Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

The Pagoda to the Jade Emperor (Vietnamese spelling: Chùa Ngọc Hoàng) is a place you should try to visit when in Saigon. It’s a uniquely different kind of pagoda that incorporates a traditional Taoist temple. In this welcoming and friendly space, you will find some of the most ornate and interesting artefacts, and intricate wood panel carvings.

Apart from a place of worship for Gautama Buddha and the Jade Emperor, you can pay respects to the goddess Quan Am, the venerable King of Hell, as well as a rare fertility shrine for the conception and protection of children. 

Who is the Jade Emperor? 

The Jade Emperor, or Ngoc Hoang, is one of the most important and popular figures in Chinese legend. Often mythologized as the first Chinese emperor, he is revered as the King of Heaven and chief among the pantheon.

Who is the Jade Emperor
The Jade Emperor Supported by Attending Genies: Ngoc Hoang Pagoda
[ image by Gary Lee Todd, Ph.D. from CC ]

Apart from being the divine ruler, he leads by example showing mercy, justice, and compassion. He’s also the judge of character and deeds done, and during the new year dispenses rewards accordingly.

Stories of the Jade Emperor also include the story of the Chinese zodiac. It was the Emperor who invited the animals to his court to appoint the 12 members of the zodiac. The lazy cat got cheated out of his place by the astute rat, who actually wasn’t invited.

The History behind the Jade Emperor Pagoda 

The construction of this temple dates back to 1909. It’s often attributed to a Chinese merchant immigrant from Guangzhou named Lưu Minh. It was built to honor the Jade Emperor in the Taoism tradition, but also incorporates Buddhist and Confucius elements. 

In 1982, the pagoda was incorporated into the Vietnamese Buddhist Association. In 1984 it was renamed Phuoc Hai Pagoda (Phước Hải Tự 福海寺) — meaning riches and blessings from the sea. Locals still call it Điện Ngọc Hoàng, or Temple of the Jade King. 

It was recognized as a site of artistic and architectural significance in 1994 and gained some international fame when former US president Obama visited in May of 2016. 

How to Get to the Jade Emperor Pagoda 

  • Entrance Fee: None 
  • Location: 73 Đường Mai Thị Lựu, Đa Kao, Quận 1, HCM

If you go on a historical tour of Saigon, you’ll probably stop by this temple. With a good guide, you can learn a lot more about the place. 

It’s easy to get a taxi, but if you’re up for the sweat, it’s about a 2 km walk from the Notre Dame Cathedral. Alternatively, there’s a bus from Ben Thanh stop just opposite the market and the bus number is 36.

The Layout of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

The Jade Pagoda used to be quite a local rustic place. Not so long ago, it underwent a major facelift with a fresh coat of paint, renovations to the pond, and a general cleanup of the garden area. 

The only entrance is along a somewhat narrow street, but you can’t miss the ruby pink gateway and the sign saying Phước Hải Tự. There’s a public courtyard as you pass through with parking for bikes, and shaded benches where people mill around the banyan trees. 

The Layout of the Jade Emperor Pagoda
Street entrance to Jade Pagoda
[ image by Roger ]

The Courtyard Area 

In line with Feng Shui design, the straight line to the building is broken by a small square pond which is now very clean and houses some freshwater bass. There’s a large pot urn for seasonal vegetation, and for the new year, it has a yellow flowering kumquat tree. 

Just on the other side of the pond before the temple is an incense urn topped by a mini pagoda. There is incense here that you can freely take. You should offer one stick before going into the temple. You can no longer offer incense inside the temple. 

To the right is another pond which is a major turtle hang out, and people used to release turtles here, but now not anymore.

The Courtyard Area
[ by Andrea Schaffer from Flickr ]

The Entrance and Reception

Once you enter the temple, after taking your shoes off, on either side are two guardians. Don’t miss the detailed carvings on the doors, and notice the wall that acts as an energy screen with two side pathways into the main interior. This is a very typical Taoist and Feng Shui design. 

Once inside, there are three main hall areas, but various small anterooms create a maze-like experience.

