PLACES NEAR HO CHI MINH CITY: CHU CHU TUNNELS, CAO DAI TEMPLES AND KITEBOARDING BEACHES

NEAR HO CHI MINH CITY

Many visitors to Ho Chi Minh City do a one-day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai temple and a two-, three-or four-day excursion to the Mekong Delta as part of an organized tour arranged through a travel agency. Betel Hamlets is situated in Hoc Mon District, about 10 kilometers from the center of Ho Chi Minh City. It is known for its betel gardens and lush and green foliage.

There is also Black Lady Mountain (Ba Den, 16 kilometers from Tay Ninh), a 2,900-foot-peak that rises out of nowhere above rice paddies; Vung Tau, (130 kilometers, 2 hours from Saigon), a developed resort area with reasonably clear water, and reasonably nice beaches; and Long Hai Beach (20 miles from Vung Tau), a beach that is less developed than Vung Tau.

Vam Sat Salt-Marsh Forest Ecological Tourist Zone (50 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City) contains beautiful forests of Can Gio which is one of the world's only salt-marsh biosphere preserve. Situated between the of Vam Sat and Long Tau River, Vam Sat Salt-Marsh Forest Ecological Tourist Zone occupies land had been damaged by toxic chemicals and thanks to the hard work of people, the forest has gradually recovered, and its beauty and magnificence feature have been returned.

With total area of 75,740 hectares, Can Gio forest is is home to wide variety of fauna and flora. Bat Swamp is one tourist point. Going into the swamp, tourists will see groups of flying foxes hanging themselves behind the foliages of high mangroves. The most interesting activity in Bat Swamp is crab angling. There is also a crocodile farm with several dozen crocodiles. Here tourists can try fishing for crocodiles a special boat made of composite plastic surrounded by high metal fence. Anglers only need to drop their baits and wait for the crocodile to take their baits.

Tourists can also check out a unique swimming pool with water that has a salt concentration 10 times higher than that of the ocean. Hence, tourists will always float on top. They can swim anyway that they like, even you can read newspaper while swimming. Aming the restaurant specialties are dishes made from local shrimps, crabs, fishes, shellfishes and even mudskippers. There is also a 100-hectare bird sanctuary which visitors can explore by boat. Wild animals include deer, wild pig, python and snakes.

Vam Sat Eco-Tourist Area can be reached by boat from Hanoi. The journey starts from Bach Dang Wharf in the early morning when Saigon is not yet awake. Boat Representative Office: Address: 03 Hoa Binh Str., Ward 3, District 11, Ho Chi Minh City. Tel: 3963 2760 / Fax: 3963 2751. Vam Sat Eco-Tourist Area: Ly Nhon commune, Can Gio District, Ho Chi Minh City. Tel: (84-8) 38876169/ 38894008

Can Gio Biosphere (50 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City) is situated on a swampy island with a beach located where the Saigon River meets the sea in an area that saw some fighting in the Vietnam War. The area covers over 70,000 hectares, of which 35,000 hectares is salt-watered forest. Can Gio has been recognized as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO for its coastal mangrove forest. So far nearly 40,000 ha of forest and land have been restored. According to the Can Gio Forest Managing Board, at present more than 600 households with 1,500 people reside in this area. They live on reforestation, forest protection and aquatic production.

Before the construction of a 20 km-long road linking Binh Khanh wharf to Can Thanh, which runs along Can Gio to beach, Can Gio was a remote area whose residents lived on catching crabs and mussels. Now it is an interesting eco-tourist site attracting many people from Ho Chi Minh City and other places. The Saigon Tourism Company and Phu Tho Tourism Company have established eco-tours to this area. Visiting Can Gio, you will see crocodiles lying in the swamp and hundreds of monkeys that come from mangrove clumps to the walk-ways of Lam Vien ecological site, to welcome the visitors. They catch sugarcane the visitors give them, and eat them with delight. On holidays, there were averages of 2,000 visitors a day to Can Gio. At peak times there were over 6,000 visitors a day. Visitors could stay at the residential quarter April 30, adjacent to the beach or at Actmang quarter in the 2,100 hectares Lam Vien area with countless mangrove trees. Quite a few people like to hire hammocks and umbrellas to rest under the canopy of the trees.

In the future the war zone in the shrub forest, which was home to 800 commando soldiers in wartime, will be restored. It will become a 3,000 square meter preservation sites with 14 houses-on-stilts, roofed with date palm trunks and water-coconut leaves. When this project is completed, Can Gio will have another traditional tourist site, attracting not only young people, but also those who want to know more about the struggle of the fighters in the shrub forest in the past. The area can be reached in a boat ride on the big Dong Nai and Long Tau Rivers or on the smaller Vam Sac, Dong Thanh and Soai Rap Rivers, which run through Can Gio, and the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

CU CHI TUNNELS

CU CHI TUNNELS (75 kilometers northwest, or a two hour drive, from Ho Chi Minh City) is the famous underground warren of tunnels used by the Vietcong to attack targets around Saigon during the Vietnam War. Built under fortified villages, where peasants had been forcibly moved, Cu Chi was a 200-kilometers-long mile network of passages with underground hospitals, meeting rooms, multi-level sleeping quarters, trap doors, smokeless kitchens, air raid shelters, weapons factories, strategy rooms and even entire underground villages with theaters and movie halls. In some places the tunnels had three stories.

