A moderately early start as I had to go all the way to the other side of the street to catch my bus at 8am. I had booked with T M Brothers (228 De Tham), who I’m happy to recommend as the trip was really good. Our guide was a ex-English teacher called Thong (or “Slim Jim – because I eat like a bird, drink like a fish and smoke like a chimney”) who was superb. His English was top notch, to the point of using a load of Cockney rhyming slang. He got bored with teaching and wanted to practise conversational English, so opted for a job working with tourists. I’m glad he did!
After driving round the block twice to get everyone, our full bus headed for it’s first stop which was to be a lacquerworks just outside of HCM City. This was only a brief detour to allow us to look at the creative process, buy souvenirs and to join another tour group on a larger, more comfortable coach.
It was interesting to see how the individual items are made, and the degree of time and skill involved in them all. Mother of pearl, paint and eggshells are the major components of the decorations and any one piece can take up to 3 months to make as it goes through roughly 10 stages. Some of the pieces in the shop were unbelievably beautiful, and stupidly cheap given the time taken to make them. Sadly, my rucksack space is at a premium and I didn’t have enough cash with me to get anything. I saw at least 10 pieces I’d have happily bought had I the room and money.
Another hour or so on the coach got us to Tay Ninh, the centre of the Cao Dai religion and it’s “Holy See” or main temple. Cao Dai is a very strange religion – it’s a melding of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Confucianism. The figures they revere are as varied as Jesus, Moses, Li Taibai (a Chinese fairy), Victor Hugo (yes, the French novelist), Buddha and Mohammed. Eclectic indeed! From what I gathered from Thong, one of their aims as a religion is to skip the “rebirth” ideas behind Buddhism and instead ascend to heaven upon death. There are 9 steps to heavenliness and these are represented by 9 physical steps – each a large are which can hold a lot of people – within the temple.
A fairly recent “invention” Cao Daism was begun in 1926 and became such a force that it had its own army around the middle of last century. At one point they demanded autonomy from the Vietnamese government and fought for it, despite their religion’s “though shalt not kill” policy. They lost, and after the Vietnam War, they had lands confiscated. Most of these were returned in the 1980’s, however, and the religion has stabalised with roughly three million members. Higher members of the church are vegetarian and must remain so. Lower-ranked followers must be vegetarian for 10 days out of each month. Four services are held every day at 6am, noon, 6pm and midnight. Many followers, predominantly the elder, attend all four in their path up their nine steps to divinity.
Bizarrely, the church has no actual head figure. The last Pope fled the country in the 1930’s and died in Cambodia. No person has since been deemed “worthy” of the lofty role, and so it (and his chair in the Holy See) have remained empty for over 70 years. Also empty in the temple are 6 other seats. These are reserved for the leaders of each of the church’s three branches and the “keepers of the books”. Again, no individuals are currently rated worthy enough for these “9th level” positions – one step from heavenliness.
Essentially, as I see it, Cao Dai is a way of hedging your bets and worshipping everything. It’s like wearing a Star of David, crucifix (one of each – upright and inverted), yin/yang necklace and bowing to every Buddha statue you see. If you can’t pick one god, just test your luck with all of them.
The buildings they use are incredibly well decorated to the point of being garish. There’s less gold than most Buddhist temples I’ve seen, but they love their pastel colours. Yellow lions guard pink orchids at the stairwells to each entrance; pink dragons wind round the pillars supporting the roof; a huge globe with an eye on it oversees proceedings from the far end of the hall;the ceiling is decorated like a blue sky with gems inset to mimick the twinkling of stars. It all makes for some impressive photgraphs.
It’s also the first place I’ve been in Vietnam where nobody has tried to sell me anything. In fact, for some distance around the Holy See, there are no other buildings and certainly no shops or people walking around with stacks of books. The roads past are blocked off during the service, I assume to reduce noise and interruptions. The ceremony is quite a sight as well.
The temple is a long rectangle, tourists only being allowed around the outside edges and up onto the balcony. At the start of the ceremony, the highest-ranking churchmembers walk up to the far steps and kneel. They are followed by the next-senior who will kneel on the step down from them and so on until the general congregation (in white) surge in and kneel on the lower steps, men on the right and women on the left.
To the rhythm of chimes, the congregation then bow, cross themselves and so on – again, I think this is in deference to each of the religions Cao Daism is made up of.
We left the service after 20 minutes to catch our bus, but the whole experience was… different. The church staff were friendly and seem to have accepted that tourists want to see what is going on. Amazingly, though, nobody showed us a collection box or anything. A very pleasant change.
The bus drove us to a nice little restaurant where we got lunch and were told about our afternoon schedule. It seems that tours here don’t include entry prices or meals, whereas those in Hanoi seem to. This was a marginally unhappy surprise, but to be fair if one place advertises a day trip at $5 and another charges $7 including entry fees, people will only see the lower price and go for that. Lunch, after all, was the usual reasonable cost of around 30,000d and the Cu Chi entry fee 70,000 per person. Apparently the Mekong Delta tour includes lunch, but I had already decided not to bother with this as a one-day trip just doesn’t take in anything worthwhile. I’ll do a 2-3 day next time I’m here and make the most of a homestay or two.