Incense at a Vietnamese temple

What does “Chùa” mean in Vietnamese?

Photo credit: Frank McKenna @ Unsplash

As a tourist in Vietnam, you will encounter many signs pointing to “Chùa”. What does it mean?

“Chùa” (pronounced chu-wa with a descending tone) means a “pagoda”: a Buddhist place of worship. Pagodas can be ancient places from another time (e.g., the Láng pagoda near Hanoi), or they can be campy carnival-esque facades reminiscent of 1980’s kung-fu movie-sets (like Bái Đính).

Many pagodas are something in-between: they include both ancient buildings and newly-constructed eye-candy.

Although Vietnamese Pagodas generally aren’t as flashy as those in Thailand or Cambodia, they are nonetheless of great historical and cultural interest and should be appreciated by any tourist in Vietnam. See our list below of older and more interesting Pagodas to visit .

Chùa vs Chúa: The Importance of Vietnamese Tones

The words Chùa and Chúa are pronounced the same, but have very different meanings based on the pitch dynamics (whether the pitch is rising or falling). This contrast is an excellent lesson in the importance of Vietnamese tones.

  • Chúa has a rising tone and means “Jesus Christ.”
  • Chùa-the-pagoda has a descending tone.

Because most languages don’t use pitch to distinguish among sounds, foreigners learning Vietnamese frequently make mistakes like the following: they mean to say “Chùa ở đâu” (“Where is the Pagoda?”; down-tone on chùa) but instead say “Chúa ở đâu?” (“Where is Jesus?”; up-tone on chúa).

In order to communicate effectively in Vietnam, one must master the subtle pitch dynamics of Vietnamese tones. Click here to learn more about the Vietnamese Tones.

Vietnamese alter for Jesus Christ
A Vietnamese alter for Chúa. which means Jesus Christ. Photo credit Lynn @

Pagodas vs Temples

A Pagoda (chùa) is a Buddhist house of worship, whereas a Temple (đền) is a place to worship other icons: heroes, kings, saints, mythological figures, gods, virtues, wives-of-kings, and more. Often, they look the same to outsiders.

Temples are not necessarily Buddhist. Instead, they are places to come and make offerings to their favourite saint/hero/myth and get some lucky Choco-Pie.

The distinction is interesting given the complex religious landscape in Vietnam. The Pagodas and their buddhist iconography are readily understandable to most foriegners. However, the Temples are so varied, numerous and marvelous in their iconography, that they are a great source of fun confusion for foreigners.

What is the Dominant Religion in Vietnam

Are Vietnamese people religious? The answer is both yes and no.

Some Vietnamese are Buddhist (12.2%), some are Catholic (6.8%), but the majority of people subscribe to a collection of supernatural beliefs and rituals that aren’t officially consolidated into an institutional religion. Ancestor worship is the most important ritual and organizing principle of this quasi-religion.

There are an almost infinite variety of gods and mythological figures who are worshiped in Vietnam (which is a little surprising given that Vietnam was officially atheist under socialism). To an outsider, these myths and rituals seem very religious in nature. Some academics call them “folk religions”, but Vietnamese people probably wouldn’t agree with that designation: they may just refer to such beliefs as “that is just our culture”.

RELATED: 13 Interesting & Common Superstitions in Vietnam, from pregnant women being bad-luck, to auspicious days to get a haircut

For example, it is typical for a self-described non-religious Vietnamese person to perform elaborate prayers and fire-rituals for the “Kitchen Gods” (Ông Công and Ông Táo) in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year. Do such beliefs and rituals constitute a religion? Or, are they just “culture”?

Cai Dai temple in Phu Quoc, Vietnam
The Cao Dai relgion: an ecumenical new religion that worships a pantheon of saints including Jesus Christ, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat Sen, the Buddha, and many others. Photo credit:

Interesting Pagodas to Visit Near Hanoi

Here is a map of a few Pagodas/Temples near Hanoi that are worth visiting and learning about for their historical significance. Click on the map markers to learn more, or see the TripAdvisor links/description below.

Click on the markers to learn more

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