The Suburban Pagodas of Saigon

The Jade Emperor Pagoda (aka The Turtle Temple)

Another local steps up to take her turn bowing towards a line-up of deities. Clasped between upturned palms she raises the smoking incense sticks to her brow then drops to her knees. Somewhere in the rear of the complex a drum reverberates with a short, up tempo beat accompanied by the ringing of bells. It lasts only a few seconds and in the following hushed silence the woman completes the obligatory three deep forward bends, then rises and plants the smoldering incense sticks in a large iron pot in the center of the floor space. As I move about taking photos, as unobtrusively as possible, the continuous flow of worshippers seems accommodating enough as they calmly go about their meditations and merit making. Having visited a good number of temples within the region there seems to be a standard unwritten code once you step into the inner sanctums; move about as quietly as possible and keep all talk to a minimum. The peace within seems a world away from the mania, barely fifty meters away, on the streets outside.

The cosmopolitan, and comfortable, tourist enclave of district one is completely at odds with this outer suburb of Saigon. After a twenty minute taxi ride from my hotel, the La Jolie, I was being dropped at the front gate of the Emporer Jade Pagoda or, known more commonly as, the “tortoise temple.” Located somewhere on the borders of District one and District Three –  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jade_Emperor_Pagoda – this site is easily accessible to the interested traveler able to drag themselves away from the creature comforts of District one. As with most of the city, the streets outside the main gate are the usual mayhem of humanity and motorbikes but once inside the temple grounds proper you enter a world of calmness and serenity.

The three large smoldering joss sticks in front of the main entrance to the pagoda

The three large smoldering joss sticks in front of the main entrance to the pagoda

Even though they might be loath to admit it, this Vietnamese Pagoda has much of a Chinese feel to it. The three large smoldering joss sticks, positioned a few meters directly in front of the main entrance,  reinforce this assessment. The interior is also a bit of a surprise. In keeping with the Buddhist following of the country I was expecting to see an array of the Buddha’s images. Instead there was an odd mix of historical figurines, and effigies, adorning the walls and alcoves. This, as I’ve come to find in my travels throughout the region, is not entirely unexpected. As with Thailand, Laos and Cambodia Buddhism, in Vietnam, is infused with local folk religions. The figurines, and effigies, staring down at me from the walls were, no doubt, revered ancestors and saintly figures from the historical past. My assessment of the pagoda’s interior is confirmed when a local lady asks me “are you here for good luck for having a baby.” The temple, as I’d already guessed, has a lot to do with fertility rites. I’m further informed “many foreigners come here for good luck for having a baby.” In this regard this temple, for the locals, is an eclectic mix of a spirit house and religious site for worship. I am told spirits, in Asia at least, are nothing to be feared. Unlike the West, and its interpretation of ghost’s, spirits here are generally viewed as a source of good. More merit makers arrive to pay homage to the ancestral spirits. The routine is always the same. After igniting a bundle of incense sticks the worshiper moves in front of his, or her, preferred deity for the day. The bundle of smoldering sticks is clasped between upturned palms and held high to the forehead. In a standing position prayers, or incantations, are spoken softly between forward bends in the direction of the deity. After a minimum of three forward bends (bows) the worshiper then plants the burning incense sticks in the large earthen ware pot set up to receive all the smoldering offerings.

Figurines of revered ancestors stare down into the inner sanctum of the temple

Figurines of revered ancestors stare down into the inner sanctum of the temple

More ancestral statues lining the perimeter inner walls

More ancestral statues lining the perimeter inner walls

Another worshiper beginning his ritualistic routine

Another worshiper beginning his ritualistic routine

The turtle, or tortoise, is held high regard in Vietnam; it is a symbol of longevity. It may also be considered a symbol of virility, due to it’s longevity. For this reason alone turtles, and tortoises, are a revered and protected animal in Vietnam. Paying homage to the turtle sprits, and any beings associated with them, will hopefully bring good fortune to those planning to have a family. More visitors and light up fresh bundles of joss sticks to continue the ritual.

