Reach Out & Touch Faith

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April 1st 2008
Published: April 13th 2008
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The beef cake customs lady stood sternly behind bullet proof glass at the Cambodian border, she instructed her people to drag us off the bus in a flurry of panic. Apparently we had over stayed our 30 day visa by 19 days, which had us both scratching our heads. The whole bus was full of our western comrades, who were no help at all as they almost tipped the bus over to the right side of the pavement to rubber neck a better view. I noticed Ms Beefcake had a gun in her belt and by studying her body language I knew she wasn't afraid to use it. We had thought that our impressive looking silver embossed Cambodian visa was valid for a whole 3 months, but not so. We failed to notice the smudged boarder stamp on the next page that stated 30 days from date of entry - within the 3 month period, in our lame defence a very faint smudged Mar(ch) & May look very similar. We were told to pay $5 CASH a day for the whole 19 days EACH for this illegal over stay or jail.

Ms. Beefcake and her expanding ramboesque entourage closed in and stared at us in a menacing way with hands poised over loaded shooters, the tourists on the bus equally had hands poised over cameras ready to upload to Utube, we rapidly found and handed over $95 each fast, they did their paperwork. We both got our receipt some 27 minutes later, and then we were free to leave Cambodia. Ms. Beefcake did a fine job I thought and I handled my life time issues with authority rather well and it was worth every penny to stay those extra days.

I do wonder now that I am here, if Katie Melua had ever been to Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) Vietnam. I felt strongly that her classic song 'nine million bicycles In Beijing' would have most certainly sold as many records with 'ten million mopeds in Ho Chi Minh' I thought Phnom Phen was bad for motor bikes but this place, Jeez! It is a very scary experience indeed, layers of thick choking chugging mopeds, bleep bleeps, ting tings of anything double wheeled. Regardless of personal safety but a need to push on, we mastered a traffic technique to breathe deeply into the traffic flow, set foot out into the road, look straight ahead, think of something nice like living another day and everyone drives around you, it’s the most death defying organised chaos ever!


I finally found that certain something I have been looking for. There is one religion that incorporates all religions. It’s called Cao Daism and it’s a speciality to Vietnam founded in 1926. The main temple is three hours out for HCMC and it is called the Holy See compound in the small town of Tay Ninh. The exterior has a very Roman Catholic & Chinese Pagoda feel to it, with a blend of brightly coloured Chinese 3D dragons wrapped around peachy columns, vivid Hindu colours that saturate retinas. There are sacred divine left eyes in windows and on walls which symbolises God the superior Yang (male) energy as he looks at you from every angle. Tinker bell herself seems to mythically fly around its parameters, sprinkling magical wonder dust all around the intrigued traveller, for me it was my own personal Disney World.

Cao Daism was founded by Ngo Van Chieu who was born in 1878 he was educated in Eastern and Western religions and philosophies, including the art of calling upon the dead by methods of séance, it is noted that his participation in this divination past time created a great relationship with the deceased, the spirits could not get enough of him and communications flowed for the better of all man in Vietnam. Cao Dai means High Place which is where God lives. Its full title is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do, which stands for 'The Great Religion Of The Third Period Of Revelation & Salvation', which in turn represents three different histories and teachings, revelations and salvations of man, to be honest I’d love to tell you about these three stages but all intelligence I have received conflicts greatly and I don't have my Bamber Gascoign head on and I know someone out there will be thinking “I have to hurry you up now” as its actually a bit boring.

Cao Dai have devised three saints of their own which is interesting as its 1. Victor Hugo (the French poet & novelist), 2. Sun Yat Sen (Leader of Chinese Nationalist Party & revolution 1911) 3. Trang Trinh (A random Vietnamese poet & author) of all the strangest people to canonise I guess being a poet/writer is considered a sacred path. All three are witnesses to the third alliance between God and Humanity. Above the main alter there are effigies of sacred people: Sakyamuni (Buddhism) Lao Tse (Taoist) Jesus Christ (Christianity) Confucius (Confucianism) Khuong Thai Cong (Vietnam Geniism) Google (God of Internet) Matt Bellamy (Rock God from MUSE). It is alleged that here in Vietnam religions go as follows: Buddhist 9.3%, Catholic 6.7%, Hoa Hao 1.5% (found with Mekong Delta people), Cao Dai 1.1%, Jedi 1.0%, Protestant 0.5%, and Muslim 0.1%, a staggering amount of non believers at 80.8%!

