Best Hidden Pagodas in Saigon

By: Karen Wise

The Jade Pagoda is considered a must-see sight in Saigon and is a draw for young women seeking help with fertility.

Head to Hoi Quan Quang Trieu for the beautiful coils of incense.

Built in 1954, Hue Nghiem Giang Tu Pagoda is one of the newest pagodas on this list.

The 200-year-old Chua Ba Hai Nam pagoda is worth a visit for the riot of colour!

Minh Dang Quang Pagoda is the focal point of the Minh Dang Buddhist institute.

With so many interesting pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City, how do you choose which one to visit? Here is a selection of five, each one impressive in its own way. They are free to enter and visitors are welcome, so take your time to explore all they have to offer.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda

73 Street Mai Thi Luu, District 1

Most travel guides list the Jade Emperor pagoda on their must-see sites in Saigon, and City Pass Guide is no exception. However, it should be noted that like so many beautiful, old buildings in Ho Chi Minh City, this Taoist site is overshadowed by modern blocks and can be easily missed.

Most descriptions concentrate on the huge, rather frightening carved wooden figures which dominate the main temple, and they are certainly impressive, but there is plenty to see beyond these. One of the things I like best is the view you can get of the beautiful tiled roofs. By crossing through the dining area to the left of the main temple, climbing up the old stone staircase and out onto the terrace, you can get a great close up of the intricate patterns of the glazed ceramic tiles and the ornate mosaic dragons, birds and flowers which decorate their peaks.

Best hidden pagodas in saigonImage source: Karen Wise

Of the many side halls, the most interesting is the one dedicated to the goddess of fertility. A constant stream of devout women eager to conceive pass through here. Some alone, some accompanied by partners. A chain-smoking volunteer points them to the most appropriate satin cloaked figure in return for a small donation. The hopeful visitors solemnly rub the icon’s belly and then gently place their hands on their own stomachs. I myself found lingering here totally fascinated by the ritual and wondering just how the helper knows which figure is the right one for each lady. The mystery remains.

Hoi Quan Quang Trieu

122 Street Ben Chuong Duong, Ward Nguyen Thai Binh, District 1

Understood to be one of the oldest pagodas in Saigon this one is perfect for those staying in District 1 who don’t have the time to get to District 5. It may be outwardly less impressive than Cholon’s Thien Hau pagoda but with its wooden ceiling covered in smouldering incense coils, it is rich on atmosphere.

Best hidden pagodas in saigonImage source: Karen Wise

The roar of the traffic from the newly resurfaced Vo Van Kiet street fades into the background as you step through the gates into the small courtyard. Looking up at the walls, you’ll see surprisingly well-preserved tableaus along the top of the perimeter walls and above the facade of the pagoda. The figures are amazingly detailed and in surprisingly good condition.

Best hidden pagodas in saigonImage source: Karen Wise

During my visit, I’m welcomed by a 74-year-old female attendant who delights in showing people around. If you’re lucky you may be there to witness freshly lit incense coils being hung on the smoke-blackened wooden beams. Transferring them from the end of a long wavering bamboo pole to the ceiling hook requires a keen eye and incredibly steady hand.

The best time to visit is as the sun rises sufficiently high in the sky to create shafts of light through the gaps in the roof, highlighting the swirling smoke from the incense. I’m told this is around 9:45 am but don’t take that as gospel!

Hue Nghiem Giang Tu Pagoda

53/5A Street Nhieu Tu, Ward 7, Phu Nhuan District

This pagoda built in 1954 is definitely off the beaten track. It occupies a larger and leafier plot than the Jade Pagoda and Hoi Quan Quang Trieu. The entrance gates lead into an expansive courtyard with perimeter walls decorated with delicately painted scenes and mosaic dragons.

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Attractive accommodation blocks line either side of the paved area, and on the lower level, there are a couple of rooms which are set aside for healing. It is here that I met a young woman attending her fourth treatment for painful varicose veins. The healer had been recommended by a friend, she said, and the treatment is free for disadvantaged people.

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It is not only the peaceful and uncluttered space that I like but the buildings within the compound. Behind the main temple, home to the usual statues, there are two smaller octagonal temples built in identical styles, one on the left and one on the right. The best feature of these is the beautifully painted undersides of their roofs. Beyond this area, there are further rooms with shrines some displaying the ashes of departed loved ones.

A great place for quiet contemplation and poking around.

Chua Ba Hai Nam

276 Street Tran Hung Dao, Ward 11, District 5

I stumbled across this pagoda when exploring Cholon during Tet. Set a short distance away from the main cluster of temples on all the walking tours, it is less crowded and has a different interior decor. Believed to be more than 200-years-old this pagoda, originally called Quynh Phu temple before being renamed Chua Ba Hai Nam, has been renovated several times. The simple exterior belies its interior, which is a riot of colour - what was originally gold has been replaced by canary yellow! This combined with the vibrant pillar box red makes for some stunning photographs.

Best hidden pagodas in saigonImage source: Karen Wise

As is common in Hainan temples the main shrine is dedicated to the sea goddess, Mazu, and the side shrines to Lady Shui Wei, and Lady Yrmei. Other deities worshipped there are Wen Chang, the God of Literature and Earth Deity Fude.

Best hidden pagodas in saigonImage source: Karen Wise

Minh Dang Quang Pagoda

Street Mai Chi Tho, Ward An Phu, District 2

If size impresses you then this is the place for you – it is vast. Named after the monk Minh Dang Quang, an influential figure in mendicant Buddhism in Vietnam, it is a 70-metre high three-story structure and the focal point of the Minh Dang Quang Buddhist Institute. Located on a plot of land between Mai Chi Tho and the Hanoi highway, its Chinese architecture is in stark contrast to the modern high rise blocks around it.

Best hidden pagodas in saigonImage source: dothobattrang.com

Take the steps to the octagonal room on the top floor where a huge golden Buddha sits looking peacefully out of the cool dark interior over the surrounding area. Outside the room are tortoise planters containing mini palm trees. It is also a great viewpoint over the walls to the roofs of the buildings below, which are covered in lotus leaf tiles. The middle floor is a meditation hall with a shrine. Here, I was encouraged to go behind the altar into a second hall which contains a beautiful reclining Buddha.

This pagoda is one you are unlikely to pass by on foot but it’s worth the taxi ride.

While this is not even close to an extensive list of all the Pagodas in Saigon, in my opinion, these five are certainly worth a special trip.

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