One of the radio command centers was made from a South Vietnamese tank stolen by the Vietcong in 1966 and buried and linked to the tunnel system. There was even one tunnel with a trapdoor inside a U.S. military base at Dong Du. The conditions in the tunnels were harsh. Many Viet Cong who lived in them survived on one meal of manioc a day.

According to the Vietnamese government: “For a place that's physically invisible, the Cu Chi Tunnels have sure carved themselves a celebrated niche in the history of guerilla warfare. Its celebrated and unseen geography straddles "all of it underground" something which the Americans eventually found as much to their embarrassment as to their detriment. They were dug, before the American War, in the late 1940s, as a peasant-army response to a more mobile and ruthless French occupation. The plan was simple: take the resistance briefly to the enemy and then, literally, vanish.”

“First the French, then the Americans were baffled as to where they melted to, presuming, that it was somewhere under cover of the night in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta. But the answer lay in the sprawling city under their feet - miles and miles of tunnels. They became not just a place of hasty retreat or of refuge, but, in the words of one military historian, "an underground land of steel, home to the depth of hatred and the incommutability of the people." It became, against the Americans and under their noses, a resistance base and the headquarters of the southern Vietnam Liberation Forces. The linked threat from the Viet Cong - the armed forces of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam - against the southern city forced the unwitting Americans to select Cu Chi as the best site for a massive supply base - smack on top of then 25-year old tunnel network. Even sporadic and American's grudgingly had to later admit, daring attacks on the new base, failed for months to indicate where the attackers were coming from and, importantly, where they were retreating to. It was only when captives and defectors talked that it became slightly more clear.”

The tunnel system was so large and complex that roads signs were used to help the Vietcong soldiers navigate their way around and avoid bamboo-stake booby traps meant for the American and Australian soldiers that tried to ferret them out. Favored traps included punji stake pits with hidden upward-pointing bamboo stakes, and bamboo sticks that released an extremely poisonous snake called the three step snake, because its venom was toxic that a person collapsed three steps after being bitten.

Today, the Cu Chi tunnels are one Vietnam's most popular tourist sights. There are two separate places that tourist visit, usually as part of an organized tour: the Tunnels at Ben Binh and the Tunnels at Ben Douc. The Tunnels at Ben Binh are definitely the better of the two. The contain sections of real tunnels that have enlarged and restored for tourists. The ones at Ben Douc are complete reconstructions that are part of a Cu Chi amusement area.

HISTORY OF THE CU CHI TUNNELS

The tunnels were built in an area of heavy guerilla resistance, known to the Americans as the Iron Triangle, from a system of tunnels originally constructed as hiding places and links between villages in the 1940s by guerillas fighting against the French. The red soil in the are was hard and compacted, and ideal for digging tunnels that didn't collapse. In the gap between French occupation and the arrival of the Americans the tunnels fell largely into disrepair, but the area's thick natural earth kept them intact and maintained by nature. [Book: The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate (Random House, 1985)]

The Viet Cong enlarged the tunnel system in the 1960s and began hiding entire military units in them and used them as command center for guerilla activity in an area that became strategically important. It was a fortunate stroke of luck for the Viet Cong that the South Vietnamese government constructed many "strategic hamlets" near Cu Chi, which provided the guerrillas with new recruits and support and means of spying on their enemy.

AFP reported: “Communist forces in the 1960s expanded tunnels that anti-colonial rebels first built in the late 1940s, creating a vast complex with sleeping quarters, arms caches, kitchens, hospitals and even propaganda theaters. Entrances were concealed and booby-trapped to stop the "tunnel rats," US and Australian soldiers of narrow build, who crawled into the deadly holes with only a torch and a handgun to ferret out the black pyjama-clad enemies. The elusive underground guerrillas -- once dubbed "human moles" by US commander General William Westmoreland -- terrified US and South Vietnamese forces like no other communist soldiers in the conflict. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 29, 2008 <>]

“Viet Cong veteran Nguyen Thi Nghia, who joined the revolution when she was 13, recalled how her village "went underground" and how she once spent five days in a hot and claustrophobic tunnel during a heavy bombing raid. "The earth was swaying like a hammock," said Nghia, 61. "We were crouching in the tunnels with only one candle. We tried not to speak to save oxygen and limit carbon monoxide. We tried not to move. We were soaked in sweat."” <>

Tunnel-based guerrillas launched hit-and-run attacks. The Communist presence in Cu Chi was so pronounced that the Viet Cong staged victory parades in the villages there. The Americans were infuriated that an area so close to Saigon could be so overrun with the enemy. Activity in the Cu Chi area was one of the main reason why the Johnson administration decided to step up American presence in Vietnam. The Cu Chi District is known nationwide as the base where the Vietnamese mounted their operations of the Tet Offensive in 1968.

