On January 1, 2012, I was fortunate enough that after hearing my first mass at the centuries’ old Notre Dame of Saigon Cathedral Basilica, I decided to give myself the best cultural exposure of what Saigon has been hiding for centuries and years of its existence simply brought it the kind of aura and influence in many culture and heritage aficionados and backpackers like me too. I am drawn towards many temples, wats and old structures while on my holiday jaunt to Cambodia and Vietnam so this visit to the Thien Hau Temple is not an exception.
Not to be amiss with any details, the Thien Hau Temple is located at the Chinatown of Saigon, commonly called Cho Lon, and along the busy street of Nguyen Trai. The temple is officially named Chua Ba Thien Hau or the Pagoda of the Lady Thien Hau. Thien Hau has no significant place in Buddhism and Taoism but she has been brought to a more prominent pedestal among elements and figures of both religions. Thien Hau is a goddess of Chinese origin who is believed to be the patroness of the sea. More commonly revered to among communities on the southern part of China, Thien Hau placed her distinct significant role in Vietnam’s seafaring nomads and the fishing communities. Built by the Cantonese congregation in Vietnam in 1760, it has played a crucial and pivotal part since then.
When one enters the gate of the Thien Hau Temple, you will be greeted with a solemn door massively adorn on top of its ceiling, porcelain figures of Chinese warriors, dancers and goddesses. These figures are on top of the main entrance leading towards the inner courtyard of the temple.
One can also see the incenses facing the altar of Thien Hau. As I was moving inside the temple, I noticed that the columns are intricately designed with wooden carvings of traditional Peking opera or perhaps how the olden Chinese characters are portrayed but these are minutely detailed carvings and one that can only be seen when you keenly observed your surroundings and the columns.
I was fascinated at how the walls were pasted with prayer requests perhaps names of the departed written on pink slips. I can recall, when I was young, seeing Chinese movies that has similar papers pasted on walls of houses and temples, though the color is yellow, but in the Thien Hau Temple, they uses pink. I have no idea what was the pink slip for or what is meant since I was only coming solo and not on a guided tour. Also, because I was so absorbed with the beauty I saw at Thien Hau, I did not bother to ask what it meant.
Near the altar of where the Goddess Thien Hau is perpetually enshrined, I saw guests and backpackers lighting incense and the incense that are hanging on the altar’s ceiling is impressive. This incense are the same I saw in National Geographic photos and documentaries, glad I was able to capture those for my blog.
Needlessly, one must also be reminded that when you come to temples such as Thien Hau, keep your voices low and avoid creating a scandalous scene as this is a place of worship and reverence among the followers of Thien Hau. All the rest, when absorbed, enriches you, both in body and spirit!