The Ong Pagoda sits on an island caused by one of the huge loops in the Saigon River, I set off to investigate. Living and working in Saigon is, without doubt, one of the best experiences of my life. I simply love it here! My days are a constant merry-go-round of cafés, restaurants, pubs and friends. I use a swimming pool as my morning office and quite often a bar or café as my afternoon office. The weather suits my constitution perfectly. It is, day after day, of glorious hot sunshine and blue skies, at the moment. That I happen to live in what, in my opinion, is the nicest part of town, happened almost by accident. I was looking for somewhere to live and a friend in my local bar said he had a room for rent with his family in District 2. It is really lovely here.
I am trying to get some structure into my life. For the last year or more I have been working flat out to try and establish myself in what is after all, a brand new country for me. I have therefore not had weekends or even days off. I just work as long as I can. However, I decided recently that I have to aim for a more structured existence. It’s better to have 5 productive days than 7 semi productive ones. So it is, that I have found myself looking for things to do at the weekend.
This weekend I jumped on my motor bike and headed off to find the Ong Pagoda. I certainly picked a winner. Armed with nothing more than Google maps I headed out of District 2 in a northerly direction on the Hanoi Highway. It is great fun riding a motorbike out here, especially when you get away from the city centre. The highways are safer than they sound. For the most part, regular traffic is separated from the motor bikes. There are a few speed freaks to be wary of, but for the most part it’s pretty stress free. Heading out the the Ong Pagoda, there is a turning on the left, that I had to look out for. TL 16 turns even more northerly. I knew if I hit the bridge over the Dong Nai river I would have gone too far.
After I crossed over the bridge, yes, you guessed it, I had of course missed my turning, and had to do a U turn. In my defence, I nearly missed it again going back, such was the secretive nature of the exit point. Soon however I was heading along TL16 and after a few more miles saw the turning for the bridge over the river and on to my destination, the Ong Pagoda. In Dong Nai Province in the middle of the river is a largish island. It is regarded as part of Bien Hoa City. There is, however, very little here that resembles any city that I have visited.
The island is extremely tranquil. Lush green fields border the tiny roads that criss-cross the island. Strangely the island doesn’t have a coastal road. It seems that every road you turn down ends up at a dead end by the river; often with a ferry boat service. The people were amazing, they shouted hello as I rode past and quite a few rushed out of their houses to wave. It was a delightful experience.
Reaching my target, The Ong Pagoda
The most significant building on the island is, what I had come to see, the Ong Pagoda.This is to be found in Nhi Hoa Hamlet in the westernmost corner of the island. This really was the reason for my visit. I had chanced upon this religious relic whilst looking for something else on the internet. I am the first to agree that it is easy to become “templed out” in Asia. Many of them are so similar in appearance it becomes a case of “seen one, seen them all”. The Ong Pagoda is a bit different. It dates from 1684, for a start, which is old by any measure. It is also the starting off point for the very first Chinese community in South Vietnam. Its location is pretty special as well, sitting as it does on the bank of the river.
The Ong pagoda attracts many visitors at Tet, in recent years figures have been as high as 10,000. However I wanted to see it as it really is. It is the most none commercialised and reverent temple I have been to in Asia. There is but a passing nod to financial gain. Nobody pestered me and there were but three other people wandering around and saying their prayers. Admittedly at Tet, this nod towards capitalism, turns into a full on head banging session, with an expected 2,000,000,000VND (US$94,000) raised over the three days of festival activities. For my trip however, it cost just 3,000VND to park my motor bike and go exploring. Hauntingly beautiful music is piped out of loud speakers in the courtyard.
I found this music hauntingly beautiful and very restful.
Large figures adorned some of the spaces, these had almost clown like faces and looked quite eerie. The couple of people who had come to pray, paused and lit incense in front of them. Outside in the courtyard, a large chimenea was sending black smoke to the sky. I don’t know the significance, but looking inside, I ascertained that they were burning old car tires.
After the Ong Pagoda, I rode round the island again in search of things to do. To be honest I didn’t find any, which is all the more reason to go back again soon. This is a complete oasis of calm, right in the middle of one of the most built up areas imaginable. I absolutely loved it.
On the way home, I turned off the highway and tried to get myself lost. I love doing this. For about an hour, I was the only white face in town. People were so friendly everywhere I went. I stopped for a Ca Phé Sua Da and the staff came and sat with me. I really was the centre of attraction. Children waved and people shouted hello. At one point a guy and a girl on a motorbike came and rode alongside me. They shouted hello and smiled as I called back to them. In any other place in the world it would have been unnerving, but not in Vietnam. These are amongst the friendliest people I have ever encountered.
So this turned into a memorable day. I enjoyed the bike ride, the tranquility and the Vietnamese people. I quite like having a day off now and again.