The Cao Dai Temple is a fascinating building which resembles an Asian reinvention of a Christian cathedral but it isn’t, it’s a temple to a modern religion called Caodasim. The Cao Dai temple, and the religious practices of the worshippers within, are unique enough to merit a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City which will take a couple of hours each way by bus.
About the Cao Dai Temple
Cao Dai Temple was constructed between 1933 and 1955 and is a wonderful eclectic mix of architectural styles and religious imagery. In this respect the building is a perfect reflection of the religion of the worshippers who use the temple. Caodaism was officially established in Vietnam in 1926, and has grown to become Vietnam’s 3rd largest religion with from 3 to 6 million adherents world wide depending upon whose estimate you choose to believe.
Founded by a Vietnamese civil servant in the French colonial administration, Caodaism is a complex belief system which embraces a number of older established religions, principally Taosim, Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism, but also Christianity and Islam, with saints from a variety of seemingly unrelated backgrounds such as French author Victor Hugo and Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen. For those readers wondering how such diverse and contradictory beliefs can be combined into a single religious doctrine, the answer is that Caodaism teaches that all religions are attempt to explain the message of a single God in different ways.
Caodaists believe, however, that in the modern age people can communicate directly with God and there is an emphasis on frequent ritualised worship as a way of achieving that direct communication. The rituals are a blend of practices from Asian religious traditions mixed in a such way as to create something very different to other religions but at the same time also familiar, particularly to Mahayana Buddhists and Taoists.
One of the big draws of going to the Cao Dai temple is that you can sit in the gallery and observe the 12:00 daily mass, which is only one of four identical ceremonies that take place throughout the day every 6 hours. The worshippers wearing different coloured flowing cotton clothing, with the colours denoting the rank of the worshippers within the religions strictly organised hierarchy topped by a pope and then six cardinals organised into two groups, one above the other. The number of priests is capped at exactly 3,000, which in practice restricts the potential size of the religion as a whole.
Caodaism has been described as a religion that looks, in terms of it organisation and imagery, like Christianity but with underlying Asian religious beliefs, the Cao Dai Temple could also be described in the much the same way as a christian religious building combined with the characteristics of an Asian religious building. The temple has two spires, similar to a gothic French cathedral, with a long nave culminating in a altar at the far end from the main entrance.
What a French cathedral doesn’t have, however, is two domes reminiscent of Islamic architecture, bright colours, pagoda like curved roofs, and elaborate Chinese style dragons wrapped around supporting columns. Within the temple effigies of Confucius, the Lord Buddha, the Buddhist goddess are portrayed alongside Jesus. Conspiracy theorists will also be fascinated by the representation of God as the ‘Divine Eye’, which is similar to the Masonic ‘All Seeing Eye’ which appears on an American one dollar note, except that in Caodaism there is a yin yang symbol in the pupil of the eye. It’s these many unusual details that make the Cao Dai Temple so interesting to visit.
Location of the Cao Dai Temple
The Cao Dai Temple is located 83.4 km by road from Ho Chi Minh City.