2016-11-18
Vietnam, at first glance, is not a particularly religious country. Anyone who's seen ochre-clad monks begging for their morning rice on the back roads of neighboring Thailand or Cambodia will note their absence in Vietnam, and outside of festival months (or the weeks before university entrance exams), Vietnamese pagodas are rarely well-attended.

But spirituality is woven into Vietnamese daily life in ways that pique a visitor's senses. In every market, women hunt for the perfect rosebuds for family altars, or buy tissue-paper "ghost money," burned to provide ancestors a little pocket money in the afterlife. On the densest city blocks, banyan trees are transformed into impromptu temples, where passersby can offer up a choice papaya or plantain to a favorite incarnation of the Buddha.

Most Vietnamese today practice a fluid and inclusive blend of the Confucianism and Buddhism, and nearly a million more throw in a bit of Catholicism. (Those who look extra hard can even find pockets of Hinduism, Islam and Taoism.)

After South Vietnam's collapse in 1975, the Communist government loudly insisted it would protect freedom of religion, a claim some jailed Buddhist dissidents and blacklisted Mormon missionaries may find dubious. But it's true that little prevents most Vietnamese these days from practicing as they please. For those who want to check out this rich spiritual stew, here's seven spots easily accessible from three of Vietnam's largest cities.

Perfume Pagoda A trek to the country's holiest Buddhist temple offers a beautiful day trip outside Hanoi. Most of the year, small groups of visitors reach the pagoda's mountainous site by boat, rowed down the lovely Perfume River by incredibly strong elderly women. The two-hour hike to the uppermost pagoda, up a moderately steep slope through verdant forests, offers a great meditation opportunity. On the way up, catch your breath at the various smaller temples carved out of caves and perched on cliffs.

During the second lunar month of the year (in 2002, it begins about March 15), be prepared for a different scene. Those four weeks are festival time, when approximately 800,000 pilgrims turn the mountain's rocky path into a noisy pedestrian highway of tea stalls, trinket vendors and even beer halls. Still, it's hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm of your 20,000 new friends as you inch up the hill to burn incense and accrue good luck for the year to come.

Getting there: Any Hanoi hotel can book you on a minibus that departs daily for $13 that includes lunch, boat ride, and admission fees. Families may prefer to ask for a car and driver, which should cost around $35 (admission of $7 per person not included).

St. Joseph's Cathedral This 1886 legacy of French colonialism is tucked in the heart of Hanoi's warren of tiny, tree-lined streets known as the Old Quarter.

Most of the week, to take a peek inside the church, you rap on the door and hope one of the elderly priests is inside. But come Sunday night, the place is transformed. Weekly mass, in Vietnamese, is intoned over a outdoor loudspeaker to accommodate hundreds of worshippers spilling out onto the street. The government only recently began allowing regular public mass, and policemen mill around St. Joseph's, casing the crowd and mulling whether that was such a good idea.

Getting there: St. Joseph's is located at Nha Tho and Ly Quoc Su Streets in downtown Hanoi. Admission is free.

Tan Ky House A walk down any of the narrow lanes in the tiny town of Hoi An, once a key seaport for Chinese traders, yields interesting finds. Look for the exquisitely restored Tan Ky House on Nguyen Du Street. A private residence open to visitors during the day, this timber house is a lovely example of the 17th century trading houses. It also contains an impressive ancestral altar, an outsized version of those found in virtually every Vietnamese home. After contemplating the fruit, flowers and incense offered up to the memory of businessmen who once flourished here, you can chat with a member of the family's most recent generation.

Getting there: Tan Ky House is at 101 Nguyen Du Street in Hoi An, an hour's flight from either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City Admission varies, but shouldn't exceed $2.

My Son These towering, red earth ruins, a long day trip from Danang, are the only vestiges of the Champa kingdom that dominated central Vietnam from the 2nd to 15th centuries. Between bouts of warfare, the Cham constructed majestic temples as a thank you to the Hindu gods who allowed trade with India to flourish. Picture a scaled down version of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, then account for a decade of heavy ordinance and defoliation during what the Vietnamese call the American War.

While only the shadow of My Son's grandeur remains--many relics have been hauled off to the Cham Museum in Danang (also worth a visit)--the area still ranks with Angkor, Myanmar's Bagan and Indonesia's Borobudur as one of the great temple sites of Southeast Asia.

Getting there: Hotels in nearby Hoi An and Danang can book you a seat on an early minibus for $6, which includes $4 admission. The more adventurous negotiate with a motorbike taxi driver, who will wait as you poke through the ruins, so long as you pay the roughly $4 price at the end of the day. Be warned, however, that the 55km road is both bumpy and dusty.

Lam Ty Ni Pagoda One of the best afternoons I've spent in Vietnam consisted of drinking tea for hours with the richest man in Dalat, a hill station in the highlands of central Vietnam. The only monk in residence at a sprawling Buddhist temple, Mr. Vinh Thuc is one of the marvels of modern Vietnam. Fluent in English, French and Thai, the monk is also an artist whose monastery is his canvas writ large. He paints pastoral scenes and pen-and-ink abstracts on scrolls, then adds a poem he thinks is appropriate for his new friend: you.

All this sounds a bit transactional, but the experience is as remarkable as Mr. Thuc's lovely haiku. After a long discussion of his life, he bent over my painting of a white crane before daubing his final thought: "Zen poetry banishes millennial sorrow!" And it's true. You leave lighter in wallet, but also in spirit.

Getting there: You can walk down Dalat's Hoang Van Thu Street past the Duy Tan Hotel, take the next right, and follow the road to Lam Ty, but the roads are poorly marked. Hiring a $1 taxi from central Dalat is much easier; admission to the pagoda is free.

Xa Loi Pagoda Located on a traffic-clogged HoChi Minh City street, this bustling temple, built in 1956, is no architectural marvel. But in the 1960s it was the stage for increasingly bloody Buddhist uprisings against theAmerican-backed South Vietnamese president Ngo DinhDiem. Diem sent the army into the pagoda, a show of force later cited as a motivating factor in the leader's assassination that year. The temple alsogained fame as the site of self-immolations that helped mobilize international condemnation of the war.

Getting there: Xa Loi is located at 89 Ba HuyenThanh Quan Street in downtownHo Chi Minh City. Admission is free, though donationsto the box in front of thealtar are appreciated.

Cao Dai Holy See An eclectic blend of Buddhist,Taoist and Confucian thought, the Cao Dai sect was founded by the Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu in1926. The temple complex, located in Tay Ninh Province, a few hours drive fromHo Chi Minh City, is a surreal confection of borrowed imagery: statues of "saints" such as Victor Hugo, Moses, and Sun Yat Sen are all painted in lurid pastels. One of the most striking symbols is a giant "divine eye" within a pyramid, familiar to any Freemason or owner of a U.S. dollar bill. Visitors arewelcome to watch any of the four daily masses, including rhythmic chanting and elaborate rituals conducted by priests of both sexes.

Getting there: It's impossible to beat the price of the $7 half-day trips to the noon mass at the Holy See, organized by theb ackpacker cafes which dot Pham Ngu Lao Street in HCM City. But if you'd prefer to explore without hordes of tourists, charter a car at your hotel (cost: $25)and try the morecontemplative 6 p.m. service.

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