The city of Tay Ninh is probably known best as the birthplace of Caodaism, a modern religion which has millions of adherents in Vietnam and around the world. We were able to attend a bizarre and beautiful worship ceremony in Cao Dai’s Holy See, at the Great Divine Temple.
Moments like this are the reason we’re so addicted to travel. Kneeling within the temple of a religion we’d never heard of, watching unbroken rows of white-robed adherents chant and bow, listening to exotic orchestral music echoing through the halls… we were transfixed. It was all so strange; I hadn’t had any idea what to expect from Cao Dai, but it certainly wasn’t this.
Before the ceremony, we’d had the chance to meet with one of the priests, who gave us a helpful primer on his faith. Cao Dai was founded in 1926, here in Tay Ninh, and immediately caught on among the local population. Today, there are about six million followers; mostly Vietnamese, although the churches can be found throughout the world, including a few in the USA. Caodaism is a fusion of various faiths, represented in the tri-colored flag: yellow for Buddhism, blue for Taoism and red for Confucianism.
My curiosity in Cao Dai skyrocketed during the service, when I saw a plaque on the wall about the religion’s three venerable saints… one of whom is Victor Hugo. Alright, Caodaism, you have my attention! Tell me more.
Caodaists believe that humanity is in a “Third Period” of religious awakening, and that the Creator (Cao Dai) speaks directly to us. They believe that during this third age, all religions will merge, and that humanity will finally achieve worldwide peace. They’re vegetarian and practice non-violence, and they also believe in the reincarnation of the soul; that by gaining merits during this life, you can ascend to a higher plane on your next go-around, with Nirvana being the ultimate goal. The disembodied left eye of God is Cao Dai’s main symbol, and placed prominently in the facade of all its temples.
Six million people is about as many as Mormonism, so I was dumbfounded that I’d never heard of Caodaism before our trip to Tay Ninh. The faith’s “Holy See” is a massive, enclosed area north of the city center, with the Great Divine Temple in the middle. In front of the temple, we encountered a festival, featuring a couple dozen animatronic displays which I’m guessing represented important moments from Cao Dai’s texts. Village life, kings emerging from caves, warriors sent off to battle… we didn’t understand any of it, but these were fun to check out. The displays aren’t always here; they were likely part of the New Year celebration.
The Cao Dai Temple is a popular spot on the tourist itinerary; day tours leaving from Saigon combine a trip here, with a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels. But apparently, all those tours arrive for the ceremony at noon. We went for the evening service at 6pm. The sun was just setting, and we were the only foreigners present… a fact which tremendously enhanced the experience. Entering the temple and watching the fascinating rituals of Cao Dai simply wouldn’t have been the same, if we had been squished in with a dozen other tourists all fighting for a picture.