Saigon is full of them. Dark, murky, incense filled temples. Spend too long inside and your eyes will water and your throat will itch. They can be busy, crammed with people offering up their prayers and letting the incense carry their wishes to the Gods. Others are much more peaceful, the soft candlelight flickering against garishly painted figurines with wild eyes and red mouths.
My favourite temples were dedicated to the Sea Goddess Mazu. Her story is incredible and so empowering of young women. The tale goes that she was a young girl who lived on the coast of China with her family. By the age of 8 she had read Confucius, and by 11 she had mastered the Buddhist sutras. A Taoist master came to visit her and recognised her power. By the age of 13 she had mastered his teachings and developed the ability to visit places in spirit, as well as see into the future. One night, when she was 16, her father and brother were out at sea. She had a vision of a terrible storm before falling into a trance and sending her soul out to the ocean to save them. This is her most famous legend, but her Shamanistic powers extended beyond the ocean. She healed the sick, exorcised demons and was a rainmaker during times of drought. She was just downright badass.
There are lots of temples dedicated to her throughout Saigon, where merchants and settlers had arrived over the sea from the Fujian region of China. They would have undoubtedly worshipped her to help ensure their safe passage.
Unlike the archeological temples at Angkor Wat and Cambodia, the temples in Saigon are unassuming. They appear down the middle of a busy road or hidden away around an apartment block. Without exception, they are used regularly by locals. Enter the temples at any time of day and you will witness the spiritual life of a culture that goes back centuries. Apart from the clothes people are wearing, not much will have changed. There is little, if any, electrical light. Incense sticks burn from big pots and burning coils hang from the ceiling. The shrines are usually impressive, sometimes protected behind glass casing and stretching back for several feet. I never expected Vietnam to hold such a deeply spiritual core in one of it’s busiest cities. It’s one I loved discovering and think anyone else would too.