A fierce dragon stands guard at Quan Am Pagoda, in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown. The district, home to Chinese traders and merchants for centuries, is peppered with temples serving the large Chinese community. Quan Am’s extravagant decorations also include elaborate wood carvings and ceramic roof ornamentation, depicting characters from traditional Chinese plays and stories. The pagoda was my last stop on a too-short morning visit to the bustling suburb.

Surrounded by incense

Quan Am Pagoda, one of Cholon’s most active, is named after the goddess of mercy. While I was at the pagoda, a few tourists, guidebook in hand, wandered the place in respectful silence.  Most people were devotees, though, and seemed oblivious to our presence as they planted fresh sticks in large pots packed with sand and incense already burning.
Incense burning at Quan Am Pagoda in Cholon

At Ong Bon Pagoda, dedicated to the guardian of happiness and wealth, the fragrance is heady and ever-present, slightly overpowering. Believers burn fake paper money in the pagoda’s courtyard furnace, in hopes of securing a good fortune. Incense coils spiral overhead, and cast artful shadows. A paper prayer card dangles in each one. 

Incense coils with prayer cards at Ong Bon pagoda in HO Chi Minh City
Shadows cast by incense coils in Cholon pagoda

A blessing for my journey

Veneration for Quan Cong and his sacred horse

Quan Cong, a talented and virtuous general in feudal China, is venerated as a symbol of courage, loyalty, piety, moderation, and righteousness. A life-size figure of his sacred horse stands near the entrance to Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda.  Before leaving on a journey, people make offerings, stroke the horse’s mane and ring a bell around its neck.

Yes, I did that, before setting off on the overnight train to Da Nang.


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