I am staring at a blank laptop screen and mesmerize about Vietnam. Vietnam, both the name of a beautiful Asian country as well as the name of a scar in world history. The wound is healing, just as the country is developing quickly.
This post about our Vietnam travel is not a standard itinerary. On the contrary, it’s a collection of stories about events, places and people that amazed us while we toured Vietnam back in 1999.
Let me share 3 stories about Vietnam. One from the South, one from the middle and one from up North. Just as the variety in landscapes, these stories each show a different Vietnam. The South is a great place to start, as you will probably kick-off your journey there.
The South: Fusion in religion
From Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) you can travel south to the Mekong Delta. When you say Delta you say water, fishing, boats and regular flooding. Imagine our surprise when we drove up to this temple:
With all due respect, we thought about Disneyland at first! Most probably the mouse with the big ears would pop up behind one of the pillars for sure… Just look at the colours, the statues, the way people dress. What was this all about? After busy Ho Chi Minh City, which world did we enter? Well, we just entered the world of the Cao Dai religion and this temple is the Great Temple or Holy See, the centre of the Cao Dai sect.
Cao Dai is all about fusion. Caodaists believe that all religions are the same in principle:
“The noble effort of CaoDai is to unite all of humanity through a common vision of the Supreme Being, whatever our minor differences, in order to promote peace and understanding throughout the world. CaoDai does not seek to create a gray world, where all religions are exactly the same, only to create a more tolerant world, where all can see each other as sisters and brothers from a common divine source reaching out to a common divine destiny realizing peace within and without.”
Here they are mixing religions that seem very different, but in the end blend very well. In the Cao Dai temple it’s all about Christianity, Islam, Confusianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The temple itself is part pagoda, part mosque and part cathedral. Are you still with me?
Inside the temple you find statues of Buddha, the Hindu god Brahma and Jesus Christ. Cao Dai is the name of their supreme god, the same God as honored in all major world religions but avoiding gender, personality or any other earthly attributes.
The temple was built between 1933 and 1955, housing a religion with currently around 6 million followers. Just look at the architecture inside, it’s a partnership of joy and extravagance. There are four ceremonies with chanting and music every day and people are welcomed to watch and take pictures!
We met some great people in and around the temple. People trying to communicate without speaking the same language. Elderly smiling like crazy, showing off their teeth in decay. It’s fun visiting this site and at the same time it is putting religion in another perspective. Some say fusion creates the best out of multiple worlds. Fusion cooking surprises you where the combination of various tastes stimulates the senses. The same goes for Cao Dai. A visit is best when you prepare and read about all the mixed elements in advance, and even then you will be pleasantly surprised. And don’t worry, the Holy Eye is always watching you. The Holy Eye is the symbol of Cao Dai and in that way giving their Fusion God a bit of personality I guess.
Continuing about fusion, I guess travelers are the best example of fusion: East meets West, realistic meets spiritual, hamburger meets noodles. But Vietnam surprised us even more when we visited the mountains in the northern part of the country. Read more about that in the part 2 and 3 of this series where I will share the story “Getting your ears done in Hoi An” and “You Dutch, me Hmong”!
Vietnam is changing
Vietnam has been one of our favorite travel destinations: the diversity of landscapes (from Halong Bay to the Mekong Delta), diversity of people (from the Hmong people in Sapa to the business men in Ho Chi Minh City) and its own unique culture.
This trip was our 3rd big Asia trip after Japan (1996) and India/Nepal (1998). Is Vietnam just another Asian country? No way! It’s liking calling France the same as Germany, just another European country. But what is different about Vietnam? I summarize it in three words (feel free to add or change!): proud, eager, and hospitable. Proud of their country, eager to learn and grow the economy, and with pleasant hospitality.
Vietnam has surely changed tremendously in the past decade and the Western lifestyle has definitely influenced mega cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. But still, when you travel the country you come accross people like this man. Working hard to earn a living, busy recycling fragments of an old lifestyle into a new future.