As you pass into the main area there are counters to either side where locals purchase various items, prayer services, or fortune readings. The counter on the left is where you can purchase offering oil for the lamps, or candles if you wish. 

The Mid Hall Altar to the Buddha

In this front hall the midsection you will first encounter the altar to the Buddha. The central figure is Gautama (Phật Thích Ca), or the historical Buddha, and to the left is a seated 10-armed Avalokitesvara (Thiên Thủ Quán Âm) or Buddha of Compassion. 

Altar with Gautama Buddha and Avalokitesvara
Altar with Gautama Buddha and Avalokitesvara
[ image by Roger ]

The Main Hall of the Jade Emperor

Directly beside this is the main altar to the Jade Emperor, flanked by two supporting altar chambers. Right next to the Emperor are four genie figurines, and six other figures in the front. 

The detail of the costumes is quite amazing, and something you really need to see for yourself up close. Behind these and in the side altars are numerous other carvings including the celestial bird Garuda (Ca Lâu La / Kim Sí Điểu). 

The Upstairs Hall Quan Âm

Details of the Altar of Quan Am
[ image by Roger ]

Facing the Jade Emperor, if you go out the right door, just follow the signs that point upstairs to the upper hall of Quan Âm, or mother Guanyin. The stairs are quite worn and narrow, so be careful how you step. 

This Bodhisattva, or liberated being, attained enlightenment through compassion, and is popular throughout Asia, but not always depicted in female form. 

This room is quite peaceful, and you can spend some time here sitting on the carpet and meditating on the silence. You’ll notice the repeated Taoist design with a wall channeling direct energy to flow around the two entrances on either side. 

Directly across the altar is a picture of Dat Ma (Đạt Ma)— the revered aesthetic who founded Zen Buddhism. This form of Buddhism, originally known as Chan, spread independently from China into Japan and Vietnam. Dat Ma is the historical monk Bodhidharma, or Daruma in Japan.

From here you can go onto the roof to have a look at the ornate tiles and other decorations. 

Rooftop of Jade Pagoda
Rooftop of Jade Pagoda
[ image by Roger ] 

The Side Halls 

Facing the Jade Emperor, if you go out the left archway and follow the signs, you’ll come to the hall of the King of Hell. It’s not as scary as one would imagine, but in this section, you can get a much closer look at the unique paper mache figurines. 

As you walk through the corridor of hell with wood panel scenes on either side, you’ll be relieved to see a beautiful wooden relief once again of the Goddess of Mercy, Quan Am. 

Goddess of Mercy at the End of Hell Corridor
Goddess of Mercy at the End of Hell Corridor
[ image by Roger ]

Just around Quan Am, and on your way out, there’s a small chamber dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility with attendees. There are two groups of six women with children on either side. This section has also been renewed, and the figurines are now behind a glass case, where previously people used to touch and rub the bellies of the women. 

Things Not to Miss in the Jade Emperor Pagoda 

If you’re going around the pagoda by yourself without a guide, then here are a few things not to miss:   

Arhats Who Tame Tigers and Dragons 

To the right of the Jade Emperor are two supporting alters with 4m-high statues. The one on the right is of an arhat subduing underfoot a Green Dragon, although it’s really difficult to see. On the left is another subduing a White Tiger in the same manner. If the attendant isn’t too busy, you can ask him to take a few pictures close up. 

These two mythical creatures, central to both Buddhist and Taoist mythologies, have many layers of representation. Here they can symbolize mastery and control over the spiritual chi (Dragon) and earthy elements and material desires (Tiger).    

Rare Paper Maches Statues

Paper Mache Figurines in Hall of Hell
Paper Mache Figurines in Hall of Hell
[ image by Roger ]

The temple is said to have over 300 figurines and statues, but you’re unlikely to notice them all. Some statues are made from bamboo wood and paper mache and are quite rare and unique. They are easy to spot because they lack sophisticated detail. If you want to see close up examples, then you’ll have to go to Hell ( which is out the door to the left). 

