Friday, July 9, 2010

My Saigon Vacation- Episode II: Apocalypse Wow

Day two in Saigon started the way all my days do- with a cup of coffee. Saigon was surprisingly French in its embrace of cafe culture. Everywhere we went there were tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk (or in the countryside, what passed for the sidewalk). Everybody appeared to drink coffee, only there it was called Ca Phe (get it?). They served it two ways: black (put hair on your chest strong) and sweet. Given that my chest is already Wookiee quality, I stuck with sweet. As you can see in the picture above the cafes put a healthy dose of sweet condensed milk at the bottom of the glass. Hot water is filtered through the coffee grounds in the metal strainer on top of the glass. Once you've filled the glass to your liking you stir in the condensed milk for a tasty morning pick me up. This was high octane go juice that kept me moving after late bia filled nights.

We got to the travel agency at 0800 ready to board our bus to the Cao Dai temple, after which we would get lunch and proceed on to the Cu Chi tunnels. On board waiting for us was our tour guide Minh.

Minh told us that the ride out to the Cao Dai temple would take about 2-2.5 hours depending on the traffic, but that we should arrive in time to see a religious ceremony. I didn't mind the length of the ride because I think driving through a foreign country is an interesting way to see how people live. I also figured it would give me a chance to see how poverty in Vietnam compared with poverty here in the P.I. Minh had other ideas for the ride. Once he plugged in the tour guide mic, it felt like hours before he stopped talking (in heavily accented and broken English). And it wasn't a "Let's learn about Vietnam" talk- it was a "The World According to Minh" talk. Whew. Some highlights:
-"People need smile more. Smile make you happy, make you look young. You don't need beauty saloon"
-"Men know women need be #1. Next life, I want be a woman, then I be #1. Now I'm #11."
-"It's good to be small man. Small man only need one bia to be happy. (points at me and my buddy) You need three, maybe four bia be happy".
Minh finally let the sweet sound of silence take over.

The roads out of the city were surprisingly nice, albeit crowded:
About 90 minutes into the ride, Minh came back on and told us that we would be making a souvenir and bathroom stop. Halfway between Saigon and the temple was conveniently located this spot:
Handicapped Handicrafts was a factory where, well, handicapped folks made handicrafts. We got a tour and saw people painting vases, pictures, working with the kiln, glazing etc. It was nice to see that these people were given an opportunity to do something productive and make a living. The downside was everything was marked up about 500% from the night market back in Saigon. I wanted to help, but had a hard time finding just the right thing to bring home. Finally, a light from heaven shone down on the perfect piece of artwork for our home:
I think we'll put it at the end of Addie's bed, right at eye level facing her so she knows it's there protecting the room. After about 20 minutes at the souvenir stand, it was back on the road to Tay Ninh.

A few words on Cao Dai: The the 1920s, the religion was formed by one Ngo Van Chieu following a revelation of "the way" in a dream he had. Per the story, three great thinkers (including the author Victor Hugo- also a Caodai saint) got together in Heaven and signed a document that mandated the creation of Caodaism. A few years later one of Chieu's followers (plus 20,000 others) deserted Chieu, made himself the pope and built the temple that I was going to visit. The religion seeks to create the ultimate religion by combining the tenets of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Catholicism. They claim to be the largest religion in the world because they count everyone that follows each of those religions separately as part of their church too. The author Graham Greene called Caodaism a "joke gone too far". I think Mr. Greene was pretty close to the mark.

The temple had the same vibe as the castle at Disney World. It looks neat but feels kind of fake.
The grounds were well maintained with nice gardens.

The temple was covered in symbols taken from each of the religions noted above.
Lucky for us, we arrived in time to see a Caodai religious ceremony.

This is a nice shot showing the different levels that work their way up to the main altar, where sits the orb of the all seeing eye. It's probably watching me right now. I didn't last too long inside the ceremony. There was music playing and an extremely old man ritualistically banging on a gong that got old pretty quick. Before leaving, I couldn't help but wonder if this counted as going to church since Catholicism is technically part of Caodism. Somewhere, Monsignor Staub is crying.

Overall, the temple was interesting but underwhelming. It was interesting to see another slice of Vietnamese culture, but Caodaism wasn't for me.

It was 40C outside during our visit to the temple. After touring the temple grounds for an hour, I was ready to head out and get some lunch. We went to a restaurant on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

The restaurant was actually part of someone's house that had been opened up to cater to the numerous tour buses that passed through the area on a daily basis.
The food was ok, but the bia was chilly good. After everyone had finished eating, we stood around waiting to leave for about 15 minutes. The tour group was getting kind of restless and then we realized we were being held up because Minh was playing cards with the bus driver and the owner of the restaurant. Before things got too riotous they ended their game and we were on our way to Cu Chi.

Tomorrow: Part II.

1 comment:

Terry said...

Don't you just hate it when the loosers from "Last Comic Standing" become tour guides? Of course the Crouching Tiger find made it all worth while. I love your blogs.