Cao Daism incorporates BUDDHISM: This corresponds with the realities that life is pure suffering because of our constant need for the material and physical pleasures, when we are aware of this cycle of pain we simplify through self development and so our current lives are a direct result of our recent past life that we can change for the better next life, this belief alone got the Vietnamese through all the wars that raged on around and within, they were being attacked by everyone and needed to find some common ground they could call their own. TAOISM: Is pure nature and us as humans being need to get closer to natural states, happiness, good health, environments, the Vietnamese will not sell their land to property developers from other countries, they love their land and their land loves them back. CONFUCIANISM: A Chinese philosophy regarding good deeds, morality, social responsibilities and the family unit. Cao Dai also includes Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, native Vietnamese spiritualism, Judaism, Genisum (Vietnamese own).

These devotees strive to be good humans, to sustain non violence, lots of daily meditation, to eat vegetarian and fast for 6-10 days a month to cleanse the body of all toxins, to be good hosts in social situations, they must be as to all of us curious tourists swamping their holy time, they didn't flinch, they wish to self cultivate, to pray four times a day, 6am-12 noon-6pm-midnight. They give their dead a good send off as they believe the dead go on to a better world, but their dead do come back in spirit form to watch over them, to guide businesses and family life. Caodaists are known to have regular séances and many are considered real mediums, they ask for advice, assistance and favours for the future family linage, the spirits reply in all languages using Ouija boards, faint knockings, rushes of air, chills on skin, whispers in ears, automatic writing, painting, table shaking, they use a Ngocco which is a basic basket with a stick that has a pen attached to the stick, the basket is held by others and the pen starts to write on paper nearby.

There are nine ranks of importance within its customs; the top bod is the Pope, Censor Cardinal, Cardinal, Archbishop, Priest, student priest, sub dignitaries and followers. Even though man and woman are considered equals in this religion, women cannot become cardinals or popes because God somehow expressed in his wishes in 1926 that Yin cannot be superior to Yang. Ever, certainly as long as he is God, as it will only create much chaos. All the women enter the temple and sit on the left side of the building, I noticed they were sitting relaxed and loosely in their white attire. The men enter and sit on the right side of the temple, they were pretty tight nit in their mannerisms of male camaraderie lots of body hugging going on, wearing various assortments of beautiful head wraps. This was like watching a
CD TempleCD TempleCD Temple

sacred centre space to spirituality
sacred drill in action, no one was permitted to sit or walk within the centre isle as this is very scared; the ultimate spiritual path, only the Pope can do this. Although they believe in all these religions as one, there is a colour code to identify who belongs to what religion, Buddhists wear yellow or saffron robes meaning honour, the Confucianists wear red meaning power, Taoists wear blues & greens symbolising the earth, nature and tolerance. Cao Dai wear pure neutral white.

As you enter this temple the music from the orchestra plays in harmony with the choir of elegant white robed ladies, who at the same time had much yawning, rubbing of eyes and cracking of fingers to do. A chant of sacred litanies could be heard from the men kneeling and bowing to the rhythm of the chimes. Everyone takes their place, sat either side of the spiritual pathway, women on the (male Yang) left, men on the (female Yin) right side. There is an enormous 50ft jade green orb that Vivienne Westwood would sew up kittens as coats to have in her boudoir, it floats boldly like a new planet above an array of Buddhist
Musican @ CD templeMusican @ CD templeMusican @ CD temple

lost his plectrum!
offerings, decorative candelabras, hundreds of lit coloured incense, fresh fruits, fresh cash, the orb is covered with glitzy gold stars and glitter which is placed at the head of the temple, the one dominant left eye, the supreme being of God, stares all around the room.


Huyen Si Church aka Nha Tho Cho Dui Church & Notre Dame Church (If you Google this you get a Vietnamese singles dating page.) It’s like walking into the grounds of a garden fate somewhere in Devonshire. Many flags and flowers were on show and homemade plaques in remembrance for the dead. It was lunch time when we popped in so the main doors to the church were shut. In fact nearly everything stops for lunch here in Ho Chi Minh City, even the restaurants which are a pain in the tummy. But I stood in the grounds and looked at the plaques on the wall, all in the name of Ava Maria. It was tranquil and nice. This made me feel like I once had a past life as a solitary nun.


