Tay Ninh, 90 km outside of Saigon, is in many ways a typical Vietnamese provincial city — surrounded by rice fields and choked with motorcycle traffic. But it has one very particular claim to fame — a spectacular temple that is the headquarters of the Cao Dai movement, a religion founded in 1926 claiming millions of Vietnamese adherents.
Cao Dai temples are common and easily distinguishable by their bright colors and carved ornamentation, but Tay Ninh’s “Holy See” is easily the most impressive. The vaulted mosque-like pillars and multicolored pagodas represent the religion’s beliefs: that many great spiritual figures from the East and West such as Lao Tzu, Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Jesus, Sun Yat Sen, Nguyen Binh Khiem, Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo, were prophets of the same universal truth.
Until the 1970s, Cao Dai was a potent political force. Religious leaders commanded their own army and enjoyed the right to tax local people (thus funding the 1935 construction of this lavish Hollywood-meets-the-Orient temple). But the Communists stripped them of those powers and these days the Tay Ninh Holy See draws only white-clad pilgrims and busloads of curious tourists, who come to watch the daily mass. The past political persecution of the Cao Daoists is evidenced by the trap door exit at the back of the altar.
The ceremony features singing and a procession of colorfully-dressed priests who file around a giant orb painted with a single eye, representing the heart and the spirit of God. At the temple’s entrance, a scroll shows Nguyen Binh Khiem (a Vietnamese poet), Sun Yat Sen (first president of China), and Victor Hugo (French author of such books as “Les Misérables”) receiving a message from God.