For many years the Americans weren't aware that the tunnels existed. When they were discovered the Americans and Australians tried numerous unsuccessful methods to smoke out the Viet Cong: trained German shepherd dogs, human "tunnel rats," and crop-killing defoliates. The dogs and humans suffered appalling casualty rates and so many dogs were horribly mutilated by booby traps their handlers refused to allow them to be used.

At one point American troops brought in a well-trained squad of 3000 sniffer dogs, but the German Shepherds were too bulky to navigate the courses. One legend has it that the dogs were deterred by Vietnamese using American soap to throw them off their scent, but more usually pepper and chilly spray was laid at entrances, often hidden in mounds disguised as molehills, to throw them off.

Large-scale American raiding operations used tanks, artillery and air raids, water was pumped through known tunnels, and, according to the Vietnamese, “engineers laid toxic gas.” The US used napalm and Agent Orange and turned the land above the tunnels into a moonscape, Eventually the entire Cu Chi area was declared a free fire zone, where American soldiers had orders to kill anything that moved and planes dropped leftover bombs. An area covering 420 kilometers was pulverized with carpet bombs. Dubbed the "Land of Fire" in Vietnamese during the war, Cu Chi became "the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare," wrote authors Tom Mangold and John Penycate.

Despite all this the Viet Cong hung on for a long time, even though only about 6,000 of the 16,000 guerrillas who lived in the tunnels survived the war. There were also thousands of civilian casualties as one might guess. One American commander's report at the time said: "It's impossible to destroy the tunnels because they are too deep and extremely tortuous."

LAYOUT OF THE CU CHI TUNNELS

Cu Chi Tunnels consist of more than 200 kilometers of underground tunnels. This main axis system has many branches connecting to underground hideouts, shelters, and entrances to other tunnels. The tunnels are between 0.5 to one meter wide, just enough space for a person to walk along by bending or dragging. However, parts of the tunnels have been modified to accommodate visitors. The upper soil layer is between 3 to four meters thick and can support the weight of a 50-ton tank and the damage of light cannons and bombs. The underground network provided sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, hospitals, and other social rooms.

The entries, exits, and even the sheer scale of the tunnels weren't even guessed at. Chemicals, smoke-outs, razing by fire, and bulldozing of whole areas, pinpointed only a few of the well-hidden tunnels and their entrances. The emergence of the Tunnel Rats, a detachment of southern Vietnamese working with Americans small enough to fit in the tunnels, could only guess at the sheer scale of Cu Chi. By the time peace had come, little of the complex, and its infrastructure of schools, dormitories, hospitals, and miles of tunnels, had been uncovered. Now, in peace, only some of it is uncovered as a much-visited part of the southern tourist trail. Many of the tunnels are expanded replicas, to avoid any claustrophobia they would induce in tourists. The wells that provided the vital drinking water are still active, producing clear and clean water to the three-tiered system of tunnels that sustained life. A detailed map is almost impossible, for security reasons if nothing else: an innate sense of direction guided the tunnellers and those who lived in them.

Some routes linked to local rivers, including the Saigon River, their top soil firm enough to take construction and the movement of heavy machinery by American tanks, the middle tier from mortar attacks, and the lower, 8-10 meters down was impregnable. A series of hidden, and sometimes booby-trapped, doors connected the routes, down through a system of narrow, often unlit and invented tunnels.

TUNNELS AT BEN BINH

TUNNELS AT BEN BINH (near the village of Ben Binh, 70 kilometers northwest of Ho Chi Minh City in Cu Chi Rural District.) are very interesting. After paying an entrance fee of around $3, visitors are shown a film that shows Vietcong "killer heros" being given awards for killing Americans and tunnels dwellers outwitting American dogs with pepper spray, clothes from dead American soldiers, booby traps, and American soap.

According to the film, “Cu Chui, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year under shady trees...Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside...Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children...The Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into dead land, but Cu Chi will never die.”

Visitors are then shown various tunnels and booby traps and told blood-curdling stories by guides about the terrible things that happened to both American and Vietnamese soldiers. At the end of the tour, visitors are allowed to climb down and explore sections of the tunnels, crawling on their hands and knees, crouching and duck walking through the narrower parts.

Visitors are also allowed to try to squeeze into a trap door tunnel. In most case, slim Japanese girls are the only ones that can make it and even then they need help from the guides to get out. The guides are often dressed in green fatigues or black pajamas like the Viet Cong.

TUNNELS AT BEN DOUC

TUNNELS AT BEN DOUC is a kind of tourist trap that attempts to give visitors a chance to feel what its like to be a Vietcong. After climbing through tunnels, that are significantly larger and better lit than the ones used by the Vietcong, visitors enjoy a meal of rice congee in the underground kitchen, sample the “beds” in a sleeping chamber with hammocks made form U.S. parachutes, are attended by a doctor in the underground field hospital and search for trap doors and ventilation holes disguised as termite mounds. The entire complex has four levels and a 160 or meters of tunnels that reach a depth of about 40 feet underground.

