Tay Ninh province locates near border between Vietnam and Cambodia, with the Eastern side formed by the Saigon River, the Vam Co River from Cambodia through the western part of the province.
Tay Ninh, a land full of stories
During the period of conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge launched a number of cross-border raids into Tay Ninh province and committed atrocities against civilians. Several cemeteries around Tay Ninh are stark reminders of these events.
1. Cao Dai Holy See Temple
Home to the Cao Dai Great Temple, the Cao Dai Holy See, founded in 1926, is 4km east of Tay Ninh, in the village of Long Hoa. After reunification the government has taken parts of the complex for its own use (and perhaps to keep an eye on the sect).
Prayers are conducted four times daily in the Great Temple (suspended during Tet). It’s worth visiting during prayer sessions (the one at noon is most popular with tour groups from Ho Chi Minh city) but don’t disturb the worshippers. Only a few hundred adherents, dressed in splendid garments, participate in weekday prayers but during festivals several thousand may attend.
Cao Dai Holy See Temple
The Cao Dai clergy have no objection to visitors photographing temple objects, but do not photograph people without their permission, which is seldom granted. However, it is possible to photograph the prayer sessions from the upstairs balcony, an apparent concession to the troops of tourists who come here daily.
And it’s very important that guests wear modest and respectful attire inside the temple, which means no shorts or sleeveless T-shirts.
The main hall is divided into nine sections by shallow steps, representing the nine steps to heaven, with each level marked by a pair of columns. Worshippers attain each new level depending on their years as Cao Dai adherents. At the far end of the sanctuary, eight plaster columns entwined with multicolored dragons support a dome representing the heavens. Under the dome is a giant star-speckled blue globe with the “divine eye” on it.
Another interesting corner to take good pictures of this temple
The largest of the seven chairs in front of the globe is reserved for the Cao Dai pope, a position that has remained vacant since 1933. The next three chairs are for the three men responsible for the religion’s law books. The remaining chairs are for the leaders of the three branches of Cao Daism, represented by the colors yellow, blue and red.
On both sides of the area between the columns are two pulpits similar in design to the minbar in mosques. During festivals the pulpits are used by officials to address the assembled worshippers. The upstairs balconies are used if the crowd overflows.
Up near the altar are barely discernible portraits of six figures important to Cao Daism: Sakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism), Ly Thai Bach (Li Taibai, a fairy from Chinese mythology), Khuong Tu Nha (Jiang Taigong, a Chinese saint), Laotse (the founder of Taoism), Quan Cong (Guangong, Chinese God of War) and Quan Am (Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy).
2. Temple of Ba Den mountain
The summits of Ba Den mountain has the much cooler climate than the rest of Tay Ninh province.
Several stories surround the name ‘Ba Den Mountain’. One is derived from the legend of Huong, a young woman who married her true love despite the advances of a wealthy Mandarin. While her husband was away doing military service, she would visit a magical statue of Buddha at the mountain’s summit. One day Huong was attacked by kidnappers but, preferring death to dishonor, she threw herself off a cliff. She then reappeared in the visions of a monk who lived on the mountain, and he told her story.
Ba Den mountain
The hike from the base of the mountain to the main temple complex and back takes about 1½ hours. Although steep in parts, it’s not a difficult walk – plenty of older pilgrims in sandals make the journey to worship at the temple. Around the temple complex are a few stands selling snacks and drinks.
If you need more exercise, a walk to the summit and back takes about six hours. The fastest, easiest way is via the chairlift that shuttles the pilgrims up and down the hill. For a more exhilarating descent, try the “slideway”, a sort of winding track that drops 1700m around the mountain and is the closest thing to the luge in Vietnam.
Because of crowds, visiting on Sunday or during a holiday or festival is definitely a bad idea.
Getting There & Away
Tay Ninh is on Highway 22, 96km from Ho Chi Minh city. The road passes through Trang Bang, the place where the famous photograph of a severely burnt young girl, Kim Phuc, screaming and running, was taken during a napalm attack in the American War.
On the way to Tay Ninh
Buses from Ho Chi Minh city to Tay Ninh leave from the An Suong bus station (minibus 50,000 dong), but by far the easiest way to get here is by one of the Tay Ninh/ Cu Chi tours leaving from District 1. You could consider leaving one of the cheaper tours (US$7) at the Holy See. A taxi from here to Ba Den Mountain costs around 100,000 dong, while a grab-bike should only be around 40,000 dong. It would then cost a similar amount to return to the bus station in Tay Ninh town.