As I have mentioned before, Saigon has no shortage of places to worship. There are churches, pagodas and mosques sprinkled throughout the city. While most are of the newer variety, there are some pagodas that have stood the test of time for hundreds of years. Although older pagodas are spread throughout the city, a high concentration of them can be found in Cholon, which is the city’s Chinatown and home of Binh Tay market. About a 10-minute taxi ride from District 1, Cholon is a worth a visit if you want to see some classic temples. A good place to start your pagoda hopping adventure? Thien Hau Pagoda.
Thien Hau is one of Cholon’s most popular pagodas and is located on the very busy street of Nguyen Trai. Ducking off the street through the temple’s gate you will find yourself in a kind of covered courtyard. While the pagoda itself isn’t the largest or most elaborate in the city, it is most popular for its amazing incense. Every pagoda in HCMC has a pot for incense burning, and some hang incense from the ceiling, but here they take it to the next level. Hung over the main worship area, in front of the alter of Thien Hau herself, are dozens of incense coils. Some are quite large, with a diameter of more than a metre, and can burn for upwards of a month. With a small donation to the pagoda you can have your own coil lit and hung from the rafters.
Besides incense the other thing that stands out about Thien Hau are the elaborate dioramas that decorate the roof and walls. Created with porcelain in the early 1900s, the dioramas show several different scenes, such as duels on horseback and fighting in arenas. Many characters are displayed, ranging from dragons and turtles to European traders.
The pagoda is dedicated to Thien Hau, a traditional Chinese goddess who is not specifically Buddhist or Taoist. Instead, Thien Hau is revered by seafaring cultures as she has the ability to travel over sea, by mat or cloud, to protect or rescue stranded seafarers. In fact, the temple was originally built as an expression of gratitude by 19th century Chinese immigrants for her protection during their initial trip to Saigon by sea.
Thien Hau has no entry fee, though if you drive yourself by motorbike it will cost 5,000 VND to park. Inside there is a donation box if you wish to give something towards the building’s preservation. If you want incense several people inside and outside sell sticks and coils, with 20,000 VND being enough to purchase a large quantity.
By Angela Schonberg
Last updated on 25th July, 2014.