After getting plenty of good shots inside the temple it was time to focus my attention back outside. When I arrived I noticed a large pond on the right hand side of the grounds. A quick peek over the edge revealed a swarm of small turtles flapping about on the dry bottom. I was intrigued to see what the story was. I stepped back outside and made my across to the pond perimeter wall. The cement wall is approx. one meter high above the ground and the bottom of the pond is approximately two meters below ground level. I look over and see the swarm of small turtles still flapping away. This time, however, there’s also a man with a garden hose, squatting nearby, giving them a relieving spray of cool water in the midday heat. I’m at a loss as to why there should be mass of small turtles at the bottom of a dry pond. Even stranger is the white lettering that’s on the backs of many of them.

“You can buy one out the front and put your name and let it go in there for good luck,” says a friendly, smiling Viet lady sitting on the pond wall.

“Thank you,” I reply as I fire of another couple of shots.

Write your name on the back and release it into the pond for “good luck”

Write your name on the back and release it into the pond for “good luck”

Back out on the main road there’s a vendor sitting next to some plastic boxes containing the live turtles and tortoises. It’s a variation of the buy and release, with small swallow birds, I’ve seen in Thailand. You pay the vendor a small sum and then release a bird for good luck, or prosperity, or whatever. The swallows are trained to return to the vendor however so in the end they never get free. Much the same as these turtles unfortunately.  As I move around getting some more shots a taxi pulls up on the curbside and two young westerner travelers, accompanied by a local tour guide, alight and join me around the boxes. The tour guide gives them the sales pitch and one of the young tourists is handed a turtle and a tippex marker. He’s obviously convinced of the good fortune that awaits him as he writes his name on the back of the withdrawn turtle. After getting another couple of shots I decide I’ve seen enough. The sun is climbing towards its zenith and, even though it’s officially the cool season here in Saigon, it’s still fairly hot at midday. It’s time to head to the cool comfort of a nearby air-conditioned café before heading to my next location, Pagoda Chua On Lang.

Unlike most other countries in the South East Asian Region – according to a couple of knowledgeable locals at least – places of worship in Vietnam, such as those I’m visiting for the day, are commonly known as Pagoda’s and not Temples. It may have something to do with the fact they are not deemed strictly as places of religious worship but more as a place for paying respects to ones ancestors. Unlike in Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia Pagoda’s (temples) in Vietnam rarely contain images of Buddha. And in the Pagoda’s where I have seen Buddha statues here, they are in complete contrast to the other above mentioned places. In Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia Buddha images/statues are more in line with the Indian style, having a slim and serene appearance. In Vietnam the Buddha images/statues appear to follow the Chinese interpretation, being rotund and jovial looking. A standard feature of all the entrances to these Vietnamese Pagoda’s (temples) is the four pillared entry point. What the significance of this is, I’m unsure, but it appears to have degree of importance as every pagoda features such an entry way. All are topped by a peaked roof with opposed dragons along the ridgeline. The dragon, as in China, is a deity which symbolizes power, strength and virility.

Pagoda Chua On Lang and Chua Ba Thien Hau – Border of Districts 11 & 14

After a quick lunch break at a café nearby the Turtle Temple I was on my back across town to another couple of suburban Pagoda’s on the intersection of Districts 11 and 14. I’d picked both locations out on a Google map of the area as they were within walking distance (300 meters) of each other. My first stop was Chua On Lang and roughly twenty minutes after setting out from the Turtle Temple my taxi was dropping me in front of my intended destination. As with all Vietnamese Pagodas Chua On Lang had the standard four pillared entrance way topped by a peaked roof with opposing dragons. The temperature out on the street was beginning to burn and the coolness of the Temple interior was a welcome relief once again. Inside local worshippers were going through the standard ritual of lighting incense sticks then standing in front of their preferred deities as they clasped smoldering bundles to their foreheads. The routine looked to be always the same with three bows from the waist followed by the worshippers getting into a kneeling position and bowing another three times. Once the bowing routine was completed some moved onto other smaller alcoves within the Pagoda while others held position and continued to pray for good fortune. After completing their rounds of merit making and incantations each worshiper plants their burning incense sticks in a large iron pot before exiting the Pagoda.

