Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Vietnam

Caodai Temple photos by Jen Harmon
What on my first two visits seemed gay and bizarre was now like a game that had gone on too long.

- Graham Greene on Vietnam's Caodai Cult

It really didn’t make sense. There in front of me, outside the cloudy-as-semen bus window, was “The Great Divine Temple” at Tay Ninh, Vietnam—a whacked-out EPCOTish architectural hallucination resembling Gaudi on opium. I didn’t really want to go inside. The idea of cults creeps me out. Would they try to abduct or brainwash me?

I had come all the way to Vietnam to investigate a weird religion called Caodaism, an attempt to create the ideal universal faith from a potboiled philosophical stew centered on Spiritism. This occult movement of the 19th century with its séances, tarot cards and crystal balls, also adopted the custom of putting Christmas Trees inside houses from Germany. In such ways, the Caodais attempt to include just about every religion on the planet.

You name it.

Yet, what really attracted me was how adherents whimsically and wisely worship the author of Les Misérables and Hunchback of Notre Dame Victor Hugo as a saint. Also venerated are the leader of the 1911 Chinese Revolution Sun Yat-Sen, Vietnamese poet/prophet Triang Trinh, Joan of Arc, Descartes, Shakespeare, Lenin and Pasteur. How cool is that? Talk about a "cult of personalities."
Way wacko! But it sounded playful and rococo enough to intrigue me into traveling to a former enemy nation that I was not too keen on visiting. I still associated Vietnam with The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now (plus one of the messiest war films ever made: Hamburger Hill). I don’t think any of these movies would go over well with the communist authorities, but a British traveler bursting with laughter swore he saw Rambo (dubbed into Vietnamese) on a long-haul bus from Dalat to Saigon.

Okay, back to the Caodais. So, this is what I've got so far. Here's the skinny.

A bunch of crazy dong tu mediums contact the spirit world, querying someone like Charlie Chaplin in his talkie phase, via séances—utilizing the usual abracadabra bric-a-brac of Ouija boards, table tapping/jiggling and corbeilles a bec (long radiating sticks attached to pens). This is the Caodai Calling. Collect.

They also use “pneumotographie,” where a blank card is sealed in an envelope then hung above an altar. When opened, the paper purportedly has a message on it: “Having a great time. Wish you were here. . . .”

Postcards from the edge of the grave.

Tay Ninh, less than 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is an unlikely locus for the headquarters of a religion that is the third largest in Vietnam after Buddhism and Catholicism. Bordered by Cambodia on three sides, Tay Ninh is an island of upheaval in a commie country giving babysteps capitalism a go.

Our bus passed a scowling teen wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt while peddling Pepsi at a roadside stand. Then, a photo-ready old coot doffing one of the ubiquitous conical hats and plowing rice paddies with his water buffaloes. More seriously, along this road was the site of the famous wartime photo of a child scorched by napalm.

Caodai, which means high palace, refers to the supreme place where the Supreme Being dwells and to God Himself. However, the “palace” rising before us seemed a daring departure from reality. As we got off the bus to gawk at the Great Divine Temple, the scene became real “Indochine” with a sea of lithe bicyclists draped in white ao dais on their way to attend one of four daily religious ceremonies.

We had come to join them.

Featured in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, this temple (built between 1933 and 1955) is a favorite stop for Saigon’s Sinh Café bus tours. Mostly yellow on the outside with red roofs, the temple is built on nine levels representing a stairway to Heaven. It is 140 meters long and 40 meters high with four towers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it's a mix of "a French cathedral, a Chinese pagoda, the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum."

Still, I think Graham Greene described it best: “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.”

“This is it?” a Vietnam vet named Bill from Brooklyn groused.

“Yeah, I thought it would be more, I don’t know,” a Canadian girl with long black hair and a scent of patchouli dittoed.

“It is very yellow,” I offered up weakly.

It wasn’t until we shucked off our shoes and stepped inside that the architecture revealed itself in its full glory. Immediately, I noticed a cool mural of Saint Victor Hugo plus other luminaries writing out the psychic slogans “God and Humanity” and “Love and Justice.” Shuffling along a colonnaded hall and sanctuary, I felt like I was entering a delusion, since I was slightly buzzing from my antimalarial Larium. All of a sudden, my eyes alit like deranged kamikazee mosquitoes upon some windows with arabesques of intertwined flowers and vines bordering uncanny eyes in triangles. By the altar—dressed up with offerings of flowers, fruit, wine, tea, candles, and incense (plus a lamp symbolizing Eternal Light)—was a snaking spiral staircase which seemed to be hissing “Don’t tread on me!”

