Location: District 5
Giac Lam Pagoda, originally built in 1744 and remodeled in the early 1900s, is the oldest pagoda in Saigon. The garden in the front features the ornate tombs of venerated monks, as well as a rare bodhi tree. Next to the tree is a regular feature of Vietnamese Buddhist temples, a gleaming white statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat (Avalokitesvara, the goddess of mercy) standing on a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity. In the temple, there are just two simples rules: no hats and no smoking (though most do); wearing shoes is permitted. Inside the temple is a spooky funerary chamber, with photos of monks gone by, and a central chamber chock-full of statues. Notice the aged dark carved wood of the double-height hall. Walls are lined with funerary portraits, from large red-and-yellow plaques to small wallet-size photos, and there is some very elaborate statuary about and an altar with gilded figures. There are three altars at the back: The central is Ho Chi Minh, who is flanked by photos of the recently deceased. The monks are busy but quite friendly (when they're not chatting on their cellphones).
For a small fee, monks don yellow prayer robes over their daily temple attire and perform beautiful chanting services, accompanied by bells, for visiting supplicants, mostly to loved ones. One well-known monk ministers to the sick and suffering (and tells fortunes) in a side room. Take a look at the outside courtyard with its many tombs of long-deceased monks and stewards of the temple, and don't miss the large outbuilding just to the right of the entrance -- inside are aisles of shelves with colorful urns of ashes, Chinese pots with red lights, candles, and offerings. There are lots of older gentlemen milling about, playing checkers and chewing the fat, and a big Buddha statue rests near the entry road, as well as a nearby pagoda -- quite new -- dedicated to the Buddha of Compassion. You can climb the temple for a good view of town, but the real attraction is the original wooden structure.