As it was our first time in Saigon I had no idea what to really expect. Aside from my knowledge it was going to humid, busy and noisy (and where we should eat), I planned nothing before we arrived.
We booked a tour
I’m not overly keen on organised tours but as it was just me and the kids (we left Rich working in Europe) and I wasn’t sure about the condition of the roads or the quality of the driving, we went in search of small tours.
I learned about Vietnam’s largest Cao Dai Temple from the travel agent under our hotel in Saigon (£15 off) and as we hadn’t seen any temples, we thought it would be interesting to go and see.
I originally thought that Cao Dai was the town where the temple was located, but nope, it’s actually a religion!
Even if, like us, you have no real interest or belief in religion, a trip to the largest Cao Dei temple in Vietnam is definitely worth a visit. For me it reinforced that atheism is the way of the future! I am ALL for world peace but not under the hypocrisies and control and guise of religion.
How did it all start?
Caodaism is a relatively new religion (or cult) which was founded in 1926 by Ngo Minh Chieu, a French civil servant. Mr Chieu was also a mystic and knowledgeable about the philosophies and teachings of Western and Eastern religions.
Apparently he started receiving revelations from god (also known as Cao Dai) about creating a new faith that encompassed the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam and other religions into one in order to promote peace.
What is Caodism?
Cao means ‘high’ while Dai means ‘tower’ or ‘palace’. The combined verbal image is used to represent both a heavenly place and a ‘supreme being’ envisioned as creating all religions and beings on the earth.
It is all encompassing Vietnamese religious movement which draws upon ethical ideas from Chinese Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism and a hierarchical organisation (including a pope) from Roman Catholicism.
Its pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen.
When was the Temple Built?
The giant temple in Tay Ninh was built between 1933 and 1955 however due to the Japanese-IndoChina war, the Cao Dai was disbanded and the pope, Pham Cong Tac was forced into exhile.
After the communist takeover in 1975, Cao Dai was reportedly repressed by the government. Centers of worship were established in Vietnamese refugee communities abroad however and the practice was eventually re-legalised in Vietnam in 1985.
By the early 1990’s Cao Dai was reported to have two million global followers. Today, Cao Dai reports followers as high as six million.
The architecture of the temple
The temple measures 140m long by 40m wide and 36m high. The temple spreads over an area of 5600 m2 and looks like an extremely well-ordered and neat compound containing a school, a hospital, an orphanage, a home for the aged and a residence for nuns.
The architecture of the church reflects syncretic ideologies:
- The four towers which are named as Tam Dai, Hiep Thien Dai, Cuu Trung Dai and Bat Quai Dai are a link to the spirit world.
- The runner is supported by cylindrical pillars which reflect Buddhism.
- The statue of Maitreya Buddha is in the Lotus position. The red colour and the pointy roofs are typical of Chinese architecture and Hinduism.
- There are two belfries, a long central nave with upper gallery and side aisles, an altar, an apse and ambulatory which are unique to Christianity.
The interior architecture
The interior and the exterior are decorated colorfully and walking inside you can see a colonnaded hall litered with people.
Everywhere you’ll look is intricate decoration but in particular the columns with dragon symbols, painted in white, red, pink and blue caught my eye.
The dome (high ceiling) in the main hall is painted as a starry night with fluffy clouds and divided into nine parts which symbolize heaven. The dome is located above a huge blue globe, on which the Divine Eye, the official symbol of Cao Daism, is painted.
Symbolism of the Cao Dai Temple
Both the exterior and interior of the Cao Dai Temple are extravagantly decorated, incorporating symbols, abstract designs and images of saints.
- The three principal colours of Cao Dai are yellow (Buddhism), blue (Taoism), and red (Christianity) and these appear on worshippers’ robes as well as the temple.
- The dragon-encrusted columns that run the length of the nave, represent the twenty-eight manifestations of the Buddha.
- Seven-headed cobras represent the seven human emotions.
- The most important symbol is the Divine Eye, representing God. It is a left eye, because God is Yang, and Yang is the left side. It has a ying-yang symbol in the pupil.
The Divine, All-Seeing Eye of god.
This symbol is a reminder that god is omnipresent and sees all – so don’t do anything bad!!
In the front of the temple is the Divine Eye in the shape of a triangle of Justice. It is surrounded by flowers on the Cosmic Globe. On the altar lies three glasses of wine, a cup of water and a cup of tea. Just in case god is thirsty, maybe?
