17th April 2016
Another Day Out from Ho Chi Minh City - A Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels
As it was very hot during our stay in Vietnam we had to drink plenty of water which has its consequences. Fortunately, our excursions from Ho Chi Minh City were punctuated with toilet stops which usually featured at least one souvenir shop. But the strangest was during our journey to the Cao Dai Temple Divine Temple in Tay Ninh. This can only be described as a featureless building that resembled a large warehouse and numerous cubicles. This led us to ask who would regularly use such a facility. Pilgrims on their way to the temple was the response. Every ten years followers of this new religion gather at the temple. This was the first indication we had had of just how large this temple is. But before we got there we visited another, probably more famous temple. It is in the village of Trang Bang and it was the place where Kim Phuc (referred to as the Napalm girl by our guide), was sheltering when the Americans accidently dropped napalm on her village.
Kim Phuc had been in the news recently as she had been offered laser treatment on her dreadful burns so it seems the subject of the iconic image that shocked the world in 1972 may finally get some relief from her pain. We dutifully got down from our bus and took photos of the temple and the village but our thoughts were elsewhere. Just how big was the Cao Dai Temple? Huge was the answer. I had to stand just inside the entrance of the park that surrounds it to get a photograph of the whole building.
Cao Dai or Caodaism is a new religious movement that was founded in in Vietnam and officially established in the city of Tay Ninh in 1926. This religion embraces ethical precepts of Confucianism, occult practices of Taoism, theories and Karma and Rebirth from Buddhism and an organisational hierarchy from Christianity. The latter inclusion may explain why its place of worship resembles a large cathedral rather than a traditional temple. It is believed that the founders of this religion were spoken to by God who told them to establish a new religion that would start the Third Era of Religious Amnesty and the ultimate goal of a Caodaist is to re-join God the Father in Heaven. The interior is an extravaganza of dragon-draped pillars that run the length of the nave to the focal point, a large globe decorated with the Divine Eye (representing God).
Visitors are allowed inside the temple but most adhere to strict rules according to the areas they are allowed to walk on – which seem to depend on the time of day. Indeed the whole religion seems to be governed by a plethora of rituals and ceremonies I did one circuit of the interior with lots of warnings not to step inside the area enclosed by the pillars. We had timed our visit to coincide with one of the four daily ceremonies which was due to start at noon. We intended t make our way up to the gallery and watch from there but it was closed until fifteen minutes before the ceremony started so I went outside to watch the arrival of the worshippers in their white, flowing tunics, many of them on bicycles.
When the gate to the gallery was opened there was a surge of visitors up the stairs. At the top we were met by a very officious steward who told us exactly where we should stand and was not averse to shoving us into position. The central area of the gallery was reserved for the musicians and the choir that would be performing during the ceremony and relatives of deceased members of their family they had gathered to honour.
At the appointed hour the worshippers filed into the hall below us and took up their positions – ladies to the left and men to the right. The lay followers wear pure white robes and the men with the rank of priest and higher wear brightly coloured robes that reflect their spiritual allegiance – yellow for Buddhism, blue for Taoism and red for Confucianism. The bishops and cardinals have the Divine Eye emblazoned on their headpieces. All the worshippers had their backs to us throughout the half-hour ceremony and it was not long before I began to wish I had stayed on the ground level and peeked through the side entrances to observe the ceremony. But there was not a lot to observe once they had all processed into the temple and taken up their position there was very little movement.
So I amused myself by taking photographs of the people around me.
In the afternoon we re-visited the horrors of the Vietnam War with a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels an amazing complex of underground tunnels used by the “Viet Cong”: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Viet-Cong. More than two hundred kilometres of tunnels connect underground hideouts and shelters. We were shown some of the entrances and invited to try and get into one of them – tried and failed. Not because I was too wide but because I was too short to reach the floor of the tunnel beneath me! I was able to go through the tunnel that has been specially enlarged for visitors to walk through. It was incredible to think that people had actually lived in those tunnels.
The display of lethal traps and instruments of torture was disconcerting and the barren land around us was a stark reminder of the effects of Agent Orange which the Americans had used to expose the tunnels by denuding them of their jungle cover. But on a positive note, some of the land has now been reclaimed and is being used as rubber plantations.
This article is just a very small snapshot of the fascinating country that is Vietnam – check out my other articles on some cities in Vietnam follow this link for some more ideas of things to do in Vietnam.