Núi Bà Đen


In 1970, I was stationed in Củ Chi.  In 2002, I find out from Mr. Song, our tour guide, that the Vietnamese name for the big base in the Củ Chi district was Đồng Dù (Dung Zoo).  War for us REMFs was often boring; it’s true we worked 12-hour days, but we were young and would have gotten into even more trouble than we did if we hadn’t been pinned down in our air-conditioned EE building.  Those who worked at night would sun themselves on the bunker during the day.  Day shifters who had to wait to drink until after dusk would climb up on top of the bunker and watch the war when it was sufficiently dark out.

A party at the hooch; someone sleeping on the bunker

You can see a cot up there on top of the bunker, to the left, where someone is sunbathing.  After dark, we would spread out our lawn chairs and start serious drinking.  The lawn chairs were mostly purchased by the side of the road for a few hundred piasters.  The official exchange rate was 118 pi to the dollar, but the black-market rate was about four times that.  My lawn chair was the gaudiest of all:

Me in my gaudy lawn chair

Isn’t that hideous (my father would have said “hijous”)?  Drunks will sit on anything.  We would drink anything, too, but that’s another story.

Tây Ninh, fifteen miles or so to the Northwest of Củ Chi, was where a mountain stuck up out of the flat earth like a pimple on a cheek; we could see it, but just barely, from the top of the bunker.  I managed only two pictrures during the ten
months I was stationed in Củ Chi; both are taken with telephoto lenses:
Núi Bà Đen
Núi Bà Đen

It would have been impossible to see the mountain near Tây Ninh from Long Bình, which was about forty to fifty miles straight East of Củ Chi.  However, not far from Long Bình is this mountain:

Hill near Long Bình that looks a little like Núi Bà Đen

It’s still there, too; I saw it, in 2002, but my camera wasn’t out and ready.  This hill could have been seen easily from Long Bình Jail, and it’s the same general shape as Núi Bà Đen.  In 1970, we heard that what we called Tây Ninh Mountain was really called Black Virgin Mountain, and even now you’ll see that translation on the internet, but Núi Bà Đen is more properly called Mrs. Black’s Mountain.  Let’s see if I can remember the tale.

A long time ago, a young couple were married and the woman became pregnant, whereupon the man was called away to war.  He was gone several years, and during that time the little boy the man had fathered grew to awareness, and the mother, Mrs. Black, would point to her shadow on the wall and tell the little boy that the shadow was his father.

When the little child was six, the man came home from war and all was well, until the woman went to market, leaving the man to talk to the boy alone.  “I’m your father,” said the man.

“No, you’re not,” said the boy.  “My father comes every night before I go to bed and sits beside my mother.”

Instead of asking the woman about this, the man assumes that he is not the father of the little boy and stops speaking to his wife.  Eventually, she pines away and dies of a broken heart.  Only then does the little boy point to the man’s shadow on the wall and say, “There, that’s my father!”  So the husband builds a shrine to her on the mountain.

Núi Bà Đen from the bus
Núi Bà Đen from the bus, after turning a corner and being surprised.

In the parking lot, too close to get the whole mountain in one shot.  Other stories on this place can be found here.
Parking lot panorama Parking lot panorama Parking lot panorama

Park entrance with bunnies

At the entrance to the park, I wonder if it is possible for me to represent the changes I see properly.  During the Việt Nam war, this mountain was a place of death, a target for artillery, mini-guns and air-to-ground missiles from helicopters and C-47 gunships, a.k.a. Puff.  The US had a firebase on top, closed in October of 1970, but the VC controlled the sides throughout the war.  From Củ Chi, on top of our bunker, we watched the war.  We watched and heard everything the US had brought to bear on the sides of the mountain; thousands died here.

Today, we walk along paved walks past plump little rabbit-shaped trashbaskets every few feet, and ride in rubber-tired tourist trains.
 
Bunny basket Turquoise tourist train

Mr. Song buys tickets and hands them out.  They’re 45,000 đồng, or three dollars. Ticket stub  Buying tickets is a complicated affair everywhere in Việt Nam.  One goes up to a booth or a special ticket-purchasing building, or even a special location in a town, and then one takes the ticket to the museum or ride where one wishes to go.  A ticket checker looks at the ticket, makes sure it is current, and admits one.  It’s like movie theatres in the US without the ripping-in-half ritual.

