Thien Mu Pagoda, also called the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, is a must for all those who visit the imperial city of Hue.
For reasons best known to us, we chose to walk the distance from town. While I would ordinarily walk around 7 kms without too much of a hassle, so long as it’s an easy walk, this proved to be a bit tedious for other reasons. It was drizzling and chilly, like it had been all that week, both in Hanoi, and now in Hue. Except for the Huong river, or the Perfume river as it is famously known as, there really isn’t much to keep you entertained while walking, making it that much more tedious.
However, once you reach, then all the tiredness seems to disappear, making all that walk totally worth it. I only wish we had started earlier. It was well past 4pm by the time we got there, and it already felt dark.
A bit of history
Thien Mu Pagoda lies within a walled complex. It sits along the banks of the Perfume river.
The pagoda was built in 1601 under the orders of Nguyen Hoang. The Nguyens, while owing allegiance to the Le Dynasty who ruled in the north, nevertheless were independent rulers of Central Vietnam.
The story as per the royal annals goes that on one of his tours in the area, he was told of a local legend of the celestial lady, or Thien Mu. She was an old woman dressed in red and blue who foretold of a lord who, if he erected a pagoda on the hill, would become a great ruler. Immediately after making her prophecy, she disappeared. Huong immediately went about with the construction of the temple.
While the original temple was simply constructed in that year, it was over many years that it finally came to be what it resembles today. Emperor Thieu Tri is said to have asked for the erection of the Tu Nhan Tower in 1844. Today, it is known as the Phuoc Duyen tower.
Immediately after you have walked up the stairs at the entrance, the first thing you spot is the Phuoc Duyen tower, with its seven towers. While the number seven had a lot of significance for many religions around the world, for Buddhist, I understand it is the number of steps that the Lord Buddha took at his birth. This pagoda is also one of the most recognisable landmarks and is an unofficial symbol of the city of Hue.
Walk further inside, and in the center is the Dai Hung grand temple. It is the temple in the complex and has many visitors including tourists and locals paying their obeisance. If you plan to pray at the complex, please make sure to remove your shoes. That was one thing that irritated me about some of the tourists around. Even with a sign that clearly asks them to remove their shoes, they would still walk as far in as possible for that camera shot. Any case, I digress.
Behind this main temple is a garden with several bonsai plants, making for an interesting landscape. However, what caught my eye was a blue coloured Austin classic car parked in a garage on the side. For those with any interest in Vietnam’s turbulent history or have seen photographs and videos of Vietnam leading up to the eventual fall of Saigon, it’s the same car that a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, was driven in. He set off for Saigon to protest the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. in his own unique style. In the process, he became the first of many Buddhist monks to self-immolate themselves. Thanks to the many documentaries and magazines from a long time ago, there are certain images of Vietnam that are etched in my mind. After recently having watched the Netflix docu-series on the war, this car brought it all right back again.
Right at the end of the complex is the temple of relatives, built to honour Guan Gong, a Chinese general. Legend has it that upon passing away, Gong became a god who understood the world for its good and bad. While pagodas are normally temples for Buddha, they also say that there is place for Gong.
Information you can use
The complex is open from 8am to 5pm and entrance is free. On the way back, if the walk isn’t appealing anymore, then I suggest you hop into a metered cab, normally parked on the side of the road. It’s barely a 10-minute ride to the city center from here.