Up above on the domed ceiling was painted a night sky, divided into nine parts then filled with Van Goghy stars and clouds. Beneath the dome was a blue globe, representing the Earth, with the supreme symbol of the Caodais painted on it: the “Divine Eye.”

This bears a suspicious resemblance to the eye in a pyramid found on the back of U.S. dollar bills. I stared at the eye and waited for one of us to blink.

“You're welcome, Mr. America,” joked one of the white-robed priests with a Shangri-la smile. He had the easy manner and confident grin of one used to dealing with tourists. The elaborately garbed priest, whom I dub “Les Miz,” was old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War, but didn’t seem the type to hold a grudge.

Probably for good reasons.

The Caodais were never exactly neutral. In fact, despite their prohibition against harming people or animals, they had their own renegade armies. This began in 1943 as a response to Japanese invaders. In the Franco - Viet Minh War, the Caodai Army with some 25,000 troops supported the French and specialized in making mortar tubes out of car exhaust pipes. During the Vietnam war, they were staunch South Vietnamese Army, fighting along with Americans. In 1975, when North Vietnamese Army troops overran South Vietnam, Caodaism was violently repressed and banned by the Viet Cong, who confiscated the group's land. There were also the usual stageshow executions. Still, Caodaism continued behind the scenes with its prayer meetings and séance rituals, surviving even brutal cross-border raids by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

I pulled out a dollar bill and showed Les Miz our version of The Eye, possibly a Masonic symbol and possibly derived from eyes on Buddhist stupas.

The priest examined the bill with great interest and nodded approvingly. His asterix eyes focused on the hidden footnotes inherent in the symbol itself. After an eternity, his concentrated prune pout relaxed into the palimpsest of a smile. "It was nice meeting you. Now, I must go." He wandered off, still smiling but looking a little shaken.

Founded in 1926 by the French-educated Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu, the Caodais claim the “All-Seeing Eye” was first seen on the island of Phu Quoc in 1919. God or Caodai appeared and said, “The eye is the principal of the heart from which comes a source of light. Light is the spirit. The spirit itself is God.”

On Christmas Eve of 1925, Caodai reintroduced himself rather grandiloquently and cryptically as “Jade Emporer, alias Caodai, Immortal, His Honor to the eldest Boddhisattva, the Venerable Saint, Religious Master of the Southern Quarter.” The starry-eyed Le Van Trung (the first Caodai pope) and his posse presented their “declaration” to the French governor of Cochinchina in 1926. Caodaism was officially born. By the 1950s, one in eight South Vietnamese were Caodais, carving out a sort of feudal state in Tay Ninh Province and the Mekong Delta, filled with thanh that (holy houses). Today, there are over 8 million Caodais in Vietnam (roughly the population of Sweden), plus some 30,000 members scattered across the world in places inhabited by Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese).

Positioning ourselves on the balcony to view the ceremony, we watched the faithful in red, yellow, and white robes with conical floppy hats pile in. Men from the right and women from the left, they made their way in a mincing Mozart-like minuet to kneel before the altar. In the back, a group of musicians played atonal tunes and chanted hypnotically. It sounded a little like a group of purring Siamese cats, cuddling then rutting.

I almost fell asleep.

Oddly, the faithful aren't permitted to be photographed, except during ceremonies.

After the ritual, we walked to the bus under a sky with a ghastly pewter pall and vague threat of rain.

“So, what do you think?” I asked Bill from Brooklyn.

“I think it’s a crock,” he responded.

I wasn’t so sure. As the bus departed, I stared out past the streaming orange rain at all the Vietnamese devotees getting on their bicycles. Too good to be true? I then saw a Vietnamese guy with thick Elvis sideburns and a too-tight Michael Jackson “Thriller” jacket kickstarting his moped to show off popping wheelies.

Way out here in otherworldly Tay Ninh, we were a long way from Graceland and Never Never Land Ranch (both as opulent as the Caodai Temple). Yet, with all these cuckoo cultists capering around like Psychic Friends Network stars, maybe it's not quite as far as we think. Stuck in the psychic grooves of my gray matter are the words of the Caodai bard William Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

Apropros of nothing at all, I resolved to never ever return to Vietnam.
John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly,, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.

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