The Cao Dai Holy See

March 25th, 2009
Main temple of the Cao Dai sect in Tay Ninh, Vietnam

Main temple of the Cao Dai sect in Tay Ninh, Vietnam

Sunday morning, 5am… the alarm on my phone goes off.  I usually have an almost uncontrollable urge to destroy my cell phone when this happens.  When I was a kid I would spend summers at my grandparents’ house in Ohio.  My grandfather, a navy man in his time, used to sing this song early in the morning, often before the sun came up: “Oh how I hate to get up in the morning! Oh, how I hate to get out of bed!  One day I’ll find that dirty pup, the one that wakes the bugler up, and spend the rest of my days in bed”. It was supposed to be funny.  It was maddening.  He was lucky I loved him so much.  And that I was only 7 years old or so.

I’ve always hated early mornings, but they’re part of the job if you want to get decent photos.  But as much as I hate the first 30 minutes after getting up, I always wind up being glad I made myself get out of bed early.  And anyhow, on this day I didn’t really have any other options.  I had to get out to Tay Ninh Province before Noon in order to shoot a spread of photos for East West Magazine on the Cao Dai religious group.

I’m actually stretching the truth a bit, I could have left much later than I did, but that would have required taking the highway straight from Saigon to Tay Ninh.  Most of the route out there is busy, dusty, and not so beautiful.  However, I know the Secret Squirrel way to get there which cuts out across the western side of the city and then through a good chunk of Long An province.  This route crosses several canals and goes through a large area of rural farmland, and I knew I’d be able to take my time and get some nice shots for my blahg and have more of a story to tell.  Plus the ride would be much more pleasant and easygoing, and I’d simply enjoy myself more.

One of the numerous canals running from Long An province into Binh Chanh district in Saigon

One of the numerous canals running from Long An province into Binh Chanh district in Saigon

Yeah, right.  My fond memories of a nice, uncrowded highway fronted by shady canals full of lotus blossoms next to quaint little countryside houses with old men fishing for their lunch was quickly shattered.  It’s been well over 6 months since I last went out that way, and in Vietnam these days that’s more than enough time for drastic changes to set in.  The canals along the road are all being drained and filled in with rocks and dirt and being flattened in order to widen the highway.  The result at the moment is that all through the districts of Binh Tan and Binh Chanh the roads are temporarily narrowed, and full of dump trucks parked across the lanes depositing rocks in the once-so-beautiful canals.  Buses are parked waiting to go past, and as you come around them the opposing traffic comes at you in the wrong lane, assuring that if you aren’t fully awake and caffeinated your Sunday morning will probably end with you laying on the pavement wondering how you got in an accident on this idyllic little stretch of road.

I soon began “detouring”, taking off along the other canals which cross the road, as opposed to going along it.  They’re not filling those ones in… yet!

Incense drying in the sun next to a small country road in Binh Chanh district, Saigon

Incense drying in the sun next to a small country road in Binh Chanh district, Saigon

Binh Tan and Binh Chanh districts are both full of incense factories, both big and small.  Every time I go out there I see slats of incense drying in the sun alongside the road.  It’s gorgeously colorful, and I always enjoying hopping off the bike and experimenting with different compositions and ideas.  You can get everything from row after row of bright yellow incense surrounded by rough, dirty, urban looking environments, to single slats of joss sticks in the sun in green, leafy, natural looking settings.  They both work for me as they convey a very different atmosphere and sense of how the stuff is produced.

The canals are very much the same.  Some areas look like black, polluted, sewage drains with dilapidated buildings of tin and particle board crowded against them and refuse scattered everywhere, while other areas have beautiful palm trees, fishing nets suspended in the air, multi-colored boats moored at little piers and quaint little houses made of thatch.  Some of the canals are unnaturally straight, stretching off into the distance, while others meander gently through the countryside, following the path of least resistance.

After a couple hours of going back and forth from the dusty trucks and insanity on the main highway and the quiet solitude of the countryside canals, I finally reached the border of Long An Province.  The traffic slows down here, the construction comes to an end (mostly) and the highway finally comes to an end.  From here it’s little twisting countryside roads until you meet up again with the main highway heading towards the Cambodian border and into Tay Ninh province.  Along the way there’s a plethora of local agricultural projects, from several different kinds of fruit orchards, to rice fields, corn fields, herb gardens, cassava plants, bamboo plantations, oil palm production, local duck breeding farms, small river fisheries…  Every season of the year offers different colors and opportunities for interesting shots.  I simply love this little part of Long An.  In fact, I love all of Long An Province.  There’s not much there in the way of tourist sites or “things to do”, but if you have a camera and like people in conical hats, boy, is it great!

