Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 16, 2006
Temples and Tunnels

Sorry not to post since Friday. We did not have Internet in our hotel in Hoi An, and I've had to search for a cafe here in Hue that has high-speed. This post was written over about 24 hours on Monday and Tuesday.

I had a lot to write about what we did last Friday, but I'm just going to post some pictures to show you the amazing Cao Dai temple. It's hard to explain this indigenous Vietnamese religious movement in a few words, but it started in the 1920s and now has an estimated 2 million adherents. This is its "Holy See" in Tay Ninh, about 2 hours by bus northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. Check out these six photos. I've never seen anything like this extraordinary manifestation of a spirit-writing religion whose saints include Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo.


Earlier, we visited the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi, also northwest of the city. Many of us—including some well over 70—squeezed down a steep, narrow stairway to one of the underground rooms where the guerillas lived for weeks at a time. (Helen Schneider disturbed a bat!) If you read my Jan. 14 posting, you will understand how powerful this is for Americans. The sacrifice, courage, and ingenuity of these fighters won the war for them in the end. Here are three photos from Cu Chi.

Right now, I'm on the bus again. It's Monday and we've just left My Son in the central highlands, southwest of Da Nang, where we stopped to see Cham temples built between the 4th and 11th centuries. We flew from Saigon to Da Nang yesterday (wake-up call was at 3:45 a.m.), going first to a museum where the best examples of Cham art have been preserved. Some of the best work from the museum is now on a world tour, currently in Paris, I think. (If what was left behind in Da Nang is any indication, this should be an exhibit worth seeing.) The Cham was a Hindu society, and the deities and iconography were familiar to those who have studied Indian religion—except that Shiva did not look Indian but had the more rounded face of a Cham.


The Cham were also one of the peoples—you might call them a civilization—that were pushed out by the Viet. (There are still Cham in Viet Nam, but they are farther south.) The My Son temples were abandoned by the 17th century, disappearing into the jungle. Sharp, high mountains that surround the site (the Vietnamese call them "The Cat's Teeth") stood guard until the site was rediscovered in the 20th century. The ruins are now a World Heritage Site, and their preservation is supported by the United Nations. One large-scale project to stabilize one of the temples was being carried out with the help of the government of Italy.

You reach the area by bus, then walk a kilometer or so to a station where jeeps and small vans transport you up the trail. Then, another 1.5 kilometers on foot and you arrive at the first of three main sites in the area. We spent about 3 hours at My Son, climbing around the temples (you could go inside a few, although most were roofless and some merely piles of bricks. Although all of the important sculpture had been removed to the museum in Da Nang, some carvings were still evident on parts of the structures, and there were several yoni and linga. It was amazing to see this manifestation of Hindu religion so far to the east, in a country that we think of as Buddhist.


We spent last night in Hoi An, a former trading port just south of Da Nang, where some centuries-old buildings show Chinese and Japanese influence. Hoi An is also a World Heritage Site, and much restoration is going on. It's also become a resort destination, not only because of nearby beaches—we stopped briefly at the famous China Beach, where U.S. Marines came ashore in 1965, and most of us wet our feet in the South China Sea—but because of the little town's charms. With the encouragement of the local government, provincial officials, and UNESCO, residents have turned it into a quaint place with many shops and restaurants. Before going into town from our hotel on its northern border, we heard a talk by Tran Van Nhan, a government official who has helped to spearhead the effort to preserve Hoi An.


Most nights, we have been on our own for dinner, getting together in small groups to find a place to eat. With the exception of restaurants influenced by French cuisine (or that are outright French restaurants), most Vietnamese restaurants serve a similar range of foods. There's pho (see below), which can also have crab or shrimp; egg rolls (often fried); fish (grilled or steamed); sausages; lots of vegetables; and rice. I have not had a bad meal yet, whether we have been in a relatively expensive Saigon eatery like Le Mandarin (Vietnamese food with French touches) or the place we ate last night near the bank of the river.

Koof (http://kooftravels.blogspot.com) and I were joined by Ann Saisselin '79. We walked through the old town, passing stalls and shops that are prospering on tourist dollars, ducked through the market, and crossed a narrow bridge to a more remote part of Hoi An. Here, we found a restaurant run by Nanh, whose English was good, but whose food was spectacular. We shared two sea bass, grilled in banana leaves with a pungent ginger stuffing. Nanh chatted with us as she carved the fish into bite-sized pieces to go with our rice and curried vegetables. It was a delicious meal, for which we paid about $6 per person, including an appetizer of dumplings and two Tiger beers apiece.


At 6 this morning, before our bus left for My Son, I walked into Hoi An. The market was just waking up, with rickshaws arriving from the country with all sorts of produce. The town market bustles with vendors of every type of food. Fish are landed on the river wharf, and motorized rickshaws bring meat and produce from nearby farms. There are a dozen varieties of noodles and even more stands selling pho, the ubiquitous Vietnamese soup, which features a light broth with noodles, meat (mostly pork—we are seeing very little chicken), vegetables, soy sauce, and, if you wish, hot pepper sauce.


They also make delicious breads and croissants here. I chose a Vietnamese baguette for breakfast. In it, the vendor put some lettuce and cilantro, a few strips of pork, a pungent brown sauce, and a spoonful of hot pepper. I bought a Coke and walked a few blocks further, munching my baguette along the way. Suddenly, I heard a drum and then a wind and a string instrument. Just ahead was a storefront temple, maybe Buddhist, maybe Cao Dai. I'll have to ask Steven. They were celebrating the morning with food and music, and their joy added to mine as I turned back to the hotel to begin the day again.

That's enough for now. We arrived in Hue about 5p.m. More tomorrow.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

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Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006