The Cao Đài in Việt Nam


In 1970, I saw several Cao Đài temples, but this is the only one I have an actual picture of.

Cao Đài temple
Taken in August of 1970  (the white banner in the foreground has a date, 30 August 1970).

The main Cao Đài temple is in Tây Ninh, twenty or thirty miles from Củ Chi.  One day, in 1970, Sgt. Scanlon and I drove out to deliver some dispatches to the 369th Signal Battalion, Company B detachment in Tây Ninh.  When we were done, Scanlon said, “Wanta drive over and see the Cao Đài temple?”

“Sure,” I said, having read Frederik Pohl’s 1957 Slave Ship many years before.  It was my main source for Cao Đài information for years; I reread it this year on the Third Annual Sage College Learning and Reconciliation Tour.  Since I knew we were going to the Temple, I had no choice.
Slave Ship: When men learned the languages of animals 

Fred is not only a very famous SF writer (check out the Heechee series, beginning with Gateway (Heechee Saga)), he’s a hell of a nice guy to boot.  He once rejected a story of mine by beginning the letter, “For the first few pages of [name of terrible story excised] I really thought I had a winner.”  He used to chain smoke so heavily that even with filtered cigarettes his fingers were stained yellow from nicotine.  The last time I saw him was in 1977, at SunCon in Miami, Florida.

A plot summary for Slave Ship, culled from a French site and translated by Babelfish, reads, “Space will opera strange where the animals, become erudite, enter in direct competition with Humanity,” which is more than a little surreal.  Not to mention counterfactual.

In search of hard data, I read the blurb from the back:  “First they cracked the codes ... The big electronic calculators that handled math codes, production lines, found it simple to decipher the small but racy vocabularies of the animals.  Then man had achieved the age-old dream:  He could respond when his dog struggled to tell him something, and he could tell that foolish sheep that if he didn’t act right he’d be mutton; and, being man, he could create the wildest, craziest secret weapon for the war that is man’s heritage but not that of the new, now-articulate minorities.”  A blurb that’s also more than a little surreal, and just as counterfactual.

Why read this book?  In it, people have indeed learned how to talk to the animals, but the conversations aren’t racy and the newly articulate minorities never really get to say anything, much like the women in the book, whose only functions are to strip or to be the Macguffin.  And the Cao Đài religion appears, as does Việt Nam, eight years before anyone else in the US noticed that the area wasn’t called Indochina anymore.  The “Cow Diers,” without any explanation of the logistics or motivation, have started to conquer the world.  They’ve got control of Europe, while the defense of the USA is being mounted from Florida.  Right.  Hey, the book’s still a pretty good read, despite the (fairly minimal for the time) racism, sexism (mostly by omission) and religious intolerance (boy, aren’t those Cow Dies weird?).

The book’s hard information on the Cao Đài religion consists of:  1)  the name (spelled correctly, but without tone markers); 2)  it has made saints of such people as Victor Hugo; 3)  it originated in French Indochina (called Việt Nam since 1949) in the 20s.  You’re also treated to Fred’s rants on, among other topics, yogurt.

More on the Cao Đài religion can be found at http://www.caodai.net/.  Google if you’re really interested.  Meanwhile, I’m inordinately pleased to have a copy of Slave Ship that has been to Việt Nam and back.

Back in 1970 Tây Ninh, Scanlon and I drove over and managed to talk our way in—well, I should be honest here.  Scanlon talked our way in—he could talk his way into or out of anything.  We took off our boots and stepped inside, and that’s when I discovered I was out of film; I’ve regretted that ever since.

Staff Sergeant Scanlon in hippie shirt
SSgt Scanlon

In 2002, the tour takes a day trip to Núi Bà Đen, Tây Ninh and Củ Chi.  We stop at the pie and soup restaurant owned by Mr. Phan Thanh Tam, the brother of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, The Girl in the Picture.

The name of the restaurant, Tâm Thanh Tùng, means (as near as I can figure out) something like Good-hearted Tranquil Pines.  It’s on highway 22, which goes from Củ Chi to Tây Ninh, and in the village of Trảng Bàng, the same village where the infamous picture by Nick Ut was taken.
Business card for Mr. Phan Thanh Tam Business card for Mr. Phan Thanh Tam

Mr. Phan Thanh Tam, now deceased
Mr. Phan Thanh Tam

Another Cao Đài temple

Next door to the Tâm Thanh Tùng restaurant is this relatively small Cao Đài temple.  Mark Byrnes and I drift over to take pictures of the outside.  That’s him in the foreground (in the jeans).

I intend to only take a couple of shots of the outside, but as I approach the temple, this young man motions us closer.

Come into my parlor...

