VIETNAM TRAVEL

 

Ho Chi Minh City

History - Orientation - Information - Dangers Annoyances - Sights - Activities Walking Tour - Courses - HCMC For Children - Tour - Festivals Events - Sleeping Eating - Drinking - Entertainment - Shopping - Getting There Away - Getting Around.

SIGHTS

Although HCMC lacks the obvious aesthetic. virtues of its rival to the north, the city provides some fascinating sights for the wanderer, from little-visited pagodas hidden down quiet lanes to museums, historic sites and teeming markets all jumbled up ill the chaotic urban scene. First-time visitors often focus exclusively on District, where many of the sights are found. Those with more than a day in the city can take in central HCMC, the pagodas in Cholon and further afield, leaving enough time to explore the intriguing side of Saigon -like an afternoon at an amusement park or the racetrack.
Central Area
REUNIFICATION PALACE
Striking modern architecture and the eerie feeling you gel as you walk through its deserted halls make Reunification Palace (Dinh Thong Nhal; Tell: 829 4117; 106 Đ Nguyen Du; admission 15,000d;7.30-11 am & 1-4 pm) one of the most fascinating sights in HCMC. The building, once the symbol of the South Vietnamese government, is preserved almost as it was on that day in April 1975 when the Republic of Vietnam, which hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and 58,183 Americans had died trying to save, ceased to exist. Some recent additions include a statue of Ho Chi Minh and a viewing room where you can watch a video about Vietnamese history in a variety of languages. The national anthem is played at the end of the tape and you are expected to stand up - it would be rude not to.
It was towards this building - then known as Independence Palace or the Presidential Palace - that the first communist tanks to arrive in Saigon charged on the morning of 30 April 1975. After crashing through the wrought-iron gates - in a dramatic scene recorded by photojournalists and shown around the world - a soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a VC flag from the 4th-floor balcony. In an ornate 2nd-floor reception chamber. Genera! Minh, who had become head of state only 43 hours before, waited with his improvised cabinet. "I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you', Minh said to the VC officer who entered the room. 'There is no question of your transferring power', replied the officer. 'You cannot give up what you do not have." In 1868 a residence was built on this site for the French governor-general of Cochinchina and gradually it expanded to become Noro-dom Palace. When the French departed, the palace became home for South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. So hated was Diem that his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. The president ordered a new residence to be built on the same site, this time with a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement. Work was completed in 1966, but Diem did not get to see his dream house because he was murdered by his own troops in 1963. The new building was named Independence Palace and was home to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu until his hasty departure in 1975. Norodom Palace, designed by Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu, is an outstanding example of 1960s architecture. It has an airy and open atmosphere and its spacious chambers are tastefully decorated with the finest modern Vietnamese art and crafts. In its grandeur, the building feels worthy of a head of state. The ground-floor room with the boat-shaped table was often used for conferences. Upstairs in the Presidential Receiving Room (Phu Dau Rong, or Dragon's Head Room) - the one with the red chairs in it - the South Vietnamese president received foreign delegations. He sat behind the desk; the chairs with dragons carved into the arms were used by his assistants. The chair facing the desk was reserved for foreign ambassadors. The room with gold-coloured chairs and curtains was used by the vice president. You can sit in the former president's chair and have your photo taken. In the back of the structure are the president's living quarters. Check out the model boats, horse tails and severed elephants' feet. The 3rd floor has a card-playing room with a bar and a movie-screening chamber. This floor also boasts a terrace with a heliport - there is still a derelict helicopter parked here. The 4th floor has a dance hall and casino. Perhaps most interesting of all is the basement with its network of tunnels, telecommunications centre and war room (with the best map of Vietnam you'll ever see pasted on the wall). Reunification Palace is not open to visitors when official receptions or meetings are taking place. English and French-speaking guides are on duty during opening hours.
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum (Bao Tang Chung Tich Chien Tranh; Tell: 930 5587; 28 Đ Vo Van Tan; admission 1 15.000d; (7.30am-noon & 1.30-5pm) is now the most popular museum in HCMC with Western tourists. Many of the atrocities documented here were well publicised in the West, but rarely do Westerners have the opportunity to hear the victims of US military action tell their own stories. US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons are on display outside. Many photographs illustrating US atroci -tics are from US sources, including photos of the infamous My Lai Massacre. There is a model of the notorious tiger cages used by the South Vietnamese military to house Viet Cong (VC) prisoners on Con Son Island and a guillotine used by the French on Viet Minh 'troublemakers'. There are also pictures of deformed babies, their defects attributed to the USA's widespread use of chemical herbicides. In a final gallery, there's a collection of posters and photographs showing support for the antiwar movement. There are few museums in the world that drive home so well the point that war is horribly brutal and that many of its victims are civilians. Even those who supported the war would have a difficult time not being horrified by the photos of children mangled by US bombing and napalming. There are also scenes of torture - it takes a strong stomach to look at these. You'll also have the rare chance to see some of the experimental weapons used in the war, which were at one time military secrets, such as the flechette (an artillery shell filled with thousands of tiny darts). The War Remnants Museum is in the former US Information Service building, at the intersection with Đ Le Quy Don. Explanations arc in Vietnamese, English and Chinese. Though a bit incongruous with the museum's theme, water-puppet theatre is staged in a tent on the museum grounds .
