Probably the most influential book in my life has been The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene. Greene's evocative depiction of Vietnam brought me to ask for U.S. Navy construction posting for a year in Saigon in 1971-1972. One of the prime plot scenes in the book (and subsequent movie adaptations) takes place in Tay Ninh Province west of Saigon where Fowler goes to observe the operations of General Thế at the Cao Đài Holy See or headquarters. The key scene of the book occurs on Fowler's return to Sài Gòn when he is forced to stop on the road at night and climb into a guard tower. Pyle, Fowler's antagonist, finds him there and saves Fowler's life, after telling Fowler that he wants Fowler's Vietnamese girlfriend.
None of the old guard towers along the highway (QL 22) between Tay Ninh exist today, so far as I could see, but the Cao Dai Holy See exists as a huge compound east of the city of Tay Ninh and continues in full glory. In the book and in actual history, General Thế led a militia of Cao Đài adherents in a third force against the Viet Minh and French-supported South Vietnamese government.
Cao Daism (Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do) is the outcome of an attempt to create the ideal religion through the fusion of secular and religious philosophies of the East and West. The result is a potpourri that includes aspects of most of the religious philosophies known in Vietnam during the early 20th century: Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native Vietnamese spiritualism, Christianity and Islam. The term Cao Dai (meaning high tower or palace) is a euphemism for God.
The Cao Đài Great Temple, built between 1933 and 1955, is highly symbolic of the religion and represents its own syncretist mix of over-the-top architectural styles, beginning with a French Baroque form of temple overlaid with Chinese pavilion detailing, enclosing a Rococo-based interior.
Although I am a modernist architect, I appreciate greatly the imagination and discipline evident in this temple and its construction. I have been unable to determine the name of any architect, but I respect the knowledge of worldwide architectural styles and the design skills exhibited in this building.
The temple floor steps up in 9 levels representing the steps to heaven.
Since these levels are expressed on the exterior of the temple, a side view of the temple presents an optically disturbing sensation of imbalance or leaning.
Globes are also prominent, as shown on the cupola dome above the central altar area of the nave.
In this case, we see the world globe from an odd angle that results in Europe beneath the animal form -- I don't know if this has any symbolism to the Cao Đài.
The front narthex features a mural showing three historical figures signing a "Third Alliance Between God and Man" -- the Chinese statesman Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the French poet and author Victor Hugo, and the 16th century Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm.
The clergy and worshipers are seated on the floor up the initial floor levels, presumably in order of rank or attainment.
Men are seated on the right side (left in the above view), and the women on the left side, entering through separate doors. Worship services are held four times daily, and tourists are welcomed to observe and take photographs from balconies on each side of the sanctuary.
The primary service attended by tourists is at 12 noon.
Most tourists arrive on tour buses out of Ho Chi Minh City that then head to the Cu Chi Tunnels attraction during the return trip. We travelled the 96 kilometers from HCMC by motorbike, which I do not recommend. It took us 3-1/2 hours each way, and that makes for sore butts (like riding a horse all day, I suppose).