Thien Mu Pagoda - the Pagoda of the Heavenly Lady

Along the Perfume River, a tower marking a self-fulfilling prophecy

Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam
Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam.  Thomas Gasienica/Getty Images

The Thien Mu Pagoda (also called the Linh Mu Pagoda) is a historic pagoda on the banks of the Perfume River in Vietnam's historic city of Hue. Apart from their scenic riverside and hilltop location, the Thien Mu Pagoda and its environs are also rich in history, standing witness to almost four hundred years of tumultuous nation-building and religious belief in Vietnam.

The Thien Mu Pagoda is often included in many Hue City package tours, as the riverside location makes it easily accessible by Hue’s many tourist “dragon boats”. You may also visit the Thien Mu Pagoda by yourself, as the location is easily accessible by cyclo or boat.

First-time visitor? Read our top reasons to visit Vietnam.

Layout of Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda is set atop Ha Khe Hill, in the village of Huong Long about three miles from Hue city center. The pagoda overlooks the northern bank of the Perfume River. The pagoda exudes a peaceful air, ornamented as it is by pine trees and flowers.

The front of the Pagoda can be reached by climbing up a steep staircase from the river’s edge. (The temple as a whole is NOT wheelchair-friendly.)

Upon reaching the top of the staircase, facing north, you’ll see the Phuoc Duyen tower, flanked by two smaller pavilions containing sacred objects. More on those in a bit.

Phuoc Duyen Tower: the Pagoda's Most Iconic Structure

The octagonal seven-level pagoda known as Phuoc Duyen Tower is the most prominent single structure in Thien Mu Pagoda; standing on the crest of the hill, the tower is visible from far away.

The tower is a 68-foot-high octagonal structure, stepped into seven levels. Each level is devoted to one Buddha who came to Earth in human form, represented in each level of the tower as a single Buddha statue arranged to face the south.

In spite of its relative youth, the Phuoc Duyen tower is now considered Hue’s unofficial symbol, helped in no small part by the numerous folk rhymes and songs composed in its honor.

But that’s not all there is to the pagoda complex. The compound is actually spread out over two hectares of land, with other structures around and behind the tower. In fact, the Phuoc Duyen tower is far younger than the pagoda complex itself; the the tower was constructed in 1844, over two hundred years after the pagoda was founded in 1601.

Thien Mu Pagoda's Stone Steles

On either side of the Phuoc Duyen tower stand two smaller pavilions.

To the tower’s right (due east) is a pavilion containing an eight-foot-high stone stele set on the back of a giant marble turtle. The stele was carved in 1715 to commemorate the Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu's recently-completed renovation of the pagoda; the Lord himself penned the text inscribed on the stele, which describes the pagoda's new buildings, extols Buddhism and praises the monk who helped the Lord spread the faith in the region.

To the tower’s left (due west) is a pavilion housing a giant bronze bell, known as Dai Hong Chung. The bell was cast in 1710, and its dimensions make it one of Vietnam’s most significant achievements in bronze casting for its time. Dai Hong Chung weighs 5,800 pounds and is four and a half feet in circumference. The bell’s peals is said to be audible from up to six miles away.

Tourist posing in Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam
Mike Aquino

Thien Mu Pagoda's Sanctuary Hall

The main sanctuary, also known as Dai Hung Shrine, is accessible through a gate and a long walkway crossing a pleasant courtyard.

The sanctuary hall is divided into two separate segments - the front hall is separated from the main sanctuary by a number of folding wooden doors. The sanctuary hall enshrines three statues of the Buddha (which symbolizes past, present, and future lives), as well as several other important relics, including a bronze gong and a gilded board adorned with inscriptions by the Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu.

The Dai Hung Shrine is occupied by the Thien Mu Pagoda’s residents - the Buddhist monks who worship in the shrine and maintain it. They live in a second courtyard past the Dai Hung Shrine, accessible by a path to the left of the sanctuary hall.

Thien Mu Pagoda and the Vietnam War

The Shrine holds a rather grim reminder of the chaos that ripped through the country in the midst of the Vietnam War.

In 1963, a Buddhist monk from Thien Mu Pagoda, Thich Quang Duc, rode from Hue to Saigon. When he got to the capital, he burned himself on the street in an act of defiance against the pro-Catholic Ngo regime. The car that brought him to the capital is currently enshrined in the rear of the sanctuary hall - not much to look at now, a rusty old Austin sitting on wooden blocks, but still resonating with the power of that self-sacrificing gesture.

The northern reaches of the pagoda compound are made up by a peaceful pine tree forest.

Thien Mu Pagoda's Ghostly Lady

Thien Mu Pagoda owes its existence to a local prophecy, and a lord who took it upon himself to fulfill it.

The pagoda’s name translates to “Heavenly Lady”, referring to a legend that an old woman had appeared on the hill, telling the locals about a Lord who would build a pagoda on that very site.

When Hue’s governor Lord Nguyen Hoang passed through and heard about the legend, he decided to fulfill the prophecy himself. In 1601, he ordered the construction of Thien Mu pagoda, at that point a rather simple structure, which was added on to and improved by his successors.

Renovations in 1665 and 1710 secured the addition of the bell and stele that now flank the Phuoc Duyen tower. The tower was added in 1844 by the Nguyen Emperor Thieu Tri. World War II did its share of damage, but a 30-year renovation program instituted by Buddhist monk Thich Don Hau have restored the temple to its present state.

Getting to Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda can be reached by land or by river - rented bicycle, cyclo, or tour bus for the former, and “dragon boat” for the latter.

If weather permits, you might rent a bicycle and ride the three miles from the city center to the foot of the hill. Package tours of Hue city sometimes make the Thien Mu Pagoda the last stop in the tour, after visiting the city's famous tombs, allowing tour participants to conclude the tour with a dragon boat ride from Thien Mu Pagoda to the Hue city center.

Individual boat rides may also be commissioned from most hotels in Hue, at an average cost of $15. (Read about money in Vietnam.) Thien Mu Pagoda takes about an hour to reach by boat from the city center.

Entrance to Thien Mu Pagoda is free.