MUSEUM OF HO CHI MINH CITY
Housed in a grey, neoclassical structure built in 1886 and once known as Gia Long Palace (later, the Revolutionary Museum), the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (Bao Tang Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh; Tell: 829 9741; 65 Đ Ly Tu Trong; admission US$1;(8am-4pm) is a singularly beautiful and amazing building. The museum displays artefacts from the various periods of the communist struggle for power in Vietnam. The photographs of anticolonial activists executed by the French appear out of place in the gilded, 19th-century ballrooms, but then again the contrast gives a sense of the immense power and complacency of the colonial French. There are photos of Vietnamese peace demonstrators in Saigon demanding that US troops get out; and a dramatic photo of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who made headlines worldwide, when he burned himself to death in 1963 to protest against the policies of President Ngo Dinh Diem. The information plaques are in Vietnamese only, but some of the exhibits include documents in French or English, and many others are self-explanatory if you know some basic Vietnamese history (but if you don't, see the History chapter. The exhibitions cover the various periods in the city's 300-year history. Among the most interesting artefacts on display is a long, narrow rowing boat (ghe) with a false bottom in which arms were smuggled. Nearby is a small diorama of the Cu Chi Tunnels. The adjoining room has examples of infantry weapons used by the VC and various South Vietnamese and US medals, hats and plaques. A map shows communist advances during the dramatic collapse of South Vietnam in early 1975. There are also photographs of the liberation of Saigon. Deep beneath the building is a network of reinforced concrete bunkers and fortified cor-ridors. The system, branches of which stretch all the way to Reunification Palace, included living areas, a kitchen and a large meeting hall, In 1963 President Diem and his brother hid here before fleeing to Cha Tam Church. The network is not currently open to the pub lie because most of the tunnels are flooded. but if you want to bring a torch (flashlight), a museum guard might show you around. In the garden behind the museum is a Soviet tank and a US Huey UH-1 helicopter and anti-aircraft gun. In the garden fronting Đ Nam Ky Khoi Nghia is more military hard ware, including the American-built F-5E jet used by a renegade South Vietnamese pilot to bomb the Presidential Palace (now Reunifica- tion Palace) on 8 April 1975. The museum is located a block east of Re unification Palace.
HISTORY MUSEUM
The stunning Sino-French-style building that houses the History Museum (Bao Tang Lien Su; Tell: 829 8146; Đ Nguyen Binh Khiem; admission 15,000d: 8-11am&1.30-4.30pmTue-Sun) was built in 1929 by the Societe des Etudes Indochinoises. It's worth a visit just to view the architecture! The museum has an excellent collection of artefacts illustrating the evolution of the cultures of Vietnam, from the Bronze Age Dong Son civilisation (13th century BC to 1st century AD) and the Oc-Eo (Funan) civilisation (1st to 6th centuries AD), to the Cham, Khmer and Vietnamese. There are many valuable rel ics taken from Cambodia's Angkor Wat. At the back of the building on the 3rd floor is a research library (Tell: 829 0268; Mon-Sai) with numerous books from the French-colonia! period about Indochina. Across from the entrance to the museum you'll see the elaborate Temple of King Hung Vuong. The Hung kings are said to have been the first rulers of the Vietnamese nation, having established their rule in the Red River region before it was invaded by the Chinese. The museum is just inside the main gate to the city zoo and botanic gardens, where the east end of ĐL Le Duan meets Đ Nguyen Binh Khiem. Just across Đ Nguyen Binh Khiem is a small military museum (Tell: 822 9387; 2 ĐL Le Duan) devoted to Ho Chi Minh's campaign to liberate the south. Inside is of minor interest, but some US, Chinese and Soviet war mater is on display outdoors, including a Cessna A-37 of the South Vietnamese Air Korce and a US built F-5E Tiger with the 20 mm nose gun still loaded. The tank on display is one of the tanks that broke into the grounds of Reunification Palace on 30 April 1975.
JADE EMPEROR PAGODA
Built in 1909 by the Cantonese (Quang Dong) Congregation, the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Phuoc Hai Tu or Chua Ngoc Hoang; 73 Đ Mai Thi Luu) is truly a gem among Chinese temples. It is one of the most spectacularly colourful pagodas in HCMC, filled with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes. The pungent smoke of burning joss sticks fills the air, obscuring the exquisite woodcarvings decorated with gilded Chinese characters. The roof is covered with elaborate tile work. The statues, which represent characters from both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, are made of reinforced papier-mache. The pagoda is dedicated to the Emperor of Jade, the supreme Taoist god. Inside the main building are two especially fierce and menacing figures. On the right (as you face the altar) is a 4m-high statue of the general who defeated the Green Dragon (depicted underfoot). On the left is the general who defeated the White Tiger, which is also being stepped on. The Taoist Jade Emperor (or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang), draped in luxurious robes, presides over the main sanctuary. He is flanked by his guardians, the Four Big Diamonds (Tu Dai Kim Cuong), so named because they are said to be as hard as diamonds. Out the door on the left-hand side of the Jade Emperor's chamber is another room. The semi-enclosed area to the right (as you enter) is presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell; to the left is his red horse. Other figures here represent the gods who dispense punishments for evil acts and rewards for good deeds. The room also contains the famous Hall of the Ten Hells - carved wooden panels illustrating the varied torments awaiting evil people in each of the Ten Regions of Hell. On the other side of the wall is a fascinating little room in which the ceramic figures of 12 women, overrun with children and wearing colourful clothes, sit in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human character istic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug). Each fig ure represents one year in the 12-year Chinese calendar. Presiding over the room is Kim Hoa Thanh Mau, the Chief of All Women. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is in a part of the city known as Da Kao (or Da (;ao). To get here, go to 20 Đ Dien Bien Phul and walk half a block to the northwest.
