Saigon has no shortage of places of worship; some of these temples, pagodas, and churches are among the oldest sites in the city while others are worth a stop for a quick shot of local culture. If you have time to spare, when you’re not running off to Cu Chi or the Mekong, here are some of the city’s must-see places of worship.
Probably the most famous religious site in the city is the Notre Dame Cathedral. Just a few blocks away from some of Saigon’s most prominent landmarks, including the Reunification Palace, the cathedral has occupied its current site since Easter Sunday of 1880. The building made of materials imported from France certainly stands out from the surrounding area, drawing many locals and tourists alike for a photo opportunity. Most of these photographers crowd into the cathedral’s front courtyard which is also home to a statue of the Virgin Mary that many claimed shed tears in 2005 (this has however been refuted by Catholic Church officials). While you’re in the area, pop over to the near by park, grab a café sua da and watch the photo shoots and the passing traffic.
If you’re up for an adventure out of downtown you should visit what is considered to be Saigon’s oldest place of worship, Giac Lam Pagoda. Constructed by Vietnamese Buddhists in 1744, the temple occupies a complex that includes a tall stupa and garden/graveyard as well as the temple itself. Although Giac Lam doesn’t scream 1744 as it has been completely renovated at least twice, the last time being 1906, I think the temple is worth a visit just to see the Altar of Patriarchs, a room lined with thousands of pictures of those who have passed on. It’s dark and moody, setting an atmosphere that is unlike any other temple I have visited in the city. If you’re lucky, you may also witness a chanting ritual performed by the temple’s monks in the complex’s main hall.
Although you should visit the Cholon area, HCMC’s Chinatown, no matter what, a good reason to make the journey is to visit the Thien Hau Pagoda. This temple is one of the more popular among the city’s tour groups and for good reason: not because the pagoda itself is overly large or elaborate but because they have taken the use of incense to the next level. Incense coils, some taking more than a month to completely burn, hang from the ceiling and, for a small fee, you can add you own to the collection. While you’ll probably go to partake in the glory of all things incense, the pagoda is also home to a series of elaborate dioramas that line the roofs and walls and are worth a good gaze.
Saigon is home to plenty more pagodas worthy of visits, including the Jade Emperor Pagoda and its turtles, the Tomb of Le Van Duyet, and the always-active Vinh Nghiem Pagoda — but these three get my vote for temples that are can’t-miss.
By Angela Schonberg
Last updated on 2nd October, 2014.