Another suburban Pagoda in Saigon; Chua On Lang

Another suburban Pagoda in Saigon; Chua On Lang

With their bundles of incense clasped to their foreheads worshippers pay respects to their forebears

With their bundles of incense clasped to their foreheads worshipers pay respects to their forebears

Keeping to the ritual of planting the burning incense in the iron pot before moving on

Keeping to the ritual of planting the burning incense in the iron pot before moving on

Most of the Pagodas have a similar layout. There is a large central worship area with smaller rooms off to the sides. The large central rooms normally house the more revered deities with the minor figures in the side rooms. With certain exceptions most of the Pagodas I’ve visited in Vietnam don’t have Buddha as the central figure of reverence. The majority of deities appear to be important historical dignitaries such as local patrons, Mandarins and even kings. Whether these past figures offer anything to be admired could be a point of contention. A Pagoda I visited in Ninh Binh Province, a few hours south of Hanoi, might pose questions of integrity for modern day Vietnamese worshippers. The site, the original capital of Northern Vietnam one thousand years ago, has a two Pagoda’s on its grounds which worshippers visit on a daily basis. The larger of the two Pagodas houses effigies of the king of the time – the Lay King – as the revered deity. The smaller Pagoda, a few hundred meters to the west, houses effigies of the Lay Kings military Mandarin, his wife and son.  According to historical accounts the wife of the Mandarin was the formerly the wife of the Lay King and only married the mandarin after she poisoning her royal husband and eldest son. If this historical account is true the question might be posed as to why anyone would choose to revere such questionable characters.

After an hour spent quietly wandering about the inner confines of Chua On Lang I was back out onto busy streets again and heading for my final destination for the day; another suburban Pagoda called Chua Ba Thien Hau. At roughly 300 meters distant from Chua On Lang it was a short walk and a few minutes later I was entering the quiet confines of another ornate Pagoda. As I stepped through the four pillared entrance the sound of a drum reverberated from within the cool, dark confines of the complex.

The sweet scent of burning joss sticks permeates the air

The sweet scent of burning joss sticks permeates the air

The walls adorned with messages seeking good fortune

The walls adorned with messages seeking good fortune

Delicate spiral cones dangling from the rafters

Delicate spiral cones dangling from the rafters

It’s a call to prayer as a small group of worshippers steps into the central area with their bundles of joss sticks pressed to their foreheads. The same merit making ritual, as seen in the other Pagodas, is repeated again in this one. As I move about the central area of the Pagoda the sweet smell of burning incense permeates the air as large joss sticks, planted in a row of iron pots, smolder in the light breeze wafting through the open layout of the building. The drum beats continue and are interspersed with the chants, and the jingling of bells, of one of the Pagoda’s resident monks.  A large section of one of the inner walls is covered with pink strips of paper. Apparently they are special messages, paid for by the visiting worshippers, exhorting the spirits of the long deceased deities to favor the payee with good fortune. The hundreds of strips of pink paper, fluttering in the breeze, give an indication to the extent folk religion is still very important part of the culture of this nation. Long past ancestors are revered as local worshippers pay homage to the imagined power of the deceased spirits to bring them good fortune.

Its mid-afternoon and the heat of the day has been quenched by blanket of cloud. The wind picks up as the day darkens and the threat of rain is in the air. As I get a couple of last shots a puff of wind disturbs the strange, spiral cones hanging from the rafters of the Pagoda. What they symbolize, I have no idea but I’m sure there’s a perfectly simple explanation. As I make my way towards the exit more worshippers arrive to begin their rounds of meditation and merit making. It’s been an interesting day and well worth the effort of getting out of the tourist enclave of district one.

Safe travels,

Mega

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