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Bach Ma Temple, Hanoi Overview

Located in the centre of Old Quarter, Bach Ma temple is a beautiful 11th century Buddhist temple in Hanoi. It's dedicated to Bach Ma or 'White Horse', a legendary horse that is said to have led Emperor Ly Thai to the best area to construct a temple. A red-lacquered palanquin greets you upon entrance, along with a shrine dedicated to Confucius and a Phoenix altar.

Considered to be Hanoi's oldest standing temple, Bach Ma Temple is an important relic that is found between Hang Buom Street and the back door on Ngo Gach Street. It was even said to be a major hideout for Resistance fighters during the French occupation of Vietnam.

Despite its age, the Bach Ma temple is still actively used for worship, and even stays open longer on the 1st and the 15th day of every lunar month for extended prayers, offerings and ceremonies. It is a great place for foreigners to come see the local traditions especially on the days with extended opening hours.

The Bach Ma Temple represents some of the oldest cultures of Hanoi. From its architecture to the the rituals performed, the Vietnamese hold this place in very high regard. Its history is not just corroborated by facts but is steeped in mythology, making it that much more of an attraction.

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Tips

  • If possible visit on the 1st or the 15th day of the lunar calendar or on the 9th or 10th days of February, during the evening prayers. There are a lot more local rituals performed on these auspicious days.
  • Dress conservatively, even though there are no strict rules that say so, in an effort to respect the locals and their traditions. There are a few conservative locals who get angry if you don't.

Legend of the Temple

The white horse that the King saw in the dream has a reference to General Phan Da who contributed greatly to the glorious victory over Ming intruders. Urban legends say that his talent were seen at a very young age. During the battles, Phan Da always rode his beautiful white horse named Thien Ly Ma (the Thousand-Mile Horse), which, according to legend, was the source of his prowess. As a result, Phan Da became widely popular and people started calling him White-Horse God. Even after his death, people still believed that his spirit continued to bless and save the country.

Significance

Out of all the artefacts in the Bach Ma Temple, the statue of the white horse is the most important. The white horse was called Bach La, and the whole temple is a shrine to that horse. It is said that King Ly Thai To was having problems constructing the Imperial Citadel of Hanoi because the walls he built kept collapsing. One day he had a dream which led him to go worship a local deity's temple. A pure, spotless white horse emerged from that temple and led the King to a location indicating it to be the perfect place to build the Citadel. In thanks, the King built this temple to commemorate the horse, but also cleverly used its location to fortify his city.

Architecture

As seen today, the Bach Ma Temple is a complex of 5 palace complexes each of which features a three-door gate. The arrangement of the different blocks of lower, middle and upper palaces refer to the idea of harmony, solemnity and respect. A significant amount of construction is made of wood and carved aesthetically. Throughout the temple, you can find images of fishes, dragons, phoenixes etc, as well as a variety of precious and rare exhibits from Hanoi's past.


The Bach Ma Temple has some beautifully decorated interiors. The temple has big iron-wood columns with a wooden framework rafters joining together to form a weight-bearing structure, completely covered with decorative carvings. You will find a large dome-shaped roof over the incense-burning house. Within this serene temple are valuable artefacts such as stone steles, altars, shrines and statues. 

It also features a funeral palanquin, a memorial to Confucius, an altar dedicated to four seasons in the shape of a phoenix, and most importantly, a statue of the white horse. Along with architectural and artistic merit, Bach Ma Temple is also a valuable resource for researching and studying the history of Thang Long (modern-day Hanoi).

History of the Bach Ma Temple

Bach Ma Temple is a unique architectural construction and is one of the four district gate temples of ancient Hanoi, then known as Thang Long. These are located at the four cardinal points of the city: Quan Thanh Temple to the North, Bach Ma Temple in the East, Kim Lien Communal temple in the South, and Voi Phuc Temple to the West. These four temples were not only places of worship, but also provided important fortification to the city's defences.

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