Vietnam- The CuChi Tunnels

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The Cu Chi tunnel system is about 75 kms south west of Ho Chi Minh City, 1 – 2 hours driving, depending on the notorious Saigon traffic. There are 2 main access points, at Ben Duoc and Ben Binh. Ben Duoc is the better known in that it has been adapted to suit tourism with slightly widened tunnels and other attractions, while Ben Binh is where most Vietnamese go and is probably more authentic. I visited Ben Binh on a very wet day, when the experience of being in the jungle was very real. There are some 200 kms of tunnels at varying levels covering a huge area. The area is pock marked with bomb craters since the area became the most bombed in the whole Vietnam war, with bombs napalm and agent orange being used.

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The thought that has gone into disguising the tunnels their entrances and exits and facilities is extraordinary. You approach the tunnels down a path and despite being invited to search for an entrance in a small indicated area its is almost impossible to find. Enter the tunnels hatch, drop down and pull the hatch behind you into the ground and it is immediately invisible. Ventilation shafts come to the surface in cracks in rocks, lookout openings are also like that and almost completely invisible.

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Underground are passages, rooms, where the smoke from cooking was disbursed above ground far from the kitchen itself to protect the area. It is extraordinary to be inside and feel that people lived there for years surfacing fighting returning throughout the war. Some 420 square kms of land was hammered by bombing in an effort to dislodge the fighters in the tunnels, but without success leaving the area a wasteland although now the vegetation has largely been restored. The tunnels were so well hidden that at one stage an American base was established on top of them.

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The site at Ben Binh includes a magnificent Pagoda and memorial to those who fought and died in the war and particularly in the tunnels. Some 50000 names are inscribed on the walls of the memorial and one thing that strikes you very hard is how young many of the men and women who died there were. The building includes a large statue of Ho Chi Minh and is an important memorial in Vietnam.

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Many of us read about the war every day, and were aware of the tunnels, but seeing them and experiencing them adds a dimension to understanding the war and its outcome. It is a very moving memorial all the more so because it is set in the countryside and not in a city, and simply to experience the tunnels for a sort time gives an idea about how hard life must have been for its occupants, living there, fighting there and being bombed incessantly.Vietnam

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Vietnam – Cao Dai

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About 90kms northwest of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, , whichever you wish to call it, heading for the Cambodian border, lies Tay Ninh, the site of the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion. The religion, said to be the fastest growing religion in Vietnam with now an estimated 6m followers, was only founded in 1929.

 

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Cao Dai is the name of God the Father, the other deity being the Holy Mother, the Yang and Yin respectively of the religion; the Cao Daiists believing in the Yin and Yang, the harmonious balance in life. The full name of God, Cao Dai being a shortened version, reflects the fact that this religion is a combination of the three main religions of the area, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The symbols of the religion combine symbols from all of those creeds.

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Omnipresent is a symbolic eye, the left eye of God, symbolising that God sees everything, and it is the left eye as it sits above the heart and soul from where comes learning and wisdom. The religion teaches that historically God spoke to mankind through many prophets, but that now God speaks direct to mankind.

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The Holy See covers several hundred hectares of land, its main focus being the Temple where the faithful gather daily for reflection and prayer. The floor of the temple inside consists of a number of platforms which rise as you progress to wards the front, and as your learning and understanding of the creed increases, so you move forward to a higher level.

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The building is beautiful, but almost quirky in its colours, its realism, and above all its colours, which are like confectionary and might be seen decorating a cake. The images are detailed, realistic and prominent everywhere. Adherents follow a path of learning and meditation which gradually leads them through the levels of the religion to the highest levels.

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It is a bit of a hike out of Ho Chi Minh city but a good day is to combine the visit with one to the Cu Chi tunnels a short distance away and that makes for a great day out. The site is extraordinary, in that it is known as the Holy See, as the Vatican, and the symbolism is unique, but Cai Dai is the fastest growing religion so has obviously something to offer, and the site buildings and people there certainly do. There are also some holy monkeys contemplating the meaning of their lives!

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Travel – Vietnam

 

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Vietnam has a long history of insisting on its own identity and culture, dating back to the 10th century when they ceased to be part of the Chinese empire and became an independent state. Since then modern wars against the French there from the 19th century to 1954 and subsequently the US resulting in reunification in 1975 have cemented that sense of independence and pride you find in Vietnam.

