Belonging to the Linji school, a branch of Zen Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Giac Lam Pagoda in Lac Long Quan Street, Tan Binh District, is also known as Cam Son or Cam Dem Pagoda.
The pagoda has a total area of nearly 29,000 square meters and is located on a high mound. Its architecture is distinctly southern. There was no gate for the pagoda until a three-part entrance was built in 1955.
The pagoda consists of three interconnected horizontal blocks: the main hall, the lecture hall and the dining hall. After three major restorations, the pagoda has some additional features including the tower, stupa and lecture hall.
The pagoda’s old tiled roof is different from most pagodas in southern Vietnam. It consists of four flanges in which the tiles are lined up neatly. This style is different from the blade tile structure in the northern region.
On top of the roof is the familiar dragon, a mythical creature of great importance in Vietnamese traditions and beliefs.
The main hall still retains its ancient style and ambience with two wings and four pillars. It is deep and spacious. There are 56 large wooden columns, each elaborately engraved with parallel sentences and painted in gold.
In the center of the main hall are the statues of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas on the Three Jewels altar. Most of the statues are made of wood, and are hundreds of years old.
Surrounding the pagoda are 113 ancient statues, all wooden, except for seven cast in bronze. The statues are of Buddha Amitabha, Shakyamuni Buddha, Guan Yin Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha and other bodhisattvas sculpted by artisans in Binh Duong Province in early 19th century.
The most distinctive feature of the pagoda is that its ceiling is paved with more than 6,000 decorative plates.
Next to the main hall, the Hong Hung Tower also has more than 1,000 decorative plates. Other towers around the pagoda mark the graves of its abbots.
The decorative plates are made of ceramic in the kiln at Lai Thieu Ward of Thuan An Town, Binh Duong Province. Some are from China and Japan. The decorative plates were added to the wall of the pagoda in the first half of the 20th century.
With more than 7,000 decorative plates, Giac Lam Pagoda holds the record of being the pagoda with the biggest number of decorative plates in Vietnam.
In front of the pagoda is the 7-story hexagon Stupa. The tower’s construction was begun in the 1970s, but was suspended until 1993.
The pagoda’s garden is filled with many trees, shrines and Buddha statues. Most prominent is the ancient bodhi tree brought from Sri Lanka in 1953.
Giac Lam Pagoda is one of the oldest pagodas in Saigon. It was recognized a national historical-cultural relic in 1988 and is a major tourist attraction now.