The tunnel complex is not totally authentic but is still fun anyway. Souvenir shops sell toy F-16s, helicopter gun ships made from spent shell casings, Vietcong black pajama uniforms, “genuine rubber sandals worn on the Ho Chi Minh trail,” fake dog tags, lighters engraved with emblems from American army units (reportedly used to burn villages), pens made from bullet casings pickled cobra wine, and green jungle cap "still stained with sweat."

At a stall with a sign that reads "Please Try to be a Chu Guerilla," visitors can be photographed in a Vietcong uniform and a pith helmet. Nearby is tourist firing range, people pay to shoot off a clip from an American-made M-16 or Soviet-made AK-47. Good shots can win Vietcong-style scarves or hats. Cu Chi Tunnels is still controlled by the army and proceeds from the Tunnels at Ben Douc go to them.

AFP reported: “Americans are back, firing M-16s at Cu Chi -- but this time they are among the tourist crowds blasting away for 1.30 dollars a bullet at a shooting range set up at what is now the Cu Chi tunnels tourist park. A souvenir shop sells war kitsch, including mock hand grenade cigarette lighters, keyrings made from assault rifle rounds, fake GI Zippos engraved with gung-ho war slogans, and plastic figurines of VC guerrillas. As the gunfire echoes through the woods -- hardy eucalyptus trees planted in the dioxin-soaked earth -- a guide regales visitors with tales of Viet Cong derring-do amid the horrors of an industrial war. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 29, 2008 <>]

“There are terrifying "tiger traps" with sharpened bamboo punji stakes, and recreated hole-in-the-ground workshops that once recycled explosives from dud bombs and soft-drink cans into landmines that killed and maimed GIs. Tourists now photograph each other atop the rusty carcass of an M41 tank claimed by a landmine in 1971 and crawl through a section of tunnel that has been widened to accommodate the larger bulk of many Westerners. >

“A group of VC mannequins in olive uniforms and grey VC neck scarves take a rest in a jungle shelter, listening to revolutionary news on a field radio and drinking, the guide says, rice whiskey to ward off malarial chills. The guide points out the swimming-pool sized crater of a B-52 bomb that once served as a fish pond for the peasant fighters, and a ventilation shaft hidden inside a termite mound to keep away the enemy's sniffer dogs. "The Americans sent in over 2,000 dogs," says the guide. "We said, thank you very much. The Vietnamese eat dog meat and we really needed the protein. The tour is full of gallows humour, but to most Vietnamese, Cu Chi still epitomises the horror and heroism of war. When B-52s carpet-bombed Cu Chi in 1968, most tunnels collapsed and became the graves of those inside.” <>

TAY NINH PROVINCE

TAY NINH PROVINCE covers 4,049.2 square kilometers and is home to 1,075,300 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Khmer, Cham and Hoa. The capital is Tay Ninh Town. Districts: Tan Bien, Tan Chau, Duong Minh Chau, Chau Thanh, Hoa Thanh, Ben Cau, Go Dau, Trang Bang. Tay Ninh Town is 99 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, 224 kilometers from Vung Tau, 129 kilometers from Bien Hoa. There are Moc Bai and Xa Mat border gates to Cambodia. Moc Bai Market is trade center for Vietnam and Cambodia.

Located in the eastern part of southern Vietnam, Tay Ninh shares a border with Cambodia on the north with 240 kilometers boundary, Binh Duong and Binh Phuoc provinces on the east, Ho Chi Minh City and Long An Province on the south. In the north part of the province, there is 986-meter-high Ba Den Mountain. In the south, the terrain is quite flat. The province has Vam Co Dong and Sai Gon rivers and Dau Tieng Lake. The weather is hot and humid year round with an annual average temperature of 27.5 degrees C and an annual rainfall of 1,724 millimeters. The dry season lasts from December to April and the rainy season lasts from May to November.

Coming to Tay Ninh, tourists are able to visit Ba Den Mountain, a famous complex of cultural and historical sites and beauty spots, and Binh Thanh Cham Tower, a monument of the Oc-Eo culture. Every year, Ba Den Mountain Festival attracts many pilgrims come to pray, sightseeing and enjoy the entertainment. Tay Ninh is home of Cao Dai religion with Tay Ninh Cao Dai Temple, a complex of Great Temple, Chanh Mon Gate, four towers and Mother-of-Buddha Temple. The province also is base of revolution of South Vietnam during resistance against the Americans.

Ba Den Mountain (11 kilometers Northeast of Tay Ninh Town and 106 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City) is a famous complex of cultural, historical and beautiful sites covering an area of more than 24 square kilometers. The complex includes three mountains: Heo, Phung and Ba Den, of which the 986-meter-high Ba Den is the highest peak in the south. Ba Den Mountain is also called Black Lady Mountain. According to legends, beautiful Ly Thi Thien Huong, Black Lady, was forced to marry the son of a rich mandarin while she fell in love with a poor man who was fighting the aggressors. Rather than marrying a man she did not love, she threw herself from the mountain.

Several shrines and pagodas were built in the mountain as well as in the caves. Ba and Hang Pagodas attract many pilgrims during the New Lunar Year and Vu Lan Festivals. Ba Den Mountain was where the headquarters of the liberation force of South Vietnam were located. During war time, many tough battles were fought in that area.

