If you travel through Asia, temples are almost certainly a staple item on your itinerary. And unless you are a devout follower or are temple-obsessed, you might eventually experience what I call ‘temple fatigue’ – when after visiting a few that appear similar (to the ignorant among us, including myself), they start to blend together. Push comes to shove, and you might get to the point of refusing to enter yet another one…at least for a few days. Which is a shame.
If you’re a casual visitor, the key is to pace yourself. And if you can plan ahead a bit and do a little research, seek out at a few temples that are distinct from what you already know. Visit during a ceremony for a richer experience than a typically quick ‘architecture, altar, and incense’ walk-through.
A standout example of a unique temple is the ornate but thoroughly captivating Holy See temple at Tây Ninh, Vietnam, a couple hours’ drive northwest from Ho Chi Minh City.
Tây Ninh is considered the birthplace of the Cao Dai (or Caodai – ‘high altar’) religion, a monotheistic religion that believes in the unification or harmony of all religions, in the pursuit of peace and freedom from the cycle between birth and death. Cao Dai embraces a hierarchy of structure (not dissimilar from Catholicism) and teaching (saint, sage, buddha).
The structural hierarchy is on visual display during the daily ceremonies, with the congregation dressed in all-white, and the highest leaders enrobed in vivid colors of red (representing Confucianism), yellow (Buddhism), and blue (Taoism). While there are four daily ceremonies spaced 6 hours apart, you will most likely enjoy the noon ceremony and a bird’s-eye view from the lofty balconies that line 3 of the 4 walls of the temple.
The ornate exterior is matched by an equally gaudy but quite stunning interior, supported by massive pillars richly festooned with serpentine details.
The vaulted ceiling showcases a blue-sky and cloud motif, and exquisite detail is carried through in the textured floor tiles and windows.
The main worship space is anchored on each end respectively by elaborate gilded altars and smaller rooms for worship and musical performance.
Ceremonies at Holy See are a hypnotizing affair – a formal procession and ritual with a heady mix of mostly traditional Vietnamese music punctuated by percussive signals to bow and pray.
I suggest arriving a bit early to have a more personal interaction with members of the congregation and to select your desired spot in the balcony.
I also recommend staying for a little while after the ceremony (and after all the other tourists have departed – you will be one of very few remaining). Then you can absorb the exterior of the temple in relative peace and observe the more light-hearted exit and mingling of the congregation.
If you’re lucky, you might even spot an elder sporting a moped helmet, as I did – make friendly eye contact, and you’re both likely to share a smile. Despite all the grandeur of sights like Holy See, it’s the small fleeting moments like this that make travel that much more enjoyable…and memorable.
A visit to Holy See can be easily combined with a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. Buses are one option to make the short trek from HCMC to Tây Ninh, although you may need to be a little creative with public transport if you decide to add on Cu Chi. Tour companies frequently make this circuit, and chartered taxis for the day are another option. If you can swing it, I always recommend a private guide, though – especially in a place like Vietnam where rates remain reasonable.
Remember to remove your shoes prior to entering the temple and remain silent during the ceremony. Photography is permitted in most places throughout the temple, however be respectful and discreet, and note that you are not allowed to have someone take a photo of you in (or in front of) the main space for worship.
For more information on the Cao Dai religion, click here.