A few hours’ drive from Saigon is the small town of Tay Ninh, a place few outside of Vietnam have heard of. Roughly six million people today, however, consider it their holy land. It was here in 1919 that a man named Ngo Van Chieu received a revelation during a séance. An entity known as Cao Dai spoke to him, explaining that all spiritual belief systems were really one. Several years later, an official religion was founded, with construction of its main temple, the Cao Dai Holy See, beginning in 1935.
Nowadays, the Cao Dai Holy See is a popular day trip from Saigon, with the temple allowing tourists to witness their midday service. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see one of Vietnam’s most beautiful buildings, while also hoping to learn more about Cao Dai’s colorful symbols and its mysterious Divine Eye.
Cao Dai and The Universal Truth
Regardless of your upbringing, you’ll likely be familiar with at least some aspect of Cao Daism. For Cao Dai is the ultimate syncretic religion, blending together ideas from both East and West. It fuses the major Asian religions such as Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, while borrowing numerous elements from Catholicism, the religion brought by the French colonizers.
Cao Daism has even been strongly influenced by Western occult practices such as Spiritism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, which encourages communication with otherworldly entities. And if the religion’s main symbol is anything to go by, it’s likely been inspired by French Freemasonry as well, though this remains unconfirmed. Jesus and Muhammad, of course, are also members of the Cao Dai pantheon, along with a number of secular figures from throughout history.
But with so many different influences, how is Cao Dai able to blend everything together without becoming a disorganized hodgepodge of ideas? It’s hard to say for certain, as most of the religion’s official literature is written entirely in Vietnamese. Essentially, though, Cao Daists believe that all religions espouse the same universal truth, and only appear to be different due to cultural barriers and historical context. And judging from the architecture of their main temple, at least, Cao Dai seems to do a pretty good job of melding their influences together in a graceful manner.
Approaching the Holy See
Approaching the extraordinarily long temple, I noticed Buddha statues atop the towers, while the Masonic-inspired Divine Eye stared at me from the exterior of the windows. The building itself, meanwhile, appears to be a fusion of a Chinese temple and a French colonial building, with hints of Hindu or even Islamic influence thrown in for good measure. Another thing you’ll notice even before entering the temple is the religion’s multicolored flag.
As evidenced by its many pagodas, religion in Vietnam has always been syncretic in nature, linking major religions and philosophies together with the native traditions of spirit and ancestor worship. This fusion is referred to in Vietnam as Tam Giao. On the Cao Dai flag, the three main religions of East Asia are each represented by a different color.
Vietnamese mostly follow the Mahayana sect of Buddhism introduced from China. In addition to the historical Gautama Buddha, the tradition venerates beings like Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, along with Maitreya, the Future Buddha.
Taoism is a Chinese religion built upon the philosophical writings of Lao Tzu. It mainly focuses on living in harmony with nature and “going with the flow,” but religious adherents also pray to deities such as the Jade Emperor
Confucianism is less a religion than it is a philosophy and social code. It places a strong emphasis on hierarchy within the family as well as within society as a whole.
One of the more surprising aspects of the Cao Dai religion is its reverence of three major saints, none of whom were associated with any particular religion during their lifetime. Followers of the faith believe that their spirits imparted important information to Cao Dai members during séances, thus earning their saintly status.
Sun Yat-sen is the Chinese revolutionary leader who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty, ending China’s imperial era for good. He is still highly revered in China today.
Victor Hugo is the French writer best known for authoring Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. During his lifetime, he was highly critical of the Catholic church and even partook in spiritism and séances of his own.
Nguyen Binh Khiem
Nguyen Binh Khiem was a 16th-century Vietnamese poet. He is considered to be the Vietnamese Nostradamus, as many of his predictions turned out to be true. Political leaders often sought his advice which greatly affected the course of history. He’s even the first person to have used the phrase “Viet Nam.”
But if the Cao Dai saints are spirits who reveal themselves during séances, how come there haven’t been any updates since the early 20th century? Surely at least a few additional spirits have been eager to make their voices heard in the last couple of decades? Well, it turns out that séances have actually been banned by the Vietnamese government.
Troubles with the ruling regime is certainly nothing new to Cao Dai. Followers resisted the invading Japanese during World War II, and would later have issues with South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem. And since the Communist takeover of the country, Cao Daism has never been held in high regard by the ruling secular elite.
Be that as it may, the religion still has several million followers. And as the Vietnamese diaspora has spread throughout the world in recent decades, Cao Dai members have also brought their religion with them. Temples currently exist in places like Australia, Canada, France, Cambodia and the United States – all countries with sizable Vietnamese immigrant communities.
With all the different religions and traditions under its umbrella, Cao Dai is, unsurprisingly, a tradition rich in symbolism. Walking along the inside of the Holy See, one of the first things you’ll notice are the pillars wrapped in coiled dragons. Dragons are considered symbols of strength and success in Chinese and Vietnamese culture, while the 28 pillars in total represent various manifestations of the Buddha.
While the Divine Eye, which represents Cao Dai himself, can be seen all over the temple, its most prominent representation is the one on a large blue globe in the center of the main altar. The eye is surrounded by stars and clouds, representing the upper heavenly realms. Looking closely, you’ll notice that the eye is similar to, but slightly different, from the famous “Eye in the Triangle” that adorns the US dollar bill.
