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Cao Daism is a pretty fascinating religion, integrating ideas and practices from Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and even Islam and Hinduism. According to this newcomer movement, all world religions have one origin and communicate with the same supreme being. Therefore, Cao Daism seems a bit like the religion of the future in its attempt to reconcile the disparate ideas from across the globe and not to discriminate against others.
Established in Tay Ninh, Vietnam some 90 years ago, it has since evolved into the third biggest religion in Vietnam and seems to have made its way to the US, Europe and Australia as well. The famous Holy See in Tay Ninh, where the religion was originally founded, remains the most important and famous of the Cao Dai temples though.
Some might call it eye-cancer inducing, I’d call it fascinating – but one thing is for sure: the ceremonies are absolutely amazing to watch. All the worshippers are dressed in pure white, while the priests wear robes of red, representing Confucianism, yellow, representing Buddhism and blue, which represents Taoism. The temple itself is a further explosion of technicolour, ranging from bright pink, to mustard yellow, powerful red, dark green and baby blue. Snakes and dragons wind their way around pillars and a mix of zithers, lutes and gongs are playing a complicated melody. In contrast to the wild mix of patterns and colours, the disciples sit in neat rows – women to the left, men to the right and priests up front.
The ceremony takes place four times a day, at six in the morning, noon, six in the evening and midnight. Visitors are always welcome and there is no entrance fee. During the ceremony, no one is allowed to walk around, even wandering around outside of the temple is frowned upon and all traffic is halted.
Not surprisingly, the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh is a popular day trip destination for travellers staying in Ho Chi Minh City, and is commonly offered in tour packages in combination with the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta. Due to the tight schedule of these tours, all of them arrive in Tay Ninh at the exact same time of day, which is for the noon ceremony.
Accordingly, the 12 o’clock ceremony gets crowded – and I mean really crowded – while during all other times of the day, the temple is more or less deserted. An hour to half an hour before the noon ceremony begins, visitors usually line up in a huge queue in an attempt to even get in and only get to spend 30mins at the temple anyway, before the tour busses have to depart again to make the next destination in time. When researching, I decided that these tours were too short and too crowded for my taste, which is why I decided to spend a night in Tay Ninh and attend the evening ceremony.
Getting there was easy enough, as Brendan and I just wandered into one of the many tour offices and hitched a ride with a tour bus heading in that direction. There’s also public busses available, which are depart from the bus station frequently and are easy to find when asking the locals. Tay Ninh lies about 90 km north of Ho Chi Minh City and it takes about 2.5 hours to get there, but while both transportation methods take about the same amount of time, taking the public bus is obviously cheaper.
Before the mass begins, everyone has to take off their shoes and leave them outside the temple. Supposedly, tourists can watch the service from the balcony, but since Brendan and I were the only visitors at the 6pm ceremony, we weren’t allowed up and had to watch from the downstairs entrance area – not a problem at all, since the view was equally amazing. Visitors should make sure to get there a bit ahead of time though, since they stop letting people in 10 minutes before the ceremony begins.