A few kilometres off the highway lies LONG HOA, the site of the enigmatic Cao Dai Great Temple, or Cathedral, of the Holy See of Tay Ninh District. Joss-stick factories line the road into Long Hoa, their produce bundled into mini-haystacks by the roadside to dry. Around 4km later you reach Long Hoa’s market, from where the cathedral itself is another 2km.
Cao Dai Great Temple
A grand gateway marks the entrance to the grounds of the 1927-built Cao Dai Great Temple. Beyond it, a wide boulevard escorts you past a swathe of grassland used on ceremonial occasions, to the wildly exotic temple itself, over whose left shoulder rises distant Nui Ba Den, Black Lady Mountain.
The temple’s exterior
On first sighting, the Great Temple seems to be subsiding, an optical illusion created by the rising steps inside it, but your first impressions are more likely to be dominated by what Graham Greene described as a “Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor”. Despite its Day-Glo hues and rococo clutter, this gaudy construction somehow manages to bypass tackiness. Two square, pagoda-style towers bookend the front facade, whose central portico is topped by a bowed, first-floor balcony and a Divine Eye. The most recurrent motif in the temple, the eye, is surrounded by a triangle, as it is on the American one-dollar bill. A figure in semi-relief emerges from each tower: on the left is Cao Dai’s first female cardinal, Lam Huong Thanh, and on the right, Le Van Trung, its first pope.
The temple’s interior
The eclectic ideology of Cao Dai is mirrored in the interior. Part cathedral and part pagoda, it draws together a potpourri of icons and elements under a vaulted ceiling, and daubs them all with the primary colours of a Hindu temple. Men enter the cathedral through an entrance in the right wall, women by a door to the left, and all must take off their shoes. Inside the lobby, a mural shows the three “signatories of the 3rd Alliance between God and Mankind”: French poet Victor Hugo and the fifteenth-century Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Binh Khiem, are writing the Cao Dai principles of “God and humanity, love and justice” in French and Chinese onto a shining celestial tablet. Beside them, the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen holds an inkstone, a symbol of “Chinese civilization allied to Christian civilization giving birth to Cao Dai doctrine”, according to a nearby sign.
Outside of service times tourists are welcome to wander through the nave of the cathedral, as long as they remain in the aisles, and don’t stray between the rows of pink pillars, entwined by green dragons, that march up the chamber. Cut-away windows punctuate the outer walls, their grillework consisting of the Divine Eye, surrounded by bright pink lotus blooms. Walk up the shallow steps that lend the nave its litheness, and you’ll reach an altar that groans under the weight of assorted vases, fruit, paintings and slender statues of storks. The papal chair stands at the head of the chamber, its arms carved into dragons. Below it are six more chairs, three with eagle arms, and three with lion arms, for the cardinals. Dominating the chamber, though, and guarded by eight scary silver dragons, a vast, duck-egg-blue sphere, speckled with stars, rests on a polished, eight-sided dais. The ubiquitous Divine Eye peers through clouds painted on the front. You’ll see more spangly stars and fluffy clouds if you look up at the sky-blue ceiling, with mouldings of lions and turtles.