Filled with wonder and curiosity, Vietnam is a country with millennia of history and civilizations and religions just as old.
Rice paddies line up against mountain ranges and cut into limestone, sand dunes dust the coast creating desolate beaches; the only thing to interrupt Vietnam’s astounding landscapes are temples.
As one of the country’s oldest religions, Vietnam's temples demonstrate the integration of Chinese and Vietnamese architecture that reflects the development of Buddhism across the country. The peaceful and tranquil atmosphere of the temples of Vietnam attracts visitors from across the world looking for an introduction to Buddhism and what it is in different countries.
Many temples in Vietnam are set in the most picturesque locations, acting as viewpoints for those looking to appreciate the world-renowned beauty of the country. In addition to the serene settings, each temple has its own story, which contributes to the history of the country and the people's cultural interests as a whole.
As you delve deeper into the temple's history, you uncover traces of the long-standing focus on religion throughout the country and its history. The temple's stories bear witness to a strong inclination towards superstition and the cultural belief in all that is associated with luck. Something that is still prevalent in Vietnamese society today.
Here's a breakdown of the most fascinating, picturesque temples in Vietnam;
Temples in Hanoi
1) Perfume Pagoda (Huong Pagoda)
The beauty of Hanoi is that you don't need to drive too far before you are in the karst formations of the north of Vietnam. The Perfume Pagoda attests to this.
Sitting in the heart of a maze of temples in the countryside, the Perfume Pagoda is found in a sacred cave, thought to have been discovered by a monk who came here to meditate 2,000 years ago.
The shrines here are a mixture of Buddhist and Animist. Pilgrims come to the pagoda complex seeking particular blessings. The formation of the cave, with its stalactites and stalagmites, are said to represent each blessing. Between the smell of burning incense and the calming silence of nature, there is a resounding air of peace at the Perfume Pagoda.
2) One Pillar Pagoda
It's hard to believe that such a tiny temple could become so famous, but the One Pillar Pagoda is an iconic image for Hanoi and Vietnam.
Dating back to the 11th century, the temple represents the shape of a lotus flower and is in the middle of a lotus pond, covering just three-square-meters. The One Pillar Pagoda is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, known in Vietnam as Quan Am. Legend has it, Emperor Ly Thai Tong created the temple to represent enlightenment in thanks to the Goddess of Mercy for granting him his son, as he had never known his father himself.
To add to the temple's sanctity, the tree that stands behind it is an offcut of the tree Buddha meditated under. It was gifted from India in 1958.
3) Temple of Literature
Honouring education, the Temple of Literature was once an exclusive centre of learning for only the top academics in the country.
Having opened in the 11th century, the Temple of Literature and the curriculum went onto set the foundations for Vietnamese education. Highly influenced by Chinese methods, the curriculum still forms the basis for education in the country today.
The temple is divided into five courtyards that were used for learning, recreation, and prayer. Within each of the courtyards, there are items that were used for luck and prosperity. These items represent the importance of Vietnamese folklore and religion. Among the most important are the great bells, that were only to be touched by monks, and turtles statues that students would touch for luck.
With a resounding air of calm, and history and culture seeping through the cracks, the Temple of Literature is one of the most important buildings in the country.
Temples in Ninh Binh
4) Thai Vi Temple
A fine example of the Ninh Binh's architecture and carvings, Thai Vi Temple is surrounded by Ninh Binh's limestone karsts and rice paddies and is steeped in royal history.
Built as somewhat of a retirement project of Emperor Tran Thai Tong in the 13th century, the temple marks the first victory against the invasion of the Chinese forces. The temple holds great importance for the people of Ninh Binh as, after the temple was built, the king stayed to meditate here and help the local people develop the town.
Today, the temple is dedicated to the king and his family in thanks for all they did. Interestingly, there is an annual festival dedicated to the king which takes place over two days. The festival culminates with a sacrifice in the centre of the temple grounds.
