Saigon is a city filled with places of worship; it seems that every street has at least one pagoda or church — from the roof of my old house in District 3 I could see at least seven. Most of these spots are nothing particularly special in terms of architectural or historical significance but Saigon does boast a number of pagodas and churches steeped in history and charm. One such place is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, built in 1909 by the Cantonese.
From the outside the pagoda is unassuming, with a small yet elaborate gate that blends into its surroundings. As you walk through the outside gate you enter into the pagoda’s shaded courtyard, which is a quiet oasis from the busy street outside. For the most part the courtyard is empty except for a couple of large bowls for incense and a few lion statues guarding the front door.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda is also known as the Tortoise Pagoda and while I didn’t see any tortoises they do have a pool, about four metres long and two metres wide, filled with turtles in a corner. The problem is that the pool has way too many turtles packed into this one spot and, in a quest for pool dominance they seem to have resorted to fighting; I personally didn’t linger.
Use your time in the courtyard instead to check out the pagoda itself, a small colourful building. The roof is decorated with some intricate carvings, of serpents among other things, and tile work that is worth a long look.
The pagoda itself is pretty small but that didn’t stop them from packing it to the brim with carvings of Buddhist and Taoist figures, some of them quite large and made from a sturdy papier-mache. Remember too that the pagoda is still actively used and is a popular spot for tourists, so you may find yourself running out of space inside. The whole place is a little unsettling, as most of the figures look mean; add that to the overall smoke-filled, darkness of the inside and you’re talking serious atmosphere.
The focal point inside is the one and only Jade Emperor, who sits surrounded by worshipping figures. The Jade Emperor is the one who decides who is allowed entry into the heavens and who is refused entry. He gets a big majority of those who actually come to the pagoda to pray but there is also a popular altar dedicated to the goddess of fertility, Kim Hua. Besides the altars, there are some intricate depictions of the Chinese apocalypse etched on the wall and plenty of other statues to take a look at; the entire collection is a fusion of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian mythologies.
Entry into the pagoda is free, and parking a bike will only run 4,000 VND. The cab ride from Pham Ngu Lao shouldn’t take too long, about 15 minutes, and should set you back less than 100,000 VND. For that small a price, the historical Jade Emperor Pagoda is definitely worth a visit.
By Angela Schonberg
Last updated on 25th July, 2014.