Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quan Am Temple, Cholon

I have been an enthusiast for Quan Am Temple in Cholon for many years now.
In fact, one of my abiding fantasies is to go and work there as a temple attendant for a few months and write a book about it - a la Gontran de Poncins' wonderful From a Chinese City.
I love District 5 and its crazy energy - especially at night. I love how the one place residents of Saigon consistently warn me against visiting is District 5 - allegedly many bad things happen there. Perhaps it's just lingering prejudice against the Chinese, or perhaps it's true? Cong An News, the trashy police tabloid that is read religiously by many in Ho Chi Minh City, delights in a good murder or violent robbery in District 5. In fact, it normally warrants a front page.
But by day my favourite place to hang is the colourful and crazily busy Quan Am Temple in Lao Tu street. The fact that this place is well and truly on the Lonely Planet beat doesn't bother me, because I have been hanging out there for many years. The foreigners drift in and out after taking a few snaps, but I have contacts among the incense sellers and fortune tellers and old ladies who clean the toilets, and am allowed to put my feet up in secret rooms and watch the non-stop activity at what must be one of Vietnam's busiest temples.
A few years ago this place was much more interesting, from a religious/anthropological view. It was a lot more run-down, and there were lots more shrines hidden about the place (which is amazing when you witness the sheer number of shrines that still exist within the temple complex!). Also, there used to be any number of lady shamans, clairvoyants and spiritual healers on the premises, ready to prescribe a religious ritual or two to advance the petitioner's good luck. An inflow of money from overseas Chinese communities has meant that the temple has cleaned up its act considerably, and the lady shamans and prophetesses were among the first things to go. It's kinda sad, but was probably necessary - the local authorities tend to take a dim view of When I spend a morning or afternoon at the temple I am treated as a special guest and ushered into one of the side rooms and fed royally with buns and fruit left on the shrines by devotees. It really is a wonderful way to while away some spare time while you are in Ho Chi Minh City, and I can't recommend it enough. Just pull up a chair somewhere near the main shrine room and brave the carcinogenic clouds of incense smoke.

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