The Vietnam Pagoda – Unique Features & Vietnam’s Top Buddhist Sites

In Vietnam, pagoda is the English word for indicating a place of Buddhist worship. In the usual sense, it means a multi-tiered tower-like structure. However, in the multi-faith country of Vietnam, a pagoda takes on a broader meaning. A pagoda does not only refer to a Buddhist ‘temple’ or temple complex. Sometimes, a pagoda in Vietnam is an actual cave.

Difference Between a Pagoda in Vietnam and a Temple

As mentioned, if you visit a pagoda in Vietnam, you’re going to a predominant Buddhist place of worship. In Vietnamese, the word for ‘pagoda’ is Chùa. Sometimes you will also find a pagoda designated by the word Điện or Tự in Sino-Vietnamse.

A Vietnamese temple, on the other hand, is more typically a place to worship or honor legendary figures in Vietnamese history or foundational mythology.

A temple in Vietnam can also be a place of mixed worship like syncretic Chinese Buddhism, temples of the Caodai, or temples to the Mother Goddess religion. Sometimes you may find a temple in a larger pagoda complex or a shrine to the mother goddess.

Read more about Temples in Vietnam

The Pagoda Design in Vietnam

Pagoda Design in Vietnam
[ by Đoàn Xuân Phương from Unsplash ]

Architecturally, a pagoda in Vietnam displays a degree of influence from ancient China. They typically have three doors, a bell tower, sometimes a large drum, and a pond nestled in the surrounding gardens. There may also be a stupa or a pagoda tower.

According to received tradition, the bell is always to the right and the drum tower to the left. If there is a pagoda tower, it will be in the front and to the left. You may also find a stupa containing holy relics at the back of the complex.

The design and layout mimic the traditional design of a Vietnamese house. There is a main entrance or bay that houses the principal altar. The two bays to the sides often function as offices or monk accommodations. There may be two structurally independent ‘huts’ to either side.

Larger pagodas may have a welcoming bay along the front before you enter the main hall. Behind the Main Hall is always a Patriarch House. This is a place for worshipping the founding abbot and also memorial plaques to other deceased lay members.

Like a traditional Vietnamese house, the kitchen is uniquely located at the back in a separate building, possibly alongside other buildings. There may be additional side buildings acting as residences, offices, or sometimes as small shrines.

Unique Aspects of a Pagoda in Vietnam

Quite a few pagodas are maintained exclusively by women monks. This is more unique to Vietnam than other Asian Buddhist countries, especially for Mahayana Buddhism. For the most part, only men live in and maintain the pagoda. Sometimes local people may run a lay pagoda.

Another key feature is roof tiling and ornamentations. Many pagodas will have ornate roofs decorated with colorful ceramic mosaics. Mythic or spirit animals can include the phoenix, turtle, dragon, and unicorn.

The arched pagoda gateway or môn is also special in Vietnam. They are often beautifully decorated, quite large or wide, and well taken care of. This gate is an important symbol of the pagoda behind it. Some gates, especially in south Vietnam, may have double roofs with supporting columns.

In central and north Vietnam, a pagoda may have just a straight roof, but still ornately decorated. A common roof style, especially in the south, is the hipped roof. It has upturned edges and an inward curve. A double-hipped roof will typically indicate the main hall.

A Brief History of Pagoda Buddhist Worship in Vietnam

Pagoda Buddhist Worship in Vietnam
[ by Constant Loubier from Pexels ]

Most pagodas in Vietnam follow the Mahayana tradition derived from ancient China via Tibet. Originally, traditional Theravada Buddhism existed alongside Champa Shaivite worship in the southern regions of Vietnam.

The Mahayana tradition came later as the Dai Viet moved south and conquered the Champa Kingdoms. Theravada still remains in southern Vietnam, especially towards the Cambodian border area.

The Dinh Dynasty (968-979) was the first to support Buddhism. This continued through the Le and reached a high point in the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225). The Emperor Lý Anh Tông (1136-1175) supported Buddhism as a state religion.

However, under the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), with encouragement from China, Confucianism became more prominent as the court religion. At this time, Taoism also flourished. Many Buddhist sites during this period were destroyed.

However, Lord Nguyễn Hoàng in 1601 reinvigorated Buddhism with the construction of Thien Mu Pagoda in present day Hue. Although the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 was essentially Confucious, they actively favored Buddhism for the common people.

