Exploring Black Virgin Mountain, Cao Dai Temple, and the Cu Chi Tunnels

After having some unique dining experiences in Ho Chi Minh, I decided to get out of the city and explore Black Virgin Mountain and the Cao Dai Temples on my 2nd day in Vietnam.  These are two very historic places in the southern part that I highly recommend checking out.  I booked a private tour through Get Your Guide because I wanted to hit as many destinations as possible and some are very difficult to reach alone.  This journey also brought me to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a massive underground network around the country.  Seeing remnants of the Vietnam War was surreal and a memory that I’ll always carry with me.

The tour was a little over $100 which is pricier than most I’ve gone on, but my guide was excellent and matched my pace.  This price also included the entrance fee to all of the places I was going to.  I prefer spending my days outside of the city learning about history and culture while spending my nights at the local bars so I have a complete experience abroad.  I was able to see and learn a lot in the time that I had which I am grateful for.

Black Virgin Mountain

The tour started at 7am and I was picked up directly from my hotel by my friendly tour guide.  She was a Vietnamese student who spoke polished English and was very skilled at conversation.  I was lucky to have met her!  We boarded a small van and made our way to Black Virgin Mountain, an inactive volcano in the south of Vietnam.  What makes this mountain so famous is its legend that has been passed down for generations.

As we boarded the cable car to the peak of the mountain, my guide told me the full story.  The Legend of the Black Virgin actually has two variations.  In one version she falls in deeply in love with a Khmer soldier.  When he is drafted to war, she jumps off the mountain out of heart break and agony.  In another version, she jumps off the mountain to protect her virginity when she is forced into an arranged marriage.  In both versions, she is a lady with black skin who is highly devoted to Buddhism and purity.  The legend is quite sad, but her faith and unyielding spirit is admirable.  There are many altars where you can leave offerings in her memory.

When we got off the cable car we reached a market area and a series of temples.  The cable car doesn’t take you all the way to the top, but you can easily reach the pagoda within 15 minutes of climbing.  According to other travelers, the mountain takes around 6 hours to climb to the top and back.  I am happy I rode the cable car because this was only my 2nd day here and I had a lot planned.  Perhaps in the future I will attempt to climb a Vietnamese mountain!

It was fascinating seeing the design of the temples here because they were painted in extremely bright colors.  They are similar to those in Thailand and Cambodia since they are bordering countries.  The fresh fruit being sold at the market also tasted amazing!  I also grabbed a bowl of Pho because it was cheap and the perfect food for exploring Vietnam.  I also noticed some scorpion wine at a gift shop but I didn’t buy it.

My guide took me to a temple where you first pray and make a wish, then pick up 3 splinters of wood and drop them on the ground to determine your fate.  If they all face the same way, then your wish will come true.  I was fortunately able to make my wish come true on the very first try (you get 3 tries total).  If you fail, it is highly implied that you can climb the mountain on another day and try again.

I’m not allowed to tell anyone my wish, but it has to do with traveling and connecting my aesthetic tastes with my career.  Maybe starting this website was part of the prophecy…

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The Wood Splinters of Fate.

After I finished paying my respects, I Mario Karted down the mountain.  It was honestly the perfect way to end my trip to Black Virgin Mountain because my body was surging with adrenaline!

Cao Dai Temples

Our next stop was Cao Dai Temple that sits not far from the base of the mountain.  It is famous for its beautiful architecture and the articulate painting of the sky in its main hall.  This is hands down the most impressive temple that I saw while I was backpacking through Vietnam, so please check it out if you get the chance!

Caodaism is a mysterious religion that was founded in Vietnam in 1926, so it is fairly recent.  The majority of Vietnamese people are non-religious or follow the teachings of Buddhism, but this religion is gradually gaining followers even in western countries.  Cao Dai means “high tower” and is represented by the divine eye.  Cao Dai blends Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam.  The worshippers wear white robes and perform several chants at the temple every day:

There is a scene from the movie Ghost in the Shell: Innocence that looks like it was influenced by Cao Dai Temple:

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Though I’m not religious, being here made me feel very alive.  It’s amazing to think about how much this religion has caught on!