Chua Ba - Mariamman Hindu Temple. Locally this is known as the grandmother of
The full show at CD templeThe full show at CD templeThe full show at CD temple

The divine eye orb planet.
pagodas and was built by Tamil traders in the late 19th century. The Goddess Mariamman within has no form yet this intriguing Goddess pulls in thousands of non Hindu worshippers who just believe she has miraculous powers to heal heat based diseases such as rashes & the pox. She is also the goddess of fertility. On the 15th of every month, symbolically representing ovulation, this place is packed out with people of all faiths, childless couples and business men wishing good business for the month ahead. But they say if you specifically ask for money you will not receive it, it will go into the negative and you will pay out instead. The staff here hand out 'Tikkas' (red Hindu spots) and hundreds of devotees find a small space to make offerings to their ancestors. We sadly were not around on the 15th and my camera had run out of disc space and battery all at once it was a busy day, so I savoured the moment instead. I also savoured the sacred moment inside Mariamman's welcoming womb.


Vinh Nghiem Pagoda: The largest pagoda in the city, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture it was beautiful inside. Here they worship Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha himself. Also two Bodhisattva's are in residence, Manjusri (wisdom, doctrine and awareness) & Samantabhadra lord of truth, law and compassion. Inside there were little frames with pictures of the dead inside, these were high to the ceiling behind protective glass, dripping candles, scented incense and wilted flowers. Next to it stands a 40 meter high stone tower of worship the tallest in Vietnam. I could have moved in to this pagoda straight away, it felt like home.


Vietnam celebrated their Tet New Year on the 7th February 2008; they celebrate the Chinese year of the animal this year the Rat. But sometimes the animal clashes with the elements and it could be disastrous for all. For example I read that 1966 was one of these inauspicious years it was also the very year I was conceived that year being the Chinese year of the Fire Horse or Hinoeuma. The horse is a well liked loyal and solid animal sign but mixed with fire the horse steams. The influences of this year for females are said to be dangerously wild personality, head strong, deadly in the company of men, therefore impossible to marry, will starve to death because they have to live in isolation to protect others from themselves. Many unfortunate Chinese women born in 1966 believe they are living a life of Hell. Western women born in 1966 are none the wiser and probably doing very well.

There is also the Chandaransi Khmer Temple 164 Tran Quoc Thao here which is a drive through temple. Buddhist monks in orange robes act as valet and give you a ticket and drive your car to a safe place while you pray. These monks all have mobile phones.

On our final day in Ho Chi Ming City I witnessed a funeral. The shop owner across the street had been killed on his motorbike (35 deaths a day due to RTA involving motorbike V motorbike as there isn't much else on these roads) There was a brass band playing New Orleans style, a transit van with his coffin in the back, no flowers, an alter at the front of the transit van with his picture and burning incense, the deceased man was 32 years old. I stood there watching as everyone was just looking around at everyone else, it was sad to see but there was no one crying. Then a young man comes up holding his camera, he snaps photos of me watching. I ask who he was. He said it was the deceased brother he thanked me for attending, I was only passing time waiting for a bus. There were six kids dressed like angels who all piled in to the same van, they sat next to the coffin were ever they could fit in, then the brass band walked ahead still playing slow Dixie tunes and it was all over in minutes.

Additional photos below
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14th April 2008

You wrote the book on Vietnam's religions
Claire, You wrote the most complete work on Vietnam's religions of any blog, story or what. You really get into things. Thanks, Kent
15th April 2008

treatise is a treat
honeybunch, I have to tell you that I have absolutely NO doubt that yours is the only learned treatise on Vietnam´s religions that will cause me to laugh out loud ... love you dearly- hi to Stu. Linnet
20th April 2008

The best yet!
Dear Claire, This was fabulous. I learned so much and laughed a lot. Loved the lady with the pistol ( see my blog on ' The ultimate chicken bus Experience' in honduras). I'm forwarding it to my daughter who was born in the dreaded year of 1966! Gunga9 Carolyn)

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