From the early 1920s a Buddhist revival once again swept the country. Many umbrella organizations in Hue, Hanoi, and former Saigon were formed. Presently, any pagoda in Vietnam has to be authorized by the State to function legally.

How to Partake in Pagoda Worship in Vietnam

How to Partake in Pagoda Worship in Vietnam
[ by Tho-Ge from Pixabay ]

When visiting a pagoda in Vietnam, the best thing to do is to just offer incense or joss sticks. Local people, or congregation, for more specific purposes may bring offerings of flowers, sweets, and fruits.

Usually, there’s a large urn in front of the main building where you can find incense to offer. Sometimes, vendors sell outside or you may have to buy some inside. It’s always handy to have a lighter on you because occasionally there isn’t a root candle to light the sticks. If the incense is free to take, leave a donation in the box.

If there are many altars or urns for incense you can grab a bundle. It’s enough though to just offer an odd number at the main urn. Three is a good number for the main urn, and one each if there are two side urns and or side altars.

You can also offer incense inside if you want. It’s always best to look and see what more in-the-know locals are doing. Some temples and pagodas don’t allow incense in the main building.

How to Offer Incense

How to Offer Incense
[ by nguyentuanhung from Pixabay ]

Stand in an erect position to the side of the urn and try not to hog space around the urn. Hold the incense high with the base of the sticks touching your third eye or mid-forehead. You can bow your head politely once, and / or move the incense up and down three times.

Place the incense upright in the urn to show your good character. You can say a prayer if you want, or in your mind just chant the universal Buddhist prayer mantra ‘on made padme om’.

To offer incense in the main hall, some people may kneel down — but that’s really up to you. Carry incense above your head so as not to endanger people around you. Be mindful of people doing rituals and try not to walk in front of people as they pray — or at least bend low down as you pass in front.

A Few Dos and Don’ts

Usually, you have to remove your shoes before entering a pagoda in Vietnam. This is not always the case, but look around to see if there is any signage. If there’s a welcoming hall, you can leave your shoes there.

Most pagodas (and royal temples) are sensitive about how you dress. You shouldn’t have bare shoulders for either men or women, and dresses, pants, and shorts should cover your knees.

Standard etiquette is a no brainer. So obviously one should not speak in a loud voice nor shout and wave around, and not touch everything you see. Be careful not to push or bump into people.

For photos, always check if you can take pictures inside, especially of the altar. If you take pictures of people just be discreet. Avoid taking pictures of monks or close-ups of people offering incense if you don’t know them.

Recommended Pagoda Sites in Hanoi

In Hanoi you will find many interesting and varied pagodas. Hanoi, or Thang Long as it was once known, became one of the epicenters for the development of Mahayana Buddhism in Vietnam. 

One Pillar Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda Architecture
[ by Su Le Tat from Facebook ]

One Pillar Pagoda (chùa Một Cột) in Hanoi is the most iconic pagoda in Vietnam. It arises from a pond like a lotus on its pedestal. The original structure, built in the 11th century, used no bolts or screws. It was completely wooden and unique terracotta tiling techniques helped it withstand strong winds.

The One Pillar Pagoda became an authentic example of unique and simplified Vietnamese design. It was spitefully destroyed by the French in 1954, but rebuilt soon afterward.

Read more about One Pillar Pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Things to See at the Tran Quoc Pagoda
[ by 9636137 from Pixabay ]

Tran Quoc Pagoda (chùa Trấn Quốc) is often considered the most picturesque pagoda in Vietnam. It’s on an island to the east of Hanoi West Lake. The pagoda dates back to the 6th century and it was relocated to its current position in 1615. It’s famous for its 11-storey Lotus Stupa and a graft of the original Bodhi tree —  gifted in 1959 by the then president of India.

Read more about Tran Quoc Pagoda

Quan Su Pagoda

Quan Su Pagoda
[ image from Facebook ]

Quan Su Pagoda (chùa Quán Sứ)  is in a street of the same name meaning Ambassador Street. It was built during the 15th century in the Le dynasty. It’s purpose was to welcome foreign dignitaries from nearby Buddhist states paying tribute to the Dai Viet Kingdom. It houses the Vietnam Central Buddhist Congregation, and is one of the most important pagodas in Vietnam.

Perfume Pagoda

Things to See in the Perfume Pagoda
[ image from Facebook ]

Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương – 香寺) is one of the most popular places of Buddhist pilgrimage in Vietnam. It’s on the outskirts of Hanoi in Mỹ Đức District. The 63 km journey there is by road and then boat. A cable ride may also be included.