Đại-Đạo Tam-Kỳ Phó-Độ
Đại-Đạo Tam-Kỳ Phó-Độ:  This means “Third Great Universal Religious Amnesty.”  “Đại-Đạo” means “Great Way.”  Tam-Kỳ, “Third Period,” “Phó” is to announce” and “Độ” is “to save.”  The name “Cao Đài” means “High Tower,” and that concept certainly seems to be made visible in the temples.
These panels are on the front, one at each side.  At the bottom of the Chinese characters, notice the words “Cao” and “Đài”
“Cao” character “Đài” character

Pretty soon, we find ourselves inside.

Temple interior

Mr. Song, our tour guide, turns up and says it is time to get back on the bus, which is fine with me, since the impression I have is that we were going to be the object of an attempt at conversion.  The bus drives off for our tour of Núi Bà Đen, the mountain in Tây Ninh province that could be seen from Củ Chi.  As GIs, we called the place “Black Virgin Mountain,” but it’s more properly translated as “Mrs. Black’s Mountain.”  See the Núi Bà Đen page for more pictures and Mrs. Black’s story.

Our next stop is the main Cao Đài temple in downtown Tây Ninh.  The sky is relatively cloud-free, the air hot, humidity high.  Many of the main streets in the town are lined with eucalyptus trees imported from Australia.

Eucalypt-lined avenue

They look great, but while there I heard that the trees are pretty bad for the soil, and that the government is actively trying to harvest the existing ones out and replace them with more beneficial native species.  However, I don’t see anything that refers to such a practice at this page, which talks about Australian species imported to Việt Nam:  http://coombs.anu.edu.au/~vern/env_dev/papers/pap04.html.

The Main Temple

This temple is much larger than other Cao Đài temples.  The tour group parks its shoes by the front door and goes in.

Parking our shoes

We don’t need Sgt. Scanlon because we have Mr. Song, and he has already made arrangements for us to visit.  He tries to time our arrival so that we show up in time for the daily service, but getting us all on to the bus at the same time is like herding cats.  We get there a few minutes after the service has begun.  That’s us in the picture, scrambling to take off our shoes.

At either side of the front are the “Cao” and “Đài” panels, like those on the smaller temple above.  You can see the right-hand one below, along with the dragon pillars welcoming visitors.

Main entrance

Upstairs and inside, is this orchestra, which plays the whole time we are here, accompanying the service:

Orchestra
Main hall
Main hall.  The Cao Đài religion represents a synthesis of three great traditions, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.  White robes are members of the church; red robes indicate priests from the Taoist tradition, blue Confucianist priests, and yellow, Buddhist priests.
Looking back at the orchestra
Shot from the balcony looking back toward the orchestra.
Stairway ending in the middle of the pillar
“And one more leading nowhere just for show...”
Fancy dragon with candy-striped horns
The Dragon’s head on a Dragon Pillar.
Parasols on the temple floor
Shot from as far forward on the balcony as we are allowed to go.
Stooped Buddhist priest near the altar, almost hidden by dragon pillar
Buddhist tradition priest near the altar.
Little old lady enforcer
The reason we cannot go further along the balcony.
Three guys writing on what looks like the Ten Commandments tablet
This sign inside the front door reads “God and Humanity, Love and Justice...” in French.  Who are these guys?  The photo below is of the explanation from the temple itself.  See http://www.religioustolerance.org/caodaism.htm for more information.
Image of Three Saints tablet
The Three Saints
Central turret or cupola of temple
Side view, looking up at the central turret.
Side view of temple showing decorative window grills
Another side view, showing the decorated windows.  You can see how these show up on the inside in the photo of the main hall, above.

Back at Phan Thanh Tam’s restaurant

After that, there was nothing left to do but have lunch until it was time to head out to Củ Chi for the tunnels.

Opening towel packets
Mark Byrnes, Sandra Hegstad, Allison Comport, Joel Leibo, Sara Leibo, Barbara Leibo (a.k.a. “Shrimp”).

We are trying to tear open the packets our cold towels arrive in.  Some people discover that the easiest way is to smack the packets hard with your hands, making a loud “Pop!”  This might have been fine, but one of the veterans along on the tour is a veteran of jungle combat.  Maybe that’s why he’s not sitting at our table.

Mayor Jane Byrne of Chicago made a similar mistake when she put on the great “Welcome Home” parade for Việt Nam veterans Friday, June 13, 1986.  She scheduled fireworks.  She failed to notify the vets that there would be fireworks.  When the fireworks started lighting up the sky, everyone was pleased except the vets.  Many fireworks are accompanied by sounds—whistles, booms, cracks and so on.  I wasn’t there, but friends who were say that it was easy to tell who was in the war.  All you had to do was look around you through the forest of legs and see who else had hit the ground with you.  Many of the male vets were surprised to see female faces looking back at them.

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