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Vietnam’s geography is distinct and varied from the Mekong Delta south of Ho Chi Minh City through the central highlands to the old north and its national parks and mountains. The best way to see Vietnam I think is to start at one end and work up or down according to your choice. Many people but motorbikes in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and sell them in the other city when they arrive.

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The people of Vietnam are approachable, friendly curious and direct. They have an instinct for trading and business and the whole country gives a strong impression of going somewhere fast, accompanied by massive investment into tourism and business. The tourism industry is growing at a huge rate with ever increasing numbers from Asia so Vietnam is changing fast and it might be good to go soon while the traditions are still very visible.

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Its an amazing place to visit but a place where you need to take your time. There is so much to see, so much variety and so many contrasts that you need to absorb them slowly or you will miss a lot. I am going to write various pieces on various aspects so hope readers enjoy those as much as that country is enjoyable.

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Bon Voyage, Take Your Time

 

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This little gem of a greeting was sent to me today by a good friend on the eve of my departure for another journey. Those I know who don’t share my obsession with “going on a journey” as I call travelling, have got used to these regular disappearances. They have seen the familiar signs of introspection as I decide where to go and what to do. They have seen the minimal research I do in order to create as much of an adventure as possible when I arrive, and they know that the space they have made for me in their lives, will be empty for a while until I return refreshed and reinvigorated by my experience,, at which time they wont ask me how it was but where I will go next. I will disappear from their lives for a while and they from mine and normality will resume when I have had my journeying fix.

For me the nervous anticipation of pastures new, the preparation, the familiar routines of preparing to go, the nervousness that will turn to exileration as the wheels leave the runway tomorrow, and that wonderful sense of the unknown starts to fill me. What will I see, who will I meet, what challenges lie in store because of my vague itinerary, what special moments, what will go wrong as something surely will, it’s the anticipation of the journey. You start to cut away the routines and events that bind you to daily life, try to make sure that nothing will happen when you are away and turn your face to the unknown. You start to feel a different person, the flavour of life is richer because you will undoubtedly learn many things new and you wont be the same when you return.

I am excited and yes, I will take my time!

A Picture Paints 1000 words

Images that are just a stolen moment in time and place, build stories if we step back from them. The image becomes more than a reflection of that moment, it develops a life of its own as we imagine a story around it. It is no longer just what we saw, it creates its own little world

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And a warm welcome to our home from all of us.Who are these people??

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The gate to a house in Chiang Mai. Who on earth lived here?

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The day of theTriffids

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Still smiling after 1000 years.

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Religion and commerce collide. We all get thirsty sometimes

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A magical mystery tour

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Stripped down lorry chassis carrying a throne.Rural Cambodia

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The claw of a very large chicken.

Each a potent story line and flight of imagination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Layers in Cities.

 

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img_6969All great cities have their layers, the public and the hidden, the prosperous and the poor, the safe and the dangerous, the historical and the modern, the picture and the real place. If you start in the middle its usually all the good things and as you move away from the middle it gets more ordinary and less certain, and the harder it is to find what in fact is the real life of a place. img_6971Sometimes these distinctions can exist side by side, and it can make the city all the more exciting to see if you visit these “other” places and feel the contrasts between the city as presented to you the traveller and the city as it really is. img_6956

In Bangkok, within walking distance of the Royal Palace, the Democracy Monument and the Golden Mount is am area with its own canals buildings and life hidden away from the Bangkok as presented to us, but it is the real Bangkok for those who live there.

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The canals there are grey, the water ruined by the life beside it, electric cables droop into the water, people are packed together living their everyday lives. A small area of historic houses, not the mansions of old but small ancient buildings, still accommodate people and have shops and people living in them and you walk the narrowest of streets beside them. If you walk behind the Golden Mount, a major attraction, you can see the old ruined graves of people of times gone by and that adds some life to the monument that you wont find from the monument itself.

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Not only are these areas of cities fascinating of themselves but also they add a valuable counterpoint to the city as it is presented to us and helps get the real feeling of the inhabitants and the lives they live.

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You would not know it was there is you didn’t go and look around, so its always good just to wander a bit off the beaten track and find these little gems. They are not as pretty as the “sights” but they have their own impact on you.

 

 

The Life Inside Flowers

 

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No matter where you travel in the world there are flowers. Their colours textures brilliance and contrasts are different but nature delivers flowers everywhere. They grow on trees, bushes, from the ground and even in the sea but they are ever present and add to the memories of a place and its flavour.

