My wife and I just booked our tickets for a family vacation to Vietnam at the end of this year. It was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up, and I’m fairly excited about returning to Asia for the first time since I was there in 2001. On that earlier trip I spent 90% of my time in rural India in Bodhgaya just down the (dirt) road from the Mahabodhi temple and the Bodhi tree. The other 10% of my time was spent in Myanmar doing field research on Burmese replicas of the Mahabodhi temple.
My focus on Buddhism in India and Myanmar limited my experiences of the religious variety that surrounded me. I’m hoping to fix some of this in my trip to Vietnam. Now, to be fair, I can’t expect my wife and in-laws to be as thrilled about seeing the diversity of religious life, so I must choose my spots fairly carefully. To that end I’ve tried to pick several representative sites that I can convince everyone else to endure. I figure I can get away with a major Catholic, Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, and maybe one or two indigenous spiritual sites. Here’s what I’m looking at (thanks to Eyewitness Travel’s Vietnam & Angkor Wat guidebook). I plan to cross-check some other guides next month as well as consult some more specialist books. (Stay tuned for those additions.)
- Jade Emperor Pagoda (Taoist site in Ho Chi Minh City): This pagoda was built by Cantonese community members in 1909. While it primarily honors the Jade Emperor, “the chief deity of the Taoist pantheon,” it also features a number of Buddhist statues and reliefs. I’m excited to see the panels depicting the 1,000 torments and the King of Hell who presides over “lurid scenes of damnation.” These are always pretty exciting and striking features.
Cao Dai Holy See (Cao Dai site in Ho Chi Minh City): Here’s a religion I’ve never heard of before! From the guidebook it sounds as if it is kind of like the Vatican City–it’s own little world within the world of Ho Chi Minh. The emphasis is on the all-seeing Divine Eye, which “represents supreme knowledge and wisdom.” I’m going to read up on this before saying more because I don’t particularly trust what the guidebook says (as if that was surprising).
- Hue Citadel and Royal Tombs (Buddhist, Neo-Confucian, & Imperial site in Hue): This is the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty (early 19th c.), which eventually fell under pressure from Western colonial powers. They used Geomancy to design their Citadel, and their ancestor worship is fairly evident judging by the many funerary statues and impressive tombs. This is a World Heritage Site, and while the guidebook focuses primarily on the architectural elements, I’m keen to see the combination of political/royal elements and religious features. Time to get a book specifically about Hue!
Temple of Literature (Confucian site in Hanoi): This is one of the older sites we’re aiming to visit (1070). As you might expect, the site is symmetrical and features segmented courtyards and gardens, about what I would expect to find in a Confucian temple. There’s even a human chessboard, which I admit sounds pretty interesting.
- Halong Bay (Indigenous and Buddhist sites around Halong City): The guidebook suggests a few sites–the Yen Tu Pilgrimage site established by Mahayana Buddhists in the 15th century and Den Kiep Bac site honors a 13th century general deified by the Tran Dynasty–but the number of grottos and caves makes me think the best sites will be those ones we stumble upon unexpectedly thanks to local advice. My father-in-law is pushing for us to visit Halong Bay, and it looks interesting, but the guidebook is a bit thin on the lay of the land.
- Catholic sites? There’s 8 million Catholics in Vietnam, and most of the cathedrals have French influence in their design. I haven’t picked a specific church yet, but I’ll definitely be looking for the combination of French and Vietnamese style in the architecture and artwork.
- Hindu sites? The Mariamman Hindu temple is listed as a spot to check out in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m worried about overloading my relatives on religious sites in Ho Chi Minh right at the beginning of our trip. If we do this site, it’ll probably be in the last day or so before we head home again.
Finally, my wife and I are considering going to Angkor Wat (possibly as a capstone to our trip). The guidebook, if you look at the Amazon reviews, gets some decidedly negative feedback for including this Cambodian site. On the other hand, it really is an quick excursion from south Vietnam. We’d probably consider spending more time than other tourists in Cambodia visiting other things, but I’ll have to write about those another time. I would be thrilled to get to explore Angkor Wat. As a student of sacred space, I can’t really pass up an opportunity to visit it, so I’ll do everything I can to make it happen. I mean, just look at this picture. Could you turn it down? I sure can’t!