The origin of the pagoda was a cave. Many of the complex structures were destroyed in the war against the French, but rebuilt later on. The site is a rich combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. 

The journey over the placid waters of the Yen River (sông Yến) takes you through and by many caves. You can also visit traditional temples to the Hung Kings of  the first legendary Vietnamese kingdom — Ancient Van Lang. 

Read more about Perfume Pagoda

Best Pagodas in Central Vietnam

Hue city in Central Vietnam became a center point for the revival of Mahayana Buddhism in Vietnam, especially at Thien Mu Pagoda. Nearby Danang has also seen a resurgence of modern Buddhist constructions.

Thien Mu Pagoda of Hue

Thien Mu Pagoda of Hue
[ by Katzbach from Pixabay ]

Thien Mu Pagoda (chùa Thiên Mụ) in Hue is one of the most historically significant pagodas in Vietnam. Its construction in 1601 saw a resurgence in the development of Mahayana Buddhism. It’s on a bend in the Perfume River marked by an iconic tower and is home to a number of historic artefacts. Nearby are royal garden houses or other sites you can explore along the river from its jetty.

Read more about Thien Mu Pagoda

Truc Lam Bach Ma Zen Monastery

Truc Lam Bach Ma Zen Monastery
[ by Thiền Viện Trúc Lâm Bạch Mã – H.A.K from Facebook ]

Truc Lam Bach Ma Zen Monastery (Thiền viện Trúc Lâm Bạch Mã) is about 40 km south of Hue as you head towards Bach Ma National Park. This tranquil location gives you the opportunity to explore nature across the beautiful turquoise waters of Truoi Lake. The monastery is a place of international pilgrimage with many flowers gifted from all over the world.

Linh Ung Pagoda on Marble Mountain

Ling Ung Pagoda: Marble Mountain
[ by Paul Mannix from Flickr ]

Linh Ung Pagoda (chùa Linh Ứng) on Marble Mountain is one of the oldest Mahayana Buddhist sites in Danang. The pagoda dates back to the early 17th century. Both the Nguyen Emperors Gia Long and Minh Mang supported its development and it was a spiritual retreat for Hue royals. Marble Mountain has many cave pagodas, spectacular views, and shopping for semi precious stones and religious or secular stonework. 

Read more about Marble Mountain

Danang Lady Buddha Pagoda

Linh Ung Lady Buddha Pagoda
[ by thanhhoa tran from Pexels ]

Lady Buddha Pagoda is Danang’s other Linh Ung Pagoda. It’s one of Danang’s most scenic locations as you head up the Son Tra Peninsula. This pagoda is a shining example of a modern, yet traditional, pagoda complex in Vietnam. It was completed in 2010. The Lady Buddha statue stands 67 m tall and can be seen from anywhere along the Danang foreshore.

Read more about the Lady Buddha of Danang

Linh Phuoc Pagoda of Dalat 

Linh Phuoc Pagoda
[ by loek-zanders from Flickr ]

Linh Phuoc Pagoda (Chùa Linh Phước) is in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in the city of Dalat. It’s a prime show piece of a more eclectically inspired pagoda than strictly traditional. It’s also known as Ve Chai Pagoda, or ‘Junk Pagoda’ by the locals. 

The Pagoda is intricately decorated with pieces of colorful broken glass and ceramics. It’s also home to 11 ‘national attainments’ or record breakers for things such as the tallest bell tower and indoor Guan Yin, as well as numerous impressive wood carvings. There’s also an 18 level depiction of the hell realms in Mahayana Buddhism.

Read more about Linh Phuoc Pagoda

Top Pagoda Sites in Southern Vietnam

Southern Vietnam tends to have a richer density in terms of religious diversity. You’ll find ancient Cham Temples like Ponagar Tower, more Christian churches and temples of the Caodai, as well as Theravada Buddist pagodas. 

Long Son Pagoda of Nha Trang

White Buddha of Nha Trang
[ by Anna Kovyneva from Facebook ]

Long Son Pagoda (chùa Long Sơn) is Nha Trang’s home to the Great White Buddha. It’s quite a historic and important pagoda. A cyclone destroyed the original structure in 1886. Then, it was rebuilt from original blueprints and moved to its present location.

A main attraction is the 24-meter-high sitting Buddha. It’s one of the largest of its kind in Vietnam. The view of Nha Trang is very popular, as is the pagoda’s giant sleeping Buddha.

