Journey to Vietnam's Most Eccentric Temple
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because religion comes in every shade.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The pilgrimage to the Linh Phước Pagoda is pee-in-your-pants terrifying. The harrowing trek involves rumbling along rusted tracks on an old-timey train, careering toward steep mountain passes and being spit out into the sleepy hamlet of Trại Mát in southern Vietnam. But that’s not the strangest part. This sacred temple, venerated by all, is adorned with lager beer bottles.
Twelve thousand of them, to be exact. A placard proudly states that in 1952, the bottles were broken, polished and then painstakingly placed, one by one, on the temple by an ever-so-patient group of Mahayana Buddhist nuns and monks. (How’s that for devotion?) Today, the glass shards gleam under the sun, snaking along the spine and tail of a 164-foot-long dragon that winds through Linh Phước. Thích Tâm Vị, the senior monk who manages the quirky pagoda, sits serenely next to a statue of Buddha Sakyamuni gilded with golden powder. Affectionately dubbed Chùa Ve Cha — Pagoda of Broken Glass Bottle Pieces — this place of worship isn’t any “less holy” than others, he tells me. But before I can ask him who guzzled down all that beer, he walks away to tend to another shrine.
Every wall, ceiling and pillar is ornamented with bright-colored mosaics, a kaleidoscope of shattered porcelain and terra-cotta.
He’s right, though. I dare you not to feel #blessed while climbing the pagoda’s spiraling dragon stairwell and peering out across the vast highlands of Vietnam. Try meandering through the the pagoda’s seven stories. As the smells of pine trees and incense sticks waft around you, listen to the bells chiming and pay homage to the 66-foot-tall Goddess of Mercy statue woven from 700,000 golden flowers. Every wall, ceiling and pillar is ornamented with bright-colored mosaics, a kaleidoscope of shattered porcelain and terra-cotta. And don’t forget the garish haunted house underneath the pagoda, where you’ll descend into the “18 levels of hell” surrounded by lifelike wax figures of monks from years past.
Sound unorthodox? Well, religion in Vietnam can be tricky to pigeonhole. Here, magical mysticism exists alongside more mainstream religions like Christianity, which was brought by do-gooding Catholic missionaries in the 1500s. In the countryside, sects of Buddhism often mingle with folk faiths and fabled legends. In Vietnam’s jumbled spiritual landscape, “there’s a space to practice religion in a very eclectic way … because there’s not a larger structure that institutionalizes religion, that tells people this is the right or wrong way” to worship, says George Dutton, a professor of Vietnamese history at UCLA. “They are quite willing to mix and match.”
Before I leave, I stop by the main tower to write my prayers, along with the names of my family and other loved ones, on frayed strips of paper. I gently tuck the paper strips into the nooks and crannies of a 9-ton bell. As the tradition goes, the Buddha will answer those who strike the bell three times. To outsiders, the Linh Phước Pagoda may look like a seriously kitschy Disneyland — but I’m just hoping my wishes come true.
Go There: Linh Phuoc Pagoda
- In Vietnamese: Chùa Linh Phước
- Price: No entrance fee
- By Train: Đà Lạt is the closest major city. A one-way 30-minute train ride from the Đà Lạt Railway Station to Trại Mát costs 106,000 dong ($4.70). The train runs five times a day.
- By Taxi: A 15-to-20-minute taxi ride from Đà Lạt’s city center costs around 150,000 dong ($6.60).