Despite being a communist country, officially atheist, Vietnam turns out to be a land of many beliefs and religions. There is Buddhism – both Mahayana and Theravada, there is Christianity in its various forms, there is Islam, Confucianism, Taoism and Hinduism… But what makes it so much more interesting is there is a vast variety of local religions and beliefs, with the locally made Caodaism and a variety of smaller folk religions, that bring even more color to the matter.
As a natural result of such an abundance of beliefs comes the big number of temples, pagodas, and shrines dotting the country. Traveling to Southeast Asia always comes hand in hand with visiting more temples than you could think of. Generally, that is mostly associated with Thailand or Cambodia, leaving the Vietnamese ‘religion scene’ a little bit left out. But if between seeing the Mekong Delta and cruising Halong Bay, you’ll find the time to dive into the world of Vietnamese spirituality, you might discover the rich and beautiful world of temples, altars, shrines, and countless amounts of statues and idols, from dragons and turtles to whale bones and even Shakespeare, as we’ll discover …
Let’s take a look at the extraordinary Cao Dai religion – started in the ’20s of the last century in the city of Tay Ninh. In short, Caodaists believe in one supreme power. While having its own structure and cosmology, Caodaism brings together the fundamentals of many pre-existing religions like Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity. In short – it takes the best of other religions and blends it into one system of committing to love and justice. Interestingly, they recognize as their prophets or the saints’ personas such as William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Louis Pasteur, or Joan of Arc!
Visiting the Cao Dai temple is a true feast to the eyes – the colors, the forms, and the richness of sensations could put the best Baroque temples to shame. Both indoor and outdoor, the temples follow the rules of decor that make them easy to recognize and interesting to visit. Built on a plane of a Roman cross, the entrance is always flanked by two tall towers, and marked by the main symbol of the religion; the left eye of god, sending out the rays of light, often enclosed in a triangle. The interior is a long nave with 2 rows of 28 dragon-encrusted columns! Decorated with abstract designs, and images of saints, the ceiling is painted sky-blue, with clouds and Chinese bridges between them.
The original Cao Dai temple still stands open to worshippers and all visitors in Tay Ninh, south of Saigon. But, should you choose not to embark on that 2 hour-long drive, you will easily find one in the city, on your way to the Chinese district called Cho Lon.
Very different in style and very picturesque are – Chinese temples. Heavy wooden antique furniture and dark red painted walls are the settings. The mystery and magic fill the air, along with the smoke from multiple incenses. Especially the large conical ones, hanging off the ceiling, burning for long days, and sending prayers to the spirits on behalf of worshipers, give the temples a very unique look. The alters display figurines and statues of various embodiments of buddha in addition to ancient gods and heroes. There are plates and baskets full of offerings, among which you’ll see not only fruit but items such as cigarettes and fake money.
Go ahead and light 3 incense, bow three times, and whilst holding the incense with both hands, touch your forehead, before you place the incense into a big iron pot, sending your prayers to the universe. If you are planning on visiting Saigon, try to see Jade Emperor Pagoda or Thien Hau Temple in the Chinese Cho Lon district.
Naturally, all the Buddhist pagodas are a must-see. Buddhism in the Western World might be pictured as a philosophical, not religious, system, but as soon as you set your foot in the Buddhist temple in Asia, you see how far from ascetic it all is here. Golden figurines and statues fill almost every possible space of the temple, multiple embodiments of Buddha surprise you with many existing versions and deities. Not uncommon will a colorful, LED-lit halo around the main Buddha statues’ heads.
There will be flowers, incense, and all kinds of various offerings, covered with real or fake gold. Look around in search of the life of Buddha – painted on the walls or ceiling, or maybe presented as statues placed around the garden. If you see the statue of a turtle – go brush its head – it will bring you a long life. Turtles are widely present in the pagodas as they symbolize longevity and are associated with Buddhism (Buddha’s long ears also are a symbol of his long life). If you’re vegetarian you should look around the temple’s ground – there is quite a chance that there will be a vegetarian restaurant run by nuns!
When visiting Mekong Delta – pay attention to a different kinds of Buddhist Temples. If you see richly decorates fences, with dragons and wheels of Dharma, all in yellow, surrounding the compounds of the temples, with pointy rooftops adorned with arising cobras and thin columns surrounding the buildings – you are looking at a Khmer Pagoda. The population of Khmer people (the main Cambodian ethnic group) is so large in the Delta, that most of the Pagodas there represent the Theravada Buddhism, oppose to the Mahayana, widely spread in all other parts of Vietnam.
If you happen to be visiting central Vietnam, look out for old boats converted into shrines and temples. These will be the ‘Whale temples’. The fishermen believe that the whales protect them when at sea and worship them as sea deities. They gather at these temples to pray for safety and success during the long days at sea. The main altar has the bones of whales around it and inside it. Those will be of the animals that died ashore and were buried by the local community – with all the rituals offered during the traditional funeral. The temple in Qui Nhon is newly built and if you happen to visit, you will also be invited to tea by the temple guard!
While already in central Vietnam, don’t miss the Cham ancient temples! Built between the 7th and 13th centuries, they are mostly Hindu or Hindu-associated temples, the last remains of the Champa Kingdom in Vietnam. Po Nagar sanctuary is as worth visiting as the whole complex in My Son. The combination of lingam and yoni – the symbol of God Shiva – is also a symbol of fertility. Should you be trying for a baby – washing your hands and face with water run through this granite statue is rumored to encourage high fertility and success in pregnancies.
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