Being in Saigon, one of the most interesting bike rides is the one going to the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh (done by the Sunday Bike Ride last year), not far from the Cambodian border. Once you get out of the city you can enjoy a road with little traffic and getting there you can admire the temple and the religious rites of this strange and yet popular religion. The full name of the religion is Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ (“The Great Faith for the Third Universal Redemption”) and it mixes elements from three of the main religions or philosophies in Asia: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism but it also adds elements from some of the biggest monotheist religions in the world, as Christianity and Islam. Tay Ninh temple actually holds a statue of Jesus.
Founded in 1926 by Ngô Van Chiêu, a public servant during the French colonial period, this religion has the particularity of including spiritual guides (a rough equivalent to Christian saints) and among them we can find French writer and humanist Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Shakespeare and Lenin. The temple in Tay Ninh is the equivalent of the Vatican, but the religion is spread in other countries, specially in the United States, where Vietnamese immigrants built several temples.
Ngo Van Chieu claimed that a spirit contacted him during a table moving séance, introduced itself as Cao Dai Tien Ong (Cao Dai means supreme being in Vietnamese) and gave him the main teachings about the new religion. At a time of political turmoil all over the world, the religion grew very popular in Vietnam, specially in the Mekong Delta, and held an important political role during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During the 1930’s they had been gaining a lot of influence and they managed to build their own private army in 1943, during World War II and the Japanese occupation. This times of chaos were advantageous to the Cao Dai rulers, who managed to establish a semi autonomous (sort of) state around Tay Ninh and together with other groups like the BIn Xuyen and the Hoa Hao (other autonomous groups with their own armies) gave more than a headache to the French colonial rulers and to the subsequent South Vietnam government of Ngo Dinh Diem, who disbanded their army in 1956. Since then and during the Vietnam War, they lost influence, but spread all over the world (specially France and the United States) and have been regaining some popularity in Vietnam in the 1990’s, when their particular faith (with around 5 million followers in the world) and rites became a tourist attraction. Buses full of tourist go to Tay Ninh temple (The Vatican of Caodaism) every day, but we know that readers of this blog won’t miss the chance to take their bikes and pedal there.