One of the most popular and important places of worship in Hanoi, Phu Tay Ho trumps even Tran Quoc Pagoda for its enviable lakeside position. Stories about the Mother Goddesses — to whom the temple is dedicated — and the golden buffalo calf enhance its appeal as a destination for visitors.
Phu Tay Ho is on the northern bank of the same-named lake, a few kilometres along the lake road from Xuan Dieu Street. Whereas pagodas are for Buddhists, Phu Ta Ho is dedicated to the Mother Goddesses and the Jade Emperor and is therefore most correctly referred to as a palace — although laypeople would call it a temple.
Legend goes that one of the three Mother Goddesses appeared to two Confucian scholars in a pub near the lake. She gave them food and drink and wrote poetry and they were so taken by her beauty that they later returned, but there was no sign of her or the pub, just a scroll of poetry, revealing herself as one of the Mother Goddesses. They then built the temple right next to the lake in her honour. Another variation says she appeared to a fisherman on the lake, smiling and reciting poetry.
The street leading to the gate, and the pathway inside, are lined with stalls selling cakes, fruit, flowers, fake money, incense and other paraphernalia associated with visiting a palace. You will also see elderly men writing prayers in Chinese for visitors to burn to send to the Gods.
In the first large building you come to, if you turn left inside the gate, you will see three empty throne-like seats at the back of the altar. They represent the three Goddesses and are ready for the Goddesses to occupy when they are on earth. The altar in the building next door has effigies of the Goddesses, surrounded by their male Chinese servants. Below the altar is a cave of animals representing the animist set of beliefs in place at the time Mother Goddess worship began.
The Jade Emperor is also worshipped here but is less important than the Goddesses, hence his position is in-front of or below the Goddesses. See him surrounded by his servants in the first temple building, with the angry and benign guards on duty.
When you visit you will see people preparing trays of food and flowers and leaving them at the altar with a stick of incense burning. The smoke from the incense makes a connection with the Mother Goddesses or the Jade Emperor and their strength flows down into the produce on the tray. When the stick has burnt down, the produce is taken home and given to a sick relative, or whoever the prayer was for.
Similarly, incense put into the large pots in front of the altars is there to help transmit prayers, with small offerings being left in the pots in front of the altars. Note that larger donations, from around 50,000 VND upwards, are given to a man sitting on the veranda outside the building and recorded in a book. A sign requests that only one stick of incense be used to avoid excessive smoke.
Note the large axe or bat-shaped gong. The word for bat and good fortune are homonyms, so bats were traditionally used to represent good fortune to those who could not read.
Turn right after entering through the main gate and you will come to a courtyard housing statues of a golden buffalo and its calf. There is, of course, a legend surrounding the calf which goes something like this: During the Ly dynasty — the first free dynasty after Chinese rule — there lived a monk named Nguyen Minh Phong. He was also a medicine man, and when the king was suffering from an illness Phong was called and cured him. The ill emperor in China heard about this and sent for him. Phong was able to help and was offered the contents of one of the emperor’s store rooms as reward. He choose one with copper and bronze and learnt how to cast bronze.
The king was so impressed that he had a large bell cast — a smaller replica of which can be seen in this courtyard — and when it was rung it could be heard all the way to China. A buffalo calf heard the bell and, thinking it was his mother’s call, followed it. He spent many years trying to find his mother in Hanoi to no avail, but his trampling resulted in what is now West Lake.
If peckish, stop off at one of the many restaurants that line the road leading to the temple: banh tom, bun ca and bun oc are specialities but fuller menus are available. Or for good Western fuel, try Tet Decor Cafe or Da Paolo’s, both within a few minutes’ walk.
While you’re in the area visit Pho Linh Tay Ho Pagoda as well, about a 10-minute walk away.
How to get there
To get to Phu Tay Ho, turn onto Quang An -- previously Lane 27 -- by Warehouse and follow the lake road to the T-junction at the end. Turn right then take the first left. In a taxi ask for Phu Tay Ho. If going by motorbike or bicycle you'll need to park up on Xom Chua Street, only around 100 metres from the pagoda. Expect to pay 5,000 to 10,000 VND.