Experience: The Religious Fusion of Cao Dai (Vietnam)

4th January 2013

Tay Ninh, Vietnam

I thought I knew my world religions. I thought I had seen all the well-known religious places of worship – a Hindu temple, a mosque, a church, a monastery, a synagogue and even a gurudwara. And then travel managed to surprise me once again! When in Vietnam, I found out about a new religion which I never knew existed – Caodaism. It’s main religious center is located in Tay Ninh town in Southern Vietnam near the Cambodia border, and a visit to this weirdly fascinating temple is a must because I guarantee that you would not see anything like this anywhere else in the world!

Caodaism is probably one of the best examples of religious syncretism. It is essentially a mix of multiple Eastern religions, and draws upon ideas from each faith – Buddhist reincarnation, Confucian ethics, Catholic hierarchy etc. It took birth in Vietnam and has grown to be a religion with over 4 million adherents in the country. The temple being just around 100 km from Ho Chi Minh City meant that we could easily visit it in a day trip from the city. A group tour bus from the city took us to the place just in time for the ceremony.

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The huge temple is housed in a neat complex with sprawling gardens around it. The building, though distinctly East Asian, did seem like a mix of architectural styles. The fusion became more apparent when we entered the temple. The gaudy interiors were elaborate with dragon adorned pillars and bright, multi-coloured walls. I had never seen a religious place this flashy and vivid!  By the time we entered, the ceremony had already begun and worshipers in flowing white robes were praying and bowing down in unison to the Divine Eye above the altar. The congregation was led by priests in red, yellow and blue robes while student priests prayed or strummed musical instruments in other smaller rooms during the service. All this made for a fantastic photo-op from the visitor’s balconies above. It was no wonder that a lot of tourists were attracted to this curious temple, and that the temple priests allow tourist groups during the congregation times for much needed dollars.

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At the end of it all, even though I did not feel anything ‘holy’ about the place, I could appreciate how Cao Dai combined the best parts of all faiths preaching the credo of unity of world religions. I came out of the temple thoroughly amazed and satisfied at having ‘discovered’ a new religion.

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