Vietnam has an abundance of religious structures around the country. They range from temples (Đền in Vietnamese) and pagodas (Chùa in Vietnamese), to shrines and churches. Many of these sites can be visited throughout the year, with guests usually welcomed inside, or at least, able to admire from a distance.
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List + Map of Temples, Pagodas, Shrines & Churches
While temples are sometimes lumped in to include pagodas, they are actually two distinct structures. Pagodas are either Buddhist or Hindu in religion, and have distinct architecture and traditions. Buddha is the highest deity in Buddhism, while Hinduism has Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu as its three major deities. Temples worship other select saints or deities. And churches typically represent Catholicism.
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Guide to Temples and Religious Structures in Vietnam
Where ever your Vietnam adventures take you, you’ll certainly pass by a number of interesting temples, pagodas, shrines and churches along the way. There is no exact data on how many temples are in Vietnam, but there are estimated to be over 17,000 religious structures throughout the country.
Many sites have been there for centuries and have become icons for their cities while retaining religious significance. Others are newer but still have a lot of impact on local culture. Several of Vietnam’s most beautiful temples are also popular tourist attractions, and sometimes they host monthly or annual festivals and events.
Religion in Vietnam
While many Vietnamese people don’t consider themselves religious or observe local folklore; the two main religions in the country are Buddhism and Catholicism. Buddhism is said to have originated in Nepal and likely was developed from Hinduism, which a small percentage of the population follows too. Catholicism was brought to Vietnam by French missionaries and is sometimes still viewed as a “colonial power” trait, making it a highly controversial faith in the country.
Cao Dai is another type of religion in Vietnam, having credence that all religions are one and combining their practices from a mix of several belief systems.
Throughout the country, sightseers will likely run into religious structures from all these religions. Most welcome visitors, but it’s good to find out before adding them to the itinerary. While viewing or observing spiritual practices, remember that it’s crucial to be respectful and dress appropriately for the occasion. Taking off shoes before going inside a temple is standard practice at most places.
Pagoda vs. Temple vs. Shrine
Even though the terms “pagoda” and “temple” are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction between the two.
A pagoda (“Chùa” in Vietnamese) is a spiritual home dedicated explicitly to Buddha or Hindu deities. Many pagodas have been around for centuries, but even the newer-looking ones referred to as “ancient” could just mean it has been refurbished or rebuilt on a historical site. These structures were initially designed to protect religious relics and the remains of kings and saints but have evolved into places that Buddhists come to pray. Many pagodas are built upward and have multiple layers to resemble mountains.
Temples (Đền in Vietnamese) are regular places of worship. Many monks live in temples, where they are fully independent and entirely dedicate themselves to their religion. Temples in Vietnam are usually intricate structures that often feature folklore legends and heroes, offering a place for them to be remembered and adored by visitors.
Shrines are a smaller version of temples, often tucked away in a cave, mountainside, or somewhere quiet where people can pray and reflect in peace. Relics, oil burners, incenses, and even sweet treats are the types of things placed in a shrine as offerings to the deities.
Famous Pagodas and Other Religious Sites
There are many famous pagodas in Vietnam, but some of the most well-known ones include the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue, the One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi, and Bai Dinh Pagoda in Ninh Binh. The Ngoc Son Temple, set on an islet of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, is another heavily visited structure and is conveniently right in the heart of the city.
When it comes to Catholic churches, the St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi is one of the most popular and the city’s oldest. It was built in 1887 by the French and is often referred to as a mini Notre Dame de Paris, functioning as the Catholic hub for northern Vietnam. At the other end of the island, Ho Chi Minh City’s Notre Dame Basilica was also constructed in the French Colonial days in the 19th century and is one of the city’s greatest icons.
Religious Events at Temples and Pagodas
There are numerous festivals in Vietnam, and many of them take place at religious sites. The annual Perfume Pagoda Festival is a big one that attracts pilgrims to explore its sacred caves for a happy new year, trekking through gorgeous landscapes along the way.
Another is the Hung King Festival, which is observed at locations nationally, but the main hosting temple is the one in Phu Tho. Buddha’s Birthday celebrated at Hoi An’s Phap Bao Pagoda, is a must-see event for visitors in town for the occasion, welcoming thousands of people to it each year.
Temples and pagodas are a large part of Vietnam’s history and culture, so it would be worth your time to find a couple in the area that you’re visiting. These structures are not only stunning pieces of architecture, but no two are exactly alike and have their own impressive characteristics.