FINE ARTS MUSEUM
A classic yellow-and-white building with a modest Chinese influence, the Fine Arts Museum (Bao Tang My Thuat; Tell: 829 4441;97A Đ Pho Due Chinh; admission l0.000d; (9am-4.30pm Tue-Sun), houses one of the more interesting collections in Vietnam - ranging from lac quer and enamelware to contemporary oil paintings by Vietnamese and foreign artists. If that doesn't sound enticing, just go to see the huge hall with its beautifully tiled floors. On the 1st floor is a display of officially accepted contemporary art: most of it is just kitsch or desperate attempts to roaster abstract art, but occasionally something brilliant is displayed here. Most of the recent art is for sale and prices are fair. The 2nd floor has older, politically correct art. Some of it is pretty crude: pictures of heroic figures waving red flags, children with rifles, a wounded soldier joining the Communist Party, innumerable tanks and weaponry, grotesque Americans and God-like reverence for Ho Chi Minh. However, it's worth seeing because Vietnamese artists managed not to be as dull and conformist as their counterparts in Eastern Europe sometimes were. Once you've passed several paintings and sculptures of Uncle Ho, you will see that those artists who studied before 1975 managed to somehow transfer their own aesthetics onto the world of their prescribed subjects. Most impressive are some drawings of prison riots in 1973 and some remarkable abstract paintings. The 3rd floor has a good collection of older art dating back to the 4th century, including Oc-Eo (Funan) sculptures of Vishnu, the Buddha and other revered figures (carved in both wood and stone), which resemble styles of ancient Greece and Egypt. You will also find here the best Cham pieces outside of Danang. Also interesting are the many pieces of Indian art, such as stone elephant heads. Some pieces clearly originated in Ang-kor culture.
HO CHI MINH MUSEUM
This museum (Khu Luu Niem Ba( Ho; Tell: 840067;1 Đ Nguyen Tat Thanh; admission 5000d;(7.30 11.30am & 1.30-5pm) is in the old customs house in District 4, just across Ben Nghe Channel from the quayside end of ĐL Ham Nghi. Nicknamed the 'Dragon House' (Nha Rong), it was built in 1863. The tie between Ho Chi Minh and the museum building is tenuous: 21-year-old Ho, having signed on as a stoker and galley boy on a French freighter, left Vietnam from here in 1911 and thus began 30 years of exile in France, the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere The museum houses many of Ho's personal effects, including some of his clothing the was a man of informal dress), sandals, his beloved US-made Zenith radio and other memorabilia. The explanatory signs in the museum are in Vietnamese, but if you know something about Uncle Ho you should be able to follow most of the photographs and exhibits.
XA LOI PAGODA
Famed as the repository of a sacred relic of the Buddha, Xa Loi Pagoda ( 89 Đ Ba Huyen Thanh Quan) was built in 1956. In August 1963 truckloads of armed men under the command of President Ngo Dinh Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, attacked Xa Loi Pagoda, which had become a centre of opposition to the Diem government. The pagoda was ransacked and 400 monks and nuns, including the country's 80-year-old Buddhist patriarch, were arrested. This raid and others elsewhere helped solidify opposition among Buddhists to the Diem regime, a crucial factor in the US decision to support the coup against Diem. This pagoda was also the site of several self-immolations by monks protesting against the Diem regime and the American War. Women enter the main hall of Xa Loi Pagoda by the staircase on the right as you come in the gate; men use the stairs on the left. The walls of the sanctuary are adorned with paintings depicting the Buddha's life. Xa Loi Pagoda is in District 3 near Đ Dien Bien Phu. A monk preaches every Sunday from Sam to 10am. On days of the full moon and new moon, special prayers are held from 7am to 9am and 7pm to 8pm.