While that eye is a right eye, the Cao Dai worship the left. Within the body, the left eye is more closely aligned with the heart. In a broader context, left is synonymous with expansive, solar, male energy, or yang. While the male manifestation of the divine is more prominent in Cao Dai, the female, or yin, aspect of the universe is important as well. The Divine Mother is worshipped via traditional goddesses like Guan Yin and Quan Am. And, believe it or not, even Joan of Arc is considered a member of the Cao Dai pantheon!
I didn’t have too long to explore the temple before it was time for the ceremony to start. The Holy See is host to four ceremonies a day which take place at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. As you would expect, the noon ceremony is the one which attracts most of the tourists, who are only allowed to watch from the upper balcony.
There was surprisingly little space to stand at the top, as a large majority of the upper floor had been cordoned off. Even with only 20 or 30 people up there, space was tight, and it was hard to get a decent view. I couldn’t complain, though. These are real Cao Dai ceremonies and not tourist shows. They wouldn’t have to allow any outsiders at all if they didn’t want to.
With the exception of the Divine Eye, most of the symbols around the temple complex are clearly Eastern in origin. But it’s the hierarchical structure that reveals the strong influence of the West. Divided into nine levels are positions like cardinals, archbishop and even Pope. Surprisingly, though, Cao Dai currently has no Pope. Their first and only Pope, Pham Cong Tac, was exiled by South Vietnam in the ’50’s and was never replaced. At least not in the realm of the living.
As the ceremony began, the music started up and dozens of robed devotees took their seats in the room, entering in a precise ritualistic manner. The white robes, which make up the majority of the group, are lay followers. Priests wear colored robes, while cardinals and bishops wear the headpieces with the Divine Eye on them. During the ceremony, men and women sit separately.
I had little idea of what was going on, but the percussive music of the small orchestra upstairs, combined with the chanting of the participants down below, created a hypnotizing effect. And then, before I knew it, it was all over. The robed adherents stood up and gradually dispersed, probably to the various lodgings around the complex reserved for full-time members of the faith. Noticeably, almost everyone present in the ceremony was a senior citizen.
While one might expect such a syncretic religion to have a more universal appeal, especially among the young, there are unlikely to be too many young Vietnamese these days with the time and resources to live as full-time devotees. Some even say that Cao Dai is dying out. But with several million followers still left, though, expect the religion to stick around for awhile longer.
As “universal” as the religion is, it’s not the most open faith to outsiders considering the major language barriers. It does, at least, make for one of the most fascinating and uniquely Vietnamese things you can experience while in the country.
Beyond Tay Ninh
While Tay Ninh is the main spiritual center of Cao Dai, you’ll likely come across temples in other cities during your travels around Vietnam. None are nearly as grand as the Holy See, but the second largest temple is located in Da Nang in the center of the country.
Cao Dai temples are usually free to casually pop into and have a look as long as you’re respectful of the rules. Even if there’s no ceremony going on, you can still take a peek and get a glimpse of the mesmerizing Divine Eye.
By far the easiest way to get to the Cao Dai Holy See is to join a group tour. I’m the type of person to avoid group tours unless it’s just way too much of a hassle to get somewhere otherwise, and this seemed to be such a case.
Understand that the tours to the Cao Dai Holy See will nearly always include a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. There seem to be numerous tours which only visit the tunnels, while no such tours to the Holy See alone exist.
The tunnels are worth a visit, especially if you’re interested in the Vietnam War. Cu Chi is a more typical tourist experience, and your guide will explain much of their history along the way. The Holy See portion, on the other hands, allows visitors to freely wander around the temple on their own. There won’t be any explanation from the tour guide other than on the bus ride before and after the visit.
This format works out pretty well, as I prefer to explore on my own. The main downside is the lack of time allowed to wander the temple complex before the ceremony begins. If you really want to take things slow in Tay Ninh, and perhaps even meet some Cao Dai believers, you’ll have to travel there independently.
Supposedly, you can take a minius from Saigon’s An Suong Bus Statio for around 60,000 VND a ticket. The ride lasts a few hours one-way, and you probably also need to arrange local transport from the Tay Ninh bus station.
The best place to stay in Saigon would have to be District 1. I ended up with a cheap private room in the backpacker district called Pham Ngu Lao Street. I normally tend to avoid these kinds of districts when I travel, but it really wasn’t bad. There were plenty of restaurants and convenience stores just outside my hotel and it wasn’t incredibly noisy at night.
I was able to get most other places in District 1, from art spaces to colonial buildings to old pagodas, on foot. I could also walk from Pham Ngu Lao Street to District 3. However, there should be plenty of other hotel options in District 1 that are outside the backpacker district.
Wherever you stay, having Uber on your phone will allow you to get from place to place with ease.
Saigon, it seems, is the cheapest and easiest place to fly into in Vietnam. At least when flying from within Southeast Asia, the flights to Saigon were much cheaper and more frequent than flights to Hanoi or Da Nang.
Vietnam is not only serviced by Air Asia, but they have their own equivalent called VietJet. Maybe I just got lucky, but I was able to find a direct flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Saigon for just under $60 USD!
VietJet can also get you to and from plenty of other cities within Vietnam, like Da Nang and the capital.
If you don’t want to fly, your only other option is by bus. Getting to Saigon from a neighboring country like Cambodia or Laos would likely be a long, uncomfortable and possibly dangerous journey. With local flights as cheap as they are nowadays, I see little reason not to fly.