Trip: Cao Đài Temple, Củ Chi Tunnels

That morning we all met for breakfast at Phở Hòa, a famous phở restaurant in Saigon on Pasteur Street. This was something of a pilgrimage for me. My first real introduction to Vietnamese food was at a restaurant in New York called Phở Pasteur. These restaurants hang newspaper clippings so you can see how wonderful they are, and I remember the clipping from New York Newsday. It said that the odd-sounding name of  "Phở Pasteur" was taken from Pasteur Street in Hanoi. Now I knew better. It just goes to show that you shouldn't trust food critics. Most of the time they don't know their stuff.

The phở here was different from the phở that they have in Hanoi, and the same style as the phở that they have in New York. The bowls are huge. There are many different cuts of beef in the soup, and that includes the insides. There are lots of leaves to throw into the soup, as well as bean sprouts, and lemons on the side. There are various types of chili sauce if you need your dose. Two things that were different: the bean sprouts were steamed, and there were long, fried breads on the side. In New York, the only time you see fried bread is with rice porridge. In any case, the soup was good, and it also told me something that I already knew from visiting Hong Kong – the Asian food in New York compares favorably to any other place in the world.

After breakfast we said goodbye to Hùng. He had an extra day in Saigon, so he was going to visit his daughter who was a university student here. Duyên was also going to see family that day, so I took a tour of some places outside Saigon. I had a car and a guide for the occasion – I really was looked after well.

The first stop was the Cao Đài Great Temple in Tây Ninh, about 26 kilometers from the Cambodian border. CaoDaism has some of the characteristics of an established religion and some of the characteristics of a cult. It was founded in Vietnam in 1926 by Ngô Văn Chiêu, a government official who had a vision that heralded the Third Age of spirituality. Today there are three million followers. The Cao Đài religion takes parts from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam.

In a nutshell, Cao Đài is the third link in a chain that started with Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tse. The next age had Jesus and Mohammed. The message from these divine intermediaries was garbled because of human frailty, and hence the need for repeated visits. Cao Đài followers believe that divine messages are revealed through cultural figures, who can be contacted directly through séances held in Vietnamese, French or English. The mural at the entrance to the Cao Đài Temple shows the signature of the "Third Alliance Between God and Man". The signatories are Sun Yat Sen, Nguyễn Bình Khiêm (a Vietnamese poet) and Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo is a popular figure in CaoDaism, and is contacted frequently.

Another tenet of CaoDaism is not to interfere, wherever possible, with the cycle of reincarnation, so the more religious Cao Đài are vegetarian. Less religious people, like Buddhists, have days when they're vegetarian. However, this didn't prevent the Cao Đài from raising an army, nor did it prevent them from running a munitions factory. In fact, the Cao Đài had a rather active political agenda. They ruled Tây Ninh, and even collected taxes. The South Vietnamese government wasn't happy about this, but they tolerated it.

After reunification, though, things changed. The government realized that it too had a similar agenda – ruling the country, collecting taxes and running an army. Someone had to yield, and it wasn't going to be the government. Lately the temples have opened again, but shorn of  their earthlier ambitions.

One of the main reasons that the Cao Đài are well-known is because of their colorful temples and costumes. The temples are elaborately, gleefully, almost garishly decorated. There are symbols all over, like the all-seeing eye (the eye in a triangle), globes and stars, and the place really is a feast for the eyes. The temple is quite an attraction, and the Cao Đài invite tourists to watch the services from the balcony, as long as they don't interfere. It's a good outing for the tourists, and good press for the Cao Đài.

The second half of the day was spent at the Củ Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were a network of underground supply lines for the Việt Cộng. The Americans could never find them, and in fact, built a military base on top of them. It's been turned into a popular tourist spot. Again, I hadn't thought of Vietnam as the place where they had the Vietnam war, since that would be no reason for me to come and visit. But at the same time, it would be pretty snobby and unreasonable if I went out of my way to ignore it. My compromise was that I wouldn't waste film on rusty tanks.

Where I started out neutral and tried to end that way, I have to say that the people who made the video at the beginning didn't do themselves any favors. The footage was old (obviously), but the voice-over was wobbly and almost unintelligible. The narrator spoke in a wooden-sounding monotone, resorting to cliches like, "The people of Củ Chi were triumphant over the Invader" over and over again. This was bound to upset some of the people in the audience who cheered for the losing team, but I think the real problem was a little more fundamental – the video should have begun with, "Attention, People of Earth." It's a shame, since there were real sacrifices and real heroics on the part of the local people.

There was an exhibition of various man traps, weapons and photos, and then we went on to the tunnel. There was a part of the tunnel that was widened for Westerners, and I followed an army officer in. He had done this hundreds of times and knew how to move around without getting dirty so I'm sure he found me amusing. In any case, we went down 3 levels. People lived down here for months, had their own hospitals and kitchens, and came up with some very ingenious ways to disguise their cooking smoke. The tour ended, as any tour should, with a reward. This was a visit to a dugout kitchen, for a snack of boiled cassava with chopped peanuts and sugar. This is what everyone ate in the tunnels, and I have to say that it wasn't bad.

I don't know what I would say after two years, but I liked the cassava. The point was that there were no privations at all on this visit, and that night in Saigon, Duyên's brother and his family took us out to another memorable restaurant. This restaurant specialized in crunchy rice, the type that burns a little bit at the bottom of the pot, which is a treat in every rice-eating culture in the world. In Cantonese this is called "noan", in Spanish it's "el pegado". The Dominicans call it "con-con", and the Vietnamese call it cơm cháy, or "crunchy rice". The gimmick in this restaurant is that the rice is cooked in a clay pot. One waiter breaks the pot with a hammer, and hurls the base with the rice to another waiter. This waiter spins the rice around to get the clay off, and then serves it to the customers. A great show. Beside the rice, we had small eggplants with shrimp sauce (they're white and really look like little eggs), jellyfish and pork salad, broiled eel (with a brown coating, similar to the way they make it in Shanghai), quail eggs, watercress and garlic, a fish, and one of my favorites, steamed pumpkin flowers.

A fantastic meal. If it sounds like there was a lot of food, well, there was. But the food never had a chance. And ... we went out later on for coffee and dessert. We took a walk around the city. Nowhere came to mind right away, so we ended up at the Rex Hotel. This is one of the poshest hotels in Saigon, perhaps a bit too rich for my blood. We sat in genteel surroundings drinking the same cà phê sữa đá as you could get on the street or on the train, though nowhere near as good. There was a jazz band, though, and it was as if we had stepped on to the set of a 1930's movie. (The only giveaway was the banner sign in the back advertising Internet access.) Considering that I had spent the earlier part of the day in a tunnel, a bit of elegance is nice from time to time, though I wouldn't want to make a habit of it.