You will often see the Divine Eye in people’s houses which, for me, acts as a reminder of social control through fear.
What do worshippers do?
There are four ceremonies each day: 5:30am, 11:30am, 17:30 and 23:30. The noon ceremony is the largest as this is the one most tourists visit. If I were to go back again, I think it would be nicer to visit the midnight service.
One of the most memorable sights at the Cao Dai temple is the sea of worshippers who dress in flowing robes and assemble in orderly rows, sat on the floor, during the ceremony.
Genders are segregated and women have a different walking pattern to men within the temple. Women enter and walk clockwise around the hall and congregate to the left. Meanwhile, men enter from the right and walk counterclockwise.
Most worshippers are lay followers and can be easily seen because they wear pure white robes.
- Men with the rank of priest and higher have brightly colored robes reflecting their spiritual allegiance: yellow (symbolizing Buddhism and virtue), blue (Taoism and pacifism) or red (Confucianism and authority).
- Bishops and cardinals have the Divine Eye emblazoned on their headpieces.
- Caodaism stresses equality among men and women in society however women may only achieve the institutional position of cardinal and they are frequently disallowed from being leaders. I guess some are more equal than others, hey!
- There is also no divorce – but that’s a separate matter entirely!
Musicians are upstairs, which is also where visitors are taken.
There is an orchestra of approximately ten older, male, musicians whose music is traditionally Vietnamese and played on traditional instruments. A choir of approximately twenty young people (all female) lead the congregation in the prayers and hymns.
The music has an unusually eerie and repetitive sound.
A major belief within Caodaism is the family unit, which is considered to be one of the most virtuous and sacred undertakings a person can participate in. Family is sincere and prosperous.
After family, society is the most important part of living. Harmony within society is one of the primary goals of Caodaism and without prosperous families, a practitioner is unable to properly worship god and strive to attain liberation from the body and union with the Divine.
Caodaism teaches that a person (and also indeed animals) have both a physical body and a spiritual soul. The conscious spirit resides within the living body and is directly connected to the Divine. Because of this godly spirit, Caodaism also teaches reincarnation however reincarnation is bad and the goal of life is to not be reincarnated back into the world.
Like most religions, Caodaism emphasizes harmony with nature and a core tenant of Cao Dai religion is eating as a vegetarian at least ten times a month. This is about the only part I agree with LOL.
Like Buddhism and Hinduism, Caodaists believe in karma. Karma directly affects the pattern of reincarnation. One method of reducing the amount of karma one creates and retains is to renounce luxury and indulgences.
Cao Dai Etiquette
During the ceremony, no person is allowed to walk on the concrete area in front of the temple.
Cars should not drive through the gates directly in front of the temple’s entrance.
Times to experience the prayer ceremony are 5:30, 11:30, 17:30 and 23:30.
How to dress
You are expected to dress respectfully when visiting the temple and should wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees (long shorts, trousers and skirts are acceptable).
You should also take off your shoes before entering the temple and leave them outside.
You are welcome to take photos of the temple and the ceremony proceedings as long as it is done discreetly and respectfully.
Visitors are ushered upstairs to the balcony where they can witness the music and praying. I noticed that the Chinese tourists were frequently shushed and asked to be quiet. It was embarrassing!
Video from Cao Dai
How much did the trip cost?
The trip, which comprised of a visit to Cao Dai, the Cu Chi tunnel, lunch and later a visit to an art shop which employs sufferers of Agent Orange cost 2,000 dong (for four of us) and we left a tip for the temple.
Can you do it yourself?
I don’t see any reason why you can’t visit yourself although Google hasn’t been very helpful. You could just turn up at the gates at 11:30 before the noon service and ask about entrance.
Visitors are made to feel very welcome and I should imagine that spending time here, rather than being whisked away by a tour guide, would be quite nice.
I mentioned earlier that I think the midnight ceremony would be nicer as I expect there would be NO other tourists.
Just be careful of the monkeys!!
Things to consider:
The main Cao Dai Temple is in Tay Ninh, 70+ kilometers northwest of Saigon and 25 kilometers from the Cambodian border).
It is a remote area so check on booking.com (£15 off) that there’s somewhere for you to stay.
Follow our Journey
If you’d like to see more from our travels in Vietnam, head here.
Ho Chi Minh City is full of Surprises