25. Tay Ninh and the Cao Dai Religion

The Cao Dai faith is an otherworldly blend of Asian, European and mystical beliefs. Its mother temple is a mere 80 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.

God is watching you everywhere at the Cao Dai mother temple in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

You know The Eye?

Yeah, that one. The Eye of Providence. The one in the pyramid on the Great Seal of the United States. The eye whose gleam illumines obscure Latin mottos on the back side of the dollar bill. The all-seeing Eye of God embraced by Knights Templar, Freemasons and Rosicrucians alike.

Everywhere I went in the mother temple of the unique Đạo Cao Đài faith, in the provincial capital of Tây Ninh, it was watching me. Or so it seemed. And I continued to imagine The Eye long after I left.

It appeared in every doorway and window, framed by the holy trinity of a perfect triangle, rays of imaginary sunlight reaching beyond its universe. And it was embedded in a giant, globe-like orb, luminescent blue and green like Earth itself, elevated on a dais where another church might have placed an altar.

During holy hours, you may see scores of Cao Dai devotees, cloaked in white and wearing black hats, singing and chanting and bowing in unison to this “left eye of God.” To me it suggested an old Flash Gordon sci-fi movie, or perhaps an Indiana Jonestown parody.

Every window and doorway has, at its core, the Cao Dai eye. (JGA photo)

East meets West

I hadn’t expected to see this sort of ceremony in Vietnam. As a student of world religions, I had anticipated a largely Buddhist society, with significant numbers of Catholics (a French colonial legacy), Chinese Taoists and Confucians. And in a communist society, I expected that many would profess to “no religion.” I didn’t think I’d find the whole mix in a single package.

Although it has an estimated 3 to 5 million followers worldwide (mostly in Vietnam), I had never heard of Caodaism. Founded by Vietnamese spirit mediums in the 1920s, the religion merges 19th-century European mysticism with the various East Asian faiths.

Its objectives are honorable — the unity of all religions; the harmonious balance of the universe; the coupling of god and mankind, love and justice (and karma).  The two main gods, Cao Đài (“Highest Power”) and Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu (the Mother Goddess), are considered equal creators of the universe, the yin and yang of humanity. If there ever was a duotheistic religion, this is it.

But here in Tây Ninh, 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, it seemed a little cosmic, a little spooky, to have the “left eye” of the all-seeing Cao Dai watching me as I moved through the massive Great Temple of the Holy See.

Cao Dai devotees offer prayers in the nave between services. (JGA photo)

Four services daily

Prayers are offered daily at noon, 6 p.m., midnight and 6 a.m. Men, having removed their shoes, enter on the right side of the sanctuary and move around the floor in a counter-clockwise direction. Women enter on the left and move clockwise. The area in the center is reserved for priests. During the full moon and new moon — the first and 15th day of each lunar month — the sanctuary welcomes a couple of hundred visitors. At other times, there may be only a few dozen.

I was glad to tour between services, when I could be ushered about by congregation members proud to share their beautiful house of worship. Red, gold and sky-blue dominate the color scheme. Mythological dragons and cranes wrap themselves around gaudy columns. Fanciful carp spout upward, dreaming that they, too, might someday be dragons.

On another level are altars for worship of ancestors, much as one might see in a Confucian or Taoist temple.  An adjacent building has meeting rooms and a kitchen and dining area. Caodaists, who practice vegetarianism, earn good juju when they work in the kitchen to feed others. That includes substantial charity work.

Sun Yat-sen, left, and Victor Hugo, center, are among the most revered figures of the Cao Dai faith. (JGA photo)

Cosmic truths

The avatars of the Cao Dai faith are not whom you might expect. For one, there’s Victor Hugo, the 19th-century French author of “Les Misérables.” He has been assigned the post-mortem post of “spiritual chief of the foreign missions of Caodaism.”

Along with early 20th-century Chinese patriot Sun Yat-sen and medieval Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem, Hugo is a “signatory of the Third Alliance Between God and Man,” although the trio lived their earthly lives at different times. They are said to be guiding humanity into a new era of enlightenment, ably assisted by Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, William Shakespeare and Vladimir Lenin, to name but a few.

Throughout history, according to the faith’s leaders, Cao Đài has communicated his cosmic truths through a series of prophets — great visionaries like the Sakyamuni Buddha, Taoism’s Lao Tzu and Jesus Christ. But mankind has not embraced their messages, distracted by physical and secular desires. The time has finally come, Caodaists believe, when God is speaking directly to humanity instead of through a messenger.

As a covenant between Heaven and Earth, the objective of the Third Alliance is universal peace. It will be ushered in by a period of intense religious activity that “will unite God and humanity in ways not yet imagined,” a church leader told me.

But it’s imperative that we listen. If we ignore the truth one more time, things could get really ugly. The choice is salvation for living beings … or universal destruction. And none of us really wants that.

The Great Temple of Caodaism is a prominent structure in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

Cao Dai community

The Cao Dai temple is the main feature of the township of Hoa Thanh, located about 4 kilometers from the heart of Tây Ninh. Started in 1931 and completed in 1947, the temple sets the tone for other Cao Dai sanctuaries in Vietnam with a blend of ornate architectural styles as staggeringly dissimilar as the religion’s doctrines.

The building is 320 feet long, with 156 pillars and two tall towers at its front. Adjacent avenues are fronted by administrative buildings, public gardens, a hospital of traditional herbal medicine, large schools, lovely homes and other structures that suggest substantial wealth in this community.

Tiers of grandstands flank the boulevard that approaches the temple from the elaborate main gate, providing viewing for occasional festival parades and funeral processions. Most times, however, they are playgrounds for about 150 macaque monkeys who live in the adjacent forest. The younger generation of these primates can provide considerable entertainment for visitors, but they can also be a nuisance for the unwary.

A cablecar carries visitors through the clouds to the summit of Ba Den Mountain. (JGA photo)

Ba Den Mountain

Tây Ninh itself is a lovely town of about 150,000 people, with broad streets and precious little traffic, especially compared to Ho Chi Minh City. Apart from the Cao Dai community, its main appeal for visitors is Ba Den (“Black Virgin”) Mountain, with views into neighboring Cambodia from 10 km northeast of the urban center.

The solitary cinder cone, largest free-standing peak in southern Vietnam, rises to an elevation of 986 meters (3,235 feet) above surrounding rubber plantations and fields of rice and corn. Those who follow a strenuous trail to the crest can enjoy a respite at a tranquil Buddhist temple complex halfway up the mountain, and several ancient cave temples near the summit.

The vast majority of visitors avoid the walk and take a cablecar to a visitor center on the mountaintop. Many of them are young families, dating couples and honeymooners. The destination’s popularity has mushroomed to the point that SunWorld, a national hospitality group, is completing a hotel on the peak’s highest point. The structure is so prominent that, from many miles away, it looks like Ba Den’s nipple.

The summit of Ba Den Mountain is a popular location for wedding photography. (JGA photo)

For anyone planning a visit to Tây Ninh, I recommend the understated Gold City Hotel , a modern boutique property on a quiet downtown street. The hosts are exceptionally generous with their time and in providing assistance, and there are numerous choices of restaurants — and a great little pub — in the immediate neighborhood.

Worshippers kowtow to the Cao Dai eye during a midday service in Tay Ninh. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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