During our talks about Vietnamese culture, we often mention temples and pagodas. So our travelers often ask us aren’t they just the same thing? No, they are not. As a matter of fact, they are two totally different worshiping places for different religions and beliefs. So, what really are temples and pagodas and how to tell the differences? For Vietnamese it is quite easy, but for travelers it is hard to tell at first glance (that’s why you need to have a guide or read a lot).
In most countries rather than Vietnam, you normally call worshiping places temples, no matter who is being worshiped inside. But in Vietnam, where people tend to follow different religions and worship all saints, gods and Buddha – just in case, temples and pagodas are two different places. Though both of them may look the same from the outside for visitors, they have different purposes and worshiping different gods.
The One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi
What is the Different between Temples and Pagodas in Vietnam?
In Vietnam, Buddhist temple is called a pagoda (or “Chùa” in Vietnamese), which was built to worship Buddha. It’s where Buddhists come to pray at Buddha statues, learn Buddha teachings, or meet Buddhist monks. In some regions in northern Vietnam, the worshiping of Mother Goddesses is also practiced within a pagoda complex.
There are both Theravada Buddhist (the Small Vehicle) and Mahayana Buddhist (the Great Vehicle) pagodas in Vietnam. Because of the former Chinese dominations, Buddhists in northern Vietnam are following the Chinese Pure Land tradition of the Mahayana school, which centered around the compassionate Amida Buddha. While Buddhists in southern Vietnam are following the Theravada School, like those practiced in Laos and Cambodia.
In pagodas, you may see that there are more local women kneeing down and praying at Buddha statues than men. Which is explained that Vietnamese women are more willing to endure and sacrifice to protect their families and communities than men, therefore the women tend to spend more time chanting in pagodas to guarantee a family or community safety. On contrary, more men are seen at temples due to an old tradition which allows only men to come in a temple (or communal house).
Burning incense in front of a pagoda
Temples are called “Đền” in Vietnamese. It’s a place, which could be on a grand scale and very ornate or may be simple rooms, to worship a real person in the country’s history. The person is a Vietnamese national hero like a king, a queen, a general, a successful Confucian scholar, or a national liberator (Ho Chi Minh). There are also temples built to honor ordinary Vietnamese people, who saved the people from foreign invaders (Chinese) or a natural disaster (typhoon, floods).
Inside a temple, instead of Buddha statues, you’ll see one (or more) statue of the person being worshiped. To help educate the younger generations about the tradition, there are also documents about whom being worshiped. Documents can be books, hand writings or wood carvings, stone steles… displayed somewhere in the temple.
Beside pagoda (Chua) and temple (Den), there is another worshipping place called “Đình”, or a communal house in English, which shouldn’t be confused with a temple. In communal houses, Vietnamese are worshipping their villages’ protectors, tutelary spirits, saints of the mountains or rivers where their villages are located at or nearby. In some regions, communal houses are also used as a public place to discuss the local village issues, where most respectful men make the last decisions.
Temple of Literature, Hanoi
In general, pagoda (Chua), temple (Den) and communal house (Dinh) in Vietnam are three different worshiping places influenced by the three teachings; Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. People go to temples and communal houses to show their respect and honor to national heroes or saints being worshiped inside, while going to pagodas and pray at Buddha as a sign of thankfulness for Buddha's teaching.
How to Show Respect at a Temple, Pagoda and Communal House?
You can visit a local worshiping place to enjoy the tranquil atmosphere, the beautiful scenery or experience a local religious practice. You can come with incense, flower and teas. You can offer meat, alcohol drinks and other types of offerings in temples and communal houses. But you should never offer meat and alcohol drinks in pagodas, which is strictly forbidden in Buddhism.
To show respect to the local culture, no matter where you visit a pagoda (Chua), temple (Den), or communal house (Dinh), please:
- Remove your shoes when required, most pagodas and temples ask visitors to walk bare feet inside the worship house.
- Walk into the temples and pagodas by the gate on the right hand, and walk out by the gate on the left. The gate in the middle, which is larger, is only for important ones like abbot, head of pagoda or temple.
- Never point at the statues on the altars with your fingers.
- Respect the locals who are praying by staying silent, and don’t move around too much disturbing their praying. Don’t block the view between the prayers and the altars or statues.
- In some circumstances, it is not nice to take photo of the statues and people who are praying. Check with your guides to see if it is ok to take photo.
- Dress modestly. Never wear too short that show your knees and shoulders. Your chest should also be well covered.
- Don’t make physically contact to monks, like offer him a handshake.
- Don’t touch anything, especially the statues.
- Show respect to the local practices. Just be a visitor since it is not your religion.
- Put your two hands together in a shape of a lotus flower when praying or talking to a monk.
Being tourist guides, we love sharing our personal understandings about the local traditions and beliefs, as well as religious practices. We hope this article helps you understand the different between temples and pagodas in Vietnam, and also show you the local belief practices to prepare you for your next visits.
Pham Tuyen & Buffalo Joe