TRAN HUNG DAO TEMPLE
This small temple (36 Đ VoThi Sau; (6- 11am&2-6pmMon-Fri) is dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, a national hero who in 1287 vanquished an invasion force, said to have numbered 300,000 men, that had been dispatched by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. The temple is a block northeast of the telecommunication dishes that are between Đ Dien Bien Phu and Đ Vo Thi Sau. The public park between the dishes and ĐL Hai Ba Trung was built in 1983 on the site of the Massiges Cemetery, a burial ground for French soldiers and settlers. The remains of French military personnel were exhumed and repatriated to France. '1 lie tomb of the 18th-century French missionary and diplomat Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran, which was completely destroyed after reunification, was also here.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL
Built between lS77and 1883, Notre Dame Cathedral (Đ HanThuyen) is set in the heart of HCMC's government quarter. The cathedral faces Đ Dong Khoi. It is neo-Romanesque with two 40m-high square towers tipped with iron spires, which dominate the city's skyline. In front of the cathedral (in the centre of the square bounded by the main post office) is a statue of the Virgin Mary. If the front gates are locked, try the door on the s de of the building that faces Reunification Palace. Unusually, this cathedral has no stained-glass windows: the glass was a casualty of fighting during WWII. A number of foreign travellers worship here and the priests arc allowed to add a short sermon in French or English to their longer presentations in Viet namese. The 9.30am Sunday mass might be the best one for tourists to attend.
MARIAMMAN HINDU TEMPLE
This is the only Hindu temple (Chua Ba Mariamman; 45 Đ Truong Dinh) still in use in HCMC and is a little piece of southern India in the centre of town. Though there are only 50 to 60 Hindus in HCMC - all of them Tamils -this temple is also considered sacred by many ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese. Indeed, it is reputed to have miraculous powers. The temple was built at the end of the 19th century and dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman. The lion to the left of the entrance used to be carried around the city in a street procession every autumn. In the shrine in the middle of the temple is Mariamman, flanked by her guardians Maduraiveeran (to her left) and Pechiamman (to her right). In front of the Mariamman figure are two linga. Favourite offerings placed nearby often include joss sticks, jasmine, lilies and gladioli. The wooden stairs on the left (as you enter the building) lead to the roof, where you'll find two colourful towers covered with innumerable figures of lions, goddesses and guardians, After reunification, the government took over the temple and turned part of it into a factory for joss sticks. Another section was occupied by a company producing seafood for export - the seafood was dried on the roof in the sun. Mariamman Hindu Temple is only three-blocks west of Ben Thanh Market. Take off your shoes before stepping onto the slightly raised platform.
SAIGON CENTRAL MOSQUE
Built by South Indian Muslims in 1935 on the site of an earlier mosque, the Saigon Central Mosque (66 Đ Dong Du) is an immaculately clean and well-kept island of calm in the middle of the bustling Dong Khoi area. In front of the sparkling white-and-blue structure, with its four nonfunctional minarets, is a pool for the ritual ablutions required by Islamic law before prayers. Take off your shoes before entering the sanctuary. The simplicity of the mosque is in marked contrast to the exuberance of Chinese temple decoration, and the rows of figures facing elaborate ritual objects in Buddhist pagodas Islamic law strictly forbids using human 01 animal figures for decoration. Only half a dozen Indian Muslims remain in HCMC; most of the community fled in 1975. As a result, prayers - held five times a day - are sparsely attended, except on Friday, when several dozen worshippers (mainly non-Indian Muslims) are present. There are 12 other mosques serving the 5000 or so Muslims in HCMC.
TON DUC THANG MUSEUM
This small, seldom-visited museum (Bao Tang Ton Due Thang;Tell: 829 7542; 5 Đ Ton Duc Thang;admission US$1; ( 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm Tue-Fri) is dedicated to Ton Due Thang, Ho Chi Minh's successor as president of Vietnam, who was born in Long Xuyen, An Giang province, in 1888. He died in office in 1980. Photos and displays illustrate his role in the Vietnamese Revolution, including a couple of very lifelike exhibits representing the time he spent imprisoned on Con Son Island. The museum is on the waterfront, half a block north of the Tran Hung Dao statue.
PEOPLE'S COMMITTEE BUILDING
HCMC's gingerbread Hotel deVille, one of the city's most prominent landmarks, is now somewhat incongruously the home of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee. Built between 1901 and 1908, the Hotel de Ville is situated at the northwestern end of ĐL Nguyen Hue, facing the river. The former hotel is notable for its gardens, ornate facade and elegant interior lit with crystal chandeliers. It's easily the most photographed building in Vietnam. At night, the exterior is usually covered with thousands of geckos feasting on insects. Unfortunately, you'll have to content yourself with admiring the exterior only. The building is not open to the public and requests by tourists to visit the interior are rudely rebuffed.
MUNICIPAL THEATRE
A grand colonial building with a sweeping staircase, the Municipal Theatre (NhaHatThanhPho; Tell:829 9976; Lam Son Sq) is hard to miss at the intersection of Đ Dong Khoi and ĐL Le Loi. For information on performances held here
CONG VIEN VAN HOA PARK
Next to the old Cercle Sportif, which was an elite sporting club during the French-colonial period, the bench-lined walks of CongVienVan Hoa Park are shaded with avenues of enormous tropical trees. In the morning, you can often see people here practising the art of thai cuc quyen, or slow-motion shadow boxing. Within the park is also a small-scale model of Nha Trang's most famous Cham towers. This place still has an active sports club that is possible to visit. It has 11 tennis courts, a passable swimming pool and a clubhouse, all of which have a faded colonial feel about them. The tennis courts are available for hire at a reasonable fee and hourly tickets are on sale for use of the pool. The antique dressing rooms are quaint, but there are no lockers. There are also Roman-style baths and a coffee shop overlooking the colonnaded pool. Other facilities include a gymnasium, table tennis, weights, wrestling mats and ballroom-dancing classes. Cong Vien Van Hoa Park is adjacent to the Reunification Palace. There are entrances across from 115 Đ Nguyen Du and on Đ Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.
