soldiers lived for several years, emerging at night to set traps and engage US troops.

Cu Chi now is largely dominated again by rice fields and rubber plantations, but a section of the tunnels has been preserved as a war monument and tourist destination, and the tourists come by the truckload.

Before seeing the tunnels themselves, you are first treated to an authentic bit of 1970s communist agit-prop: a shaky, black-and-white propaganda film (lovingly transferred to 4-generation VHS) about the “brave Cu Chi peasants” who took up arms against the Yankee invader while still finding time to till their rice fields between battles. Despite the film’s obvious bias (and production shortcomings), it’s still pretty impressive, as it shows off the guerrilla’s skills at converting local objects (fish-hooks and scythes) and found American leftovers (tires, grenades and unexploded bombs) into truely gruesome anti-personnel traps.

After the film, we were led to a small clearing in the woods, where a government guide who’d joined us brushed away a few leaves to reveal a trapdoor in the ground no more than 12 by 9 inches in size. Popping off the cover revealed a tiny hole leading down into a tunnel below, which the gov’t guide promptly vanished into without a trace. Mr. Son brushed a few leaves back over the top and there was no sign left of the entrace until the guide popped back out a few seconds later.

Then, we were led down a path between bomb craters, past a burnt-out American tank, to what Mr. Son referred to as the “five-star tunnel” — a 100-meter long section of the tunnels that had been enlarged, cleaned out (relatively speaking) and lit in order to accomodate western tourists — and invited us to go in.

I am not, by nature, particularly claustrophobic, but I take no shame in saying that this was an entirely unpleasant experience. The “enlarged” tunnels were still about 3.5 feet high at best, and not much wider across than I am. The path twisted, turned, rose and (often very suddenly) dropped, and after about 30 meters of scraping my head, hands and shoulders against every possible surface, and barely being able to breathe the humid air, I was more than happy to avail myself of an early exit that had been cut into the tunnels along the way. Humbling, to say the least, especially since the only other people to bail out early were — perhaps predictably — the other whities.

(There was, apparently, a contingent of US Army troops who were specifically tasked with going into the tunnels to try to flush out the VC troops, often engaging them in hand-to-hand combat inside the tunnel walls. They were called the Tunnel Rats, and I’m pretty sure that counts as the single worst posting in a completely insane war.)

Oh, I nearly forgot: also on the site of the tunnels is a shooting range, where for US$1/bullet (5-bullet minimum), you can try your hands at “the weapons so popular during the war” — a set of somewhat beaten-up looking M16 and AK-47 rifles. We all demurred, but other groups were not so reticient, and the sound of automatic weapons fire, easily audible across the entire site, added a certain…vermissilitude to the entire experience.

After being allowed to wash our hands and poke through the requisite gift shop area, we were efficiently ferried back to central Saigon and dropped off at our hotel, where we changed shirts and headed out to dinner.

Dinner was at Com Nieu Sai Gon, which we’d seen featured in the Saigon episode of “A Cook’s Tour” and which I’d seen several egullet.com members raving about. It entirely lived up to the hype: buried on a side-street in District 3, it’s a partially-enclosed, partially-open-air restaurant, with the open-air section dividied by an alleyway down which mopeds roar at regular intervals. The house specialty is com dap: crunchy rice cooked in a clay pot, and when you order it, one waiter at one end of the alley smashes the pot open with a hammer, catches the rice in an oven mitt, and launches it in the air (often over the strung lighting) to a waiter on the other side of the alley, who catches it in a plate, flips it in the air a few times for good measure, and brings it to your table. In addition to being wonderfully theatrical, the operation also serves to (er, mostly) divest the rice of any bits of shattered clay pot and cool it down slightly.

Along with our rice, we ordered (from memory here; I wasn’t smart enough to take notes):

— braised shrimp with shallot shoots
— banana flower & chicken salad
— crabmeat and black mushroom soup
— deep-fried mullet with tamirind sauce

…along with a fresh coconut milk and the inevitable iced coffee. The meal was amazing: the salad was sweet, crunch and piquant; the soup was deeply crab-flavored; the mullet was obviously fresh and blazingly hot; and for my money the shrimp and shallot shoots were the winner: delicately flavored, warm and amazingly satisfying.

We lingered over dinner as the restaurant closed up and the waiters served themselves, and then wandered out into the warm night to find a cab.

More later. Pictures, and lots of them, when I get home.

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