Finding hidden gems in Vietnam

Now I’m the last person to tell you to rush out and burn your Lonely Planet guidebook, but there’s a realisation I finally came to recently that I just have to share…

When it comes to a country so rich in culture and diverse in attractions as Vietnam, there’s more that’s not in the guidebooks than is in them. Sure they list all of the textbook attractions in main cities, and a handful of key restaurants and hotels, but it’s simply impossible to include EVERYTHING in a guidebook, especially when there’s things that even locals living twenty kilometres away don’t know about.

One example of this is the Ten Thousand Buddha Pagoda, which I discovered one day looking out my apartment window. Tucked away down a tiny alley and hidden by the buildings that tower around it, there’s no way I’d have known of it’s existence from the ground. After I visited (you can see pics in the post Ten Thousand Buddhas and a Smoking Monk), I looked for a description in the Lonely Planet. To my surprise, it wasn’t there. I figured it must not be as impressive as the pagodas and temples listed in on the guidebook’s pages, so I went to check out some of them.

One that was talked up quite a bit in the book was the Jade Emperor Pagoda, so it was the first one I hit.

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I’m not saying it was not an interesting temple.

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The main chamber had many interesting plaster figures, but I was probably a little unimpressed because they were behind an altar and small fence that made it difficult to get close enough to appreciate the intricacies of their creators’ craftsmanship.

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The small chamber to the left of the main one had some more Taoist-looking guardians (you can read all about them in the Lonely Planet, so I won’t go into detail about who’s who here).

I was somewhat surprised by some of the figures in this room, who looked more like Jesuit priests than anything you’d expect to find in a Taoist/Buddhist temple (it seems they often can’t make up their mind which religion they want to follow in East Asia – always a molten mass of two or three different religions melded together in one place). Anyway, back to these Western-looking guys – they looked to me like Catholic priests of African descent, but maybe that’s just me…

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In an even smaller chamber connected to that one was a shrine with twelve women – each represents one aspect of human nature – who are being clambered on by countless small children. I admit this is also quite interesting.

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My favourite’s the alcoholic one:

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There is no doubt this temple is important to locals, as there was a steady stream of worshippers flowing through from room to room, figure to figure, burning incense and praying.

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There was no disputing it was worth a visit, and certainly full of interesting little oddities, but for some reason, I was more impressed by the Ten Thousand Buddha temple. The expansive and quiet space held just as much interest to me as the tiny Jade Emperor complex, and its uncluttered expansive rooms made me feel it was more the kind of place any self-respecting deity would want to spend time in. It just felt more “holy” (don’t worry, I’m not gonna shave my head and become a buddhist monk anytime soon – I like women and a good hamburger too much). In the battle of Lonely Planet listed vs non-listed, the unlisted had won in my mind.

So I decided one morning to leave the Lonely Planet behind and jumped on my scooter to just ride where the road led me and see what I could see. I was not disappointed.

I exited the city via river ferry and rode into some unknown province somewhere to the south of Saigon (I will be revisiting that ferry for some people photography in the near future). I later found out that I was in the western reaches of Dong Nai province. The clutter of shoebox buildings gave way to rice fields and small clusters of farmland and peasant huts. I kept riding…

Suddenly to my left something caught my eye.

In what seemed to be the middle of nowhere on the side of a small hill sat a temple with a reclining Buddha and a small pagoda beside it. It was not exactly a sprawling complex, but there was plenty of interest. Although the gate was open, welcoming any who desired to enter, the place seemed to be deserted. I guess I wasn’t gonna find out anything about the place by asking the many Buddhas that were sitting around meditating, so I Googled the name of the temple on arriving home. Still nothing. So I can’t tell you nothing about the place, I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.

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Here’s the reclining buddha that lay just to the left of the temple.

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Behind the Buddha and relief of bodhi trees and his host of admirers was another group of figures. Allow me to introduce you to (in the below image from left to right) Mahanama, Vadda, Buddha, Kondanna, Baddhiya and Assayi.

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It seems Buddha is quite partial to a shot or two of rice wine – I was quite surprised.

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Just behind them stood a small pagoda.

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The temple itself was not an impressive building by any stretch of the word, but there was one detail I found quite interesting…

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I noticed writing that at first glance appeared to be Chinese characters. On closer inspection, however, I noticed it was not Chinese at all, but stylised Vietnamese letters. They had been produced in such a way that they looked very similar to Chinese characters.

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In the picture above, the first “character” is the word Bửu, if you look closely, you’ll be able to see the letters and even the diacritic tone marks. Some are easier to make out than others. As I don’t really know enough Vietnamese to use context to figure it out, I can’t see them all. I do know that the third one must be “chư”.

I took one last shot of the sign at the front, hoping it would help me with my Googling back home, but even given the address I saw on another sign, there was no sign whatsoever of this small complex’s existence online (even in Vietnamese).

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Turns out that’s a generic name for many buddhist pagodas.

I rode back toward the city, and spotted a quaint little Catholic church on a hilltop. I went up and enjoyed the views of the surrounding province and the small church itself.

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As I headed home I felt far more satisfied than on any day I’d set out with a list of sights to see from the guidebooks. I am constantly amazed at the wealth of small but interesting nooks that are loaded with their own unique charm at every turn in this country! If you’re ever planning to visit Vietnam, I recommend scheduling a couple of days to ditch the guidebooks and predetermined checklists of places to see and things to do, and just hire a scooter and ride around. You never know what unique places and experiences await.

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