Believed to be the oldest pagoda in HCMC (1744), Giac Lam is a fantastically atmospheric place set in peaceful, garden-like grounds. The looming Bodhi tree in the front garden was the gift of a monk from Sri Lanka in 1953. Next to the tree is a gleaming white statue of Quan The Am Bo Tat standing on a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity.
Like many Vietnamese Buddhist pagodas it also incorporates aspects of Taoism and Confucianism. For the sick and elderly, the pagoda is a minor pilgrimage sight, as it contains a bronze bell that, when rung, is believed to answer the prayers posted by petitioners.
Inside the reception area of the main building is the 18-armed Chuan De, another form of the Goddess of Mercy. Carved hardwood columns bear gilded Vietnamese inscriptions, with the portraits of great monks from previous generations looking down on proceedings.
The main sanctuary lies in the next room, filled with countless gilded figures. On the dais in the centre of the back row sits the A Di Da Buddha (Amitabha), easily spotted by his colourful halo. The fat laughing fellow, seated with five children climbing all over him, is Ameda, the Buddha of enlightenment, compassion and wisdom. On the altars along the side walls of the sanctuary are various Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings).
The red-and-gold Christmas tree-shaped object is a wooden altar bearing 49 lamps and 49 miniature Bodhisattva statues. People pray for sick relatives or ask for happiness by contributing kerosene for use in the lamps. Petitioners’ names and those of ill family members are written on slips of paper, which are attached to the branches of the ‘tree’.
Prayers are held daily from 4am to 5am, 11am to noon, 4pm to 5pm and 7pm to 9pm. They consist of chanting to the accompaniment of drums, bells and gongs, following a traditional rite which is seldom performed these days.