Bach Ma Temple, Hanoi’s Oldest Shrine

The statue of the white horse in Bach Ma Temple, Hanoi

photography by: Omri Westmark

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The Vietnamese capital is home to a glut of iconic temples, yet only one of which proudly claims to be older than any of its counterparts. Located in the heart of Hanoi’s old quarter, Bach Ma Temple is believed to have stood for nearly a millennium. According to the lore, the temple was erected by the emperor of Đại Việt as a tribute to his white horse, who is beautifully represented by an equine statue that now adorns the shrine’s main chamber.

Whoever visits the hectic city of Hanoi will come across tens, if not hundreds of temples and pagodas dotting its bustling streets. Standing out among the copious shrines is an unassuming temple which can trace its roots back to the 11th century, making it the oldest place of worship throughout the city.


Located at the intersection of P. Hàng Buồm and P. Hàng Giầy streets, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Bach Ma Temple might not seem that remarkable at first glance, yet behind its yellow, nondescript façade lies a treasure trove of history that offers a glimpse into the city’s bygone era.


In 1010, Emperor Ly Thai To decided to move the capital of Đại Việt, the precursor of modern-day Vietnam, from Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh) to Thang Long, better known as Hanoi. Legend has it that despite his multiple attempts to circle the town with a fortified wall, each time the structure collapsed upon completion.


Desperate for a divine intervention, the emperor sent a delegation of supplicants to attend a mass-pray in a nearby 9th century shrine, whose worshiped deity appeared several times in his dreams. Shortly thereafter, a white horse galloped his way out of the temple, leaving a trail of hoofprints in his wake.


In the aftermath of this oddity, the emperor opted to construct the city-walls along the string of horse track left by the ivory-hued beast. Miraculously, this time, the ramparts stood the test of time, rewarding Ly Thai To for his ardent faith. As a tribute to the generous deity and his white horse, he commissioned the construction of the aptly named Bach Ma temple – Bạch Mã in Vietnamese literally means “white horse”.


Following several reconstructions, the millennium-old temple’s current building dates back to the 18th century, but make no mistake, the place fully resonates with its wondrous past. In fact, the centerpiece of the shrine is an exceedingly ornate sanctum, where a sculpted white equine pays homage to his legendary counterpart, who is still regarded by many in Vietnam as a national superhero.