The ancient temples of Vietnam tell stories of the country’s past and offer visitors a glimpse into the spiritual world of the Vietnamese locals. With ornate designs and remarkable architecture, these shrines reflect an array of cultural influences and a fusion of beliefs.
Temple etiquette in Vietnam
It is extremely important to remain respectful of these sacred spaces on our Vietnam tours.
- Dress conservatively – cover your knees, chest and shoulders.
- Remove your shoes when entering a temple.
- Avoid pointing your feet at religious objects (e.g. Buddhas).
- Bow your head to pay respect to the temple and the Buddha statues inside.
- Try to keep quiet as you walk around the temple and to speak softly.
Quan Cong Temple (Hoi An Ancient Town)
What this temple lacks in size, it makes up for with charming artwork and intricate designs. This famous temple, situated near the central market in Hoi An, was founded in 1653 and was created to honour Quan Cong – a respected Chinese general who is worshipped as a symbol of integrity, justice and loyalty. Upon entering the temple on your Vietnam tour, you will see his partially gilded statue, which is created from papier mâché on a wooden frame. Every time an offering is made to the statue, the caretaker strikes a bronze bowl.
The original purpose of the temple was for merchants to come and pay respect to their ancestors. The pagoda symbolises the bravery, virtue and loyalty of the ancestors. Inside the temple, beside two wooden statues, you will also find a small pond, inhabited by turtles. One of the grand statues is the idol of the protector of Quan Cong and the other represents the adopted son of the protector.
On your Vietnam tour, you just might visit this temple during the Quan Cong Festival, which is held twice a year. Believers and pilgrims travel from all over the country to pay their respects at the altar and to celebrate. Over the years, the temple has been restored many times, but the core structure has remained the same. The structure of the temple was built so that it looks like traditional Chinese houses. Each roof is covered with glazed green tiles and the front edges feature patterns of mythical creatures.
When entering the complex, you will notice that there are three parts: the front hall, an open yard and a back hall (the sanctuary). Make sure to look out for the distinctive rainspouts that were designed to represent carp fish. This temple is a good example of traditional Chinese craftsmanship, with bright colours and extravagant artwork.
Temple of Literature Hanoi
This temple is not only a place of worship but also the home of the Imperial Academy – Vietnam’s first national university. Having been built in 1070, it is one of many temples that were constructed and dedicated to Confucius (a Chinese teacher and philosopher) and scholars. In the past, only the nobles and wealthy residents attended the academy. After many years, talented students from all backgrounds could study here.
On your Vietnam tour, you can wander the enchanting grounds and walk past the vast array of statues, halls and pavilions. It was within these structures that ceremonies, exams and study sessions were held. You will also notice that this temple is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese dong banknote. Before the Vietnamese New Year celebration, calligraphists gather outside of the temple to write wishes in traditional characters.
The arrangement of the temple and its surrounding landscape is similar to that of the temple at Qufu in Shandong – the birthplace of Confucius. The area includes the Văn Lake and Giám Park as well as five leafy courtyards enclosed in stonewalls. In front of the temple is the Great Gate, which opens onto three pathways that lead through the complex.
The centre path was originally reserved for the monarch and above the centre path, there is a big brass bell. This bell was used to signify that an important person was entering the grounds and could only be touched by monks. During your visit to this temple, make sure that you check out the 116 steles of carved blue stone turtles to honour the Imperial Academy’s successful doctors from 1442 to 1779.
Cao Dai Temple (Tay Ninh Province)
One of the main attractions in Ho Chi Minh, this temple was completed in 1974 when the Cao Dai Army was formed after the Japanese occupation of Indochina. As Caodaists believe that all religions are in fact the same, this significant shrine honours not just the Lord Buddha, but also Jesus Christ and Muhammad.
This temple’s design is inspired by a Christian cathedral, with side aisles, an altar, a central nave and painted domes. The central feature of the building is a Devine Eye, which symbolises God. The interior is a magnificent blend of Baroque, Oriental and Neo-Gothic architecture. Paintings of dragons adorn a row of pillars and the ceilings are painted sky blue with white clouds.
Every day a ceremony takes place and services are held with musicians and a choir performing English songs to traditional Vietnamese music.
On our Vietnam tour, you might get a chance to see the Caodaists worship within the temple. This is a colourful spectacle, as they are clad in long robes of yellow, blue, white and red. Most worshipers are lay followers and wear pure white robes. The bishops and cardinals have the Divine Eye sewed into their headpieces. For every worship, the men sit on the right and the women on the left. Worship takes place every six hours and starts at midnight.
As a visitor on a Vietnam tour, you will be allowed to watch the activity from the galleries above and you can take photographs of the worship, but not the Divine Eye. You will need to cover your knees and to remove your shoes before entering the temple and remain silent throughout the service. The noon ceremonies always have the largest audience, since most visitors are coming from Ho Chi Minh City.
Ba Thien Hau Temple (Hung Yen Province)
If you want to tick off a fully preserved temple, this remarkable ancient shrine should be the one. Originally built by 40 families from nearby areas in 1760, this temple includes different Chinese features like a traditional curvy roof structure and three gates. Some elements were actually made in China and delivered to Vietnam.
This Buddhist temple is dedicated to the Chinese goddess, Mazu. The locals believe that she guards and saves people at sea, and flies on a mat or a cloud. Positioned in ‘Cholon’ (Chinatown), the shrine is a 20-minute drive from the city centre.
Upon visiting the temple on our Vietnam tours, you will enter through the grand iron gate and be struck by the towering incense burners in front of the entrance of Mazu’s alter. Across the roof, you will also see small porcelain figures that portray themes from Chinese religion and legends. The interior of the temple is equally as magical with brightly coloured dioramas on the roof showing scenes from the 19th century in the Chinese city.
Three large statues of ‘The Lady of the Sea’ sit on the main altar. Every year, the temple holds a festival for her on the 23rd of March (her birthday) and the 9th of September of the Lunar New Year (the day she died). During your visit on your Vietnam tour; you should discover the gathering of sculptures and artworks hidden in the corners.
Van Thuy Tu Temple (Mui Ne, Binh Thuan Province)
On your Vietnam tour, visiting the oldest temple in Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan is highly recommended. Also known as the whale temple, this spiritual sanctuary displays skeletal remains of whales and artefacts from the Nguyen Dynasty. The building was originally constructed in 1762 to celebrate Ca Ong (Lord Whale). The locals believe that whales are sacred animals, powerful spirits and protect fishermen from the dangers at sea.
Today, you can still view the skeletal remains of more than 500 whales that are over 100 years old. The exhibit includes a 22-metre long whale skeleton, which is thought to have been the biggest in Asia. There are also artefacts from the Nguyen Dynasty on show in the main hall of the temple. Some of these relics include an incense table, an antique bronze bell and terracotta statues. The architecture of the temple is simple in design and small in size, with an elaborate altar and whale burial ground. This structure was originally located by the sea with views to the east.
Every year there are an assortment of religious ceremonies such as the Peace Prayer Ceremony, the Spring Festival and the Whale Worshipping Festival. If you are on a Vietnam tour during one of these celebrations, you will be able to see the locals in the fishing community gathering by the temple and praying for smooth weather and a good fishing harvest. A selection of activities also takes place like boat racing, Vietnamese opera and folk singing. The whale-worship cult of Vietnam is thought to have originated in the Cham and Khmer cultures but is still practiced today.