Built on a small hill overlooking the Song Huong (Perfume River), 4km southwest of the Citadel, this seven-storey pagoda is an icon of Vietnam and as potent a symbol of Hue as the Citadel. The 21m-high octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen, was constructed under the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri in 1844. Each of its storeys is dedicated to a manushi-buddha (a Buddha that appeared in human form). Visit in the morning before tour groups show up.
Thien Mu Pagoda was originally founded in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang, governor of Thuan Hoa province. Over the centuries its buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Since the 1960s it has been a flashpoint of political demonstrations.
To the right of the brick pagoda tower is a pavilion containing a stele dating from 1715. It’s set on the back of a massive marble turtle, a symbol of longevity. To the left of the tower is another six-sided pavilion, this one sheltering an enormous bell (1710), weighing 2052kg and audible from 10km away.
Beyond the pagoda tower is a gateway, on the upper floor of which sits an effigy of the Celestial Lady (Thien Mu) that the pagoda is named after. Above the central portal is a board with the Chinese characters 靈姥寺 (literally 'Divine Old Woman Temple'), in honour of the presiding deity of this plot of land.
The temple itself is a humble building in the inner courtyard, past the triple-gated entrance where three statues of Buddhist guardians stand at the alert. In the main sanctuary behind the bronze laughing Buddha are three statues: A Di Da, the Buddha of the Past; Thich Ca, the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni); and Di Lac Buddha, the Buddha of the Future.
For a scenic bicycle ride, head southwest (parallel to the Perfume River) on riverside Ð Tran Hung Dao, which turns into Ð Le Duan after Phu Xuan Bridge. Cross the railway tracks and keep going on Ð Kim Long. Thien Mu Pagoda can also be reached by boat.