There are three ways to reach Ba Temple. If you go on foot, it takes you over one hour to arrive at the destination. Cable cars take you 20 minutes to cover a distance of 1200 meters. The sliding system includes two lines going upward and downward, 1190 meters and 1700 meters in length respectively. It is impressive to take the downward line as it will take you through lots of hair-raising bends and corners.

CAO DAI TEMPLE

CAO DAI TEMPLE (in Tay Ninh 100 kilometers northwest of Saigon) is the Holy See of Caodaism, a religious sect that combines elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and Vietnamese animism and advocates vegetarianism, anti-sensuality, benevolence and universality.

Founded in 1926, Caodism has several million followers, almost all of them in Vietnam, who believe, among other things, that they receive telepathic messages from certain historical figures, regarded as saints, including Jesus, Mohammed, Joan or Arc, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur and Vladimir Lenin.

The temple's interior, which Graham Greene described as "Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East," is garishly decorated with pink dragons and yellow and purple mythical beasts. Graham Greene was briefly a member of the sect. The Lonely Planet described it as “a rococo extravaganza combining the conflicting architectural idiosyncracies of a French church, a Chinese pagoda, Hong Kong’s Tiger Balm Gardens and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

Built between 1933 and 1955, the Cao Dai Great Temple is 140 meters long and 40 meters wide. It has four towers each with a different name: Tam Dai, Hiep Thien Dai, Cuu Trung Dai, and Bat Quai Dai. The interior of the temple consists of a colonnaded hall and a sanctuary. The 2 rows of columns are decorated with dragons and are coated in white, red, and blue paint. The domed ceiling is divided into nine parts similar to a night sky full of stars and symbolizing heaven. Under the dome is a giant star-speckled blue globe on which is painted the Divine Eye, the official symbol of Caodaism. Cao Dai followers worship Jesus Christ, Confucius, Taoism, and Buddha.

Every day at noon, members of the sect hold a ceremony, with processions of chanting followers in colorful costume, which visitors are encouraged to attend. Describing his visit to the Cao Dai Great Temple, Revathi Murugappan wrote in his blog: “Like Buddhist worshippers, we had to remove our shoes before trooping to the balcony upstairs to watch the service. The place is painted in a sea of bright colours, and reflects a very happy ambience. The temple is built over nine levels representing nine steps to heaven, and each level is marked by a pair of columns entwined with dragons. At the top is a dome representing heaven and below it is the “all-seeing eye”, which is also depicted on the walls and windows. [Source: Revathi Murugappan]

“Devotees were dressed in white robes while the coloured robes worn by senior devotees denote ranking and function, and indicate the different branches of Cao Daism. Robes come in a mix of yellow (Buddhism), red (Confucianism) and blue (Taoism) but everyone wears white pants. The top clergy also wear hats with a picture of the all-seeing eye in front while the rest wear various types of head gear.

“A bell rang and the children’s choir started singing in Vietnamese as the hundreds of devotees walked in with military precision, according to robe colour and gender. Men entered from the right and women, from the left. They took their positions silently, knelt and waited until another bell rang. “Don’t you feel that someone is watching you all the time?” a tourist whispered to me. “It’s creepy yet reassuring.” Once the choir stopped singing, the acolytes rang the bells again. No one gave sermons and there was no chanting but amazingly, the devotees were guided by the sounds of the bell although I couldn’t sense a rhythm. Seated, they would bow four times in intervals while touching the floor with their hands.

Our guide Sam told us later, “There’s no time limit for their prayers. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to hours. The ultimate goal of the Cao Dai follower is to escape reincarnation and like all religions, you need to do good things in this life.” Hundreds attend prayer services every day, sitting in neat rows according to rank. Prayers are conducted at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. At every session, there are a few hundred priests and during festivals, thousands congregate here. Photography is permitted, but it’s polite not to subject the worshippers to a barrage of flashlights. And if you’re taking a picture of a highly ranked Cao Dai clergy (you can tell from their robe colours), it’s best to show them the picture once you’ve snapped it, for approval. They’ll smile and give you blessings.

Trips to the Cao Dai temple for the daily ceremony are usually combined with an afternoon trip to Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi. The Cao Dai Great Temple is located in Hoa Thanh District, five kilometers southeast of Tay Ninh Town. The Cao Dai Great Temple is located some 100 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City and is enroute to the Cu Chi Tunnels. One can either hop on a public bus going to Tay Ninh, take a taxi (around US$30/RM105 per cab) or opt for a half-day tour with any of the budget travel agencies in Ho Chi Minh.

DONG NAI PROVINCE

DONG NAI PROVINCE (30 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City) covers 5,903.4 square kilometers and is home to 2,569,400 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Hoa, Xtieng, Cho Ro and Cham. The traditional culture of local ethnic groups includes music created by Da's dan da, bamboo flute, copper gongs, cymbals and pan-pipe, Tam Pot sings of Ma group in Dinh Quan Dist. The capital is Bien Hoa City. Administrative divisions: Town: Long Khanh; Districts: Tan Phu, Dinh Quan, Vinh Cuu, Thong Nhat, Xuan Loc, Long Thanh, Nhon Trach, Cam My, Trang Bom.

