Tay Ninh, 96km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City is home to the “Holy See” of the once powerful Cao Dai religious sect. Founded in 1926 and based on messages revealed in séances to it’s founder, Ngo Minh Chieu, Cao Dai incorporates elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism and Spiritualism. It’s pantheon of deities includes Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Joan of Arc, Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo amongst others. The clergy is based on the Roman Catholic hierarchy and headed by a ‘pope’.
In the 1930’s the sect became increasingly nationalistic and organised it’s own militias, running Tay Ninh province as an almost independent feudal state. They were involved in revolts against the French before and during WW2, co-operating with the Japanese and then allying themselves to the Viet Minh in the early years of the post war struggle against the French administration. A pragmatic group they switched sides, giving nominal allegiance to the Emperor Bao Dai and the French, whilst still retaining anti-French sentiment. The Cao Daists provided the basis for the ‘Third Force’ in Graham Greene’s classic novel, “The Quiet American” and by 1956 boasted an army of about 20 000 troops.
During the second Indochina war (known to the Vietnamese as the ‘American war’) they were allied to the South Vietnamese government and refused to aid the Viet Cong, a point not lost to the Communists who redistributed their lands and executed a four of their leaders after taking power. It wasn’t until 1985 and the Cao Dai had been thoroughly pacified were they allowed to once again take control of their ‘Holy See’ and some 400 temples across Vietnam. Today it is estimated that there are some 2 – 3 million followers world wide.
All Cao Dai temples hold religious ceremonies every six hours starting at midnight during which the clergy and lay people perform an elaborate, regimented ritual which includes offerings of incense, tea, alcohol, fruit and flowers. For more information go to www.caodai.org