Hue

Thien Mu Pagoda: The Eternal Symbol of Hue

Thien Mu Pagoda (Vietnamese spelling: Chùa Thiên Mụ) is more than just a picturesque location. It’s one of the most well known and historic pagodas in Vietnam. It’s 5 km from central Hue Citadel and can be a scenic and leisurely bicycle ride. 

Alternatively, it can be the starting point of an inspirational journey through the spiritual tapestry of Hue from Mahayana Buddhism, to Feng Shui royal garden houses, folk spirituality, and Confucian idealism at the Minh Mang Tomb.

View all the locations mentioned in this article

Thien Mu Pagoda: Myth and Legend

Thien Mu Pagoda: Myth and Legend
[ by Gary Todd from Flickr ]

Thien Mu is the oldest Buddhist pagoda in Hue. Its history is entwined with the legacy of Ngyuen power in southern Vietnam. 

Local legend relates the story of a woman who appeared, perhaps more than once, dressed in red and green or perhaps white. She prophesized the coming of a noble lord who would construct a pagoda to ensure the prosperity of the lands. 

Regardless of whether the legend came before or after the fact, Nguyen Hoang (Nguyễn Hoàng), the first Nguyen Lord sent to rule the area, supposedly noticed a hillock on the bend of the river in the shape of a dragon glancing backward. 

He chose the place for the auspicious construction of a pagoda, naming it Thien Mu Mountain (Thiên Mụ Sơn) or the Mountain of the Celestial Lady. In all likelihood, however, the same site was probably the location for a previous Cham temple to the goddess Po Nagar. 

What to See at Thien Mu Pagoda 

The scenery at Thien Mu has ebbed through the tides of history since its initial construction in 1601. The early eighteenth century saw major expansions, but a storm destroyed much of the complex in 1904. 

Emperor Thanh Thai (Thành Thái) reconstructed the pagoda on a smaller scale towards the end of his reign around 1907. The tower still stands as the tallest octagonal pagoda in Vietnam reaching 21 meters. 

Phuoc Duyen Tower

Phuoc Duyen Tower
[ by Quang Hong from Unsplash ]

Phuoc Duyen Tower (tháp Phước Duyên)  is the iconic seven-story tower or stupa that dominates the landscape, the pines, and other trees that have grown to encompass the pagoda complex. The tower was originally called Tu Nhan (Từ Nhân). 

On each of the seven floors facing south you can spot a Budhha statue. These are the seven Buddhas of antiquity (Saptatathāgata) that have appeared during the ages or kalphas culminating in Gautama— the historic Budha of the current age. 

It was added in 1844 during the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri (Thiệu Trị). The occasion was to celebrate the 80th birthday of Queen Thuan Thien (Thuận Thiên Cao Hoàng Hậu), the emperor’s grandmother. 

The former Empress was instrumental in bringing Thieu Tri to the throne when his father, Minh Mang (Minh Mạng), had intended to bypass his rite as the firstborn son. Thieu Tri was extremely modest and pious, emulating Confucian ideals. However, he was indecisive in how to deal with encroaching French power and interests. 

The Bronze Bell of Thien Mu Pagoda 

The Bronze Bell of Thien Mu Pagoda
[ by shankar s. from CC ]

The bronze bell (Đại Hồng Chung) was cast in 1710 by Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu (Nguyễn Phúc Chu) long before the Nguyen imperial dynasty was established by Gia Long in 1802. It weighs over two tons or 3 285 kg, is inscribed with Buddhist teachings, and the sound used to be quite remarkable. 

Main Hall or Dai Hung Palace

This large and spacious design of Dia Hung Palace (điện Đại Hùng) has a portico section where people can shelter during the rain or sit and gather for sermons. This hall was rebuilt by Emperor Thanh Thai in 1907, and underwent a further restoration in 1959.

 In the center, you will see a statue Maitreya (Di Lặc), or the Buddha to come. Below is an inscription beneath by Nguyen Phuc Chu added in 1714. 

Flanked on the sides you can pay homage to the Buddha of Wisdom, Manjushri (Văn Thù Sư Lợi), and the Buddha of Action, Samantabhadra (Phổ Hiền), also known as the primordial Adi-Buddha or the Buddha of the Dharmakaya (Đức Phật Nguyên Thuỷ). These are also the Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future. 

Other Buildings and Attractions at Thien Mu 

Monks of Thien Mu Pagoda
Monks of Thien Mu Pagoda
[ by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Flickr ] 

The grounds of Thien Mu cover quite a large area and it’s easy enough to find some quiet locations. Other structures include small areas of worship for the Jade Emperor and the King of Hell. 

Just past the entrance, you will find a stone stele which is the poem ‘Thien Mụ Chung Thanh’ by the Emperor Trieu Tri describing the beauty of the place. 

There is also a bell and drum tower. Behind Dai Hung Palace is a hall for the worship of Avalokiteshvara or Guan Yin (Quan Âm), as well as the medicine Buddha. At the rear of the complex is a beautiful lotus pond and a stupa to one of the principal abbots of the pagoda. 

Thien Mu Pagoda During Imperial Times 

Thien Mu Pagoda as it Stood in 1920
Thien Mu Pagoda as it Stood in 1920
[ by Manhhai from Flickr ]

Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu ruled over the southern portions of Vietnam from 1691 to 1725. He was instrumental in the development of Mahayana Buddhism and the expansion of Thien Mu. It was also under his rule that the Cham Empire was largely subdued and their lands annexed. 

He also patronized a famous Chinese Zen master called Shi Dashan (Thích Đại Sán) who became abbot of Thien Mu. Nguyen Phuc Chu also procured over 1000 sutras from China and interred them at the pagoda. 

The Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang also oversaw expansions and renovations to the site, as did his successor Thieu Tri, who built the iconic tower. For a short period of time, Emperor Tu Duc changed the name to Linh Mu (Linh Mụ), Holy Lady, from that of Thien Mu, or Heavenly Lady. Today, both names are still used. 

However, in the heat of the conflict between North and South Vietnam, things took a dramatic turn for Buddhists in the South and Thien Mu Pagoda was at its epicenter.

Thien Mu Pagoda as Dharma Protector

The Famous Blue Austin
The Famous Blue Austin
[ by Gary Todd from Flickr ]

President Ngo Dinh Diem (Ngô Đình Diệm), the de facto ruler of South Vietnam who also deposed King Bao Dai (Bảo Đại) in a fraudulent referendum, was inimical towards Buddhists and their faith. Diem’s older brother, Ngô Đình Thục, was also Archbishop of Hue Catholic Cathedral.

In the summer of 1963, Buddhist discontent resulted in numerous protests. Demonstrators, on the holy day of Vesak, marched against the banning Buddhist flags. They were fired on by government forces of Ngô Đình Cẩn, the younger brother of President Diem.

Nine protestors died in the incident. Thien Mu Pagoda then became a focal point for organizing subsequent protests as well as hunger strikes. 

Anti-Buddhist activities included Catholic priests who ran private militias to force conversions as well as participating in the looting and demolition of pagodas. 

The culmination of these events was the historic self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in a busy intersection in Saigon city. Although he was not associated with Thien Mu Pagoda, the blue Austin that drove him to his death is now displayed at the pagoda. 

The car was given to drive the monk Thích Quảng Đức by a lay practitioner of Thien Mu congregation, Trần Quang Thuận, who was living in Saigon at the time. In 1964 he donated the car to Thien Mu Pagoda. Later, the monks asked for permission to put it on display. 

President Kennedy reacted by stating, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

Many other monks took their lives in the same way. However, the repression of Buddhists continued until President Diem was overthrown in a coup assaination in 1963. His older brother took exile in Rome, while his younger brother was arrested and executed. 

A Spiritual Journey that Begins at Thien Mu Pagoda

Dragon Boats at Thien Mu Pagoda
Dragon Boats at Thien Mu Pagoda
[ by Gary Todd from Flickr ]

Starting at Thien Mu Pagoda, one can spend a day on a journey through a varied tapestry of faith and spirituality in Hue city. 

Thien Mu to An Hien House 

Your day starts early morning at Thien Mu Pagoda, a place which has long emanated the principles and meditative teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Here you can contemplate on the Buddhas of the three ages and the emanation of the dharma.

From Thien Mu, as you exit, turn left and head down the road for about a kilometer towards Hue. You will come across the An Hien House (nhà vườn An Hiên) at 58 Nguyen Phuc Nguyen Str. 

This ancient royal garden house is based on Feng Shui principles and design. You can enjoy the flowers and fruit trees in the garden and relax by the pond. Inside the house, you can view historic artifacts and also the ancestral temple room. 

Lunch Options near Thien Mu 

A 10-minute-walk nearby is the Tha Om Garden House and Restaurant at 12/12 Kim Long Str. It’s not exclusively vegetarian, but serves many Hue specialties in a unique historic setting. 

Alternatively, for a pure vegetarian experience, right on the corner before An Hien House at 60 Nguyen Phuc Nguyen Str. is the Cơm Chay Huế Tui vegetarian shop and restaurant. Here you can enjoy many authentic tasty treats. 

River Taxi to Hue Nam Shrine

Hue Nam Shrine
Hue Nam Shrine prior to 2020 Restoration
[ image by Roger Shitaki ]

Heading back to Thien Mu Pagoda you can organize a boat taxi to the Hue Nam Shrine (miếu Huệ Nam), also known as Hon Chen Temple (điện Hòn Chén). 

Here you can experience the principle folk religion of Vietnam with the worship of Thiên Y A Na and other aspects and figures of the Mother Religion (Đạo Mẫu). It’s not uncommon to encounter locals arriving at the shrine in boats with performers and musicians for spirit channeling rituals. 

River Taxi to Minh Mang Tomb

From Hue Nam, your river taxi will take you further down to near the Minh Mang Tomb and Mausoleum. It’s a short ride from the riverbank by cyclo. 

Here you can experience the essence of Confucianism via the tomb’s elegant simplicity. You can pay homage to the greatest esposer of Confucian culture and philosophy in the history of Vietnam. 

Finally, you can return via the same river taxi and enjoy the late afternoon sun over the river. The other option is a taxi back to Hue city central or wherever your hotel is. 

More About the Minh Mang Tomb

How to Get To Thien Mu Pagoda

  • Entrance Fee: None 
  • Opening Times: 6 am to 8 pm 

The Thien Mu Pagoda is on a bend of the Perfume River (sông Hương) about 5 km or 3 miles from the Hue Citadel. It’s on the same northern side of the river as the citadel. 

The fastest way to get there is by taxi or a ride-hailing application such as Grab. You can also take a river taxi from the downtown Toa Kham pier. A single boat to Thien Mu is around 250 000 VND and takes about 50 minutes. 

It’s also nice to cycle there and you can pedal along past the Hue Citadel walls. There are numerous cafes along Kim Long Str. Some other stops are Kim Long historic communal house and a couple of small pagodas as well. 

If you want to visit a number of places in the day, it’s best to book an organized tour or to get to the pagoda as early as possible so you have time to enjoy a river taxi from the pagoda to Hue Nam Shrine and down to Minh Mang Tomb.

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