During my talk about Vietnamese culture I often mention about temples and pagodas. Sometimes people ask me aren’t they just the same thing? No they are not. As a matter of fact they are two totally different places. 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, China, Japan and Korean, you normally call these buildings temples. And temples are places of worshiping. No matter who is being worshiped inside. But in Vietnam they separate temples (Đền) and Pagoda (Chùa).Both of them may look exactly the same from the outside for foreigners but it is the things inside that differ them.


One Pillar Pagoda- symbol of Buddhism in Vietnam


So what is different between temples and pagodas in Vietnam?


A temple is a place to worship a real person, like a king, a queen, a national hero or some saints who are believed to help local people with some difficulty jobs.  Inside the building you would see one (or more) statue of the person being worshiped. There will be documents displayed about that person being worshiped in that temple. Document can be books, hand writing, stone steles… A temple is called a “đền” and it has nothing to do with religion. In some provinces a temple is also used as a communal house where men in the village gather to discuss business of the village. In this case the temple (đền) is also considered as a “đình”- a communal place for the whole village. That is when women are not allowed to enter a “đền” or “đình”. It is a men-only place! Don’t get angry that fast my beloved lady travelers! That happened in the past already. Now in Vietnam women are allowed as much as the men.


Vietnam flags inside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi


A pagoda is called a “chùa”. And pagoda is the place purely for Buddhism. That is where Buddhists go to pray and worship Buddha. In a “chùa” you will see a lot of Buddha statues. Pagoda is also the place for monks to live and give Buddhism lessons to their followers.  In a pagoda (chùa) beside statues of Buddhas you often see statues of 2 giants (Buddhism protectors), Đức ông (a wealthy man who donated a lot of money and work to Buddhism), Nam Tào and Bắc Đẩu (the 2 gods that decide who will be born and who will end their lives). You will not see many men in pagodas as Buddhism followers are mostly women. You will also see a lot of people kneeing down and pray to their Buddha.  Which doesn’t happen in a temple.


Burning incense in a pagoda


People go to temples to show their respect to people being worshiped inside. Meanwhile people go to pagodas to pray to Buddha.


Men go to temples and women go to pagodas. But it doesn’t have to be exactly a rule.


Temples are for everyone in the village but pagodas are for Buddhist only.


You can offer meat, alcohol drinks and other types of offerings in temples. But it is strictly forbidden to offer meat and alcohol drinks in pagodas.


No matter where you visit đền or chùa, temples and pagodas, respect the culture:


  • Remove your shoes when required. Most of pagodas and temples will ask visitors to walk bare feet inside the buildings.
  • Walk into the temples and pagodas by the gate on the right hand. Walk out by the gate on the left. The gate in the middle is only for important ones like abbot or head of pagoda/ temple.
  • Never point at the statues on the altars.
  • Respect the locals who are praying by stay silent and don’t move around too much to disturb their pray. Don’t block the view between the prayers and the altars.
  • Sometimes it is not nice to take photo of the statues and people who are praying. Check with you 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.
  • Never make physically contact to monks, like offer him a handshake.
  • Don’t touch anything, especially the statues.
  • You don’t have to donate anything or pray when in temples and pagodas. Just be a visitor since it is not your religion.
  • Put your two palms together in a shape of a lotus flower when praying or talking to a monk.



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By Pham Tuyen