Photo: Burning incense at a Cholon pagoda.

The Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh

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Tay Ninh province sits to the northwest of Ho Chi Minh City and is bordered by Cambodia to the west and north, with its eastern border formed by the Saigon River as it empties out of Dai Tieng lake.

Photo of The Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh

As with pretty much all the surrounds, the landscape is primarily flat farmland with just the occasional hillock here and there. The exception is Nui Ba Den which reaches almost 1,000m and sits around 12km north of the same-named capital.

The Cao Dai Holy See — the great temple of the Cao Dai faith — sits a few kilometres outside of town. A garish meld of styles and influences, the temple is dominated by a divine eye which is the religion's representation of God — for those who are curious, it's a left eye. The temple is done out in hues of pinks and baby blues, with a brilliant interior bedecked with eight grandiose pillars wrapped with writhing dragons, and a clouded pastel blue sky that wouldn't be out of place in a Vegas casino — you really have to see the place to believe it. The faith has built temples all over the region, especially in the Mekong Delta, but this is the biggest, brightest and best.

The Cao Dai beliefs are a curious mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism with a decent dash of home-grown remedies thrown into the mix. The religion grew out of the work of the Vietnamese public officer and mystic, Ngo Minh Chieu, who was on the receiving end of revelations from 1919 onwards, culminating in the founding of the religion in 1926. These revelations are believed to have come directly from God. For a religion that once had a standing army of more than 20,000 the practices laid out in its revelations are decidedly non-violent — frequent prayer, veneration of ancestors, non-violence and vegetarianism are all centrepieces.

The Cao Dao prayers form the key attraction at the Holy See from a tourist's perspective. Ritual prayers are held four times daily with the midday session the most likely one you'll see if you visit as a part of a tour from Saigon. Be aware that while you're permitted to photograph the prayers from the upstairs terrace (where all the tourists are herded) you're not permitted to take pictures of individuals without first asking permission. As with most temples, respectful attire is required — no singlet tops, shorts, nor, need it be said, bikini tops.

If you decide to visit the temple independently, aim for a prayer session other than the midday one as you'll have far fewer tourists to share the spectacle with.

How to get there
To reach Tay Ninh from Saigon catch a bus from either Ben Thanh or Mien Tay bus stations. The trip will take two to three hours. Once you're in Tay Ninh, walk, or get a xe om to the temple itself.

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