Cao Dai's holiest site
Located 95 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City in Tay Ninh, the Cao Dai Holy See Temple is the holiest centre of worship for the Cao Dai religion.
You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Caodaism. The religion is relatively young. According to the pamphlet we received, in 1921 Ngo Van Chieu, a district head of the French administration in Cochinchina, became the first disciple when he received revelations from Duc Cao Dai and a vision of the Divine Eye. The Divine Eye has become the symbol for Duc Cao Dai and represents the spiritual heart, the rays emanating from the left eye are the light of the universe. This symbol is at the altar of any Cao Dai temple.
It is estimated there are now 5 million followers worldwide and Caodaism is Vietnam’s third largest religion, though it is dwarfed by Buddhism and Catholicism.
The Cao Dai beliefs are a mix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The practices laid out in its revelations are decidedly non-violent—frequent prayer, non-violence, vegetarianism and harmony between all religions are tenets.
Just as the religion is a fusion of religions, the great temple is a meld of styles, religious motifs and influences. You really have to see the place to believe it: the riot of pink and baby blues, the interior bedecked with a cloudy pastel sky and eight grandiose pillars wrapped with dragons. The faith has built temples all over the Mekong Delta (you can see one in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown), but this is the biggest, brightest and best.
The temple and its worship ceremonies (four a day: 06:00, 12:00, 18:00 and midnight) are now an attraction for tourists, usually as part of a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City that combines it with Cu Chi Tunnels; they both lie northwest of the city. Tours depart around 08:00 and after the unavoidable stop at the lacquerware factory, arrive to the temple in time for the noon ceremony.
Cao Dai temples have separate entrances for male and female worshippers. Visitors are to enter through the male side (right side), taking shoes off first before heading upstairs to the visitors gallery where there’s a jostle for photos and video. Keep in mind that the ceremony lasts for 45 minutes followed by 15 minutes of prayer so once the initial excitement is over, people move away and there’s more space. As with any place of worship, be silent, be respectful when taking photos (don’t take them of individuals without asking permission), do not interrupt the ceremony and wear respectful attire: no singlets or shorts please.
The ceremony is absolutely fascinating and photogenic. We do think it’s worth including on the Cu Chi day trip so long as you have an interest in culture and religion—this is an opportunity to witness a rather rare one.
A mural at the front temple entrance depicts the three saints, and again, thanks to the pamphlet, we can tell you that they are “signatories of the third alliance between God and Mankind”: the leader of the Chinese revolution Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925), author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) who was full of compassion for the miserable and poet Nguyen Binh Khiem. These saints give spiritual guidance and assist Caodaists in spreading the new holy doctrine. In the mural Sun Yat Se is holding the ink and Trang Tinh and Nguyen Binh Khiem are writing “God and Humanity”, “Love and Justice” in French and Chinese.
As curious as the building, rites and saints may seem to an outsider, Caodaism believes in world unity, harmony of all religions, understanding between East and West and for men and women to play an essential part in the religion. The religion welcomes “all peoples of the world for the establishment of a universal brother and sisterhood without distinction of creed, race, sex, social background.” That sounds reasonable to us.
Cao Dai temple and Cu Chi Tunnel tours can be booked at any guesthouse, hotel or travel agent in Pham Ngu Lao. The full day costs as little as 150,000 dong, not including Cu Chi entrance fee, lunch at a tour bus restaurant and tips. It’s by far the easiest way to see the temple. If you decide to visit the temple independently, aim for a prayer session other than the midday one as there will be far fewer tourists and it will be less hot.
Address: 95 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City
Coordinates (for GPS): 106º8'1.61" E, 11º18'19.26" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: Combined tour with Cu Chi from 150,000 dong
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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