Hoi An’s Temples and Pagodas
When arriving in Hoi An, many are immediately taken by the charm of the city. This small beach town in Central Vietnam has a singular allure that simply cannot be duplicated by its neighbours. Whether it be the city’s ubiquity of lanterns, it’s near indiscernible – but surely Asian – architectural style, its overflow of tailors and artisans, or a combination of these details. There is certainly a soul that distinguishes Hoi An from other towns with similar qualities.
The soul of Hoi An can be understood when visiting Hoi An’s sacred sites. Fortunately, many of these temples and pagodas can easily be found preserved within Hoi An’s Ancient Town, nestled between local businesses. But in order to get the most out of these places of worship, it’s necessary to know a bit of the history that makes Hoi An the cultural melange that it is today.
In this article, Hidden examines the city’s cultural influences over the past half-century and highlights a few of our favourites among Hoi An’s sacred sites.
History of External Influences on Hoi An
The river city of Hoi An has not always belonged to the Vietnamese. Prior to being annexed by southern Nguyen Dynasty lords in the 15th century, Hoi An was a thriving spice trade town under the Champa empire. While only the ghost of Champa culture remains in the city proper, prime examples of the Champa’s Hindu-influenced architecture are found a stone’s throw away at My Son Sanctuary.
Over the following few centuries, Hoi An flourished as a port of trade. In efforts to maximize the economic potential of the city’s proximity to the Thu Bon River, Vietnamese officials extended invitations to foreign traders to settle in Hoi An, thus solidifying Hoi An as a key trading port in South East Asia for Chinese and Japanese traders until the 18th century. Although Hoi An was a port to ships from many different regions (China, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, India, Indonesia, Thailand, France, the United Kingdom and America), China and Japan have the most lasting influences due to the regularity of their visits and eventual settlements.
Chinese and Japanese ships would annually ride the winds of spring monsoons to Hoi An and stay until summer. Some would stay longer to handle offseason affairs, establish local businesses, or start new lives.
The 18th Century would see the sudden decline of Hoi An’s status as a commercial epicentre with the silting of the Thu Bon River and the advent of the Tay Son Rebellion. Following the destruction of foreign settlements resulting from the rebellion, the Chinese were able to rebuild. But the Japanese were unable to do so due to the Japanese policy of seclusion in 1637.
Tickets and Tips for Visiting Hoi An’s Temples and Pagodas
Many of Hoi An’s sacred sites are found within Hoi An’s Ancient Town and require a ticket that costs 120,000 VND (5 USD). Ticket kiosks are abundant but can be tricky to find, so we’ve provided a handy guide for how to purchase a Hoi An Ancient Town Ticket.
While a strict dress code is not enforced, many temples post signs requesting visitors wear modest clothing and remove shoes before entering worship halls. So long as your shoulders and knees are covered, you should be fine.
Hidden Hint: Many shrines offer incense for visitors to burn. When praying, it is customary to burn an odd number of incense: one or three is best. One represents unity, or three to represent the pursuit of equilibrium.
Which Temples and Pagodas to Visit?
With 20 Hoi An sacred sites in the Ancient Town alone, and only five entries per Ancient Town ticket, it’s difficult deciding which ones to visit. Fortunately, Hidden has canvassed the city and come up with a list of our favourites. The temples below can be visited in order by walking from east to west on Tran Phu Street, with an additional stop just north of the Ancient Town.
Hidden Hint: Hoi An’s Ancient Town’s hours are from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Motorcycles are not permitted during certain hours, so it’s best to navigate these sites on foot or with a bicycle.
Hai Nam Assembly Hall
Address: 10 Tran Phu – Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Hai Nam Assembly Hall was built in 1851 as a memorial to 108 merchants from Hainan, China who were slain upon being mistaken for pirates. The merchants have since been deified and proclaimed martyrs.
This place of worship contains a foyer, courtyard, main altar, and two side houses. Its Chinese architecture and decor are apparent with its double eaved Resting Hill roofs, strung red lanterns, and abundance of gold and red Chinese calligraphy. The modest garden courtyard flanked by the seating areas of the side houses makes the Hai Nam Assembly Hall an ideal location to take a break from the hubbub of the Ancient Town.
Quan Cong Temple
Address: 24 Tran Phu
The Quan Cong Temple is on the smaller side of Hoi An’s spiritual sites. Built by Chinese immigrants, the temple serves as a place for merchants to pay respects to Quan Cong, a revered general during the time of the Three Kingdoms. Quan Cong is renowned for being respectful, empathetic, courageous, and decisive. His battle strategies focused on holistic rather than hollow victories.
The courtyard leading to the main worshipping chamber houses a small fish pond and islet that drink in light from the open roof. Its walls are adorned with poetry illuminating virtues exemplified by Quan Cong: patriotism, moderation, and righteousness.
Prominently displayed in the courtyard is a large drum with the Yin Yang symbol of balance, surrounded by trigrams for Water, Mountain, Earth, Lake, Heaven, Thunder, Fire, and Wind – the eight symbols of Daoist Cosmology.
The temple’s interior is decorated with deep crimson pillars and banners displaying golden Chinese characters. Its main altar features a large wooden status Quan Cong and the steps. Though small in size, the temple is graced with traces of the mysterious and the divine with its dim lighting open roof.
Quan Am Pagoda
Address: 24 Tran Phu
Quan Am Pagoda is quietly tucked away behind the Quan Cong Temple. While it does not contain the perfectly preserved, grand altars of other Hoi An sacred sites, it does have its own unique charm. The main worship hall houses three modern altars with idols haloed under spiralling electronic lights. These modern altars are representative of those you might find in a standard family home or business.