BINH SOUP SHOP
It might seem strange to introduce a noodle-soup restaurant as a sight, but there is more to Binh Soup Shop (Tell: 848 3775; 7 Đ Ly Chinh Tha Thang, Distria 3; noodle soup 15,000d) than just the soup. The Binh Soup Shop was the secret headquarters of the VC in Saigon. It was from here that the VC planned its attack on the US embassy and other places in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968. One has to wonder how many US soldiers ate here, completely unaware that the staff were all VC infiltrators. By the way, the pho isn't bad here. Cholon A jewellery box of interesting Chinese-style temples awaits in Cholon (District 5) - it's well worth heading over to Chinatown for a half-day or more to explore. Aside from the temples and pagodas, you can sample some excellent Chinese and Vietnamese food - or have a swim at one of the water parks, if you get templed out. While you're roaming, stroll over to the strip of traditional herb shops ( Đ Hai Thuong Lan Ong) between Đ Luong Nhu Hoc and Đ Trieu Quang Phuc for an olfactory experience you won't soon forget. Here the streets are filled with amazing sights, sounds and, most of all, rich herbal smells.
QUAN AM PAGODA
One of Cholon's most active pagodas, Quan Am Pagoda ( 12 Đ Lao Tu) was founded by the Fujian Congregation in the early 19th century and displays obvious Chinese influences. It's named for the Goddess of Mercy, Quan The Am Bo Tat whose statue lies hidden behind a remarkably ornate exterior. Fantastic ceraminc scenes decorate the roof and depict figures from traditional Chinese plays and stories. The tableaux include ships, village houses and several ferocious dragons. Other unique features of this pagoda are the gold-and-lacquer panels of the entrance doors. Just inside, the walls of the porch are murals, in slight relief, of scenes of China from around the time of Quan Cong. There are elaborate woodcarvings ;'bove the porch. In the courtyard behind the main sanctuary, in the pink-tiled altar, is a figure of A Pho, the Holy Mother Celestial Empress, while Quan The Am Bo Tat, dressed in white embroidered robes, stands nearby.
PHUOC AN HOI QUAN PAGODA
Built in 1902 by the Fujian Congregation, Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda (184 Đ Hung Vuong) is one of the most beautifully ornamented pagodas in HCMC. Of special interest are the many small porcelain figures, the elaborate brass ritual objects and the fine woodcarv ings on the altars, walls, columns and hang ing lanterns. From outside the building you can see the ceramic scenes, each contanining;innumerable small figurines, which decorate the roof. To the left of the entrance is a life-site figure of the sacred horse of Quan Cong. Before leaving on a journey, people make offerings to the horse, then stroke its mane and ring the bell around its neck. Behind the main altar, with its stone and brass incense braziers, is Quan Cong, to whom the pagoda is dedicated.
TAM SON HOI QUAN PAGODA
Built by the Fujian Congregation in the 19th century, Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda (Chua Ba Chua;118 Đ Trieu Quang Phuc) retains most of its original rich ornamentation. The pagoda is dedicated to Me Sanh, the Goddess of Fertility It's particularly popular among local women who come here to pray for children. Among the striking figures presented in this pagoda is the deified General Quan Cong with his long black beard. He's found to the right of the covered courtyard. Flanking him are two guardians, the Mandarin Genera! Chau Xuong on the left and the Administrative Mandarin Quan Binh on the right. Next to Chau Xuong is Quan Cong's sacred red horse. Across the courtyard from Quan Cong is a small room containing ossuary jars and memorials in which the dead are represented by their photographs. Next to this chamber is a small room containing the papier-mache head of a dragon of the type used by the Fujian Congregation for dragon dancing. Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda is located close to 370 ĐL Tran Hung Dao.
CHA TAM CHURCH
Cha Tam Church, built around the turn of the 19th century, with its facade of white and lime-green trim has a sleepy, tropical feel to it - a far cry from its role during one of Saigon's more harrowing epochs. President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu took refuge in Cha Tam Church ( 25 D Hot Lac) on 2 November 1963, after fleeing the Presidential Palace during a coup attempt. When their efforts to contact loyal military officers (of whom there was almost none) failed. Diem and Nhu agreed to sur-render unconditionally and revealed where they were hiding. The coup leaders sent an M-113 armoured personnel carrier to the church and the two were taken into custody. However, before the vehicle reached central Saigon the soldiers had killed Diem and Nhu by shooting them at point-blank range and then repeatedly stabbing their bodies. When news of the deaths was broadcast on radio, Saigon exploded with rejoicing. Portraits of the two were torn up and political prisoners, many of whom had been tortured, were set free. The city's nightclubs, which had closed because of the Ngos' conservative Catholic beliefs, were reopened. Three weeks later the US president, John F Kennedy, was assassinated. As his administration had supported the coup against Diem, some conspiracy theorists have speculated that Diem's family orchestrated Kennedy's death in retaliation. The statue in the tower is of Francois Xavier Tam Assou (1855-1934), a Chinese-born vicar apostolic (delegate of the pope) of Saigon. Today, the church has a very active congregation of 3000 ethnic Vietnamese and 2000 ethnic Chinese. Masses are held daily. Cha Tarn Church is at the western end of ĐL Tran Hung Dao.