Looking up the mountain

At the bottom, after purchasing tickets, looking up at the cable cars—those little specks—we are supposed to ride up.  I am afraid of heights.  I do not want to ride in these tiny tin boxes dangling from a thread over a bottomless abyss.  I have no choice, however.  The Vietnamese cableway attendants are very solicitous, slowing the ever-running device to almost a stop, helping me in, guarding me carefully.  We’re off; I dread the far end.

Andrew Hunt peering out of his cable car

That’s Andrew Hunt in the car ahead of me, a historian from Canada, author of The Turning:  A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War:
The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War  

He seems unaffected by our impending demise.  I notice, despite the precariousness of our position, that there is more room inside the little box than I had in the seat on the Cathay Pacific 747 that flew me over.  There is no one sitting directly in front of me leaning back to crush my knees, either.  I try to emulate Andrew, calmly perusing the scenery.

Traveling up

I like to think I succeed.  The attraction at the end of our ride is a Buddhist temple, which, being Buddhist, I look forward to.  I’m Jodo Shinshu, a mahayana sect, not theravadan like the Vietnamese Buddhists, but this is the first time I’ve been to a Buddhist country—Buddhism has been in place here for hundreds and hundreds of years—since I took refuge and joined my church, the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.  As we get further away from the power plant building, there is less noise.  I begin to notice a few things.  Off to my left are some buildings.

Buildings on the mountain

The small edifices just in front of the tree line are ancestor worship shrines.  I saw hundreds of these in 1970, but never knew what they were—and never bothered to find out.

More buildings

I am starting to be able to see more into the distance now.  It’s still less than halfway up, but my sphincters show no signs whatsoever of letting down their guard.  Off to my right, I can see the slicky-slide down which the more foolish members of the group will allow themselves to hurtle, doubtless to their deaths.  I am not sanguine about the return trip, but I am certain that these cars are safer than letting myself be thrown down a mountain on a flimsy piece of tin.

The slide downhill

A bit further on, there’s a sign advertising a water park.  Maybe it’s this park.

Water park sign

The vista

The cars are starting to get seriously high on the mountain now.  I turn around and shoot back—toward the direction in which I believe Củ Chi to be found—then from the front again.

Another view of the downhill slide

There is no noise except the metal-on-metal skirling of the cable, the intermittent clanks and bumps of the cars going past a support post.  The heat is not yet overwhelming; I’m only drenched, not flat on the ground.  That’s a major difference from my memory; I remember Củ Chi as not humid at all, certainly not as humid as Central Illinois.  My memory is faulty.

The noise gets louder, and it’s time to leap out.  I wave my cane, and the attendents slow the mechanism down again, but I still stumble getting out of the car.  The man who grabs my arm and keeps me from falling is half my size and twice as strong.  “Cám ơn nhiêù lắm,” I say with feeling.  Thank you very much.

“Không có chi,” he replies.  It’s nothing.

From the landing, there are steps up to the temples and concessions:

First view of our destination

They are much less regular and straight than they look.

Buddhist Temples on Núi Bà Đen

We aren’t on top of the mountain, and that’s fine with me; I can see I’d either be climbing or riding another death-defying form of transportation, and I’m now only willing to do that to get down again.

We must all take off our shoes to go inside the temple.  No one else is the slightest bit worried about shoe thieves, so I guess I won’t be either.  Besides, how many Vietnamese can there be who wear size tens?  Certainly not the tiny little girl who has shoes that sound like my dog Fred’s favorite squeaky toys.  She doesn’t have to take them off inside the temple; I think even the monks, who seem pretty serious, think the same as I do.  She’s adorable, she can get away with whatever she wants.

Fred, under a blanket, with his squeaky cat-head
Fred and his favorite way to watch TV with Mom and Dad, with his favorite cat-head squeaky toy.

Fred died in 1980.  Jodo Shinshu Buddhists aren’t supposed to pray, but I defy tradition and sneak in a little one for Fred.  I think he would have been pleased, since he certainly wasn’t above a little defiance now and then.  I keep trying to get a shot of the squeaky little girl, but she manages to outrun my camera every time.

In front of the main temple building there is a Quan Âm; I’m keeping an eye out for her statues, and I’ve already seen hundreds of likenesses everywhere.  I hope I’ll be able to bring one home.

Quan Âm

The blue sign over to the left asks visitors to take off their shoes.  It doesn’t make me cranky to take off my boots (it usually does), even though the laces are on their very last legs and I haven’t been able to find replacements that are long enough.  I grab a quick shot of the happy Buddha above Quan Âm.