The real draw of Quan Am Pagoda is its extensive gallery of paintings and wall scrolls. The gallery contains a wealth of watercolour paintings depicting scenes of nature, calligraphy, and philosophical teachings. Fresh art supplies suggest that artists are continuously adding to the gallery.
Phuc Kien Assembly Hall
Address: 46 Tran Phu – Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Also known as Fujian Assembly Hall, this traditional assembly hall is the largest and most grand of the sites accessible with the Ancient Town of Hoi An ticket. Its interior is painted a crisp white with vibrant accents of blue, yellow and red, as opposed to the predominantly red and gold colour palette of Hoi An’s other sacred sites. Sometime after its construction in 1960, the hall was converted into a temple dedicated to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea, who shelters sailors from the malevolence of open waters.
Upon entering the large, multi-sectioned courtyard of the temple, you encounter a brilliant mosaic fountain, showcasing a leaping fish carved in stone. This is one of many detailed animal statues strewn about the temple. Notable among these statues is a majestic flowing dragon set atop a shallow pool located in a secondary open-air worship chamber. The secondary worship chamber is located at the rear of the temple and dedicated to 12 midwives, the God of Wealth, and the benefactors of the hall.
Tran Family Chapel
Address: 21 Le Loi – Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily
The Tran Family Chapel offers a unique experience to travelers. Entering the garden at the front of the small estate, you are greeted and directed to the main worship chamber. There, a guide offers you sweets before beginning a short tour. Your guide offers some history on the Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese architectural influences of the building then lead you to a room of ancient artifacts, the back garden, and finally a souvenir shop.
The tour guide’s insistence on handling the coins, incense and other souvenirs can be a bit off-putting. But looking past the scripted suggestiveness, the shop offers a large variety of modestly priced authentic goods that are emblematic of Hoi An.
To this day, it is occupied by the 8th generation of the Tran family, Mandarin settlers who built the chapel in the early 19th century.
Phap Bao Temple
Address: Hai Ba Trung/Phan Chu Trinh
Phap Bao Temple, also known as Phac Hat Pagoda, is a Buddhist temple located at the crossing of Hai Ba Trung and Phan Chua Trinh Street, just one block away from the Tran Family Chapel. Phap Bao is an active Buddhist temple, so there is no need to present the residents with a ticket. But it is necessary to dress modestly and remove shoes when entering the main sanctuary.
Its main gate is emblazoned with fierce bronze guardians and within is a huge courtyard with a fountain, multiple statues and shrines, and potted plants aplenty. The exterior of its main worship hall is striking in appearance with its double Resting Hill roofs, ornate dragon and tortoise statues, and large lacquered panels depicting scenes from the life of Buddha.
The altars within the worship chamber are predominantly of a subdued golden palette with statuettes painted in vibrant primary colours. A refreshing departure from the deep reds and golds of the typical sacred sites within the Ancient Town.
The Phap Bao Temple is a garden oasis just outside of the Ancient Town. Although it is flanked by cafes and storefronts, the large open garden is spacious enough to feel a sense of zen and tranquillity.
Japanese Covered Bridge
Address: Tran Phu/Bach Dang – Hours: 24 hours (temple open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily)
The Japanese Covered Bridge is Hoi An’s most famous attraction. Originally constructed in the 16th century as a link between the Japanese and Chinese trading settlements in Hoi An. Today, it stands alone as the definitive piece of Japanese architecture in Hoi An because the majority of Japanese settlements were destroyed during the Tay Son Rebellion in the 18th century.
The bridge crosses over a stream flowing into the Thu Bon River on the western edge of Hoi An’s Ancient Town. The curved bridge resting atop stone pillars is the most iconic structure of Hoi An and is usually packed with tourists during the day time.
Hidden Hint: In order to truly enjoy the splendour of the bridge, we recommend you visit early in the morning from 7 – 8 a.m. During these early hours, there’s no need to jostle among other eager visitors, and you have time to admire the monkey and dog guardian statues without feeling hurried by others awaiting their turn.
Chuc Thanh Pagoda
Address: Ton Duc Thang
Chuc Thanh Pagoda is located just a few minutes north of Hoi An’s Ancient Town. The complex’s vast gardens and large, open worship halls boast a sense of serenity that is unrivalled by other Hoi An sacred sites. There is no ticket or entry fee required; just drive through its large open gate. Within is a sign requesting visitors turn off their bikes and walk them to a designated parking area.
The huge sprawling gardens on the site are host to several statues and altars. On either side of the gardens are burial grounds with extravagant tombs of monks long passed. At any given time, monks are found quietly tending to the grounds.
The main worship chamber is housed in the middle of the complex. Within are two mighty drums, a plethora of carved wooden statues both large and small, and a grand statue of Buddha featured front and centre. The large wooden pillars and the deep brown tones result in a down-to-earth and modest spiritual resonance.
While these are a few of our favourites, Hidden encourages you to explore Hoi An’s sacred sites with a loose itinerary. The temples and pagodas of Hoi An are places of worship and tranquillity. As such they’re best experienced at a leisurely pace, so you can take your time to relax, light some incense, and breath in the beauty and history of the space.
However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t recommend setting time aside to visit Chuc Thanh Pagoda. Its charms and authenticity can easily be missed if one elects only to stay within the Ancient Town.