On our second day in Ho Chi Minh we decided to venture outside the city to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai temple. Because we were new to the region and unsure of the transportation situation, we decided to book a tour through our hostel the night before for the sake of convenience.
We were up and ready to go at about 8:00am and the bus picked us up around 8:30. The tour bus we were on was mostly full but we were still able to find seats next to each other and we were also given free bottles of water. The bus ride was about 2.5 hours west of Saigon to the Cao Dai temple. The ride was smooth (except for the small Vietnamese boy who got sick next to us 😦 ) and we only stopped once at a rest stop which was a warehouse full of crafts made by handicapped people affected by Agent Orange. We got to walk through and watch them working which was very humbling and if you didn’t want to purchase anything, there was a donation box in the front.
This was also our first encounter with the “hole in the ground” toilets that your relatives who have never actually been to the country love to ‘warn’ you about. If you’ve ever been camping (like real camping, not in a tent next to a bathroom) you can handle this. You don’t have to touch anything, it’ll be fine. They even had toilet paper.
The ceremony was starting just as we arrived at Cao Dai. There were guards on either side of the front entrance showing people where to walk. You have to take your shoes off before entering and it’s respectful to have your shoulders and knees covered.
The inside was even more ornate than the outside, and absolutely stunning. The only weird part was that the temple was packed with people, so the tourists were practically walking on top of the attendees. I imagine that is a common occurrence, as they didn’t seem to really notice. There’s also something that feels a little disrespectful about gawking and taking pictures during a religious ceremony, but we did our best to respect their practice and be grateful for the opportunity to sit in on something so sacred.
Cao Dai is a relatively new religious movement in Vietnam that combines concepts and practices of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. You can read more about it here.
After exploring the temple, we walked back outside and explored the rest of grounds which were equally stunning.
After about an hour we got back on the bus and headed back eastward toward the Cu Chi tunnels. We stopped at a small town restaurant on the side of the road for some (entirely too expensive) food and we couldn’t resist getting a coconut. Touristy: yes. Delicous: yes. We watched our waitress crack it open right before bringing it to our table.
After that we were back on the road to the tunnels. First we walked through the battlefield area and saw the tiny openings above ground where the Vietnamese would pop up and shoot at the enemy. It was shocking how small some of them are! We also saw some examples of the terrifying booby traps they would set, most of which involved sharpened bamboo sticks. There is also a shooting range next to the tunnels where you can shoot semi-automatics weapons. It was eery walking through the jungle and listening to rapid gunfire, and it definitely added another layer of intensity to the experience.
Then we got to actually go down into the tunnels. At first we could easily just duck our heads and walk, but as we went on, the tunnel got smaller and smaller until we were crawling on our hands and knees, and it was a pretty tight squeeze in some areas. It also got really hot down there, so it was a relief to finally make it to the end. Another humbling experience to think about people actually living down there and having to crawl through them regularly!
This tour was not terrible as far as feeling too touristy and herded around, but we decided that we probably wouldn’t be taking any more tours and just do things on our own from now on. The convenience factor is nice but you sacrifice a lot of the integrity of the experience. It’s also not that difficult to get where you want to go in Vietnam. You could literally walk around showing people a piece of paper with your destination written on it and they will help you get there (or at least point you toward someone who will.)
We hopped back on the bus and arrived back in Ho Chi Minh at about 6:30pm. Still jetlagged, we went back to our room and tried to muster up some energy to hold us over into the evening. It was New Year’s Eve, afterall. Each night our hostel gave us each 2 free beer tickets, which we had not taken advantage of the night before. Thus, we had 8 free beer tickets to use for the celebration. We went up to the 9th floor of our hostel which had a rooftop bar overlooking the city. It was packed with intoxicated backpackers and promised a night of debauchery, but we opted to chug our free beers (then buy a few more) and venture out into the city instead.
The streets are always full of motorbikes in Saigon, but this night the streets were literally full of motorbikes in Saigon. We had to step over and in between motos until we worked our way up to the front of the 23/9 park. Caught in the middle of a sea of people and blinking LED lights, we counted down to midnight and watched the fireworks off the Bitexco Financial Tower, along with millions of other visitors and locals of Saigon. The energy was high, the vibes were good. There’s something about celebrating New Year’s Eve out on the street that makes it just a little more energizing. We bought and played with a Vietnamese Foot Shuttlecock, walked back to our hostel in a blur of hiccups (the mark of a successful NYE), reminded each other that this was the coolest thing ever, and proceeded to pass out.
Tea: 25,000vnd ($1.17 USD)
2-Cao Dai/Cu Chi Tour: 380,000vnd ($17.77 USD)
Lunch: 180,000vnd ($8.42 USD)
2-Cu Chi Entrance Fee: 180,000vnd ($8.42)
Beer: 180,000vnd ($8.42)
Shuttlecock: 20,000vnd ($0.94 USD)
Private Room: 625,535vnd ($29.25 USD)
Total Spent: 1,590,535vnd ($74.37USD)