I’ve recently covered a few of Saigon’s many pagodas — here and here — and you may have noticed a common theme emerging: they are small and are being chocked out by surrounding buildings. But there is a pagoda that staked its claim early enough, and far enough out of downtown, that it has still actually got some land to spare. I’m talking about Saigon’s oldest place of worship: Giac Lam Pagoda.
First constructed by Vietnamese Buddhists in 1744, Giac Lam is thought to be Saigon’s oldest temple. If the temple itself doesn’t look that old, it’s because in actuality it really isn’t. It has been completely renovated at least twice, once in 1804 and again in 1906. So, while there may be some decor that has been around through it all, the whole place doesn’t scream 1744.
Unlike other pagodas and churches in town, the first thing that impressed me with Giac Lam was its expansive grounds. The temple complex spreads over quite an area and has several buildings, some large statues and a garden; some locals come here just to exercise in the courtyard.
From the gate, the first piece of the complex you will see is the seven-storey stupa. The stupa, which was only officially finished in the late 1990s, was built to house a relic of the Buddha. Construction on the stupa began in 1970 but was halted after the fall of Saigon; the unfinished building sat for almost 20 years before construction resumed. Now you can enter and climb to the top for a good look over the city.
The main, and original, temple is in the rear of the area. Leaving the stupa you pass by a couple of large Buddha statues and the garden/graveyard where the old tombs of monks and caretakers of the pagoda rest under a bodhi tree. The temple is pretty interesting inside. The first of two main rooms is “the Altars of Patriarchs”, with walls lined with metres and metres of pictures of people who have passed on. It’s dark, there are lots of old pictures, and it’s definitely a mood setter.
The main altar is in the next room. It is filled with supposedly more than 100 — I didn’t count them all — with the biggest being one of Amitabha Buddha, an important figure in Dharma. If you’re around at the right time you may get a chance to see the temple’s monks perform a pretty awesome chanting ritual in the hall. Monks at the door of the main hall will make you remove your shoes.
Giac Lam is a tough place to find. It’s also a good jaunt out of downtown, about 30 minutes by taxi or 25 by bike. Situated off a long road that stretches through multiple districts, you will find the pagoda in Tan Binh district with a number that is sequentially out of order with the buildings surrounding it; it is at 118 but the buildings next door are in the 700 range. Parking at the pagoda is free — a rare occurrence at pagodas — and in abundance.
By Angela Schonberg
Last updated on 25th July, 2014.