Vietnam, the culinary gem of Asia, is also rich with historical and religious tourism spots. They can be found in big cities of Vietnam, but to experience both, there is one city you should go to, Hue.
Hue is known as the imperial city since Nguyen Dynasty sat here for almost one and a half century. Besides, the city is the witness to the longest battle of the Vietnam War. It is located in the middle part of Vietnam, so it is easier to get to whether you are planning to visit North Vietnam or South Vietnam.
Thien Mu Pagoda combines not just those two pieces of history of Vietnam, but also with an addition of religious touch. Well, this is a pagoda after all. The best part is you get to experience this for free. That’s right; there is no entrance fee to Thien Mu Pagoda. Keep reading to find out how this beautiful site is worth to explore!
What pagodas mean in Vietnam
The majority of Vietnamese is Buddhist. Throughout my time exploring Vietnam, I have seen pagodas almost in every district. The religion has played a major part of this country’s history, including during the Vietnam War.
Please keep in mind that when you’re visiting a pagoda, even though it is a tourism spot, it is still a holy site where people come to pray. So, please wear appropriate clothing, covering your knees, shoulders, and chest. No oblong, shorts, and sandal, guys!
Thien Mu Pagoda sits on Hà Khê hill, located in Hương Long, Hue. It is right by the Perfume River, so don’t forget to take a few moments and enjoy the river view from uphill. Better yet, you can take a boat ride from any boat station along the river and stop at Thien Mu Boat Station which is located right across the pagoda. If you don’t feel like it, you can always get there on a motorbike or taxi.
The history of Thien Mu Pagoda
The pagoda tower and some other parts of Thien Mu Pagoda were built during the reign of Emperor Thiệu Trị. All of the poems I could see here carved in stones were written by him. So, even though the complex itself was first built in 1601, it was completed mostly in the 1840s.
The tower stands 21-meter tall (approximately 69 feet). It was built for the 80th birthday of the queen, the emperor’s mother. Inside the tower, there are statues of Buddha placed for worships. Unfortunately, tourists are not allowed to enter the tower as it is locked and gated, but you can get close enough to take awesome photos!
It's not just a temple
Since it sits on a hill, you need to climb up the staircase to get to Thien Mu Pagoda. Antique stone pillars and an arched gate will welcome you as soon as you reach the top. The pagoda tower itself is the first thing you will see standing tall in the middle of the site, surrounded by pavilions of various statues and poems, including this statue of a turtle which represents longevity.
As I could see the pagoda tower not far from the entrance, my first honest thought was “Is this it?” The answer is no. Thien Mu Pagoda has more to offer. It is divided into four sections separated by gates and doorways. There are no official names of each section, but I would call them (in order) the tower yard, the temple, the garden, and the altar.
What should you wear and bring
Separating the tower yard and the temple area is this gate, beautify with murals and statues from the dynasty era. This is located right behind the tower. You can sit on the staircases (as long as you don’t block the path) to enjoy the view or take photos here. Over the gate is a temple. During my visit, there was a prayer going on and visitors are allowed to join in. Those who choose not to join in may walk around the terrace to see some religious artifacts like the statue of Buddha. If so, please keep quiet.
Even though the temple area is under a roof, other areas of Thien Mu Pagoda are not. So, pack yourself a bottle of water and an umbrella to protect yourself from the heat during dry season or downpour during the rainy season.
The bonsai garden
Behind the temple, accessible through small pathways on each side of the building, there are beautiful gardens including this one. On this open wide area, you will see many kinds of bonsai trees placed neatly on big pots. I’m no expert, but I am sure some of them are either rare or worth a lot of money.
This court is located right in the middle of the complex, next to the forest-like garden and a small museum. In this museum, sits one of my main reasons for visiting Thien Mu Pagoda. It is a blue old car, driven in 1963 to Saigon by Thich Quang Duc, more commonly known as The Burning Monk.
The Burning Monk
What you’re about to read can be too graphic to imagine. During the Vietnam War, protesters flooded the streets of Saigon against the Diem regime. But one protester did not shout like others. He drove all the way to Saigon with this car, sat in the middle of the street in a praying pose, and burned him to death. This led to many other self-immolations as a form of protest.
The horrifying yet historical photo of this event can be seen on the wall, right behind the car.
Thien Mu Pagoda today
The altar area, right in the end part of Thien Mu Pagoda, is surrounded by forest and river. To get here, you will pass a complex where the Buddhist monks live. This area is not restricted and not a tourist area either. I met some monks as I walked around the area. I saw some tourists took photos with them, but please respect them if they wish not to be disturbed.
Although Thien Mu Pagoda is free to enter, you still have to pay for parking. The parking area is easy to find. It is around the shops’ area, not far from the boat station. The parking guard will give you a numbered card and write the number on your bike. This is common at open parking areas in Vietnam. They charge 5,000 VND (approximately 0.2 USD) for one bike. I suggest you to pay just right as you take your bike back instead of as you park because the guard may not keep track of the payment.
A must-visit in Hue
Despite all it has to offer, you only need to pay for the parking fee. Thien Mu Pagoda is definitely a must-visit site when you are in Hue, Vietnam.
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