The King of Hell and 1000 Torments in Wood Panel

Detail of a Hell Wood Panel
Detail of a Hell Wood Panel
[ image by Roger ]

In the left side ante chamber to the Jade Emperor you’ll find Diem Vuong (Diêm Vương), or the King of Hell, and on either side are his (obviously) red horses. 

On the walls through the corridor of hell, you can see one of the most remarkable displays in the pagoda— intricate and detailed relief illustrations of the 1000 torments in the 10 hell realms (that’s 100 in each!). 

One of the functions of the Jade Emperor is to decide who has enough merit to enter the heavenly realms. If he doesn’t like you, this is where you basically land up. So after showing respects to the Emperor, it’s a good idea to quickly pop upstairs to receive the blessings of Quan Am before risking the trip down here. 

Goddesses of Fertility 

In the last room, after exiting the corridor of hell, you’ll find the fertility goddess, Kim Hoa Thánh Mẫu. She’s hard to miss in the central position flanked by two rows of six women each and a multitude of colorfully dressed children. 

The Goddess of Fertility Old Hall
The Goddess of Fertility: Old Hall
[ image by Gary Lee Todd, Ph.D. from CC ]
After Renovation: Glass Panel and No Incense
After Renovation: Glass Panel and No Incense
[ image by Roger ]

The women are also known as midwives and can also be seen as a representation of the 12 zodiacs that a child can be born under. Women, in particular, pray here to either bear a child, for safe childbirth, or for the health and well being of their young ones in general. 

How to Participate in the Pagoda Worship 

If you want to get more into the vibe, don’t shy away from taking part in some of the rituals. This is, after all, a functional space and not a museum. Also, if you first make some prayers, light some incense, or do an offering, the presiding deities or gods are far less likely to mind their pictures being taken. Give a little, take a little. 

Offer Incense

You can only offer incense outside this temple now in order to protect the rare artefacts inside. At the fish pond, you can freely take joss sticks—one is enough—and say a prayer facing the pagoda entrance.  

Hold the lit stick in both hands and raise it to level with your third eye with your arms bent a little parallel to the ground. You can bow slightly once, but Vietnamese may do it three or more times.

Place the incense stick upright in the urn to show you honest character and good will. The smoke will carry your prayers and announce your presence to the gods.

Offer Oil to the Lamp 

At this temple, you can buy small bottles of oil at the counter which you can offer at all three main alters. It costs just 10 000 VND per bottle, or if you prefer, there are different sizes of inexpensive candles you can purchase instead. 

You pour the oil into the lamp holders in front of the Buddha statue. Before pouring, say your prayers and hold the bottle in the same way as you would the incense. Some people kneel down to make their prayers, but that’s up to you. 

If you offer oil to the Jade Emperor, you give the oil to the attendant to pour. He’ll ask for your name, and then announce your arrival as he pours the oil and chants a few salutations to the Royal Presence. 

Upstairs you can also offer oil on the baloney to the Goddess of Mercy, Quan Am, or you can just take a candle to light instead. The bottles are slippery, so be careful if you’re also trying to balance your camera while taking pics! 

Offer Flowers 

The other thing you can do is to offer some flowers. To do this, you will need to see what flowers vendors outside the temple are selling. These vendors also sell oil and candles, but you can get these inside the temple at a cheaper price or without having to bargain. 

Places Nearby the Jade Emperor Pagoda 

There’s no other sightseeing nearby this pagoda, but many people visit a vegetarian restaurant after they go to a pagoda.

Right opposite the Pagoda there’s a nice little counter cafe where you can buy banh mi sandwiches, other health food snacks, and fresh juice. Just down the road to the right as you come out, there is also a small vegetarian place, but there’s only room for three or so people to sit at a small table.

Places Nearby the Jade Emperor Pagoda
Shop opposite the Jade Pagoda
[ Image by Roger ]

If you want to go to a restaurant, then as you walk out the Pagoda, turn right and head to the big road Điện Biên Phủ. Walk over to the left side and take the first left. On the right, you’ll find a small little vegetarian restaurant called Tib Chay (chay means vegetarian in Vietnamese). It’s opposite a school.

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