One Sunday morning, Le Thu Huong, 32, drives more than 200 kilometers to Saigon from her home in An Giang in the Mekong Delta. She is on a pilgrimage to thePhuoc Hai Tu (Jade Emperor Pagoda) in the heart of the metro, hoping a goddess there will bless her with a child.
Huong married six years ago and is still childless despite trying desperately to conceive. She has been to many doctors, but in vain. Mounting pressure from her husband’s family to give birth to a child meant she turned to the gods.
She says: “I heard some of my relatives say the pagoda is sought after by newlyweds and childless couples across the country, and for many the prayers have been answered. I wanted to try since I don’t know what else to do now.”
But she did not tell her husband or his family about her plan to visit the pagoda because she was afraid they would deride her as being superstitious and even try to prevent her from going.
More than one million, or 7.7 percent of married couples in Vietnam, are infertile, according to the Ministry of Health.
In the pagoda in the small, nondescript Mai Thi Luu Street in District 1 is an altar for Kim Hoa Thanh Mau, the Goddess of Childbirth in Taoism and believed to be responsible for pregnancy, delivery and protection of mothers and infants on earth.
The goddess holds a book and a paintbrush indicative of the Chinese practice of recording the birth of a child in the family records.
For long the goddess has been revered by thousands of married couples and childless women across the country in the belief. She has the power to bless infertile couples with children and pregnant women with safe pregnancy and easy delivery.
After lighting incense and filling lamps with oil in the main hall where the Jade Emperor is worshipped to offer her prayers to the King of Heaven, Huong follows the instructions of the pagoda’s caretakers and goes into a small room to the left of the main hall. Here is the Goddess of Childbirth, surrounded by her 12 assistants.
The Goddess sits at the center of the altar surrounded by 12 women, called midwife fairies (Ba mu in Vietnamese) sitting in two rows with colorful clothes and holding babies in their hands. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad.
The 12 Midwives are from Vietnamese mythology and folk religion. They are fairies who teach babies various skills such as suckling and smiling.
In some parts of Vietnam, when a baby is one month old, people prepare a feast and perform a ritual to thank the 12 Midwives for protecting and taking care of the infant.
Huong steps in and sees an old man sitting inside and ringing a bell. Seeing Huong put her hands together and pray, the man, Muoi, asks her if she was praying for a child. Huong quickly nods.
Muoi, 65, has devoted half his life to working as a caretaker at the pagoda, taking care of the altar and instructing childless couples how to make ceremonial offerings. He gives Huong a red thread and tells her to sincerely pray to the goddess and 12 fairies.
He almost intones: “If you wish for a boy, hang the red thread to one of the idols on the right side, and if you were praying for a girl, hang it on the left. Then rub the midwife’s belly three times and rub yours three times. Next, rub the baby figure’s bell under the midwife’s feet and again rub your belly three times.”
Muoi, 65, has worked half his life as a caretaker at the Jade Emperor Pagoda in HCMC, taking care of the Goddess of Childbirth’s altar and helping childless couples perform rituals. Photo acquired by VnExpress.
Huong hangs the red thread on the left side since she wants a daughter. She says: “It does not matter whether I have a boy or a girl. My only expectation is to have a healthy child.”
Huong finishes the ritual and gives him a little money. She is not alone in seeking a favor from the goddess that day: next to her is a middle-aged woman who already has three girls but has come because her husband wants a boy.
She was preparing flowers and fresh fruits to offer the goddess. She too receives a red thread from Muoi and whispers a prayer before hanging the thread on the right side.
“I have three girls and was expecting for a boy to carry on the family lineage and take care of us in our old age,” the 42-year-old woman, who asks not to be named, says.
Then she goes to the front of the pagoda and releases a pair of turtles with her name written on their shells. It is believed that if the female becomes pregnant the person who released them will also be blessed with a child.
Preference for boy children
Muoi says: “I don’t know how many people come to this altar and pray for children every day, but one thing is for sure: most of them prefer a boy and hang the red thread on the right side.”
Speaking at a recent conference, Nguyen Quynh Anh of the UN Population Fund said Vietnam is still heavily influenced by Confucian values, including patriarchy, which favors males over females in family matters and social settings.
Globally, women’s incomes are 50-90 percent of men’s, but in Vietnam, especially in the countryside, they are only 20-40 percent, she pointed out.
Muoi claims: “I have been here for more than four decades and heard mysterious stories of women who were childless for many years suddenly conceiving naturally after coming to the pagoda to pray to the goddess.”
“There was a middle-aged woman who had been married for more than 18 years without children. She seemed desperate, and kneeled for many hours in front of the goddess’ altar and prayed. Two months later, she was pregnant with a boy.
“The woman returned to the pagoda to perform a ritual to thank the goddess and the 12 midwife fairies, and donated money to renovate the pagoda.”
The Jade Emperor Pagoda has become famous thanks to word of mouth, especially among childless couples.
The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh of The Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam said when humans suffer from despair and all their efforts have failed, they seek solace in religious beliefs and gods’ blessings.
But belief should not mean superstition, which might allow frauds to take advantage of them, he warned.
There may be no rational explanation yet, but chances are if you ask any Saigon native where to pray for children, the answer will be “Jade Emperor Pagoda.”
The pagoda briefly became the center of global attention when then U.S. President Barack Obama visited it in 2016 while on a visit to the country.
Built between 1892 and 1900 in honor of the supreme Tao God in Chinese style with colorful decorative motifs, the pagoda has brick walls, yin-yang roof tiles and mosaic ceramic idols on its roof and gables.
Since Obama’s visit, many popular travel magazines around the world have been talking it up, spreading its reputation internationally.
The pagoda is filled with idols of deities and heroes, some beatific and others less so, from both Buddhist and Taoist legends. An interesting feature is that the idols are made from reinforced papier mâché and wood.
The focal point inside is the Jade Emperor, who sits surrounded by reverential minor deities and heroes.
He is the King of Heaven, the one who decides who is allowed entry into heaven and who is not.
As for Huong, we have to wait and see if her prayers bear fruit.
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