Considering the fact that Karl Marx, the founder of 20th century communist ideology, was mistrustful of religion and called it “the opiate of the masses”, it is perhaps surprising that Saigon is peppered with religious sites. Then again, perhaps the presence of pagodas and temples, mosques and churches on the city’s streets is merely a reflection of a deep need of its inhabitants for religious expression, whatever the government might say.
Though Buddhists far outnumber adherents of other religions, the city’s best-known religious site is without doubt Notre Dame Cathedral, located at the northern end of Dong Khoi and just a few steps from the Reunification Palace.
This huge, red brick building with its pair of slender spires once towered over nearby houses, though it has now been surpassed in height by the glass façade of Diamond Plaza, a shopping mall on nearby Le Duan. Crowds flock to the small garden in front of the cathedral to snap this iconic image, and it’s particularly impressive just before and after Sunday services as Catholics arrive and leave dressed in their best attire.
Saigon’s most-visited Buddhist place of worship is the ancient Jade Emperor Pagoda, tucked away in a backstreet in the northeast corner of the city. Constant streams of devotees arrive to pay respect here, some women come to beg a statue of Kim Hua in a small hall to the left to be blessed with a child. In the next room are some graphically carved wood panels depicting the Ten Regions of Hell.
Nearer the city centre, Xa Loi Pagoda is a more recent (1950s) structure and is of little architectural merit, though it shot to fame during the American War when one of its monks, Thich Quang Duc, doused himself in petrol and burned to death in front of TV cameras to protest the suppression of Buddhism under President Diem, who was a Catholic.
To see Saigon’s oldest an most atmospheric pagodas, you’ll need to head a few kilometres west of the centre to Cho Lon, where the Quan Am Pagoda and Thien Hau Pagoda both impress with their brightly-painted sculptures and huge incense spirals. At the Thien Hau Pagoda, notice the lines of finely-detailed figurines that decorate the roof.
If you’d like to see what is considered the city’s oldest temple, you’ll need to head another three kilometres or so north of Cho Lon to the Giac Lam Pagoda. Built around 1770, the building has been well-maintained and is very atmospheric, particularly the main sanctuary, where the altar is smothered with Buddhist and Taoist statues.
Near the centre of the city, on Truong Dinh, stands the colourful Sri Mariamman Hindu temple, which is well worth a visit to view the sculptures of various Hindu gods and to breathe the scent of incense and jasmine. Also centrally-located is the Jamia Mosque, where the curved arches and delicate minarets stand in stark contrast to the monolithic Sheraton Hotel next door.