5) Hoa Lu's Dinh and Le Temples
Set in the ancient citadel of Hoa Lu, the Dinh and Le temples are dedicated to the kings that reigned with Hoa Lu as the capital in the 10th century. Both temples were erected in the ancient citadel after the capital was moved to Thanh Long, now modern-day Hanoi. The temples are around 500 metres apart and take the form of a Chinese character. Each temple contains the worshipping tablets of the family members and successors of the respective kings.
The temples and the ancient citadel itself is a testament to the Vietnamese royal architecture, the Chinese influence, and Ninh Binh's beauty and artistic heritage.
6) Bai Dinh Temple Complex
The largest Buddhist complex in Vietnam, Bai Dinh Temple is made up of a smaller original temple and a newer large temple. A poignant feature of the temple is the 500 Buddha statues that are found all over the complex, the largest of which is a 10-metre bronze image.
Nestled on Dinh Mountain, the main temple is accessed via a steep stairway that takes you into natural caves. Here, you'll find a shrine that is dedicated to Buddha and the Vietnamese mountain spirits.
The views from Bai Dinh temple stretch across Ninh Binh province: rice paddies are interspersed by limestone karsts that characterise this region so well.
Temples in Hue
7) Thien Mu Pagoda
Often regarded as the unofficial symbol of the city, Thien Mu Pagoda is a religious site with a fascinating history.
Way before the pagoda's inception in the 15th century, the Vietnamese folktale of the Celestial Lady, Thien Mu, predicted that a pagoda would be erected on this site. It was not until the first of the Nguyen lords of the south, Nguyen Hoang, heard the tale that the pagoda was erected.
Set on the Perfume River that runs through the city, Thien Mu Pagoda was the first pagoda in the Hue and has been the centre of Buddhism in the city ever since.
Temples in Da Nang
8) Linh Ung Pagoda and Lady Buddha
Fronted by the largest statue of the Goddess of Mercy in Vietnam, Linh Ung Pagoda is set in the serene location of Son Tra Mountain, looking over the central city of Da Nang.
Legend has it, locals found a statue of the Goddess of Mercy on the beach below where the temple stands today. As superstition prevailed, a temple was erected to bring peace to the region and prosperity to the fisherman. Da Nang is one of the main fishing ports in the country today.
The temple is surrounded by a paved garden, lined with bonsai trees. Even under the scorching sun, you'll find peace while wandering.
Temples in Ho Chi Minh City
9) Ba Thien Hau Temple
Among the dense market streets of Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown is Ba Thien Hau Temple, a more classic example of a Chinese temple, dedicated to the Sea Goddess, Mazu. Created in the 18th century, the temple is representative of two main beliefs, Taoism and Buddhism with different spaces for specific rituals.
The main facade and interior walls of the temple are decorated with many porcelain statues that represent Mazu and the legends that surround the goddess. This leads you down to the great stone incense burners that centre each section, an iconic symbol of this famous temple.
Ba Thien Hau is often crowded; however, the divisions create a feeling of intimacy and instil silence.
10) Jade Emperor Pagoda
Often referred to as the Tortoise Pagoda because of the shelled creatures that swim around in the ponds, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the five most important temples in the city. It more recently shot to fame as the temple that Barack Obama visited when he came to the city in 2016, a trip that changed the face of Vietnam's tourism when he dined with the late Anthony Bourdain.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda was erected by the community of Chinese people who moved from the city from Guangzhou. Dedicated to the God of Heavens, the Jade Emperor, devotees come to the temple to pray for their fate. What the Jade Emperor Pagoda lacks in size, it makes up for in detail; it’s filled with statues representing all that would tempt you presenting heaven, hell, and fertility.
Despite being one of the newer temples on this list, the pagoda is small and dimly lit, the lingering smell of incense adds a unique charm to it.
Temples in Vietnam – Conclusion
Having shown you the top temples in Vietnam from north to south, this list only scratches the surface of what Vietnam has to offer. There are many serene temples to be found in Vietnam’s smaller cities and lesser-known locations that warrant some of your attention. Take your time when touring Vietnam to fully-experience the majesty of the country.
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