A lesson in leisure from Tay Ninh

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As Vietnam reduces every attractive destination to sheer kitsch, locals who are being themselves save the day

Cao Dai adherents sweep up around the all-seeing eye at the religion's Holy See in Tay Ninh Province following noon mass. If you avoid the trashy tours, watching a ceremony there can be a pretty transcendent. Photo by Calvin Godfrey

A trip to Tay Ninh sounded like the most perfunctory vacation that one could muster in Saigon.

Busses left from the backpacker district every day, heralding hungover Australian 20-somethings into the Cao Dai's Holy See to snap a few pictures and snigger. 

I imagined these trips being led by a wise-cracking RMIT alum eager to make fun of everything about his own country before the foreigners had a chance.

So I never went.


Last Friday, a friend from Stockholm convinced me to get up early and drive down the blue line on his iPhone toward the stunning grounds of the Technicolor temple.

The Cao Dai's Holy See sits on a campus of bright administrative buildings and old colonial rubber plantations. We arrived just before the noon mass and left my bike next to a tin shack on the edge of the grounds in the care of two old volunteers watching TV in hammocks strung under a tin shack. 

Graham Greene famously described the place as a something of a cartoon spectacle.

A tall rearing tiger rears up on hits hind legs atop a copula painted like a half a globe. Jesus and Buddha and Confucius hang together on the ceiling. The Masonic eye peers out at you from high places.

My companion and I doffed our shoes and fell in line behind a French family as they plodded up the stairs to the viewing gallery.

What struck Greene as silly felt powerful, even hopeful, now. A chorus of young women chanted over one-string zithers sending sounds radiating down the shrinking, 100-yard hall to be answered by a disembodied voice at the other end. Only believers on the ground could see where it came from.

From above, the sight of the believers conspired to evoke the "oceanic" feeling that Freud attributed to the end of breastfeeding. But all of this felt much bigger than boobs. It rivaled black gospel Sundays, Thai meditation sessions and my grandmother's funeral for atmospheric weight.

It left me with a feeling that made my ears tingle and my soul a wee bit ascendant.

And then an usher began shuttling all of the foreigners out into the sunlight.

The good feeling quickly evaporated when a slick young guide began torturing a pair of baby monkeys to get a rise out of their mother for the sake of a group of fat, nonplussed tourists.

We walked away from the crows to take tea with the ushers, who were watching a hurricane slowly move toward China and Northern Vietnam from their hammocks. They asked us our ages and about our love lives. They offered us cigarettes and asked about our families.

With the rest of the afternoon to go and a kind of spiritual craving still tugging at our hearts, we headed toward the imposing mountain jutting up into the clouds on the horizon.

Cao Dai graves are always oriented in the direction of this inexplicable bump in the pancake-flat expanse of the Mekong Delta.

The headline legend of Nui Ba Den (young maiden jumps to death to remain faithful to lover fighting foreign invaders) appealed to our moods and we headed toward its dark silhouette through brief but powerful downpours.

Control of the mountain has always been key to Vietnam's survival. During the liberation war against the French, revolutionary soldiers hid in the caves that dot its base.

During the Vietnam War, the US Special Forces erected massive radio antennae on the peak to intercept transmissions between liberation forces.

After endless bombardments and raids, the forces streaming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail retook the mountain, stashing several American POWs in the caves they'd once hidden in.

Now, the mountain has been swallowed by an amusement park with virtually nothing in it.

We arrived at four and bought ten tickets for a blue tractor-turned-train tram emblazoned with a red star. Then, at the base of the new cable car, we argued with vendors about why we had to buy ten tickets to go up and come down the mountain.

In the end, it was a matter of company policy.

But the sun was setting and the leering concrete animal statues that filled the space gave the place a cheap, haunted Scooby Doo atmosphere.

By the time we returned to the parking lot, dogs had been set loose. The heavy-lidded attendant let them bark and snap at our ankles as we sped onto the road back to town.

On the ride through the gloaming we paused at a Cao Dai monastery to peer into the garden. Instead, strict nuns arranged us in front of an altar and taught us to genuflect before a small altar containing a painting of the all-seeing eye.

When all this was done, we had tea with the abbot"”a smiling, shorn man who invited us to a vegetarian meal just as the sun set into purple rainclouds.

On the drive back, I couldn't help but think that every effort to capitalize on the things that makes Vietnam beautiful inevitably reduces those things to a poorly maintained roadside attraction.

It is the people, every time, who save it again and again.

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