Laughing Buddha

I’m beginning to think that a lot of Buddhist art doesn’t take itself very seriously.  “There is nothing so hilarious as a serious Buddhist,” writes Khandro Rinpoche.  I go inside, where I find that Kate and Ed are kneeling in front of the altar.  They’re Buddhists too, as is Miriam, who speaks Chinese and Japanese and teaches Chinese Literature.  I’m jealous; I’d like very much to be able to say more than hello, thank you, goodbye, and, on a good day, yes, no and I can’t speak Chinese.  I keep plugging away at deciphering Vietnamese signs.

Kate and Ed in front of the altar

Kate takes off her glasses and puts them in her pocket.  One of the monks, perhaps the abbot, lights incense.  The other one starts banging the gong, then the first one begins playing the drum.  It’s a service of some sort, and it’s clear that Ed has asked for the ceremony to surprise Kate; she had had no idea, and later I learn that it’s their anniversary.

Kate and Ed in front of the altar, with more incense

The chants start and go on for a long time.  It’s clear that the Vietnamese are accustomed to such goings-on, as you would expect, but I hadn’t really anticipated the level of independence.  Throughout the ceremony, which in a Protestant church would be held in reverent silence with best behaviour even by the children, worshippers offer incense without reference to the chanting and gonging; they march right up, bow three times, prostrate themselves completely, add their incense to the main burner in front of Kate and Ed, and drift off.  The little girl in squeaky-toy shoes hops exuberantly up and down.

Off to my right is a demon playing a musical instrument; I take his picture and the little girl zooms at knee level between me and the statue before racing outside; by the time I get the camera repositioned, she has disappeared, although I can still hear her.

Blue-faced demon

The ceremony concludes, and Ed gives some money to the abbott (I don’t know if that’s his title or function, but he’s the one in charge).  I give $5.00, which I try to put into the donation box, but the abbot intercepts me.  Mr. Song says that a donation of that size needs to be made face-to-face.  I hadn’t thought it was large at all.  The abbot wishes me long life and prosperity, speaking through Mr. Song, and gives me a dragon fruit, which I wish I could refuse, but I’m stuck.  I hate dragon fruit, even though it means long life; it’s gorgeous, the pulp white with black specks, like fine vanilla ice cream, but mealy and tasteless.  I also receive a packet of rice, but I forget what that symbolizes.  Probably fertility.

Outside, I shake out my boots, making sure no scorpions have crawled inside, before putting them on.  I bet Bill, the other veteran on the tour, is doing the same thing, but I don’t see him when I look around.  I go over to the next building, which Song has said is a shrine to Mrs. Black.  Instead, it looks to me like another Quan Âm statue.

Quan Âm

I’m a little puzzled, even though I admire this version, until I see the shrine behind Quan Âm.

Mrs. Black

That’s Mrs. Black in the purple robe of royalty.  Even though there’s an incense burner, meant to entice offerings, I don’t feel like taking my boots off again, so I settle for stuffing a 50,000-đồng note into her donation box.  The little girl is long gone, and I head back down toward the stairs, but halfway there my money belt comes undone, and the only way to rescue it is to let it fall down my pants leg and yank it out the bottom.  I figure I’m an American in a foreign country, I have no dignity and no face to save anyway, so I bend over like I’ve been hit in a sensitive place and contort myself until I get the whole thing out.  I fiddle with it, hoping I’ve come up with a more secure way of fastening it.  I look around; no one seems to have noticed my little save-the-money-belt dance.  Hmmph, I think, but then I see a little kid over in a concession stand, grinning at me.  I wave back, feeling uplifted for some reason.  Must be the Buddha.

Going down’s not so bad; I know I’ll be taken care of at the bottom, once I get in the damn thing, which is effortless because they slow it down so much.  I take only a few pictures on the descent.

Heading down

Củ Chi is out there somewhere, I’m sure.  But as far as I’m concerned, any direction is as good as any other.  A consequence of growing up in Peoria, where there are no streets that follow any sort of grid pattern, except for the small area which used to be the red light district.  On the trip down, several cars contain Vietnamese couples, one a trio.  They seem to find me very amusing; we wave at each other politely.

Looking out

Ed and Kate and some other members of the troupe swoop by on the slide.  I am at peace.  Not only am I not thinking about work, I don’t even realize that I’m not thinking about work.  In 1970, back in the world referred to a good place.  Now, it’s not even on the radar screen; back in the world doesn’t exist.

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