Vietnam

The Temple in Vietnam – Explore the Semantics of Belief and Identity

Churches, temples, pagodas, and shrines are all places of worship and adoration. A temple often conjures up images of Buddhists, Hindus, Animists, or historic references to Greek and Roman temples. However, a temple in Vietnam is not always what one might expect. Its character varies and is often something quite different and unique.

A Temple in Vietnam May Not be What You Expect

Temple of Dinh Tien Hoang
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

A common misconception is that a temple in Vietnam means a place of Buddhist worship. However, you won’t always meet the Buddha when visiting a temple in Vietnam. Partly, it’s a question of semantics and differentiation.

In Vietnam, a temple is often a place to honor, respect, or worship national heroes of the past. That, and also personalities associated with national foundational myths.

These can include mythical and historical kings and emperors. There are also temples to queens, princesses, generals, and Ho Chi Minh as the founder of the modern Vietnamese state.

Such a temple in Vietnam is not so much about personal or universal spiritual salvation. It’s more about family, community, identity, and maintaining continuity with the past. Historically, temples of the imperial family like those in Hue, would not allow women to enter.

To this day, many men of tradition prefer more to honor their heroes and ancestors in the temple or the village Đình. Women, on the other hand, may often find more solace in Buddhist pagodas and praying for the health of their family.

A temple in Vietnam can also indicate a place of worship that isn’t strictly Buddhist or Christian. This could include a temple to the Mother Goddess religion (Đạo Mẫu) or a place of worship associated with Chinese and other diaspora.

Words that Vietnamese People Use

Temple in Vietnamese
[ images from Facebook ]

During festivals, these figures are ‘invited’ to the larger village đình, then back to their perspective miếu. Đình translates as ‘communal house’ — often for worship of village protectors or local spirits.

Places of Buddhist worship usually use the title Chùa, or the older Sino-Vietnamese word Tự. Having said that much, Đền and Chùa are often used loosely or interchangeably. This is especially so for mixed places of worship incorporating Buddhism, Taoism, Mother Goddess, or even ancestor worship.

3 Unique Temple Sites in Ha Noi, Vietnam

Hanoi is probably the best place to experience what a temple in Vietnam is really about. Some of the most important and bustling national temples are in and around Hanoi and by its lakes.

The Prestigious Temple of Literature in Vietnam

Temple of Literature
[ by Janet Marshall from Facebook ]

The most famous and iconic temple in Vietnam is probably the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu Quốc Tử Giám). You can see it on the back of the 100 000 VND note. It was established in 1070 by Emperor Lý Thánh Tông to honor the philosopher sage Confucius. It later became one of the earliest functional universities in the world.

Inside you can pay homage to Confucius, his mother, and a number of Vietnamese emperors of old. There’s a shrine to renowned scholar and former principal of the college, Chu Văn An. Rows of stele still bear the names of graduates of the college. Students come here to pray for exam success and to have graduation photos taken.

Ngoc Son Temple of Hoan Kiem Lake

Ngoc Son Temple
[ image from Facebook ]

On Hoan Kiem Lake, you will find the Ngoc Son Temple (đền Ngọc Sơn). It’s a small temple to Wenchang Wang (Văn Xương Đế Quân) — the God of Culture and Literature in Taoism. The original temple, which never survived reconstructions, dates to 1010.

It also worships Trần Hưng Đạo. He’s one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes and generals who fought off the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. This was during the Tran dynasty. You can often see his statue prominently placed in city and town locations. He usually holds a sword and points his index finger afar.

Temples on Hanoi West Lake

Tay Ho Temple
[ by Marcus Lacey from Facebook ]

Around Hanoi’s West Lake, you will find quite a few Buddhist pagodas and the most popular temples for daily worship. One of these is Tay Ho Temple (Phủ Tây Hồ). It worships a daughter of the Jade Emperor in Vietnamese folklore. She is also a goddess in the Mother Religion.

