Caodai Calling: Victor Hugo’s Vietnam

By John M. Edwards

“What on my first two visits has seemed gay and bizarre (was) now like a game that had gone on too long.” —Graham Greene, on Vietnam’s Caodai cult.

It really didn’t make sense. There in front of me, outside the smudged bus window, was “The Great Divine Temple” at Tay Ninh, Vietnam—a whacked-out EPCOTy architectural hallucination resembling Gaudi on opium—and I didn’t really want to go inside. The idea of a cult creeps me out. Er, would they try to abduct and brainwash me?

I had come all the way to Vietnam to investigate a weird supernatural religion called Caodaism, an attempt to fuse the ideal faith, “a universal religion,” from a potboiled spiritual pho centered on Spritism (which swept the Americas in the 19th century with its occult séances, tarot cards and crystal balls, as well as popularizing the German practice of Christmas trees inside the house) and just about every other religion on the planet. You name it. But what really attracted me was that their adherents whimsically and wisely worshiped Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as a saint!

Also venerated are Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911; Trang Trinh, a Vietnamese poet and prophet; Shakespeare; Joan of Arc; Descartes; Lenin; and Pasteur. How cool is that?  Talk about a “cult of personalities.”

Way wacko! But the cult sounded at least playful and rococo enough to intrigue me into traveling to a former enemy nation that I was not too keen on visiting. I still imaginatively associated Vietnam with The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now (also, alas, Hamburger Hill, one of the messiest war films ever made). I don’t think any of these films would go over well with the communist authorities; but a British traveler on my bus, bursting with laughter, swore he saw Rambo, dubbed into Vietnamese, on a long-haul bus between Dalat and Saigon.

Okay, the Caodais. So this is what I’ve got so far. Here’s the skinny. A bunch of crazy dong tu (mediums) contact the spirit world, querying, say, Charlie Chaplin in his “talkie phase,” via séances—utilizing the usual abracadabra bric-a-brac of Ouija boards (the popular game), table tapping (a table jiggled which taps out letters), and corbeilles a bec (long radiating sticks attached to pens). This is the Caodai Calling. Collect. They also use “pneumotographie,” where a blank card is sealed in an envelope and hung above an altar. When opened, the paper purportedly has a message on it: “Having a great time. Wish you were here. . . .” Postcards from the edge of the grave.

Tay Ninh, less than 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is an unlikely locus for the headquarters of a major religion, the third largest in Vietnam after Buddhism and Catholicism. Bordered by Cambodia on three sides, Tibet-like Tay Ninh is an almost island of upheaval in a communist country giving babysteps capitalism a go. Our bus passed a scowling teen wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt peddling Pepsi at a roadside stand, as well as a “picturesque” old coot doffing one of the ubiquitous conical hats and plowing rice paddies with his water buffaloes. More serious, along this road was the site of the famous wartime photo of a young running girl scorched by napalm.

Caodai, which means “high palace,” refers to the supreme palace where the Supreme Being dwells (Heaven) and God Himself. But the “palace” rising before us seemed a daring departure from reality. As we got off the autobus and whistled at the Great Divine Temple, the scene became real “Indochine,” with a sea of lithe bicyclists draped in white ao dais on their way to attend one of four daily religious ceremonies. We had come to join them.

Featured in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the temple, built between 1933 to 1955, is a favorite stopping point for Saigon’s Sinh Café bus tours. Mostly yellow on the outside, with red roofs, the temple is built on nine levels representing a Stairway to Heaven. It is 140 meters long and 40 meters high, with four towers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is a mix of “a French cathedral, a Chinese pagoda, the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

But I think Graham Greene described it best: “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.” But still: “This is it?” a Vietnam vet named Bill from Brooklyn groused.

“Yeah, I thought it would be more, I don’t know,” a Canadian girl with long black Alanis Morisette hair and a scent of patchouli dittoed.

“It is very yellow,” I stuck up weakly.

It wasn’t until we shucked off our shoes and stepped inside that the architecture revealed itself in its full glory. Immediately, I noticed a cool mural of “Saint” Victor Hugo and other luminaries writing out the psychic slogans “God and Humanity” and “Love and Justice.” Shuffling along a colonnaded hall and sanctuary, I felt like I was literally entering a delusion, since I was slightly buzzing from my antimalarial Larium. All of a sudden, my eyes were alit by an image like deranged kamikazee mosquitoes upon some windows with arabesques of intertwined flowers and vines bordering uncanny eyes in triangles. By the altar—dressed up with offerings of flowers, fruit, wine, tea, candles, and incense (plus a lamp symbolizing Eternal Light)—was a snaking spiral staircase which seemed to be hissing “Don’t tread on me!”

Most evocative, up above on the domed ceiling was painted a night sky, divided into nine parts, filled with Van Goghy stars and clouds. Beneath the dome was a blue globe, representing the Earth, with the supreme symbol of the Caodais painted on it: the “Divine Eye,” which bears a suspicious resemblance to the eye in a pyramid featured on the back of U.S. dollar bills. I stared at the Eye and waited for one of us to blink.

Feeling like a backpacking Quasimodo with my Jansport daypack in place of a hump, I wandered around and stepped straight into the pages of an unpublished novel. A painting of a bearded man captured my attention.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who verily resembled “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equis commercials and is, now obviously, worshipped as a “saint” by the Caodai cult of Indochina (Vietnam), is France’s favorite fabulist. His best-known novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), starring the Hunchback bellringer Quasimodo and the Gypsy seductress Esmeralda, as well as Les Misérables (1862), highlighted by Jean Valjean and better known as “Le Miz” to Broadway musical ogs, firmly entrenched Hugo in the Romantic Period. “If a writer wrote merely for his time,” Hugo once aphorized, “I would have to break my pen and throw it away!”

