Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Caodai — Uniquely Vietnamese

By Volunteer Marianne
Project XII Participant

Throughout history, people have been and still are divided by religion. People have spent thousands of years killing each other over differences of a religious nature. In the early 20th century in Vietnam, a mystic named Ngo Minh Chien tried to end religious division by creating a religion that blends all major religions of the East and West into one (with a spattering of Victor Hugo philosophy thrown in for good measure). What has come from this blend, the idea for which Chien received in a vision, is the Caodai religion. It officially became a religion in 1926 and at its peak, one in eight southern Vietnamese practiced Caodai. During the long years of war, Caodaism played an important political and militaristic role in the country. The area which is the most holy to Caodai followers, in the Tay Ninh region, endured heavy fighting and changed control numerous times in both the French and American wars.

It made no matter that I do not speak Vietnamese - the feeling of the music reached me anyway.

Although Caodai has never spread outside of Vietnam to any great degree, it continues to fascinate worshippers and visitors alike. Tay Ninh is still the home of the Caodai faith. I, along with other volunteers, had the opportunity to visit the main temple during a time of worship, the 12:00 mass. My senses were overloaded from my first step in the door.

Visually, the temple is stunning. Bright colors cover every surface. The ceiling is painted to look like the sky, while the columns that extend down both sides of the main room are adorned with vines and dragons. Every window shows a large eye. This is a symbol of Caodai, called the Holy See. The worshippers themselves, kneeling in the main hall and in the hall above, were dressed in white robes with head wraps of various designs. Nearer the front of the temple were the bishops, dressed in blue, red, and yellow robes. At the sound of a gong, all the worshippers would touch their head to the ground in unison. It was a lovely sight.

My ears filled with the sounds of the temple. The gong rang out at certain intervals. Upstairs, a band and a choir performed a soothing kind of performance. The band was playing string instruments and sitting in a circle as the choir stood next to them. As they performed, their faces showed how passionate they were about what they were singing, and why they were singing. It made no matter that I do not speak Vietnamese - the feeling of the music reached me anyway. As I think back to this time, the eerie, euphoric music still rings in my ears.

Before visiting Vietnam, I had never heard of the Caodai faith. I am glad that I had the experience of hearing, seeing, and feeling firsthand a small portion of what it means to be part of this religious group. I think that this is something the Vietnamese should be proud of - just another thing that keeps Vietnam lovely and unique.


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