Dong Nai is surrounded by Lam Dong in the north, Binh Thuan in the east, Ba Ria - Vung Tau in the south, Binh Duong, Binh Phuoc and Ho Chi Minh City in the west.The topography includes some valleys, lowland, hill. The main kinds of land are bazan, alluvial soil. Therefore, it is good condition for industrial plants (rubber, coffee), and orchard. There are two seasons: the rainy season lasts from May to October and the dry season lasts from November to April next year. The annual average temperature varies between 25.4 and 27.2 degrees C.

Dong Nai has a developing industry. There are many big industrial zones, factories, handicraft village (Tan Van pottery village, skilful stone carving of Hoa group). Dong Nai's pottery has well-known beauty. The province own immense coffee, rubber farms and Nam Cat Tien National Park. Coming here, tourists have ecological tours in forests and orchads in My Quoi, Thanh Hoi, Tan Trieu, Pho, Ong islets. The province is proud of many interesting sites such as Dong Nai River, Long An Lake, Suoi Tre Culture Site, Tri An Waterfall, Ma Da and Sac forests.

Bien Hoa City is 30 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, 1,684 kilometers from Hanoi following National Highway No.1A. It also is 278 kilometers from Dalat, 95 kilometers from Vung Tau, 198 kilometers from Cantho. The Thong Nhat Express Train connecting Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, stops at Bien Hoa.

CAT TIEN NATIONAL PARK

CAT TIEN NATIONAL PARK (150 kilometers north of Chi Minh City) is located in three provinces—Dong Nai, Lam Dong and Binh Phuoc—and has a diversified topography with hills along the banks, plains and sloping flows. In 1978, the South Cat Tien and North Cat Tien parks were put under the State's protection. In 1992, the Cat Loc Park was listed in the programme for the protection of natural wild animals and flora. In December 1998, these three parks joined together to become the Cat Tien National Park, under the management of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. To get to the park take National Highway 20 from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat, turn left about 24 kilometers at Milestone No.174 at the Tan Phu cross-road, head to Cat Tien National Park.

Covering an area of 74,319 hectares, the Cat Tien National Park has preserved its original natural soil with a diverse ecological system and many rare and valuable species of animals listed in the Red Book of Endangered Animals. The landscape surrounding the Park is magnificent, and the local people have maintained practising customs and habits full of national cultural identities.

The Dong Nai River is a natural boundary that embraces three sides of Cat Tien Park. On the left bank, villages and gardens are built close to the water, and on the right bank are wild forests with primitive green canopies. Numerous species of birds built their nests in the canopies. Inside the primitive forest, there are various kinds of fauna typical for the low land of the eastern Truong Son and the Central Highlands. So far, in Cat Tien Park, 1,362 kinds of flora have been classified, many of them listed in the Red Book. According to surveys made by the Park's Management Board, there are 77 kinds of animals belonging to 28 families and 10 species; 326 kinds of bird in 62 families and 18 species; 37 kinds of reptiles in 18 families and 3 species; 133 kinds of fish in 28 families, and a wide range of insects.

Most worthy of note are the animals listed in the Red Book of Endangered Animals such as Ban ten bull, Gaur bull, tiger, bear, black-foot monkey, peacock, white-neck crane, and crocodile. In particular, there is a group of seven to eight one-tusk rhinoceros, which has attracted attention from both domestic and foreign scientists. In May 1999, an automatic set of cameras captured images of Javan rhinoceros living there. Unfortunately the animal was later killed. See Rhinos Under Animals.

In November 1998, in Phu My Village, Nam Cat Tien Commune, an ancient village dating back 2,500-3,000 years was discovered. This is a complex of relics, including temples and towers and many artifacts, which proved the mixture of the Chan Lap civilization of the south and the Cham Pa civilization of the north. Among the artifacts, there are several statues which were for worshiping, such as the Linga-Yoni (sacred worshiping items representing the human sexual organs). There is a Linga, 2.1 meter high, which is the biggest of this kind in the world. Many other vestiges showed that Cat Tien was the Holy Land of the ancient Phu Nam Kingdom built about 2,000 years ago.

BA RIA - VUNG TAU PROVINCE

BA RIA - VUNG TAU PROVINCE (130 kilometers southeast of Ho Chi Minh City) covers 1,987.4 square kilometers and is home to 1,012 thousand 000 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are theViet (Kinh), Hoa, Cho Ro and Khmer. The capital is Vung Tau City. Administrative divisions: City: Ba Ria.Districts: Chau Duc, Xuyen Moc,Tan Thanh, Long Dien, Dat Do, Con Dao.Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province is located in southern Vietnam, to the northeast of the Mekong Delta. It shares its border with Dong Nai Province to the north and Binh Thuan Province to the east, Ho Chi Minh City to the west and The South China Sea to the south - east. There are two distinct seasons: the dry (from November to April) and the rainy (from May to December). The annual average temperature is 27 degrees C.