With his faithful wife Adele, Hugo–an “Orientalist” of the Edward Saïd mold, an occultist practitioner of Spiritism (séances, crystal balls, tarot cards), and probably a Freemason to boot–was thirty when he moved into a cabinet-of-curiosity “crib,” a 17th-century hotel particulier known as the Hotel Rohan-Guernenee, securing a second-floor 280-square-foot set of rooms perfect for a prized poet. Which also proved a perfect place to stash valuable artwork from Asia (including stuff from colonial Indochina).

The impressive but petite museum (inaugurated in 1903) is a “recreation” by his doting grandchildren of the writer/statesman’s preferred habitat, consisting of a shotgun antechamber leading through the “Chinoisserie Salon” (including “Indochinese” objets d’arts) and “Medieval Dining Room” to “Hugo’s Bedroom,” where he died at the ripened, unpasteurized age of 83, with pen in hand but well past his predicted expiration date, in 1885. His funeral procession at l’Arc de Triomphe was attended by over 2 million people and 10,000 guards in riot gear! Many of the mourners were multitudinous Viet Kieuw (overseas Vietnamese).

Hugo once said, “To die is nothing; but it is terrible not to live.” Wise words for someone whose stiff corpse is buried along with his corpus in the historic Pantheon, next to the sleeping vampires Voltaire and Rousseau.

However, one man who was not a fan of “Les Miserables” (now a movie tie-in) was “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) who worked as a “plongeur” (dishwasher) before he became the leader of war-torn Vietnam. His preserved waxy effigy can be ogled in Hanoi. Which is about as exciting as suffering through a too-long Broadway musical, before escaping midway to raid the salad bar at Applebee’s.

Now, where was I again?

“You are welcome, Mr. America,” jokes one of the white-robed priests with a Shangri-la smile. He had the easy manner and confident smile of one used to dealing with tourists. The elaborately garbed priest, whom I dub “Les Miz,” is old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War, but didn’t seem the type to hold a grudge. Probably for good reasons.

The Caodais were never exactly neutral. In fact, despite their prohibition against harming people or animals, they had their own renegade armies, beginning in 1943 as a response to Japanese invaders. In the Franco-Viet Minh War, the Caodai Army, made up of some 25,000 troops, supported the French, and specialized in making mortar tubes out of auto exhaust pipes. During the Vietnam war they were staunch SVA, fighting on the side of the Americans. In 1975, when NVA troops overran the U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Caodaism was violently repressed and banned by the Viet Cong, who confiscated the church’s lands. There were the usual stageshow executions. But behind the scenes Caodaism continued, with its prayer meetings and séance rituals, surviving even a series of brutal cross-border raids by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

I pulled out a dollar bill and showed Les Miz our own version of The Eye, possibly a Masonic symbol, itself maybe derived from eyes on Buddhist stupas. The Mizter examined the bill with great interest and nodded approvingly. His asterix eyes focused on the hidden footnotes inherent in the symbol itself. After an eternity, his concentrated prune pout relaxed into the palimpsest of a smile. “It was nice meeting you. Now I must go.” He wanders off, still smiling but looking a little shaken.

Founded in 1926 by the French-educated Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu, the Caodais claim the “All-Seeing Eye” was first seen on the island of Phu Quoc in 1919. God, or Caodai, appeared and said, “The eye is the principal of the heart from which comes a source of light. Light is the spirit. The spirit itself is God.” Then on Christmas Eve, 1925, Caodai reintroduced himself rather grandiloquently (and cryptically) as “Jade Emporer, alias Caodai, Immortal, His Honor to the eldest Boddhisattva, the Venerable Saint, Religious Master of the Southern Quarter.” The starry-eyed Le Van Trung (the first Caodai pope) and his posse presented their “declaration” to the French governor of Cochinchina in 1926, and Caodaism was officially born. By the 1950s, one in eight South Vietnamese were Caodais, carving a sort of feudal state in Tay Ninh Province and the Mekong Delta, filled with thanh that (holy houses). Today there are over 8 million Caodais in Vietnam (roughly the population of Sweden), plus some 30,000 members scattered across the world like chess pieces, usually in places inhabited by Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese).

Positioning ourselves on the balcony to view the ceremony, we watched the red, yellow, and white robed faithful wearing conical floppy hats pile in. Men came in from the right, women from the left, making their way in a mincing Mozart-like minuet to kneel before the altar. In the back a group of musicians played atonal tunes and chanted hypnotically. It sounded a little like a group of approvingly purring Siamese cats cuddling, then rutting. What what? I almost fell asleep. Oddly, the faithful are not permitted to be photographed, except during ceremonies. After the ceremony we walked to the autobus under a sky with a ghastly pewter pall and a vague threat of rain.

“So what do you think?” I asked Bill from Brooklyn. “I think it’s a crock,” he responded. But I wasn’t so sure. As the bus departed, I stared out through the streaming strands of rain at all the Vietnamese faithful getting on their bicycles. Then, too good to be true, I saw a Vietnamese guy with thick Elvis sideburns and a bomber jacket kickstart his moped and show off popping wheelies.

Way out here in otherworldly Tay Ninh, we were a long way away from Graceland (certainly as showy as the Caodai Temple), but with all these cuckoo cultists capering around like Psychic Friends Network stars, maybe it is not quite as far as we might think. Stuck in the psychic grooves of my gray matter were the words of the Bard, William Shakespeare, “There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Apropros of nothing at all, I resolved to never ever return to Vietnam.

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