Vietnam’s Thien Mu, a Temple with a Political History

On the north bank of the beautiful Perfume River in Hue, the Thien Mu Pagoda is a place of peace and reflection. Historically however, the temple was closely associated with politics, predominantly the opposition to Vietnam’s oppressive regime during the 1950s. This edgy and unique characteristic of Thien Mu makes it fascinating to visit.

The temple is dedicated to Buddha and was originally constructed in the 1840s, but most recently restored in 1953. It is a working temple with meditation halls, drum towers and several shrines. It is also home to a sangha of Buddhist monks, whose presence was only indicated by several trays of chillies left to dry on trays in the afternoon sun.

The Tower at Thien Mu

The 21m tall seven-storey octagonal tower just inside the main gate is the tallest religious building in Vietnam, and an iconic symbol of Hue. Each level represents one of the steps to enlightenment. Along with the pagoda’s enormous bell, the tower is the subject of many Vietnamese folk tales.


The most famous component of the complex is a car. In May 1963 monk Nunnu Thanh Quang drove to Saigon and set himself alight in protest at the discriminatory treatment suffered by Buddhists in Vietnam, under the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem. By setting himself alight in such a busy, public place, Thanh Quang managed to draw the world’s media attention to the issue, but without harming other people. His blue Austin and a display honouring him can be seen at Thien Mu.

Thanh Quang’s car, Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam

The Thien Mu Big bell

There are a few pavilions on the site, one of which contains a huge bronze bell, cast in 1710. It is said to weigh over 3,000kgs and when rung, can be heard 10 km away.

Buddhist history

While Thanh Quang’s car may be the most headline-grabbing item at Thien Mu, the stele is possibly the most significant. Housed in another pavilion, a stone stele stands atop the back of a marble turtle, a symbol of longevity. The stele is engraved with the history of Buddhism in Hue. It was erected in 1715.

Thien Mu Pagoda is a very interesting site with a controversial history. It is a great place to learn a bit about Buddhist culture and Vietnamese politics.

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