The Cao Đài Temple is a 2-3-hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. To get there, we opted to take a tour bus and include a visit to the nearby Củ Chi tunnels left over from the Vietnam War. The bus was pleasant enough and had the added benefit of a local tour guide who was both funny and knowledgeable—worth the extra 20k dong (about $1).
The temple itself is housed in a vastly expansive complex. In an area that had once been covered in a thick density of jungle, the concrete of the complex now only seemed to amplify the heat of the sun and the sound of the cicadas and bugs still clinging to what little patches of jungle foliage remained. The sound, to me, felt enormous. I have heard cicadas in the summer and fall of the Midwest, but this was that sound 100 times over. One hundred yards away from the temple, standing at the edge of a small patch of foliage—remnants of the jungle that could have been—I closed my eyes and listened to the sound, imagining if I were in the thick of it, surrounded by jungle instead of concrete. The sound felt like it was growing around me, louder and louder, until I was pulled back to reality by a pair of tourists that had meandered over, swapping travel stories with each other.
To enter the temple, you must remove your shoes. There were tourists and locals alike slipping their feet out and shuffling into the temple. Where the tourists were collecting their shoes together into groups, the locals were leaning theirs upside down against the curb, soles facing the sky. I noticed this as I was removing mine and considered following suit. I didn’t understand why they were doing it—I though maybe to keep any critters out, although I hadn’t noticed any critters around. Our tour guide slipped his shoes off and left them as-is, soles to the ground, so I followed his lead instead. My questions were answered when I exited the temple and placed my feet into the hot baking oven that were now my black shoes that had been cooking in the sun, soles to the ground.
Inside the temple we were ushered upstairs to a balcony in the back, sharing the space with a choir of a few women and a band of 2-3 string instruments which I could not identify. In front of us lay the temple, as broad as the compound that houses it. The central idea of the Cao Đài religion is the combination of many existing religions and cultures. Intricate green dragons encircle each pillar as they approach the altar. The walls and decorations throughout the temple are inlay with the three main Cao Đài colors—yellow, blue, and red—meant to represent the influence of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, respectively. The centerpiece of the altar about 100 yards in front of us is a massive blue globe, about 20-30 feet in diameter, adorned with the Divine Eye.
A service began at noon, and worshipers began to file in. With the exception of the monks, who wore the Cao Đài colors, the rest of the attendees wore white. Women filed in to the left side, their hair pulled neatly into a bun on the top of their head, and men filed in to the right side, heads wrapped in low-lying black turbans. Sitting in neat, straight rows facing the altar, the worshipers brought their clasped hands to their chest, forehead, and the sky each time the temple bell chimed.
As interesting as witnessing the service was, it was still out-maneuvered by the hot box that was the balcony I stood on. After about 15 minutes, I found myself heading to the door. It wasn’t much cooler outside, but at least I had room. We stood by in what shade we could find, watching baboons lounge and play at the front of the temple. Cao Đài priests ushered tourists away from the area, as you aren’t allowed to cross the temple path while a service is underway, leaving the direction to the altar inside unobstructed. Only the baboons could slip past this boundary. In their defense, they were there first.