A small plantation of oil palm trees in western Long An province

A small plantation of oil palm trees in western Long An province

Another thing I enjoy about Long An is that it’s still very agrarian, and yet there’s a lot of foreign investment in industrial parks.  Alongside shiny new houses and modern-looking coffee shops you’ll find ancient tombs, quiet little roadside altars, quaint little pagodas and decaying remnants of the war.  If you keep your eyes open wide, there’s something interesting around each bend in the road.

Well, having not pushed myself to arrive early, I got to Tay Ninh in just enough time to get a hotel room, wash my face and hands, lie down for a quick 15 minute nap and get over to The Cao Dai Holy See just in time to catch the worshippers arriving for the Noon service.  There are public services at 6am, Noon, 6pm, and Midnight every day.  Cao Dai adherents are expected to attend service at least once a day, or at the very least pray at home during one of these times.  The serious guys do all four.

Shot at the end of the service from the balcony above the hall

Shot at the end of the service from the balcony above the hall

I intended to write some funny stuff about the Cao Daiists, seeing how it’s easy to dismiss them as a weirdo cult, but in fact I’ve got a growing respect for them.  First of all, when does a “religious organization” stop being a cult and start being a religion?  If large numbers of followers is all it takes, Cao Dai qualifies.  Some estimates have 8 million followers world-wide.  It’s the third largest religion in Vietnam, with Buddhism first and Roman Catholicism second.  Cao Dai is a syncretic religion, meaning they have openly and consciously made an effort to take what they believe to be the best, most important aspects of all major religions and mixed them all together to be an all-inclusive, all-tolerant religion designed to be understandable and welcoming to all people of the world.

Freaky cultists or groovy new age spiritualists?  Who cares?!  They wear cool hats!

Freaky cultists or groovy new age spiritualists? Who cares?! They wear cool hats!

They believe that God speaks to them directly through different means, and that it was direct orders from God himself that caused the founding of the church in 1926.  At that time there were less than 300 followers, but the local populations in Tay Ninh and Long An provinces, as well as other areas of Southern Vietnam, quickly embraced the philosophy behind the religion.  Most foreign visitors, and even most Vietnamese, view Cao Dai to be a local anomaly, but a trip through the back roads of these southern provinces will produce a large number of smaller, more remote temples for the faith.

A smiling, welcoming gentleman waiting for the service to begin

A smiling, welcoming gentleman waiting for the service to begin

The people at the temple are, for the most part, friendly and welcoming, and many English speaking followers are eager to sit down and have a chat, and are more than happy to answer any questions you might have about their faith.

A couple of the stranger facts about Cao Daiism:  They believe in saints, and their three main saints are Nguyen Binh Khiem, a Vietnamese poet, Sun Yat Sen, the leader of the Chinese revolution in the early 20th century, and the French poet Victor Hugo.  In the main foyer of the temple is a large painting of the three of them signing a pact with God.  The Cao Daiists claim that Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen were “disciples” of Nguyen Binh Khiem.

A high ranking member of the church, leaving the temple after the Noon service

A high ranking member of the church, leaving the temple after the Noon service

They pray to a huge globe with a left eye painted on it, and they believe that during times of prayer God is looking at them through the eye, which causes the “light of the universe” to spill forth onto the worshippers.  As a result of this belief they never allow non-believers to stand directly in front of the altar, and there are always “guards” standing in the temple who stop people from walking into the center of the hall.  During prayer times they believe this light is so strong that it flows out of the temple and down a large open space in front of the temple, so they block the way in front of the temple with metal gates to stop people from walking in front of the building during prayer times.

The main altar - non-believers are not allowed to stand directly in front of the altar, so a straight shot isn't possible

The main altar - non-believers are not allowed to stand directly in front of the altar, so a straight shot isn't possible

If you want to know more about Cao Daiism, I’m writing an article for East West Magazine about the religion and the main temple that will be published in May.  There’s an online version available, so when it’s published I’ll definitely put a link on this site to the article.  In the meantime, if you’re really interested and you’re in Vietnam, take the trip out to Tay Ninh and check it out.  It’s definitely worth the trip!

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