THIEN HAU PAGODA
Built by the Cantonese Congregation in the early 19th century, this large pagoda (BaMieu, Pho Mieu or Chua Ba; 710 Đ Nguyen Trai) is dedicated to Thien Hau and always has a mix of worshippers and visitors, mingling beneath large coils of incense suspended overhead. Thien Hau (also known as Tuc Goi La Ba) can travel over the oceans on a mat and ride the clouds to wherever she pleases. Her mobility allows her to save people in trouble on the high seas. The Goddess is very popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which might explain why this pagoda is included on so many tour-group agendas. Though there are guardians to each side of the entrance, it it said that the real protectors of the pagoda arc the two land turtles that live here. There are intricate ceramic friezes above the roof line of the interior courtyard. Near the huge braziers are two miniature wooden structures in which a small figure of Thien Hau is paraded around the nearby streets on the 23rd day of the third lunar month. On the main dais are three figures of Thien Hau, one behind the other, all flanked by two servants or guardians. To the left of the dais is a bed for Thien Hau. To the right is a scale-model boat and on the far right is the Goddess Long Mau, Protector of Mothers and Newborns.
NGHIA AN HOI QUAN PAGODA
Built by the Chaozhou Chinese Congregation, Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda ( 678 0 Nguyen Trai) is noteworthy for its gilded woodwork. A large carved wooden boat hangs over the entrance, and, inside to the left of the doorway is an enormous representation of Quan Cong's red horse with its groom. The great general Quan Cong himself occupies a position in a glass case behind the main altar, with his assistants flanking him on both sides. Nghia An Hoi Quan lets its hair down on the 14th day of the first lunar month when various dances are staged in front of the pagoda, with offerings made to the spirits.
CHOLON MOSQUE
The clean lines and lack of ornamentation of the Cholon Mosque (641 Đ Nguyen Trai ) contrast starkly with nearby Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist pagodas. In the courtyard is a pool for ritual ablutions. Note the tiled niche in the wall (mihrab) indicating the direction of prayer, which is towards Mecca. The mosque was built by Tamil Muslims in 1932. Since 1975 it has served the Malaysian and Indo¬nesian Muslim communities.
ONG BON PAGODA
Built by the Fujian Congregation, Ong Bon Pagoda (Chua Ong Bon & Nhi Phu Hoi Quan; Map p346;264 ĐL Hai Thuong Lan Ong) is yet another atmospheric pagoda full of gilded carvings and the ever-present smoke of burning incense. It's dedicated to Ong Bon, the guardian who presides over happiness and wealth. In hope of securing good fortune from the deity, believers bum fake paper money in the pagoda's furnace, located across the courtyard from the pagoda entrance. Another feature of the pagoda is the intricately carved and gilded wooden altar, which faces Ong Bon. Along the walls of the chamber are rather indistinct murals of five tigers (to the left) and two dragons (to the right).
HA CHUONG HOI QUAN PAGODA
This typical Fujian pagoda ( 802 Đ Nguyen Trai) is dedicated to Thien Hau, who was born in Fujian. The four carved stone pillars, wrapped in painted dragons, were made in China and brought to Vietnam by boat. There are interesting murals to each side of the main altar and impressive ceramic relief scenes on the roof. The pagoda becomes extremely active during the Lantern Festival, a Chinese holiday held on the 15th day of the first lunar month (the first full moon of the new lunar year),
KHANH VAN NAM VIEN PAGODA
Built between 1939 and 1942 by the Cantonese Congregation, Khanh Van Nam Vien Pagoda ( 46/5 Đ Lo Sieu) is said to be the only Taoist pagoda in Vietnam and is unique for its colourful statues of Taoist disciples. The number of true Taoists in HCMC is estimated at no more than 5000, though most Chinese practise a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism. Features to seek out at this pagoda include the unique 150cm-high statue of Laotse to cated upstairs. His surreal, mirror-edged halo is one of the more intriguing uses of fluorescent lighting. Off to the left of Laotse are two stone plaques with instructions for inhalation and exhalation exercises. A schematic drawing represents the human organs as a scene from rural China. The diaphrapm agent of inhalation, is at the bottom; the stomach is represented by a peasant ploughing with a water buffalo. The kidney is marked by four Yin-and-Yang symbols, the liver is shown as a grove of trees and the heart is represented by a circle with a peasant standing in it, above which is a constellation. The tall pagoda represents the throat and the broken rainbow is the mouth. At the top are mountains and a seated figure that represent the brain and imagination, respectively. The pagoda operates a home for several dozen elderly people who have no family. Each of the old folk, most of whom are women, have their own wood stove (made of brick) on which they cook. Next door, which is also run by the pagoda, is a free medical clinic, which offers Chinese herbal medicines and acupuncture treatments to the community. If you would like to support this worthy venture you can leave a donation with the monks. Prayers are held daily from 8am to 9am. In order to reach the pagoda, turn off Đ Nguyen Thi Nho, which runs perpendicular to Đ Hung Vuong (between Nos 269B and 271B).
