Cao Dai, founded in 1926, is a syncretic religion combining elements of Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Taoism and Spiritualism. I went to Cao Dai temples in Danang and Saigon, before making the journey to Tay Ninh to visit the Vatican-influenced Cao Dai Holy See complex. From there, the Cao Dai leadership effectively ran the province as a semi-independent feudal state with a private army until the communists came to power.
At the centre of the complex is the Great Temple (above) which is surrounded by various other religious and office buildings. ‘The Office of His Holiness Ho Phap’ has a statue of Ho Phap, one of the religion’s earliest disciples, greeting the crowds from the balcony. Below him is a portrait of Jesus.
Behind the alter in Cao Dai temples there is an eye symbol which represents god. This is the interior of the Danang temple:
There are eye motifs in every window of the Tay Ninh Great Temple:
It’s been suggested that the reverse side of the US $1 bill provided inspiration for the eye:
The Cao Dai temples I visited were all very similar in terms of design, right down to the front gates. These colourful gates with flower and bird designs are typical:
There are three Cao Dai saints – founder of the Republic of China Sun Yat Sen (孫中山), Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm and ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ author Victor Hugo.
The temple is very tolerant of tourists. In the picture below, you can see the balconies full of tourists snapping pictures of the service. Most of them were there as part of tour groups and left after about 10 minutes. I stayed on until the end of the service, which mostly consisted of singing, gong and drum banging and choreographed bowing and praying.
In the Saigon temple, I was given a book called ‘The Path of a Cao Dai Disciple’. I’ve had a flick through and I think I’m not quite ready to become a Cao Dai priest just yet (though I could easily follow the rules of vegetarianism and celibacy without making any adjustments to my current lifestyle).
According to the book, there’s a limit of 3000 acting priests at any one time. The priests wearing yellow belong to the branch of Buddha, those in blue belong to the branch of Lao Tzu, and the priests in red belong to the Confucius branch. Female priests don’t get colourful robes – they have to make do with white. Though they can be priests, women can never be Pope (a position that has remained unfilled since 1933).