Monday, April 5, 2010

Kwan Yin Temple, Cholon

We all pretend not to read the Lonely Planet guide, but of course we all do.
And I'm not ashamed to say that the venerable LP has actually led me to some interesting places which have become very important to me on my life's journey. It has also led me to some shonky dives populated by whining Euro-backpackers complaining about the price of everything.
In the former category is the gorgeous Kwan Yin Temple in Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown. I would never have known about it without LP, and it has subsequently emerged as a significant spiritual site for me, and is one of the places I discuss in Destination Saigon.
I first visited the wonderfully crowded and busy little temple back in 1994, which is when I first fell in love with it. However, it wasn't till I was living in Ho Chi Minh City in 1999 that I became truly fascinated by the place. Then I started to visit it weekly, and the people who lived and worked there became my friends. I have watched both them and the temple grow and change over the years, and it is a fascinating microcosmic study in the enormous social, econominc and cultural changes that Vietnam has experienced in the last 16 years. I do, one day, plan to write a book about it.
The temple used to be extremely run-down and grotty. Situated rather romantically in an alleyway in Chinatown called "Lao Tzu Street," Chua Ba Quan Am (as it's known to locals) was an old, small and reasonably insignificant temple serving the Teo Chiew families living in that part of the City. But two things happened to it. Firstly the good authors of the Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook discovered the place and fell in love with it. This meant that local tourist authorities started to be interested in it and contribute to its restoration and upkeep. Then the Teo Chiew refugees living all over the world began to come back home, and they started to pump money into this little temple which they realised was possessed of great old-world charm.
These days it's full of tourist faces. And the whole place has been cleaned up quite radically. I used to sit in there for hours watching the shamanesses and fortune tellers at work while subtle beggars worked the crowd, though their presence inside was strictly forbidden even then. All that is gone now, and the staff are always elegantly got-out in uniforms and matching t-shirts. A far cry from the days when shirtless old men, half asleep in the heat, would wordlessly shuffle about attending to their chores, a cigarette hanging from their lips.
That said, it is still one of the most fascinating and colourful places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City, and should be on everyone's tourist agenda.


Kwan Yin Temple, Cholon (Chua Ba Quan Am)
12 Lao Tu St
District 5
Ho Chi Minh City

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