The city of Tay Ninh lies in the heart of Tay Ninh Province, almost an even 100 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.
The ride is along well-travelled highways, and there are many buses back and forth if you choose to watch the scenery roll by, instead of getting a super sexy farmer’s tan.
But a rando weekend getaway on a bus? Nopers. Nuh-uh. Not when it’s so close!
It’s time for a motorbike trip!
The scenery isn’t that special for most of the trip. The first 70 km is pretty monotonous, with small houses, a burning field glimpsed behind a marble statue workshop, small stores of all kinds, bike repair stops, and hammock cafes featuring relaxing dudes watching Vietnamese soaps.
Honestly, it really feels like you’re never leaving outer HCMC for much of it, except for glances of rice paddies and larger-than-usual palm trees. It’s only once you get within the last 30-35 km that the people step back and let the beauty of this low-lying agricultural region come to the fore.
Eventually, though, you’ll reach Tay Ninh. Welcome!
The city unfortunately is nothing special – which is actually rather unusual given the inordinate amounts of tourists that come through here.
It’s surprisingly large, and yet almost impossibly dull. How is it possible that a city big enough to have city buses, several large hotels, and be the home to an entire religion could be so boring? (Actually, on second thought, that last point might be self-explanatory.)
Having said that, a trip to Tay Ninh has 2.5 things worth seriously investigating.
1. Ba Den or Black Virgin Mountain
The Black Virgin Mountain towers like Kilimanjaro over the plains of Tay Ninh
The Black Virgin Mountain towers like Kilimanjaro over the plains of Tay Ninh, most of which is just a few meters above sea level. The mountain is a different story altogether. This extinct volcano rises almost 1,000 meters out of nowhere and is a popular tourist destination for Vietnamese people, both secular and religious.
It was a focal point of conflict during the American War – it was coveted because of its status as the highest point in southern Vietnam, and because of the many local legends surrounding it.
Two-thirds of the way up the mountain is a temple complex, and it’s beautiful.
But don’t worry – although you can take the walking route to the summit (at six hours up and down, it’s a hefty time investment and a serious workout), you don’t have to exercise if you don’t want to.
There’s a modern cable car/gondola ride that takes you directly to the temple. From there, it’s a mere 1-1.5 hour hike to the summit. Fortunately we visited in the dry season, because these stairs looked like they’d be treacherous wet.
But the most fun thing about this has to be the slideway.
Yes, my friends. There’s a little slide car thing that lets you coast 1,700m down the side of this mountain. Yes!
Unfortunately, we were in relax mode in getting to the mountain, and the slide closes at 4 p.m. We arrived just before 4. Pretty much the only disappointment of the trip!
There are many vendors at the base of the mountain as well as within the temple grounds themselves. Hats, fish, snacks, or just a cold coconut, make sure you’re hydrated and have some calories in you! (Just in case your cable car breaks and you’re stranded on the mountain for days with no one but monks to take care of your broken body and mind. You know.)
Costs are minimal. To get into the mountain area, it costs VND16,000. A round trip in the cable car/slideway is VND150,000. Water can be found for VND10-15,000, and food is available everywhere.
Cao Dai, the religion, is so colorful, so joyful, and so... Vietnamese, for lack of a better word (well, "absurdly optimistic" might work equally well), that actually visiting and witnessing a temple ceremony in progress was a revelation.
This new-ish faith contains a multitude (literally) of deities – in fact, it was founded in the anticipation of a time when all religions would unite and universal peace would reign on Earth.
It incorporates aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism into a syncretic whole. Despite having at least 4-6 million adherents globally, this church was only begun in 1926!
The grounds of the Holy See are peppered with colorful structures and gardens (with monkeys!), as well as helpful Caodaist groundskeepers, many of whom know a bit of English and love to talk.
Architecturally, the church walks the walk – these temples, which are remarkably consistent in design around the globe, marry Eastern and Western design ideas to create something new and weird. The temples are part-church, part-pagoda, and all color.
Of course, the music I love to hate (most traditional Vietnamese music) gets center stage in the upper balconies, where you can ascend to see the temple and faithful from above. Here’s a short video I took of the choir members and musicians:
It was a fascinating and brilliant first glimpse of Cao Dai. If only every religion included Victor Hugo as a founding saint, maybe we’d get along better.
2.5. Sidetrip: Cu Chi Tunnels
I mentioned 2.5 things to do here, right?
Ok, this is cheating. But really, despite the sheer numbers of people that come to visit Ba Den Mountain and the Cao Dai Holy See (and it’s a lot), there just isn’t much more to do in the city proper, despite how pretty and relaxing it is.
However/meanwhile, around 50 km south, on the same highway…
The Cu Chi Tunnels await!
If you do have time on your way back, do stop and check it out. You shouldn’t need more than 3-4 hours, and, since all these sights are all very close to each other, you should have no problem packing them all into a single weekend getaway.
All told, we spent a measly VND600,000 (US$30) for a fantastic weekend, at at least half of that was food and beer. Go team!
And did I mention my super sexy farmer’s tan? Because hot damn, my neck and arms! No really, so hot.
Ben Herman is a blogger who lives in Ho Chi Minh City. His blog, A Ben Abroad, explores the many exciting, and sometimes frustrating, sides of Vietnamese culture.