Sunday, January 14, 2007

Keeping the Faith - Two of Several.

Vietnam is a strange mix – geographically and culturally. Geographically it is three distinct regions with – as I found out when packing – three different climate zones. Culturally it is dominated by the Viet but the influence of China, Cambodia, Thailand and France is strong – understandable given its history. Nowhere is that mix more apparent than in its spiritual life.

If asked most Vietnamese will say they are Buddhists but the majority only has a vague idea of Buddhist doctrines. When it comes to a moral, family or social code they tend to follow Confucianism but then turn to Taoism for an understanding of the universe. That includes the 10% of the population who are Catholics – the highest percentage in Asia outside of the Philippines. And when it comes to the Cao Dai (uniquely Vietnamese and 2 million strong) – well that’s another story.

Our day-trip destination in the Mekong Delta was My Tho – the capital of Tien Gang province – a rather sleepy city on one of the branchs of the Mekong that has not shared in the prosperity of its neighbour Ho Chi Minh. An enormous suspension bridge (right) is under construction and will change the way life is lived in that section of the Delta. And where industry is starting to move in – our nose confirmed that one of the largest manufacturers of Nuoc Mam (fish sauce) is located on the riverbank – it is ruining the waterfront and threatening the river itself. What recommends My Tho is that it is the starting point for river tours to the villages on one of the three islands, the glorious Vinh Trang Pagoda and a very colourful Cao Dai temple.

About 1 km from the city centre Vinh Trang (click to see the photos) is run as a home for orphans, disabled and needy children. The grounds are immaculate and the buildings well-maintained by the monks. We were fascinated by the intricate carvings around the various altars – it’s easy to miss them in the riot of statues, gilt and burning josh sticks.

We weren’t able to get to the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh – we really did need an extra week or two – but there is a smaller Temple (click to see the photos) on the outskirts of My Tho. Amongst the Saints in this strange conflux of believes are Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, Descartes and Winston Churchill. Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sin are two of the signatories of the covenant between God and Humanity? During their four daily rituals the priests and nuns wear blue, pink and orange pastel robes – a very colourful sight. However they do not like to have their picture taken so we had to be satisfied with shots of the temple itself – a colourful place on its own.

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