Ba Ria- Vung Tau Province is a large tourist center. It has over 100 kilometers of seashore with beautiful swimming beaches, as well as many lakes and thermal springs. The offshore shelf has oil and seafood. In Vung Tau City there are Thuy Van, Chi Linh, Back, Front, and Dau beaches; Long Dien District has Long Hai Beach; Xuyen Moc District has Ho Tram and Ho Coc beaches. On Con Dao Island, tourists are able to swim at Dam Trau, Hon Cau, and Hon Tre beaches. They can also climb in Thanh Gia Mountain, Nho Mountain. Binh Chau Hot Spring is known for its healthy 80 degrees C water. Other popular places include Communal House of Dao Ong Tran, Ben Da Church, Bach Dinh vestige, Long Phuoc Tunnels, Minh Dam Revolutionary Area. Among the hundred or Buddhist pagodas and temples are Niet Ban Monastery, Thang Tam Communal House, Linh Son Pagoda, Dinh Co Temple. Tourist can participate in some traditional festivals as Dinh Co Festival and Nghinh Ong Festival (Welcoming the Lord Whale Festival), play golf or watch dog racing in Lam Son stadium in Vung Tau City every Saturday.

Getting to Ba Ria- Vung Tau Province: Vung Tau is 129 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, 95 kilometers from Bien Hoa (Dong Nai), 513 kilometers from Nha Trang (Khanh Hoa) Main roads in the province are: A) National Highway 56 to Dong Nai Province, B) National Highway 55 to Binh Thuan Province, C) National Highway 51 to Ho Chi Minh City. Express buses leave for Bien Hoa, Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho and some other places There are flights from Vung Tau to the Con Dao Islands. Vina Express operates hydrofoils from central Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau.

VUNG TAU BEACHES

Vung Tau City and Its Beaches: (129 kilometers southeast of Ho Chi Minh City) is an old port and the first Vietnamese area to be visited by vacationers and people seeking health treatment. Covering 110 square kilometersand boasting an average temperature of 28 degrees C, it has 20 kilometers of coastline with famous soft-sand beaches and calm waters. Beside beautiful beaches, Vung Tau also has many unique architectural sights such as Jesus Christ's Statue, White Villa, Sakyamuni Pagoda, Thang Tam'

Vung Tau Beaches and Sights: Vung Tau has five main beaches scattered over the peninsula. Bai Truoc, also called Front Beach, is located on the western side of Vung Tau and stands between Nho and Lon Mountains. Restaurants, kiosks, and hotels are close to the beach. Vong Nguyet, also called O Quan Beach, is a peaceful cove with good wind. Surfers particularly enjoy this area.

Bai Dua or Dua Beach is located approximately two kilometers from the center of the city. People who do not like crowded beaches particularly enjoy this quiet beach. Bai Sau, also called Back Beach, is the longest stretch of sand on the peninsula. It is located approximately two kilometers from town on the southeastern side of Vung Tau. It is exposed to The South China Sea wind and surfing there is excellent. Finally, Bai Dau Beach is located at the foot of Lon Mountain. It is a small quiet beach, three kilometers west of Vung Tau.

Back Beach (Thuy Van Beach) is one of the longest and most beautiful beaches in Vietnam. Located in southeast of Vung Tau City, Back Beach is over eight kilometers-long from the foot of Small Mountain to Cua Lap. Front Beach is located between Small and Large mountains in Vung Tau City. It is also called Tam Duong Beach which means "Finding the Sun." Ho Coc Beach is known for its turquoise water and primitive forests. Long Hai Beach (30 kilometers northeast of Vung Tau City) is a favourite beach for many people who find it quieter than those in Vung Tau.

Mulberry Beach (Bai Dau) lies at the west of Large Mountain in Vung Tau City. From Front Beach, going along Tran Phu Street and passing White Villa about three kilometers, tourists will reach the Mulberry BeachThe beach was formerly called Rattan Pond because there are many wild rattans here. Pineapple Beach is situated between Front Beach and Back Beach at the foot of Small Mountain, near Nghinh Phong Cape, Vung Tau City.There used to be numerous wild pineapples that grew on the rocky shore, which is why the beach is called the Pineapple Beach.

Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Nature Reserve—in Xuyen Moc District, Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province— is one of the few areas along the coastline of Vietnam to retain a significant cover of natural forest. Binh Chau Thermal Springs—in Bung Rieng Commune, Xuyen Moc District, Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province— is known for its 73 degrees C water pools used to cure skin diseases and rheumatism. Fairy Stream (Suoi Tien, 7kilometers northwest of Ba Ria Town originates from 500-meter-high Dinh Mountain. Fairy Stream is sometimes called "the second Dalat in Vietnam" for it beautiful natural landscape.

