I’m not one usually drawn to organized tours; I prefer to find my own way around things and places. But with only one whole day left in Vietnam and with some essential places still unvisited on my list I opted for a coach excursion. There would be three sights to see.
The first was a workshop and factory for disabled people making a large variety of items in the lacquerware for which Vietnam is famed.
Lacquer painting, known as sơn mài, from resin of the sơn tree, (rhus succedanea), was originally developed in Vietnam and revived in the 1930s with both French and native artisans. Duck eggshell is one particular ingredient, (the other is mother-of-pearl) specially applied in Vietnamese lacquerware. The eggshell is stuck onto the lacquerware following a ready-made design.
In the next stage, the Vietnamese lacquerware artist colours the eggshell to reach the maximum smoothness of finish and then covers it with at least twenty layers of lacquer which are each rubbed in water in between applications. Finally, the lacquer article is polished.
The production of a lacquer article is clearly extremely labour intensive. I was impressed by the quality of articles produced in the factory and even more by the workmanship of the disabled artisans. It’s great to know that even the victims of Agent Orange can find employment and fulfillment in work of this very precious kind.
Our next stop was to a place which Graham Greene described as “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor” – Tây Ninh.
We entered a dragon-gateway to find ourselves before the main shrine of Cao Dai devotees.
The facts: Caodaism or Caodaiism, which in Vietnamese means “Way of the Highest Power” is a monotheistic religion, established in the city of Tây Ninh in 1926. The full name of the religion is “The Great Way of the Third Time of Redemption” and it has common roots and similarities with the Chinese Tao, the traditional religions within Vietnam and Catholicism
The religion (or is it a cult? –what’s the difference) was founded in 1926 by the Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu, who spotted the “All-Seeing Eye” on the island of Phu Quoc in 1919. God, or Caodai, appeared to him and said, “The eye is the principal of the heart from which comes a source of light. Light is the spirit. The spirit itself is God.”
On Christmas Eve, 1925, Caodai presented himself as “Jade Emperor, alias Caodai, Immortal, His Honor to the eldest Bodhisattva, the Venerable Saint, Religious Master of the Southern Quarter.” Le Van Trung and his followers presented their declaration to the French governor of Cochin China in 1926, and Caodaism was officially born. By the 1950s, one in eight South Vietnamese were Caodais; today there are over 8 million Caodais in Vietnam.
Caodaism fought against the Japanese oppression but, unfortunately, later also against liberation from North Vietnam. This led to an initial difficult period under the new government but happily today all seems to be forgiven.
The trilogy of gods worshipped (there always seems to be a trilogy somewhere in most world religions) are Victor Hugo (!), French author of “Les Miserables”, Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, and Trang Trinh, the Vietnamese poet and prophet. Minor figures in the pantheon also include Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Descartes, Lenin and Pasteur. I would have liked to see Dante, at the very,least included in the Caodaian cosmology but didn’t get the chance to ask the high priest why he wasn’t.
The temple, which plays a part in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, was built between 1933 to 1955. It is on nine levels which represent a stairway to Heaven and is 140 meters long and 40 meters high, with four towers.
Looking at this remarkable construction I wasn’t sure whether I was gazing on a modern incarnation of a French cathedral, a slightly eccentric oriental pagoda or a ceremonial entrance Gopuram from a Tamil temple. It was all a little confusing, stylistically.
Returning to Graham Greene: he writes “What on my first two visits has seemed gay and bizarre (was) now like a game that had gone on too long.”
I’m not sure whether this game had gone on too long for me. On the contrary I was fascinated by what I saw in the techni-candy-coloured temple, enchanted by the sincere devotion of Le Van Trung’s acolytes and hypnotized by the chants I attended during the morning service (or Mass?).
The final stop on our tour were the Cu Chi tunnels built by the Viet Cong guerillas in their Tom and Jerry-like war against the US imperialists. These tunnels were used to surprise the enemy and clearly, eventually, succeeded, else we wouldn’t get today’s united Vietnam.
There were various things to look at on the path through the jungle including weapons used by the guerillas, a disabled US tank, examples of man-traps and standard items of daily life under the once constant threat of napalm and Agent Orange.
The final part took me down one of the tunnels. This, carved in the sandstone rock, was incredibly narrow, low and very hot. I felt rather claustrophic down there and wondered at the tenacity of a people willing to live and fight in such impossible conditions for something they utterly believed in.
I’m sure that same fighting spirit is what is making today’s Vietnam into one of South East Asia’s most vibrant and promising countries. I truly wish this young nation well and thank it for having given me such a great time.