Greater HCMC
Although Cholon has a high density of pa godas, there are several particularly striking ones out here, including the peaceful Giac Lam Pagoda with its dazzling architecture and ornamentation.
GIAC LAM PAGODA
Believed to be the oldest pagoda in greater HCMC, Giac Lam Pagoda ( 118 Đ Lac Long Quan) dates from 1744. It's a fantastically atmospheric place full of gilded statues (over 100 in all), colourful wall panels (depicting among other things the path to enlightenment as well as the tortures awaiting those condemned to hell) with one of the country's most impressive stupas (which is 32m tall). For the sick and elderly, the pagoda is ,1 minor pilgrimage sight, as it contains a bronze bell that when rung is believed to answer the prayers posted by petitioners. Home to several monks, the Buddhist pagoda also incorporates aspects of Taoism and Confucianism. It is will 1 worth the trip out here from the city centre and is one of the city's cultural relics. The pagoda is set in a peaceful, gardenlike setting with the tombs of venerated monks to the right of the two-tiered pagoda gate. The looming Bodhi or pipal tree (bo de) located in the front garden was the gift of a monk from Sri Lanka in 1953. Next to the tree is a gleaming white statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat standing on a lotus blossom - a symbol of purity. Inside the reception area of the main building is the 18-armed Chuan De, another form of the Goddess of Mercy. Carved hardwood columns bear gilded Vietnamese inscriptions, with the portraits of great monks from previous generations (and dragons hidden in clouds) looking down on the proceedings. The main sanctuary lies in the next room, filled with countless gilded figures. On the dais in the centre of the back row sits A Di Da, the Buddha of the Past (Amitabha), easily spotted by his colourful halo. The fat laughing fellow, seated with five children climbing all over him, is Ameda, the Buddha of enlightenment, compassion and wisdom. On the altars along the side walls of the sanctuary arc various Bodhisattvas and two 10-panelled drawings:the first depicts the Judges of the 10 Regions of Hell - and the various gruesome treatments meted out to the unworthy. Next to it are 10 panels showing scenes from Thich Ca Buddha's life from birth to enlightenment. The red-and-gold Christmas tree-shaped object is a wooden altar bearing 49 lamps and 49 miniature Bodhisattva statues. People pray for sick relatives or ask for happiness by contributing kerosene for use in the lamps. Petitioners' names and those of ill family members are written on slips of paper, which are attached to the branches of the 'tree'. The frame of the large bronze bell in the corner resembles a bulletin board because petitioners have attached to it lists of names: those of people seeking happiness and those of the sick and the dead, placed there by rela lives. It is believed that when the bell is rung, the sound will resonate to the heavens above and the underground heavens, carrying with it the attached supplications. Prayers here consist of chanting to the accompaniment of drums, bells and gongs, and they follow a traditional rite seldom performed these days. Prayers are held daily from 4am to 5am, 1 lam to noon, 4pm to 5pm and 7pm to 9pm. Giac Lam Pagoda is about 3km from Cho-lon in the Tan Binh district, best reached by taxi or.xe om.
GIAC VIEN PAGODA
Architecturally similar to Giac Lam, this striking pagoda (Đ Lac Long Quan:(7-11.30am& 1.30-7pm) shares with it an atmosphere of scholarly serenity, though Giac Vien is less visited and in a more rural setting near Dam Sen Lake in District 11. The pagoda was founded by Hai Tinh Giac Vien in the late 1700s. It is said that Emperor Gia Long, who died in 1819, used to worship at Giac Vien. Today 10 monks live here. The pagoda remains a marvellously preserved artefact from the past, boasting some 100 lavish carvings of various divinities. Hidden behind a warren of winding streets, the pagoda, like Giac Lam, has several impressive tombs on the right leading up to the pagoda itself. Funeral tablets line the first chamber, while the second chamber is dominated by a statue of Hai Tinh Giac Vien holding a horsetail switch. Nearby portraits depict his disciples and successors- Opposite Hai Tinh Giac Vien is a representation of the 18-armed Chuan De, who is flanked by two guardians. The main sanctuary is on the other side of the wall behind the Hai Tinh Giac Vien statue with a dais behind a fantastic brass incense basin with fierce dragon heads emerging from each side. On the altar to the left of the dais is Dai The Chi Bo Tat; on the altar to the right is Quan The Am Bo Tat. The Guardian of the Pagoda is against the wall opposite the dais. Nearby is a "Christmas tree' similar to the one-in Giac Lam Pagoda (opposite). Lining the side walls are the Judges of the 10 Regions of Hell (holding scrolls) and 18 Bodhisattvas. Giac Vien Pagoda is open during the hours listed, but go before dark as the electricity is often out in the evening. Prayers are held daily from 4am to Sam, 8am to 10am, 2pm to 3pm, 4pm to 5pm and 7pm to 9pm.