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels are perhaps the most iconic attraction around Ho Chi Minh City because they were utilized in the Vietnam War.  Fortunately we came late in the afternoon when not as many people were here.  The cool thing about this museum is that it’s almost entirely outdoors and encased in a green forest.  The tunnels have been widened so they’re easier for tourists to get through.  I enjoyed see all the trap doors and hideaways hidden in foliage.  There is also a large tank and shooting range you can check out.  This museum doesn’t highlight the horrors of the war so much like the Hoa Lo Prison (which I’ll get into later).  The Cu Chi Tunnels show a more strategic approach to how the Vietnam War was originally fought.  I was surprised to know that there were a number of woman soldiers involved as well.

Overall, this was an amazing tour that lasted the whole day.  I couldn’t believe that this was only my 2nd day here and that there were many more ahead!  Look forward to the rest of my adventures~

Temple Hopping through Angkor Wat after Eating Happy Pizza (Part 2)

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The famous Cambodian temple Angkor Wat; meaning “temple city”.

After having my first successful night out in Siem Reap, I decided to go to temple hopping during my 2nd day in Cambodia and learn about the history of the Khmer Empire.  I booked a very affordable tour through Get Your Guide that took me from my hotel to the three most famous temples in the area: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and the Bayon Temple with the smiling Buddha faces.  To enter these places you must pay a fee of $37 for a joint ticket at the gate, but the amount of nature and exploring you are able to do for the day makes the price worth it.  Expect this tour to last 6-10 hours depending if you want to stick around for the sunset or not.  You can also opt for a sunrise tour as well.

Angkor Wat was originally founded as a Hindu temple but later became a Buddhist temple by the end of the 12th century.  Though today it serves mostly as a tourist attraction and the largest religious monument in the world, it also represents the harsh reign of the Khmer Rouge that all of Cambodia will forever remember.  I enjoyed the aesthetic hike through the historic former capitals of the Khmer Rouge because learning about Cambodian culture was very eye-opening for me.  I will write in detail about the horrors of the Killing Fields in a future update, because I think it is a very important part of history that should be further brought to light.

What I loved about Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples is there was a lot of room to freely explore the area, and it didn’t feel like a tourist attraction–it actually felt like a genuine adventure.  Compared to temples in Thailand and Japan that I have visited, these temples were a lot less crowded and I didn’t feel rushed during my time here at all.  People from all around the world gather to marvel at these temples, and although they are somewhat remote they are worth the journey if you’re up for the challenge!

Ta Prohm was the location where the original Tomb Raider movie was filmed, and I definitely felt like Lara Croft as I climbed several flights of stairs and over rocks to get the best views possible here.  Historically this area was the last capital of the Khmer Rouge, and is now abandoned and left to nature.  That is why this temple is extremely beautiful in both design and architecture due to the moss covering the temple walls and the tree growing from within it.  Ta Prohm shows what nature can do to a place if it is left alone:

The last temple that I visited was the Bayon Temple, which was a lot of fun to explore due to all of the Buddha faces hidden in the intricate architecture.  Everywhere you look there are heads to be found, but ironically a lot of Buddha statues within the walls of the temple are missing their heads!  I was told by my tour guide that they were stolen by thieves for money and destroyed during the Khmer empire, but there is also the possibility they may have been stolen by foreign tourists and now be on display in international art galleries.  Little is known about their whereabouts, which gives Bayon an air or mystery and sadness masked behind carvings of happy smiles.

What amazes me about the temples of Angkor Wat is that many of them were abandoned due to superstition (such as when lightning struck or a natural disaster occurred), but are still standing today.  I think it would take nearly three full days to explore all of them, but I felt extremely satisfied with what I was able to see within a day because I learned a lot about the culture.  My recommendation is that everyone that has interest in exploring temples comes here.  You never know what you may discover!