Read more about Long Son Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda in HCMC

Jade Emperor Pagoda
[ by vietnguyenbui from Pixabay ]

Jade Emperor Pagoda (chùa Ngọc Hoàng) in Ho Chi Minh City is a superb example of syncretic Chinese Buddhism and Taosim unique to southern Vietnam. The main hall worships Gautama Buddha. Behind is a hall to the Jade Emperor, and to the side a hall for the King of Hell, and a fertility shrine. Upstairs is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Quan Am. There are many rare statues and precious detailed artefacts you can admire.

Read more about the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Giac Lam Pagoda in HCMC

Inside Giac Lam Pagoda
[ by Trương Thanh Long from Facebook ]

Giac Lam Pagoda (chùa Giác Lâm) in the oldest Mahayana Buddhist site Ho Chi Minh City. The architecture is uniquely of southern Vietnam. The typically long rectangular building has 98 carved pillars and construction dates back to 1744. There are over 100 statues of historic importance residing in the pagoda. Many Buddhist artefact shops and casual vegetarian eateries are just across the road.

Buu Long Pagoda in HCMC

Buu Long Pagoda
[ by Thutruongvn from Pixabay ]

Buu Long Pagoda (chùa Bửu Long) is about 10 km from Ho Chi Minh City center on the outskirts of the northeastern city. It’s one of the largest and most important Theravada Buddhist pagodas. Its construction dates back to 1942. A major restoration earned it fame as one of the world’s top 20 beautiful pagodas by National Geographic.

Largest Pagoda Complex in Vietnam – Bai Dinh

Bai Dinh Pagoda
[ by phongnguyenhuy from Pixabay ]

Bai Dinh Pagoda (chùa Bái Đính) in Ninh Binh Province is the largest Buddhist complex in Vietnam. It’s a modern testimony to the historicity of Vietnamese architecture. The pagoda is 10 km away from the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital and forms part of the Trang An Landscape Complex which includes another famous pagoda, Bich Dong.

The ‘new area’ is home to nine national attainments or modern record breakers such as the largest bronze Shakyamuna and gold plated Avolokteshvara. The bell tower also contains the largest bell ever cast in Vietnam. For a day out, you can walk a 3 km corridor of 500 Arhat Bodhisattvas.

There is also a Bodhi or Banyan Tree garden of 500 trees gifted by the Indian government. If you go to the nearby ‘ancient area’ you can visit ancient cave temples, including the Mother Goddess folk religion.

Read more about Bai Dinh Pagoda

Highest Pagoda Site in Vietnam – Fansipan Mountain

The Statue of Quan Am
[ by athree23 from Pixabay ]

If Bai Dinh Pagoda is broad, stately, and sublime, the Fansipan complex is inspirational and exhilarating. This religious site perched on the tallest mountain in Vietnam, Mount Fansipan, came into realization with the completion of the Fansipan Cable Way.

The Fansipan ground cable station is 3 km from Sapa central and takes you to an elevation of 2 700 km. It’s the longest 3-wire cable in the world spanning 6 292 meters. A further 603 steps will take you to the official summit of the mountain.

On Mount Fansipan, there are a number of traditional temples as well as pagodas. Pagodas comprise Bich Van Zen Monastery, and Kim Son Bao Thang Pagoda with its 11-story stone-clad stupa. There is also a huge seated copper Buddha, a tall standing Avolakteshvara, and the stoic fortress like bell tower.

Read more about Mount Fansipan

Most Sacred Pagoda Site in Vietnam –  Yen Tu Mountain

Yen Tu Relic
[ by Yên Tử Mountain from Facebook ]

Yen Tu Mountain in Quang Ninh Province is known as the ‘sacred capital’ of Vietnam. Officially, it’s known as the Yen Tu Relic and Landscape Complex (Khu di tích Danh thắng Yên Tử). It is currently in application for World Heritage status.

This religious site dates back to the time of King Trần Nhân Tông (1258 – 1308), who came here to practice an aesthetic life after defeating the Mongolian army. King Tong subsequently founded the Truc Lam Zen sect of Buddhism. On the 10th of January of the Lunar calendar, the Yen Tu Festival commemorates King Tong.

There are dozens of pagodas, temples, and ancient relics all giving testament to the remarkable and intact spiritual heritage of Vietnam. On the top of Yen Tu Mountain, at 1 068 m above sea level, is the remarkable Dong Pagoda. It’s 3 meters high and 12 meters square and cast out of pure copper.Yen Tu Mountain is often included in tours to Ha Long Bay.

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