The quieter place is Quan Thanh (đền Quán Thánh) or Tran Vu Temple (đền Trấn Vũ). It was built in 1010 and worships the god of the North Star or Polaris. This temple is also the East Protector of Thang Long Ancient Capital.

Temple Culture in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City offers a different experience to what a temple can be in Vietnam. The most famous are in downtown Chinatown. These often worship the sea goddess Mazu or other mythical Chinese figures. Included is the Bodhisattva of compassion, Lady Quan Am.

Thien Hau Temple

Thien Hau Temple
[ by ajik ulinuha from Unsplash ]

One such temple in Cholon – Saigon Chinatown is the Thien Hau Temple in District 5. It’s officially known as Ba Thien Hau Pagoda (Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu), but also referred to as Miếu Bà Thiên Hậu. It worships Mazu the Goddess of the Sea (Thiên Hậu Thánh Mẫu), but also incorporates the worship of Lady Quan Am.

Nhi Phu Temple (Ong Bon Pagoda)

Nhi Phu Temple
[ by JP Klovstad from Facebook ]

One of the oldest places of worship in Chinatown is Ong Bon Pagoda (chùa Ông Bổn), also known as Nhi Phu Temple (Miếu Nhị Phủ). It was originally built around 1730 by two Chinese diaspora. Its last restoration was in 1990.

Ong Bon, or Phúc Đức Chính Thần, was a Yuan Dynasty ruler who later became a god of the earth, wealth, and prosperity. Typical of syncretic Chinese Buddhism, there is also a shrine to the Jade Emperor, the Goddess of Childbirth, and Quan Am Bodhisattva.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda
[ by vietnguyenbui from Pixabay ]

Perhaps the most famous on the tourist map is the unique Jade Emperor Pagoda. The gate officially welcomes you to Chùa Phước Hải, meaning ‘blessings of the sea’. An older name is Phước Hải Tự from Sino Vietnamese. Locals often say Chùa Ngọc Hoàng, which is the Jade Emperor’s name in Vietnamese.

The front portico worships Gautama Buddha (Phật Thích Ca). Behind is the altar to the mythical Jade Emperor of China. There’s also a shrine dedicated to the King of Hell and another to childbirth. Upstairs you can see Mother Quan Am, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

Temple of Mariamma

Mariamman Hindu Temple
[ image from vovdulich.vn ]

You’ll find a scattering of Hindu Temples in Saigon. These are not so much related to the Champa, but to later immigrants from the sub-continent mainland. The most famous is the Temple of Mariamman, just off Saigon Square. It’s called Chùa Bà Ấn Độ or the Temple of Mother India, but often it’s referred to as Đền bà Mariamman.

Vietnam War Memorial Temple at Cu Chi Tunnels

Ben Duoc Memorial Temple
[ by dronepicr from Flickr ]

A visit to Saigon is almost certain to include a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. You have to go to the larger of the tunnel sites at Ben Duoc. Here you will find the contemporary temple and memorial hall Đền tưởng niệm Bến Dược – Củ Chi. 

It honors and remembers those who lost their lives in the tragedy of the Vietnam – American War. It represents a continuation and development of the temple in Vietnam into the modern era.

The Cao Dai Temple in Vietnam

Caodai Temples
[ by Nguyendangduy from Pixabay ]

Strictly speaking, Caodaism is a hybrid religion of Vietnam. Therefore, their places of worship are referred to as a temple. Their teachings incorporate ideals from all the world’s religions. They honor various religious icons such as Jesus Christ, and other historic figures including French philosophers. Their most famous temple is the Tay Ninh Holy See which is often visited on a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Royal Temple Culture of Hue, Vietnam

Royal Temple Culture of Hue
[ by Dennis Jarvis from Flickr ]

As a former imperial capital of Vietnam, you will find many an interesting temple in Hue. Each imperial tomb or site will usually have a temple for worshiping the deceased Imperial couple. Sometimes the preceding emperor or dowager empress is also worshiped.

