Tran Quoc Pagoda: The Oldest Sacred Ground in Hanoi

Tran Quoc Pagoda (Vietnamese spelling: chùa Trấn Quốc – 鎮國寺) is about 4.5 km away from the center of Hanoi and dates back to 541 CE. It’s located on the sole islet to the east of West Lake which is linked to the mainland by a small driveway.

The pagoda spans over 3000 m2 and was recognized as a National Heritage Site in 1989. It was also voted one of the world’s most beautiful pagodas by the Daily Mail UK in 2016, and the Wanderlust website in 2017.

History of the Tran Quoc Pagoda

History of the Tran Quoc Pagoda
[ image from Facebook ]

Tran Quoc Pagoda was originally built next to the Red River (sông Hồng) in the 6th century during the reign of King Lý Nam Đế. This first king of the Ly Dynasty named it Khai Quoc (Khai Quốc – 開国), or Nation Establishment.

Since its beginning, the pagoda had been the Mecca of Buddhism in the Thang Long Capital City, especially during the Ly and Tran Dynasties. Around the 1440s, Lê Thái Tông— the second king of the Le Dynasty— referred to it as An Quoc Pagoda (chùa An Quốc – 安国寺) which translates ‘to keep the nation at ease’.

Relocation and Establishment of the Name Tran Quoc

During the Later Le Dynasty in 1615, the pagoda was moved to an islet within the Yen Phu Dyke (đê Yên Phụ) which is where it stands today in Yen Phu Ward. King Lê Hy Tông was the one to rename it Tran Quoc or ‘to guard the country’ in the late 17th century.

Tran Quoc Pagoda went through a major renovation in 1815 into what it is today. People have always kept the name Tran Quoceven when Thiệu Trị— the third king of the Nguyen Dynasty— changed it to Tran Bac (Trấn Bắc) which means ‘to guard the North’ in 1842.

Things to See at the Tran Quoc Pagoda

Things to See at the Tran Quoc Pagoda
[ by @anhlh from Unsplash ]

Tran Quoc Pagoda has gone through many restorations in various styles, however, it still strictly adheres to the principles of Buddhist architecture.

Halls of Worship and the Bell Tower

From the Grand Entrance (tam quan), you walk along the pretty red-bricked road and you’ll come to three main halls.

The first is known as Front House (Tiền đường), then behind that is the Incense House (nhà thiêu hương), and then the Upper Hall (thượng điện). They’re connected in the shape of the Chinese character ‘工’ meaning ‘to work’. The Upper Hall contains a unique collection of bronze and gold plated statues. 

The bell tower is behind the Upper Hall, to the right of it is the Ancestor House (nhà tổ) where monks of the past and worshipped and remembered. To the right is the Stele House with records of the pagoda.

One typical feature of the pagoda is the wooden dharmachakra or dharma wheel (pháp luân) on the outer wall. It’s widely used to represent the Buddha’s teaching and the universal moral order.

Lotus Stupa

The Lotus Stupa
The Lotus Stupa
[ by David Emrich from Unsplash ]

The Lotus Tower (bảo tháp lục độ đài sen) is uniquely beautiful with lotus flowers carved into the walls. Each level of the11 stories has 6 statues of the Amitabha Buddha (Phật A Di Đà) facing outward.

On the top is a sculpture of the Nine Stages of Lotus Flowers (Cửu Phẩm Liên Hoa) in Buddhism. These correspond to the nine levels of development in one’s previous life which reflect the distance from Amitabha, or one’s consequent Kalpa (kiếp) or lifetime.

Amitabha is the principal buddha in Pure Land Buddhism (Tịnh Độ Tông), a branch of Mahayana Buddhism (Đại Thừa Tông). He’s also called the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Light (Phật Vô Lượng Thọ Vô Lượng Quang).

The Bodhi Tree

The Bodhi tree Tran Quoc Pagoda
The Bodhi tree
[ by Mytravelbinge from Facebook ]

In 1959, the then President of India gave a Bhodi tree as a gift to the pagoda. It was taken from the original one in Bodh Gaya (bồ đề Đạo Tràng) where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. In addition, the Former President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev,  visited this National Heritage Site in 2010.

Life Release Ceremony

Life Release (phóng sinh) is a Buddhist practice of compassion to free captured animals. The Life Release Ceremony is held annually on January 15 and Vu Lan Festival (lễ Vu Lan), the equivalent of the Ghost Festival in Buddhism, in July in the Lunar Calendar.

Being such a sacred ground, many pilgrims gather at Tran Quoc Pagoda and release captured small animals like birds, fish, and turtles sold on the streets. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of this and recapture the animals to resell soon after they’ve been released.

Visiting the Tran Quoc Pagoda

The driveway Tran Quoc Pagoda
The driveway
[ by WJ Lawrence from Facebook ]

Tran Quoc Pagoda has no entrance fee, but feel free to give your own donation. Remember to wear clothes covering the knees and shoulders.

Tran Quoc is especially crowded during the 1st month and the Vesak Day (lễ Phật Đản) on the Lunar calendar. There are free incense sticks to light up at the altars and you can bring fresh fruits as an offering.

How to Get to the Tran Quoc Pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda is in the area of West Lake not far from the center of Hanoi so it’s easy to get to. Pilgrims like to stroll the lake by bicycle or on foot visiting other temples and pagodas nearby or to relax at lake-view cafes and restaurants.Check out our article on ‘25 Best Things To Do in Hanoi’ for more about how to get to the Tran Quoc Pagoda and other nearby destinations.

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