When you think of Ho Chi Minh City you might envision the neon lights and tall skyscrapers in District 1; the historical landmarks that hearken back to its French colonial rule; or the exciting, flavorful cuisine that can be found everywhere from street stalls to swanky restaurants. But in addition to all of that you’ll find a metropolis teeming with hundreds of ornate temples and pagodas. You’ll want to stop by in the morning, not just to beat the masses or the heat, but also for the chance to see the monks begin their day of prayer. And if you happen to be in town during Tet, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, crowds will be unavoidable, but it’ll be an incredible opportunity to observe this important piece of local culture.
While you’re stopping by, keep in mind that these sacred sites are not simply tourist attractions, but active places of worship. With that in mind, dress appropriately—avoid shorts, cover shoulders and midriffs, and remove hats—and don’t point at a statue of Buddha. With that said, here are seven of the best temples and pagodas to visit.
Jade Emperor Pagoda (Ngoc Hoang Pagoda)
Set off of a busy thoroughfare in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 is arguably one of the most famous pagodas in Vietnam, having drawn in visitors like President Barack Obama. The pagoda was built at the turn of the 20th century in honor of the supreme Taoist god, the Jade Emperor, or Ngoc Hoang in Vietnamese. And while the main hall dedicated to the deity is the primary focus, the rest of the spaces are well worth exploring. For example, just to the left there’s an altar to Kim Hua, the goddess of fertility, and in another room is the Hall of the Ten Hells, where you’ll find intricate carved wooden panels portraying the afflictions that await wrongdoers.
Giac Lam Pagoda
Built in 1744, Giac Lam Pagoda is believed to be the oldest in the city. Set within garden-like grounds in District 10, it’s a little ways from the city center but has a particularly peaceful atmosphere as a result. A trio of buildings form the Chinese character for “three” and are called the Three Jewels, with the main hall housing a statue of Amitabha Buddha. Its most dramatic feature, however, is the seven-tier pagoda outside. Climb to the top and you’ll have exceptional panoramic views of the city, but it’s also considered a minor pilgrimage site for the sick and elderly, who believe that if they ring the bronze bell their prayers will be answered.
Thien Hau Temple
Located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, or Cholon, this temple was built in 1760 by the immigrant Cantonese community in homage to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu (Thien Hau in Vietnamese). Its ornate facade is captivating and you’ll find that it’s just as intricate inside. In addition to Tet, one of the most important festivals for the temple is the 23rd day of the third month on the lunar calendar, Mazu’s birthday, when locals gather to pray and celebrate the deity.
Xa Loi Pagoda
Built to enshrine relics of Buddha in 1956, Xa Loi Pagoda also served as the headquarters for the Vietnamese Buddhist Association until 1981. But what makes this sanctuary even more noteworthy is its history during the Diem regime. The temple was known to be a center of opposition against the government and a raid in 1963 under the order of Ngo Dinh Nhu, President Diem’s brother, resulted in the arrest of hundreds of monks and nuns. It has since returned to its peaceful state and serves as a place to learn.
Mariamman Hindu Temple
Just steps away from Ben Thanh Market, this colorful complex is the principal Hindu temple in Ho Chi Minh City. Built in the late 19th century in dedication to the Hindu goddess Mariamman, many of the materials and statues were sourced from India and much of it was constructed by the Tamil community. Remove your shoes before entering and, if you wish, provide offerings of joss sticks and jasmine.
Vinh Nghiem Pagoda
Spanning nearly 65,000 square feet, Vinh Nghiem Pagoda is one of the largest in the city and the first to be constructed using concrete. Built in the late 20th century, it combines traditional Vietnamese architecture with a touch of modern Japanese style. The 46-foot-tall stone tower behind it also happens to be the tallest of its kind in Vietnam. And because of how spacious the grounds are you’ll find that this is a particularly popular spot for Buddhist festivals and celebrations.
Cao Dai Temple
While Cao Dai Temple is technically in Tay Ninh province, it’s just a short trip northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. Founded in Vietnam in 1926, Caodaism primarily combines elements from Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and this temple is the most important place of worship for the faith. If you plan on heading to the Cu Chi tunnels for a day trip, Cao Dai Temple is just a few minutes away and well worth the visit, even if just to see the building’s unique architecture.