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What has always fascinated me is what happens inside the flower, at its root, where nature creates the flower, because inside there is a whole world of activity that goes on in the life cycle of the life of a flower, and some of the most beautiful parts of a flower are those that we don’t see close up. They add to the picture but they are not completely visible

 

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That inner world has perfect shapes, bugs and microbes, contrasts of colours and shades which together create the perfection of a flower. Its as if you can see the mechanics, the motor, the engine room the beating heart of the creation.

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The varieties in different places in the world are extraordinary and even flowers we see every day and perhaps take for granted, have that hidden life that is so fascinating.

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If you see a beautiful flower that inspires you its worth taking a look really close up and see what is at home and what is happening inside. Flowers are conditioned by their environment but it does not matter if you look in a garden or a park or the other side of the world, nature is at work.

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Travels and Photographs

 

 

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The great photographer Henri Cartier Bresson said that “Your first 10000 photographs are the worst” a somewhat daunting prospect, and I have never counted! I would not presume to think of myself as a photographer but I do like to take photographs and have accumulated many over time of myriad people and places.

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I take photos of my travels, download them on to my computer and leave them there, the memories images and emotions of my travels still fresh in my mind. Then much later, feeling curious and often nostalgic I revisit them and my eyes wander through those moments in time and places that the camera has captured to preserve for my reminiscences.

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I find a whole array of different reflections in the pictures, formal ones of places, buildings, streets, squares, architecture, walls, history, the things that make a place what it is, the structure and outline of a society or place and its history. Then people, ones that I have seen, some whom I have met, others who are just passing through a scene at the moment the shutter clicks. Then there are those that create the atmosphere of the place, the light, the colours, the pace of life and its daily round.

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These pictures remind me of the place, they don’t stir the emotions so much as remind me, they are the diary of a place, the narrative of a place, they are the place rather than the experience of being there.

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I find that the photos that stir the emotions are the odd ones, the quizzical ones, and the ones that capture a moment rather than a place. The ones that have flavour, that set the senses alive A set of footprints in the sand of a pristine beach, a monk sipping a drink through a straw, a tree growing out of a building the intricacy of a piece of some art that tells a mystical story, a chicken chained to a fence. Those ones tell a story beyond the picture itself they stirs the emotions about my experiences and about what gives the lifeblood to journeys, the ones that make you smile, and recover the feelings that accompanied your journey.

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Cartier Bresson also referred to the camera as being “ a sketch book an instrument of spontaneity” and that’s very true. Out of the thousands of pictures those are the ones I am sure I will keep revisiting forever.

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Travel – Experiencing Religion.

 

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When we travel or journey we go to see things, particularly buildings, amongst our other experiences, and it is unlikely that we will not see something religious in our journey, usually some buildings which are the outward manifestations of the religion that lives where we are visiting, and also its history.

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The existence of religions and their place in society are obvious and not for this discussion, but how it manifests itself in the places we visit has long fascinated me. When you consider the buildings that we most often visit, they are usually magnificent, a testament to the place of religion in the society, or at least its historic place in society.

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If society has seen a golden age at some point in its history, so there will be churches, cathedrals, temples, mosques that bear witness to that. This is true across the world. Europe, India, Asia all have magnificence to show us which links to their golden ages.

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Sometimes those countries have now become less golden, less powerful and the religious images that we see have become as much a travellers place as a focus in the society. The buildings they use now are more modest although not less devout.

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The common features of these buildings of the golden ages are scale, colour and intricacy. The more powerful the place the bigger, the more intricate, the more magnificent they are. They have become works of art at the same times as being place of worship

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We live in far more secular societies than existed in the days when these buildings were made, and the buildings have become increasingly symbolic as well in being less a part of daily life.

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Historically you can see the way in which a Cathedral started as perhaps a small church and grew as empires and nations grew, but you also see that as power and authority diminishes, the buildings don’t become less important, indeed the opposite albeit for other purposes.

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The one part of the world where this does not seem to have happened is Sub-Saharan Africa. There the emergence of what can be called the major religions, Christianity, Islam etc. came relatively late in their history and only fairly recently came to replace traditional spirituality. But even there a building and its symbolism are very important even if the building starts as an old tent, and then as congregations grow a bigger tent and then a permanent structure which candevelop and grow further. Many evangelical churches and religions are emerging like that now in Africa and also in China.

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When we see these places from the slightly artificial perspective of a traveller, looking at the same time at religion, history and culture, they can teach us an awful lot about human beings too and what has driven and continues to drive them