"TAY NINH - KINGDOM OF HEAVEN" Top 5 Page for this destination Tay Ninh by mtncorg

Tay Ninh Travel Guide: 24 reviews and 160 photos

Tay Ninh is a small city of maybe some 60 to 80,00 people lying some 90 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City along the Cambodian border. Being a border town, there is a sizable Khmer population living here, but that is not what brings the casual tourist to this town - and here we should technically be talking about the village of Long Hoa some 4 km east of Tay Ninh. It is the Holy See of the Cao Dai that gets all of the attention. Central to the Holy See - which is a regular gated Cao Dai version of the Vatican, complete with different grounds and buildings housing different components of the Cao Dai religion - is the Great Divine Temple with “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor,” as Graham Greene puts it in his novel “The Quiet American.”

The Cao Dai religion boasts some 2-3 million worshippers, though I have seen other figures pushing that figure to almost double. Indigenous to Vietnam - though the faithful would claim that Cao Dai is not just for Vietnam, but for the World - most of the followers are found in the southern part of the country, though new churches can be seen as far north as Hue - the second largest Cao Dai temple is found, in fact, in Da Nang. It is the third largest officially recognized religion in the country after Buddhism and Catholicism - though ancestor veneration and spirit worship while not officially recognized are practiced by most all in the country in addition to anything else. Cao Dai arose in the 1920’s. First was Ngo Ninh Chieu, a bureaucrat working with the French colonial administration on Phu Quoc Island. Chieu had a fascination with Chinese folk religion an spiritualism leading him to report several visitations from beyond. Together with other like-minded spiritualists the Third Religious Amnesty was revealed with help from the ancient Eastern Asian practice of table-tapping, the pancetta or better known in the US, the Ouija board. Chieu remained a spiritualist, but some of his disciples who were better with temporal organization codified Cao Dai as a religion - with considerable help from beyond. The earthly leader was given the title of pope - Giao Hong - with the first pope being Le Van Trung, a former decadent Mandarin from Cholon who found a better path. He was pope from 1926 to his death in 1934. There are also cardinals and priests with a church hierarchy resembling that of Catholicism, as well.

Cao Dai became rapidly popular among the locals from the start attracting some 500,000 followers in its first five years - 1930 - making French colonial authorities a bit wary since there also seemed a sidebar ant colonial agenda that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the new religion. With Trung’s death in 1934, religious power fell to Pham Cong Tac who had been one of Chieu’s first disciples - one of Twelve, naturally. He was a major player in the codification of Cao Dai in both its practice and its philosophy. Through his efforts the Great Divine Temple was built between 1933 and 1955. Many think that without the church, the religion may not have survived all of the travails of subsequent years.

Tac and other Cao Dai religious leaders were rounded up by French authorities in 1941 and shipped off to Madagascar with the Holy See being occupied by French troops. In order to protect followers - others say that projecting power was the more important aspect - a local army was developed which eventually would make Tay Ninh province into its own principality in the late 40’ and early 50’s. The Cao Dai army figures importantly in Greene’s “The Quiet American.” Originally, the Cao Dai cooperated with the communist Vietminh against the French following the conclusion of WWII, but turned against them following an arrangement with the French which allowed their semi-independence and the return of Tac from Africa. Again Greene: “How could one explain the dreariness of the whole business: the private army of twenty-five thousand men armed, with mortars made out of exhaust-pipes of old cars, allies of the French who turned neutral at the moment of danger?”

With the ouster of the French in 1954, the Cao Dai militia was crushed by the new powers in Saigon, Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, forcing Tac to flee to Cambodia where he died in 1959. With the fall of Diem in 1963, Caodaism enjoyed a respite even in the midst of a new war. That changed with reunification in 1975, however, as all churches in Vietnam were shut down. Caodaists were shunted of to re-education camps like everyone else - many for over a decade. The official stand against religion was eased in 1985 though it was not until the early 1990’s that Cao Dai churches were once again opened. The government keeps a close eye on things to this day. Also, the use of spiritualist methods - the pancetta/Ouija board - are still illegal making it difficult for the church to replace its aging authorities who need to be reaffirmed by these methods.

Cao Dai as a religion is a mélange of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought with Islam, Hindu, Chrisitianity and ancestor worship thrown in. Cao Dai believes - not unlike Ba’hais and Unitarian Universalists - that all religions are grounded in the same principal and that for one to become a Cao Dai does not mean one has to give up their original faith - though with the complexity of Cao Dai you might not have time for anything else. Returning to Greene:

“ ‘Remember God loves the truth.’
“ ‘ Which truth?’ I asked.
“ ‘In the Caodaist faith all truths are reconciled and truth is love.’ “

Visitors are welcome at the Temple - leave your shoes at the door - as long as you stay outside the central chamber bordered by the snake and dragon festooned columns. Four services are held each day and again visitors are welcomed: 6 AM, Noon, 6PM and Midnight. Most tourists come at noon and those that do are usually on a tour - which usually includes a run to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels afterwards. I would recommend one of the other services or come during the time of one of the many Cao Dai festivals for a sure sensory overload.

  • Last visit to Tay Ninh: Apr 2010
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (9)

Comments (2)

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Jul 10, 2015 at 12:52 PM

    Good idea to quote Graham Greene on the Cao Dai religion.
    Just yesterday I had coffee with a Vietnamese friend, and it turned out she had also been to Tay Ninh, though she is not a Cao Dai herself.

    • mtncorg's Profile Photo
      Jul 10, 2015 at 3:26 PM

      There was a little hill - the Blaack Virgin Mountain - just outside of town that brought a lot of not-so-quiet Americans here in the day.

  • cachaseiro's Profile Photo
    Aug 15, 2010 at 3:24 AM

    Brilliant Photos mark. As usual.


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