December 6, 2023

What do the following have in common: a giant speckled blue globe; a divine all-seeing eye; a portrait of a fairy from Chinese mythology, and a mural of the 19th century French writer Victor Hugo with the revolutionary Chinese leader Sun Yat-Sen and a 16th century Vietnamese poet, signing an alliance between God and humanity?

They are just some of the strange mix of elements in the spectacular Cao Dai Temple one hundred kilometres northwest of Ho Chi Min City in Tay Ninh province close to the Cambodian border.

It is well worth the three-hour trip in the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the outskirts of HCMC and through the rather dull, flat rice paddies and fields, to experience the Holy See of Caodaism in the village of Long Hoa. Most tours leave the city around 8 am in order to get there by 11 am to give visitors time to photograph both outside and inside the temple before the spectacular midday prayer service which they are welcome to observe and photograph.

But what is Caodaism? ‘Cao dai’ means ‘high tower’ or the highest place where god resides. Caodaism is referred to as the universal religion. It is a strange fusion of the ideals of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam, plus a dose of spiritism and western philosophy. It was founded in 1926 by a Vietnamese mystic called Ngo Minh Chieu who claimed to have been given revelations by God during a series of seances.

The moment you enter the complex through an enormous gateway, your eyes are assaulted by a fantasy of pinks, yellows, blues and mirrored tiles gleaming in the sun. The temple is part Gothic cathedral and part pagoda with the Great Divine Eye – symbol of God – beaming down from between two square towers. On the pagoda-style roof is a Buddha and what looks like the top of an Islamic minaret with a hemisphere of the world and a mythical creature of some sort. There are verandahs and balconies, images of saints and a weird mixture of other symbols and icons such as fluorescent lotuses and yellow snarling lions.

The inside of the temple seems like something seen in a drug-induced hallucination. It glows with the three principal colours of Caodaism: yellow (Buddhism), blue (Taoism) and red (Confucianism) and its decor is a mix of Baroque and Oriental. Although its main structure resembles a typical Christian cathedral, it has a blue ceiling scattered with clouds and a dome of heaven. The central nave is bordered by twenty-eight salmon pink columns entwined with green mosaic dragons to represent the number of manifestations of the Buddha. The Great Divine Eye is everywhere, most spectacularly on the huge globe beneath the ceiling dome. There are paintings of saints, Chinese unicorns, phoenixes and turtles, more depictions of the lotus and seven-headed cobras symbolizing the seven human emotions, and two pulpits similar to those in mosques. In front of the altar are seven gilt and red chairs.

Well before midday, officials dressed in white, usher barefooted visitors up the rear stairs to the accompaniment of stringed instruments and a choir of young women. As the visitors gather along the side galleries that overlook the main hall, they are urged to maintain a respectful silence. What follows is a surreal experience. The lay worshippers, in pristine white robes, enter first and line up in rows on the beautiful ceramic tiled floor, the men on the right and the women on the left. Then those with the rank of priest, bishop and cardinal (like the catholic hierarchy), enter in billowing coloured robes with variously shaped headdresses emblazoned with the Divine Eye. The colours of their robes reflect their own particular spiritual allegiance within the sect: yellow for the virtue of Buddhism, blue for the pacifism of Taoism and red for the authority of Confucianism. These high-ranking followers line up in the centre and then all sit and the prayer/meditations begin.

Before leaving, visitors can wander the rest of the Cao Dai complex that includes beautiful gardens, administrative buildings, residences of adepts and a hospital for traditional Vietnamese medical treatments.

This one-day excursion is certainly a highlight of any visit to Ho Ch Min City.