Being Followed by a CaoDai Deputy

Slapping a closed silk fan into his outstretched palm, a slight, elderly CaoDai devotee wearing a white tunic, white trousers and sporting a low, jaunty black turban, fires off loud Vietnamese to Binh, our interpreter and tour guide. The devotee follows us as we pad barefooted through the sanctuary of the largest CaoDai temple in the world, located in Vietnam’s Tây Ninh Province.

According to Binh, who occasionally glances up from reading the CaoDai reference book I brought from the US, the old man is with temple security. He wears a yellow, blue and red striped armband (oddly resembling the Colombian flag), which indicates his position. The CaoDai bouncer continues his lecture as he walks with us, making a whapping sound every time he bangs the fan into his hand.

I’m fairly certain my friend, Debbie, and I have upset him. It could have been the photos we took earlier of worshippers kneeling and holding their bent arms in a triangular formation with their hands clasped together at their foreheads.

The trippy temple.

It’s tempting to document everything in the “Holy See,” the headquarters of CaoDai, a blended religion that incorporates primary tenets of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. According to University of Southern California anthropologist and CaoDai scholar, Janet Hoskins, the syncretistic sect attracts more than six million followers worldwide.

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Doing Nails: An Ancient Southeast Asian Art?

The Buddha and creepy hand at VN nails.

The Buddha and creepy hand at VN nails.

When VN Nails opened in Salida, Colorado, (population 5,500) I decided that doting on digits must be an ancient tradition in Vietnam. That would explain the prevalence of Vietnamese American owned nail salons in the United States  — even in remote Rocky Mountain towns with good ole boy ranchers and agro outdoor enthusiasts

The Numbers

According to the 2012-2013 Industry Statistics published by Nails Magazine, 48 percent of nail professionals in the $7.47 billion US nail industry are Vietnamese Americans. The number skyrockets in California where Vietnamese Americans represent 80 percent of the state’s nail technicians. Having lived in Southern California and also wanting to visit Vietnam, I’ve been fascinated with this phenomenon for years.

Back In The Remote Mountain Town

The somewhat sad looking complex where VN Nails is located.

The somewhat sad looking complex where VN Nails is located.

I arrive for a pedicure at the new Salida salon, which is located next to a Subway and a storage unit rental place. Nearby, Methodist Mountain’s changing aspens decorate the landscape like drops of O.P.I.’s Glitzerland Yellow Shimmer Nail Lacquer. Inside VN Nails, you find the standard salon accouterments, including vibrating massage recliners, ferns, stacks of People magazines, heated nail dryers, and shelves of O.P.I. polish.

The elevator version of “Hey Jude” plays on the sound system, and a gleaming gold Buddha near the register catches my attention. Chinese script decorates the statue’s base, and a somewhat creepy plastic hand, displaying various nail colors, reaches up toward the happy, paunchy Buddha.

Perhaps this practice of pampering goes back to Buddha’s times. I wonder if villagers massaged the hands and feet of traveling monks. The Vietnamese probably embrace this tradition in the same way the Chinese revere acupuncture. Finger and toe tending in Vietnam must be another old school Asian art like grooming bonsai trees in Japan.

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