PHUNG SON PAGODA
This pagoda (Phung Son Tu & Chua Go; 1-108 013/2) is extremely rich in statuary made of bronze, wood, ceramic and hammered copper It's peopled with a mix of gilded and beautifully carved statues (some painted). This Vietnamese Buddhist pagoda was built between 1802 and 1820 on the site of structures from the Oc-Eo (Funan) period, dating back at least to the early centuries of Christianity. Other foundations off Funanese buildings have also been discovered here. Once upon a lime, it was decided thai Phung Son Pagoda should be moved to a dif -ferent site. The pagoda's ritual objects – bells,. drums, statues - were loaded onto the back of a white elephant, hut the elephant slipped. because of the great weight and all the pre cious objects fell into a nearby pond. This event was interpreted as an omen that the pagoda should remain at its original location. All the articles were retrieved except for , the bell, which locals say was heard ringing, until about a century ago, whenever there was a full or new moon. The main dais, with its many levels, is dom- inated by an enormous gilded A Di Da Bud-dha sealed under a canopy flanked by long mobiles resembling human forms without heads. To the left of the main dais is an altar with a statue of Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism from India to China. The .statue, which is made of Chinese ceramic, has a face with Indian features. Phung Son Pagoda is in District 11.Prayers are held three time a day, from 4 am to 5 am,4pm to 5pm and 6 pm to 7pm.The main en-trances are locked most of the time because of problems with therf,but the side entrance (to the left as you approach the bulding)is open during prayer times.
LEVAN DUYET TEMPLE
Dedicated to Marshal Le Van Duyet (1763- 1831), this temple is also his burial place as well as that of his wife's. The marshal was a South Vietnamese general and viceroy who helped put down the Tay Son Rebellion and reunify Vietnam. When the Nguyen dynasty came to power in 1802, he was elevated by Emperor Gia Long to the rank of marshal. Le Van Duyet tell into disfavour with Gia Long's successor, Minh Mang, who tried him posthumously and desecrated his grave. Emperor Thien tri, who succeeded Minh Mang, restored the tomb, thus lfulfilling, a prophesy of its destruction and restoratim. Le Van Duyet was considered a national hero in the South before 1975, but is disliked in the communists because of his involvement in the expansion of French influence. The temple itself was renovated in 1973 and has a distinctly modern feel to it, thought since 1975 the government has done little to keep it from becoming dilapidated. Among the items on display are a portrait of Le Van Duyet. some of his personal effects (including European-style crystal goblets) and other antiques. There are two wonderful life-size horse statues on either side of the entrance to the third and last chamber, which is kept locked. During celebrations of Tet and on the 30th day of the seventh lunar month (the anniversary of Le Van Duyet's death), the tomb is thronged with pilgrims. Vietnamese used to come here to take oaths of good faith if they could not afford the services of a court of justice. There are tropical fish on sale for visitors. The caged birds that are for sale are bought by pilgrims and freed to earn merit. The birds are often recaptured (and liberated again). The temple is reached by heading north from the city centre on Đ Dinh Tien Hoang, all the way to ĐL Phan Dang Luu; it's easy to spot from the southeast corner.
AN QUANGPAGODA
This pagoda ( Đ Su Van Hanh) gained some notoriety during the American War as the home of Thich Tri Quang, a powerful monk who led protests against the South Vietnamese government in 1963 and 1966. When the war ended you would have expected the communists to be grateful. Instead, he was placed under house arrest and later thrown into solitary confinement for 16 months. Thich Tri Quang was eventually released and is said to be still living at An Quang Pagoda. An Quang Pagoda is on Đ Su Van Hanh, near the intersection with D Ba Hat, in District 10.
CHO QUAN CHURCH
Built by the French about 100 years ago, Cho Quan Church (133 Đ Tran Binh Trong; (4-7am & 3-6pm Mon-Sat, 4-9am & 1.30-6pm Sun) is one of the largest churches in HCMC. Jesus on the altar has a neon halo, though the best reason to come here is for the view from the belfry (a steep climb). The church is between ĐLTran Hung Dao and Đ Nguyen Trai. Sunday masses are held at Sam, 6.30am, 8.30am, 4.30pm and 6pm.
QUAN AM THI KINH
The legend goes that Quan Am Thi Kinh was a woman unjustly turned out of her home by her husband. She disguised herself as a monk and went to live in a pagoda, where a young woman accused her of fathering her child. She accepted the blame - and the responsibility that went along with it - and again found herself out on the streets, this time with her 'son'. Much later, about to die, she returned to the monastery to confess her secret. When the emperor of China heard of her story, he declared her the Guardian Spirit of Mother and Child. It is believed that she has the power to bestow male offspring on those who fervently believe in her andas such Is extremely popular with childless couples.