Our travel writer visits the Emperor Jade Pagoda, one of the most famous landmark in Saigon. You may also want to read our complete list of the Best Pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City.
In the courtyard, an old tree spreads its branches to the threatening sky. With its exposed roots, sprawling branches and trunk marked by time, it provides natural protection to worshippers and tourists from the few drops of rain that have started to fall.
Whether during the rainy season or dry season, Chua Ngoc Hoang (“Emperor Jade Pagoda”), renamed in 1984 to Phuoc Hai Tu, remains one of the best must-see places in Saigon.
Built in 1909 by the city’s Chinese population, its architecture is a reflection of Cantonese temples. Scattered amongst incense fumes, a collection of gods and legendary heroes stand on panels of golden Chinese characters, making it one of the most impressive pagodas in the city. Here, Buddhism and Taoism are inextricably linked. The décor is inspired by many myths and Buddhist stories which the Cantonese community has adopted.
The Jade Emperor stands at the bottom of the main hall, guarded by two papier-mâché demons, reaching a grand height of 4 meters. These demons are known as Tu Dai Kim Cuong (“Big Diamond”) because of their hardness. This Chinese Taoist God of Origin, Emperor Jade or Yuhuang Dadi (玉皇大帝) was believed to govern all other gods.
In China, the word “jade” invokes the pure and eternal side of this precious stone - virtues which became those of this Divinity. The Taoists thought that touching this stone could confer immortality.
Emperor Jade ruled over the divine kingdom, but only divine servants were in touch with him. His rank was, in fact, too high for him to be responsible for simple human beings. As a consequence, there are only a few statues and altars in his honor. In the religious hierarchy, he had relatively low importance because people rarely addressed him directly to solve their problems. Just as the real Emperor of China, he was said to be shut up in his palace, inaccessible, only taking care of his court and government officials.
Yet, paradoxically, though many deities, too abstract, were not adopted by practitioners of Chinese Taoism, Emperor Jade always enjoyed relative popularity. Perhaps he embodied the comforting image of the grandfather in whom the faithful could hope to find a last resort to solve their existential problems. Even now, this aura remains.
Today, he’s bathed in a cloud of smoke from incense burning in his honor. In the temple, a great enthusiasm is perceptible. People renew oil lamps, replace wilted flowers, and lay incense sticks over offerings of overripe fruit. The atmosphere is meditative. Bells ring at regular intervals.
Outside, a basin containing a multitude of turtles stirs the curiosity of tourists passing by. As the millennium symbol of Taoism, the turtles’ presence is not a hazard. Having a turtle under one’s roof is meant to provide divine protection to the family who owns it.
In ancient times, soothsayers would leave turtle shells in a fire for a few minutes in order to create cracks and fissures which they would later reproduce and decipher in order to communicate with divine spirits.
Chinese scholars have traced these reproductions back 3,500 years to the initial symbols which eventually became the basis for the 214 characters at the foundation of the Chinese written language.
Address: 73 Mai Thi Luu, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City Opening Hours: Open daily from 6am to 6pm. Free admission.