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Allure of the land of the fabled mountain

No 3, Vol.5, April - May 2015

  
Balck Lady Mountain. Photo:Than Tinh


Inside the Cao Dai Complex. Photo: Thu Ba

From the top of a high building in Saigon, if the weather is clear and you face northwest, visible on the horizon is a lone mountain. Mountains for me have a magnetic quality. I feel the desire to conquer them; this one particularly, as it has the mysterious name of the Black Lady Mountain.
Black Lady Mountain is situated near the town of Tay Ninh. Tay Ninh has two main tourist draws. Firstly, the mountain itself has a temple complex and remnants from the ‘American War’. Secondly, a tour of Cao Dai Grand Temple complex makes a trip worthwhile. Most folk would do this on a day tour from Saigon, perhaps even doing the Cu Chi tunnels on the way out or back. However, I would recommend taking a more leisurely approach, as we did, by staying at Hoa Binh hotel for a couple of nights. It is government-run, so do not expect anyone to leap to carry your bags, but we had a well-appointed VIProom which came with a balcony and a superb view of the mountain for only 600,000 dongs per night, including taxes and extras you do not find in Saigon such as bird songs and fresh air. With its simple Vietnamese rice dishes, I can vouch the food we tasted here was also clean, good and cheap.
On the afternoon of our arrival, my son-in-law, Lam, turned up with his motorbike to take me to the Cao Dai complex. It is large, with dual-lane roads running through it and occupying eight hectares. Lam was the right person to go with, as his family are Cao Dai adherents. Housed on this land is a school, a large garden nursery, part of the original forest conserved as a monkey sanctuary and a mausoleum to a founder. There are in fact, two temples. The smaller, often left off the itinerary, is dedicated to the Divine Mother, but it is beautiful and worth a look at. The ‘Kingpin’ attraction is the Grand Temple of the Divine Father.
Cao Daism, the religion of the era of improved transportation, is syncretic in nature, drawing on elements of all the world's great religions. The architecture of the Grand Temple with apse, nave and columns borrows heavily from that of a church. Much of the very ornate decoration is oriental, featuring dragons, snakes, storks and figures in Eastern garb. Some people, including Graham Greene, have found it Disneyesque, but I disagree. For me it is colourful, cheerful and aesthetic. Look up to the vaulted ceiling to see a heaven painted sky-blue with fluffy white clouds and a scattering of stars. In the lobby, a mural gives a summary of the religion. It is of the three ‘signatories of the third alliance between God and Mankind’. They are author Victor Hugo, Sun Yet Sen and the home-grown prophet Nguyen Binh Nhiem, writing the Cao Dai mantra of ‘God and humanity, love and justice’ in French and Chinese onto a shining celestial tablet.
The next day was New Year's Day and traditionally a day for visiting pagodas. The Nui Ba Den, or Black Lady Mountain, was packed. All human life was here, from little old ladies in sandals down to four-year-olds clambering gleefully up the steps. Though steep in places, the wide staircase with railings goes all the way up and there are plenty of benches to take a rest. Many tea and souvenir shops were also open, making for a carnival atmosphere. Proceeding at a leisurely pace, it took Lam and I just under an hour to reach the Lady of the Mountain Pagoda and ten minutes more to reach another housed around a cave.
We descended via the new cable car. We sat back and enjoyed superb verdant views of the sugar cane and rice fields, orchards and rubber plantations. To one side, we could also see the blue of Lake Dau Tieng, which according to Lam, is Vietnam's largest. Also, we could something like a bobsleigh run twisting and turning through the trees. This is the slideway. I would have loved to have taken that, but it was closed for repairs.
Once near the base, Lam took me along a path and over a footbridge to a cave, which had once been occupied by liberation forces. There are realistic mock-ups of fighters planning a raid, communicating by radio and preparing food. If you climb all the way to the summit, you can see the remains, including bunkers and the heliport of the American Camp Ba Den.
What of the legend of the Black Lady? There appear to be several different ones. One is of a woman who, upon being attacked by robbers, opted to save her honour by jumping off a cliff. I have heard that one more than once on my travels in China. Another Khmer legend has her as a young woman who wished to devote her life to Buddhism. Rather than obey her father's command to get married, she committed suicide on the mountain.
Back at the in-laws' house, my wife had returned from a shopping trip. She was full of praise for the Tay Ninh Market. It is huge, occupying two hectares, and is privately run. In Mrs de Rouvray's opinion, it surpasses the Ben Thanh Market and is, of course, a great deal cheaper.
On the subject of food, in Tay Ninh Province, closer to Saigon and on the same road, sits the town of Trang Bang. In this area, you will see many roadside stalls selling Banh Trang Bang, a double-layer rice paper. The process of preparing it is complex and involves, among other steps, grilling it over a peanut shell fire and finally leaving it out overnight to be wetted by the dew. It can be used as a wrap for a salt and shrimp roll. You might also want to stop in this town to try a pork noodle soup, which includes the rice paper along with herbs and is called Banh Canh Trang Bang.
On our final day in Tay Ninh town, I took a stroll down the 30th of April Boulevard to the Tay Ninh Provincial Museum. All explanations are in Vietnamese and it is not a modern museum. Nevertheless, it is interesting and offers insight into Vietnam's past at provincial level. Much of it is devoted to the grim story of the twentieth century, from party and liberation forces formation to the struggles against the French and the Americans, Tay Ninh being the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Khmer Rouge incursions into the province and massacres are also documented. There is a poignant photograph of scared, captured Khmer female fighters-no more than girls. Also interesting are artefacts from farming history and reminders of the Cambodian and Oc Eo civilisations that preceded Vietnamese settlement here. Finally, there are displays dedicated to four ethic groups that inhabit the province, namely the Khmer, Cham, Chinese Han and Ta Mun.
And so, we climbed into our car and said farewell to Tay Ninh, making a vow to return, perhaps to explore the lake area or to see the province's remote National Park. If you have a couple of days, I would urge you to see Tay Ninh as a mini-destination and not merely as a day trip. It offers a chance to escape the motorbike rush and see the real Vietnam as well as a glimpse at a home-grown religion and a romantic mountain.

Pip de Rouvray
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