A spiritual retreat in the heart of Hanoi

The millennial city of Hanoi has several centuries old pagodas that offer peace of mind even when they are crowded.

Make a start with five well-known ones before exploring others that are to be found all over the city, on major streets and in alleys. Visiting such pagodas is an opportunity to reflect on the deeper meanings of existence, the stories of the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas and other deities that people worship for different reasons.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda sits on a peninsula on the east side of the West Lake in Hanoi. Photo by Shutterstock/tronghoang

The Tran Quoc Pagoda has been standing on a peninsula on the east side of the West Lake for more than 500 years. 

For Buddhists, this is one of the most sacred places in Vietnam, because it is believed to carry a cutting of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment.

The pagoda also has several priceless worshiping statues in the front yard. Hundreds of years old, the statues were engraved and polished meticulously by skillful craftsmen.

The pagoda has won praise and recommendations from many prestigious travel magazines around the world.

In 2016, U.S. news site Thrillist called it one of 11 "stunningly gorgeous" pagodas around the world; and a year later, U.K. travel magazine Wanderlust chose it as one of the world’s "10 incredibly beautiful pagodas".

One Pillar Pagoda

One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi. Photo by Shutterstock/minhtrong

Another spiritual monument that is nearly 1,000 years old in the capital city is the One Pillar Pagoda, an architectural and cultural icon. 

Originally built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong who ruled the country from 1028 to 1054, the story is that the heirless emperor dreamed that he met the Goddess of Mercy sitting on a lotus, who handed him a male child.

Ly Thai Tong then married a young peasant girl and gave birth to a son, finding a heir to his throne. He expressed his gratitude to the Goddess of Mercy by constructing the pagoda here in 1049.

Originally built with wood on a single stone pillar, the pagoda was designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the symbol of purity, rising out of a sea of sorrow.

Sorrowfully, it is said that the defeated French army destroyed the pagoda in an act of wanton destruction as they left the capital city and that it was rebuilt by the new government in a triumphant act of renewal.

Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature is the country's first university. Photo by Shutterstock/hoanghuy

Perhaps the most enduring monument to Confucianism and education in Vietnam is Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam or the Temple of Literature.

It was built in 1070 during the reign of Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in honor of Confucius, whose deep influence on Vietnamese society holds to this day.  

In 1076, it became Vietnam’s first university, but admission was confined to members of noble families. Later it opened up and started admitting talented students regardless of their social background.

For many years now, the Temple of Literature has also become a place of faith for hundreds of thousands of students and parents who believe touching the stone stele marking the names of scholars who passed the mandarin exams long, long ago will bring them luck in major exams. 

Conservationists have warned against so many people touching the ancient statues, but the practice continues unabated, given the high regard in which university education is held in Vietnam.

The Temple of Literature has pride of place in Vietnamese history and culture, and is featured on the VND100,000 currency note. It is also a typical example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture, made almost entirely of wood and tiles. It is no surprise that it attracts visitors in the millions each year.

Ngoc Son Temple

Tourists seen in front of Ngoc Son Temple in Hanoi.

The Ngoc Son Temple is one of the most visited places in Hanoi, given its location on an island on the Hoan Kiem (Sword) Lake, a place where locals and tourists converge on all days and nights of the year.

The lake is a big cultural and spiritual symbol for the Vietnamese people, and the temple on its island has as its deity one of the most famous heroes in the country’s history – Tran Hung Dao, a general who led armies to repel three major Mongol invasions in the 13th century.

The red bridge that connects the temple to the banks of the lake is a good example of classical Vietnamese style.

The bridge that connects the temple to the banks of the Sword Lake. Photo by Shutterstock/Vinh Minh

Ha Pagoda

Ha Pagoda is famous for Vietnamese singles to pray for love. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Many locals believe that this pagoda, in Cau Giay District’s Dich Vong Commune, has the unique distinction of having matchmaking powers. It is not clear if this belief existed a thousand years ago, when it was founded.

It attracts Vietnamese singles seeking life partners and in the way that new and old traditions sometimes merge, people have begun flocking to the Ha Pagoda on Valentine’s Day (February 14).

Even if you are not looking for the love of your life, this pagoda, like others, is a getaway from the regular hustle and bustle of the capital city.

Story by Nguyen Quy

By Nguyen Quy