Taking into account the fact that Communist regimes do not tolerate any form of religion, and that the Communists have controlled Vietnam now for over 30 years, it is surprising that there are any temples left in Hanoi at all. Yet there are some wonderful examples of ancient architecture in the city’s older temples, and it is a testament to the strength of Buddhist beliefs that so many still stand today, even though most have been renovated many times.
The principal architectural influence in Hanoi’s older temples is unmistakably Chinese, reflecting the powerful sway that Vietnam’s neighbour had on its early development. For Western visitors, a trip to any Hanoi temple is likely to be an exotic experience, as the dim-lit interiors are usually packed with eye-catching statues and Buddha images. Locals pay frequent visits to pray and make offerings and the strong scent of incense hangs heavy in the air.
Hanoi temples and pagodas
Temple of Literature
If you see only one temple in Hanoi, then it should be this masterpiece of architectural harmony, which was also the base for Vietnam’s first university, founded in 1076.
It’s worth approaching the inner sanctuary slowly to soak up the atmosphere of the courtyards with their tranquil ponds and ancient stone inscriptions, which are still the studied by monks this very day.
Inside is a large statue of Confucius, to whom the temple is dedicated, and a music room gives visitors the chance to rest their legs and enjoy a performance of traditional melodies. Unfortunately, the refined and cultured ambience is spoiled by the tacky souvenir shop at the rear of the complex.(Quoc Tu Giam Road. Open 08:00-17:00. Admission 5,000D. Guide 75,000D)
One Pillar Pagoda
It doesn’t take long to see this quirky temple situated in the heart of the Ho Chi Minh Complex, as it is not much bigger than a doll’s house. The original pagoda, built on a single column of stone in the centre of a small lotus pond, was erected in 1049 and renovated many times through the centuries. It was then destroyed completely by the French when their reign terminated here in 1954, and the concrete column that supports the tiny pagoda reveals how recent this version is.
Ngoc Son Temple
Located on a tiny island at the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi, this may not be the city’s most important temple, but it is probably the most visited. The elegant The Huc Bridge tempts visitors to cross over and take a look at the temple’s most intriguing feature – a massive turtle that used to live in the lake and was preserved on its death. (Open: 08:00-17:00; Admission: 20,000D; Dinh Tien Hoang St.)
This temple’s importance is shown by the fact that it is the centre of Buddhism in Hanoi. Built in the 15th century, its original role was as a guesthouse for visiting dignitaries from foreign lands – thus the name. It is one of Hanoi’s most active temples and a good place to see devotees making offerings.
Bach Ma Temple
This temple, meaning ‘White Horse Temple’, was originally built in the 11th century by Ly Thai To to honour a horse he rode when he laid out his plans for the city. It is elaborately decorated and has undergone much restoration work over the years.
Today’s building dates back to the 18th century and is well worth dropping by if you are walking through the Old Quarter. Look out for a statue of a white horse and ancient palanquin beside the altar. (Open: 07:00-11:00, 14:00-17:00. On the 1st and 15th of every lunar month: 07:00-21:00 (daily); Admission: free; 76 Hang Buom St., tel: +84 4 3860 0963).
Other temples and pagodas in Hanoi
There are hundreds of smaller, less significant temples in Hanoi that are nonetheless fascinating for most Western visitors, so if there’s one near your hotel, wander in and look around. If you develop a taste for temples and pagodas, a few others worth visiting are Hai Ba Trung Temple on Tho Lao,Tay Ho Pagoda on the edge of West Lake, and Tran Quoc Pagoda, also on the shores of West Lake.