Con Dao Island (90 kilometers south of Vung Tau) is also famous for its nice beaches shaded with evergreen trees, fresh air, clear blue waters, and primitive forests. There are dense forest with rich flora and fauna in , which is Con Dao National Park. The sea in this area is home to various marine species. Tourists have a chance to watch turtles lay the eggs. It also used to host a convict prison during French colonial era, and later, during the American War. Flights From Ho Chi Minh City to Con Dao : 14 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 154, 248, 01h00'14 flights/ week, Air Mekong, 00h45'24 flights/ week, Vasco, 01h00'. Flights From Phu Quoc: Can Tho, 24 flights/ week, Vasco, 01h00'Ho Chi Minh City, 5 flights/ week, Vasco, 00h55'

MUI NE BEACH, THE KITEBOARDING CAPITAL OF ASIA

MUI NE BEACH (190 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City) is a beach and resort town of Mui Ne in Binh Thuan province that has become popular among Russian tourists in recent years. The area has 78 resorts ranging from three to five stars, most of them in private ownership. In the hills overlooking the sea are quaint cottages. Tourists can swim in the blue water of the sea, slide down sand dunes, relax in swimming pool of resorts or kiteboard and windsurf. The beach has the best conditions for water sports because it has strongest and most consistent cross-onshore winds in Asia and the lowest rainfall in Vietnam. There are currently about a dozen kiteboarding centers in Mui Ne and the competition is fierce. In addition, tourists can go shopping at the Mui Ne Market for types of fresh sea-food and local specialties.

Mui Ne has long been considered the "Hawaii" of Vietnam. Its features are immense sand dunes meandering through kilometers of red, yellow and white, shady roads under coconut trees, beautiful rows of palm trees and cliffs battered by the waves of the sea. The beach is shallow and sloped, the water is clean and blue and the sun rarely hides behind clouds. The typical scenery of Mui Ne lies in the moving lines of golden sand caused by the wind and when they are seen from afar they look like moving waves. The scenery looks more fascinating at dawn, when young Cham girls in green dresses go to work. That's why no photographer fails to visit this area.

Mui Ne is located in Ham Tien Ward, Phan Thiet City, Binh Thuan Province, about 220 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City centre. From Ho Chi Minh City, take National Highway No.1A for 198 kilometers to Phan Thiet City and then take Route 706 for another 22 kilometers, until you reach Mui Ne Beach. Sights around Mui Ne include Suoi Tien (Fairy Spring) — deep and red canyons parted by twisting streams and echoed by the sounds of tropical birds— and Poshanu Cham Tower Complex.

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times, “For decades, if not centuries, the wind has defined Mui Ne, a small fishing village in southern Vietnam's Binh Thuan province. Blowing in straight off the South China Sea, the wind molds and remolds the white and pink-gold sand dunes that surround Mui Ne and frustrates the fishermen, who eke out a living catching squid and tuna on the horizon. But in recent years, the wind has altered the landscape of Mui Ne in a different way - by luring to its 12 miles of gently arcing beach windsurfers and kitesurfers, part of a vanguard of vacationers eager to make the 120-mile trip northeast from Ho Chi Minh City in search of the next new, clean, unspoiled stretch of sand. [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, August 21, 2005]

"This is one of the five top places for sailing in the world, and it's definitely the best in Asia," said Pascal Lefebvre, who maintains windsurf-vietnam.com, a repository of wind data that appears to back up his claim. According to the Web site, which has data for the last five years, 2004 saw 246 days when the wind speed averaged greater than 14 miles per hour. Ground zero at Mui Ne is Jibe's Beach Club, 90 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, (84-62) 847-405. Damaged boards hang on the walls of this beachside bar and restaurant (owned by Mr. Lefebvre and his wife, Pham Thi Hong Phuong), and a projection screen displays windsurfing videos. Out back, however, is where the action is: an equipment-rental shop and launching pad for the day's wave-riding adventures.

The acolytes come around 10 a.m., when the wind picks up, and by 11:30 two dozen kites and sails will be crisscrossing the water. By 2 in the afternoon, the wind is at its strongest, and the nonsailing beachgoers start retreating to their resorts' sheltered swimming pools. Around 4, the wind turns gusty, launching sailors to greater heights. At night, when the wind has finally died down, visitors escape their hotels to eat - there's Vietnamese seafood at Dong Su, Kilometer 11, Ham Tien, (84-62) 847-310, and Italian seafood at Luna di Autunno, 51A Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, (84-62) 847-591, among others - before returning to Jibe's or the Mui Ne Sailing Club, 24 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, (84-62) 847 440, to drink, play pool and recount the day's greatest airs and most calamitous slams.

The scene today is radically different from just 10 years ago, when the main drag, Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, was a nameless sand track over which coconut palms formed a shady canopy and the pungent whiff of nuoc mam was the only thing floating in the air. Occasional visitors would explore the Fairy Stream, a small brook that has cut a long canyon into the red earth, or the vast, photogenic sand dunes.

Today, resorts line the beach side of Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, from the upscale Victoria Phan Thiet to the Palmira. with its Russian onion dome ,to myriad smaller hotels whose names invariably include the words coconut, beach or Mui Ne. An international airport is in the works, and a $900 million resort complex - golf courses, casinos and a theme park - is being developed 25 miles north. For Marek Kanievska, a film director ("Less Than Zero") who spends about five months a year in Mui Ne, the beach is enough. "I am in a constant state of ecstasy," said Mr. Kanievska. "I get up at 5 a.m. and never run out of things to do till 11 at night."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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