Temples of the Royal Tombs and Hue Citadel

At Minh Mang Tomb, after you step through the Stele Pavilion, you will find Sung An Temple (điện Sùng Ân). The royal altar is in memory of the Emperor and his Empress.

At Tu Duc Tomb you can visit Hoa Khiem Temple (điện Hoà Khiêm) which is also the largest Nguyen dynasty temple ever built. It honors the Emperor and Empress. Right behind is Luong Khiem Temple (điện Lương Khiêm) to his mother, the Grand Empress Dowager.

In the Purple City of Hue Citadel, you’ll find quite a few traditional imperial temples and shrines. The most important is The To Temple (Thế Tổ Miếu). It’s similar in design to the Taimiao Temple in Beijing Forbidden City. As the main ancestral temple, it worships 10 Nguyen Emperors of Vietnam and their consorts.

Other Popular Hue Temple Sites

Hon Chen Temple
[ by Điện Hòn Chén – Huế from Facebook ]

Around the bend in the Perfume River is Hon Chen Temple (điện Hòn Chén) or Hue Nam Shrine (điện Huệ Nam). It’s the most important temple in Hue to the Mother Goddess or folk religion of Vietnam. It hosts Hue’s most popular river festival and was completely restored in 2019.

You can also visit the Huyen Tran Cultural Center. This modern reconstruction completed in 2007 worships the popular Tran Dynasty Princess, Huyền Trân

The temple to her father Trần Nhân Tông has the longest dragon staircase in Vietnam. He was the third Emperor of the Tran Dynasty who fought off the Mongolian invasion.

Temples of Hoi An and Danang

Phuc Kien Assembly Hall
[ by falco from Pixabay ]

In and around Hoi An Ancient Town you will find many kinds of interesting temples. Most of these were built by the Chinese diaspora trading communities. 

The main one is the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall (Hội quán Phúc Kiến). After a storm destroyed the original Vietnamese pagoda, the present temple was built in 1697. It worships the sea goddess Thien Hau, or Mazu.

Danang doesn’t have any famous temples on the tourist map. However, just like any large town or city in Vietnam, you will find your local temple in addition to the more well-known pagodas. If you go to My Khe Beach, there’s a small sea god shrine called Miếu Lăng Ông right on the main foreshore plaza.

Temples of Mount Fansipan and Lao Cai

Temples of Mount Fansipan
[ by ThinhLa from Pixabay ]

If you ascend the highest peak in Vietnam, namely Mount Fansipan in Sapa — you can visit a temple to Trần Hưng Đạo. He’s the legendary general who held off the Mongolians. Another temple in this mostly Buddhist complex is to the Three Holy Mothers (đền thờ Tam Thánh Mẫu).

If you get the chance to visit Bac Ha Market, you will find another temple in Vietnam to feudal heroes. It’s simply called Bac Ha Temple (đền Bắc Hà) and is close to one of the entrances. It honors two brothers Vũ Văn Uyên and Vũ Văn Mật. They were sent to fortify this northern border area by Emperor Tu Duc.

The Heart of Vietnam in Ninh Binh Temple Complexes

Vu Lam Palace
[ by Jordan Opel from Unsplash ]

No matter where you go in Vietnam, you can always stop by a temple. But, to explore the ancient history and natural wonders of Vietnam, there is no better place than Ninh Binh province.

In the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex in Ninh Binh, there are ancient temple complexes waiting for you to explore. In the Vu Lam Palace complex, built during the Tran Dynasty, you can visit Thai Vi Temple (đền Thái Vi). It worships the first two kings and respected generals of the Tran Dynasty.

Along the way there is a cave that honors great queens. One is Trần Thị Dung who was the last queen of the Ly Dynasty. She was also the mother of the first queen of the Tran Dynasty, Queen Thuận Thiên.In the Trang An Grottos, you can explore the temple legacies of the Dinh Dynasty. This dynasty united the early Dai Viet people in 968 AD. The nearby Hoa Lu Ancient Capital also has places of worship to the early Dinh Kings.

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