A Lovely Time at the Godai Rikison Ninnoe Festival at Daigoji, Kyoto

Recently Japanese citizens, tourists, and foreign residents alike are saying that temples in Japan are becoming overly crowded.  I, however, am not one to complain!  In every town, there lies a hidden gem or area off the beaten path that you can discover.  Since I have been to all the major temples in Kyoto already, I decided to check out Daigoji for their yearly festival in February: The Godai Rikison Ninnoe Festival.

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Daigoji is a beautiful Buddhist temple located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, approximately 30 minutes from Kyoto Station.  It is famous for its red architecture (which looks most alluring in the fall with the autumn leaves), and also the golden Buddha statue you can see in one of the smaller pavilions.  The Godai Rikison Ninnoe Festival is held on February 23rd every year (I was lucky because this year it was on a Saturday), where monks pray in a public ceremony for “peace, health, and happiness of the country and people”.

What I liked about this temple was that it wasn’t overly crowded, and most of the people there were Japanese families praying and partaking in the festival activities.  Traveling here felt like a journey because the temple itself was located approximately 15 mins uphill from where the station is.  Though it wasn’t a long hike, it is just the right amount of time for people who want to go multiple places in the city.

I arrived around 11:30am and was just in time to see the monks delivering their prayer ceremony!  I was very happy to witness such an event.  Though I didn’t fully understand the cultural significance of everything, people treated me with a lot of kindness.  One monk asked (in English) where I was from and what I thought of the festival.  I responded that I had been to a similar festival at Mt. Takao, but it was refreshing to get out of the city and be at peace here.

Though this is the biggest event at Godaiji, there are numerous seasonal events too!  I recommend this temple for those who want to get away from the crowds.

 

The Most Aesthetic Temple in the World: Wat Rong Khun

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With a bridge crossing a tranquil lake and a display of hundreds of outreaching stone hands leading to the gate of heaven, Wat Rong Khun is easily the most aesthetic temple I have ever laid eyes on.  The way this temple is structured symbolizes the Buddhist teaching of withholding your desires to reach true happiness and enlightenment.

On my last day in Thailand, I flew from Phuket to Chiang Mai and decided to embark on a long journey to witness the beauty of Wat Rong Khun–a famous Buddhist temple that is also known as the “White Temple” among travelers.  My fascination with this temple first started when I was at the Unicorn Pub in Hanoi, Vietnam, and a bartender told me about this beautiful white temple with golden toilets.  For aesthetic purposes, I knew I needed to come here!  I booked my tour in advance through KKDay, who came and picked me up at my hostel on a bus with other backpackers.  Wat Rong Khun is located in Chang Rai and it took about 2 hours to get there, but trust me, this was definitely worth the trip.

This temple is both awe-inspiring and quite horrific at the same time.  The outreaching hands definitely made me think of all the corrupt people in the world that value their egos and material things more than helping others.  These people definitely fall victim to themselves in the end because at death they have nothing left.  However, after I crossed the bridge and reached the inner chamber, the beautiful art, intricate statues, and gleaming white architecture made me realize that finding peace and happiness is in this crazy world is definitely possible–just don’t try to take any shortcuts or else you’ll just end up as another hand!

What’s both confusing and hilarious is that the murals depict both popular eastern and western characters like Hello Kitty, Superman, and Harry Potter, as well as western singers like Michael Jackson (unfortunately no photography was allowed inside so I did not take any pictures, but there are likely pictures floating online).  According to Slate, juxtaposing these pop culture figures with Buddhist figures has sparked controversy from the Thai government, but I honestly see this display more as modern art than defamation or blasphemy.  The golden toilets are also worth a trip to.  You will definitely never see anything else in the world like this!

I would highly recommend coming to Chiang Mai and Rai on your trip to Thailand, because much like Kyoto and surrounding areas in Japan, these towns are filled with temples, unique art, nature, and are more relaxing than other huge cities like Phuket and Bangkok.  The major con to coming to this temple was there are a lot of tourists and staff with megaphones rushing us through because the bridge is quite narrow for people pass through on.  However, there are many temples in Thailand to choose from!  The road to heaven is not an easy one, but coming here reminded me that letting go of your personal desires and working towards a greater concept is a very important lesson in life.