Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon

A couple of weeks ago, on one of our regular weekend trips into Saigon, our plans to take a day trip to Can Gio were thwarted at the last minute – overbooked buses or not enough of us to make it worthwhile to run the tour – we never did find out which!  Anyway, finding ourselves at a loose end, we decided to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda in District 3. 

My guidebook (Lonely Planet Vietnam) said, ‘If you only visit one pagoda in Saigon, make sure it’s this one’, and then went on to give a short, but highly complimentary account of the attraction.  So, with high expectations, we flagged down a Mai Linh taxi to take us there.  It soon became apparent that we had inadvertently got into a taxi driven by an opportunist who thought he would fleece the foreigners and take them on the longest route possible to their destination!  When he didn’t respond to our protestations that he was going the wrong way, we phoned our English-speaking Saigon taxi-driver, Hiep, who told our man off in no uncertain terms and ensured that we paid less than half the amount that was on the clock by the time we got to the pagoda!  Mercifully, this kind of behaviour is not the norm amongst Saigon taxi drivers, especially the ones who work for the two most reputable companies, Mai Linh and Vinasun, and perhaps our man will think twice before he tries it on again!

So, we found ourselves at the entrance to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and, I have to say, we were a little underwhelmed.  I don’t know why I expected the pagoda to be in the middle of landscaped grounds with lots of green around, but that’s the picture I had in my head!  Instead, it is on a side street in the heart of a rather rundown commercial and residential district.

At the entrance we were encouraged to buy goldfish, turtles and toads, seemingly as offerings to the gods – we declined!  Once through the gates, we realised that the pagoda was very busy, mainly with worshippers, rather than tourists.  We were struck by how pink everything was!  Given its name, we’d been expecting the building to be green!

Inside, the pagoda comprises a series of rooms with an eclectic mix of images and statues, some of which are very grotesque and could scare young children!  The pagoda was built in 1909 by the Cantonese community and the images, many of which are made of papier mâché, depict Taoist, Buddhist and other ethnic mythical stories.  The figure that dominates the main hall is a statue of the Jade Emperor who is believed to be the ‘god of the heavens’, with the power to admit or refuse entry.  One of the anterooms houses an idol of Kim Hua, goddess of fertility, often visited by childless couples praying for a baby.  The King of Hell is portrayed in another room along with elaborate carvings showing the ten levels of hell and the Chinese equivalent of the apocalypse.

Throughout the entire building, however, is an overpowering scent of incense.  The pungent smoke fills the air and gets in your eyes.  Worshippers continually light more joss sticks and temple assistants pour oil over burning candles, adding to the suffocating atmosphere.  It was a huge relief to emerge into the daylight and (relatively) fresh air.

Reading my guidebook in the open courtyard, though, we realised that we had missed a staircase leading from one of the side rooms up to the roof.  So, we braved the incense once again, found the steps and emerged on to the roof where we could see the elaborate green tiles!

The pagoda is interesting and worth a look if you are in Saigon for longer than a couple of days, but, in my opinion, shouldn’t feature on anyone’s ‘must-do’ list for the city!

See more of my photos of the Jade Pagoda here.

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