An absolute must-see for visitors to Ho Chi Minh city is the visually striking Jade Emperor Pagoda, often also called the Tortoise Pagoda. While not the oldest of temples, having been built at the turn of the last century by the local Cantonese community, it is certainly one of the most atmospheric and is the place of worship for both Taoist and Buddhist devotees.
The temple is full of spectacularly carved woodwork and figurines and ranges over several rooms, featuring some quite stunning and definitely unearthly deities. The Jade Emperor is the supreme Taoist god and the one who decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
The temple is very busy, both with worshippers and with tourists, and is filled with the smoky , fragrant fug of joss sticks. It’s worth spending some time here, exploring the different halls and rooms, especially the Hall of Ten Hells. This room consists of a series of elaborately carved wooden panels depicting the ten layers of hell – a display which may cause you to contemplate the consequences of a life of wickedness and sin.
Outside of the temple doors is a large, grimy pond heaving with hundreds of tortoises – the source of the alternative name for the temple. Tiny little tortoises can be bought from vendors selling just outside the temple gates and many worshippers inscribe their shells with prayers before releasing them into this holy pond. Devotees feed these with bread and scraps and the water is a grey and unlovely soup. I was told that when the population of tortoises becomes overloaded the excess are removed and released elsewhere.
The Jade Emperor Temple is an active place of worship for the city and clearly an important site for the locals, many of whom can be found enjoying the peace of the outer courtyard once they have completed their devotions. If crowds aren’t your thing, I’d suggest visiting early in the day and if you have small children with you, be aware that some of the images in the temple might be a little frightening for them.