Thousands of urban interventions enliven our city streets. These include hundreds of street altars scattered throughout the city. Some are well-constructed structures like the one in the hem at 63 Pasteur Street, or the one at the bend in Huynh Thuc Khang just before it intersects Nam Ky Khoi Nghia.

 

Others are informal gatherings of deities, some temporary and some remarkably resilient and long-lived. You can find several along Vo Van Kiet or Tran San Xoan streets. Long, hot, fume-saturated commutes can be unexpectedly seasoned with a whiff of incense from a street altar as you travel these streets from one district to another.

 

The most informal shrines have an accreted feel to them. Pink tiled shrine boxes accumulate along with red-framed images of gods both benevolent and fearsome. Small statues pile up, some round and laughing, some slender and robed, some mustachioed with red jackets and caps. Many are damaged; missing fingers, hands or arms. But where did they come from? How did they end up there?

 

Godly acts

I'm sure you have noticed the altars present in nearly every business and home in Vietnam, with gods plied with offerings of food, drink and cigarettes. Gods, though, like every other player in Vietnamese culture, are expected to do their part. They must provide, if not riches, then at least reasonable luck and protection from ill fortune. Even gods are subject to replacement if they fail to perform.

 

Broken gods, unlucky gods, or gods who have outlived their home often get deposited at street altars, since many people don’t dare toss an unwanted god into the trash. Many deities are abandoned at temple gates. No one dares to adopt them, for who knows what calamities occurred on their watch? There might have been a loss of income, the failure of a shop, a fire or a motorbike crash, perhaps even the death of a loved one.

 

Flouting the will of heaven by adopting a discarded god carries too great a risk. At the heart of this is an implication (startling to me) that even gods may have destinies that cannot be altered; even gods may not be masters of their own fates.

 

God bless them

Not all discarded gods, however, go to waste. Some of those found at the city’s garbage sorting areas are aggregated into makeshift public shrines. One such god haven adjoins a canal in District 8. A tiny site, it has been diligently tended to and has become more garden-like through time with denser vegetation, a taller god shelter, and even a bench added over the years. The gods have been curated and arranged, the floors have been tiled, the frames not on display have been neatly stacked showing a level of care and time spent that raises it to the level of a civic gift.

 

Many altars are located under or on a tree, echoing the story of the Buddha attaining enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. Still other abandoned gods are gathered into roadside shrines, perhaps to tend the souls of traffic victims, perhaps to provide a blessing to those who pass by.

 

It's possible that all of us have been the unwitting beneficiary of a street god's blessing at one time or another. Who knows? You may owe your life to the protection of a street deity who averted a mishap without your ever being aware of it. That thought plus the sight of a delicate orchid in a small vase residing centimetres away from hundreds of passing motorbikes is reason enough to be grateful for the existence of street altars, but gods as well as mortals reap benefit from their existence. This is because, thanks to this thrifty and generous cultural custom, even deities can sometimes be fortunate enough to be recycled and get another chance at life.

 

Archie Pizzini, PhD, is a design principal at Hoanh Tran Archie Pizzini Architects and has practiced and taught in Ho Chi Minh City for several years. He studies the urban landscape of Vietnam with a special focus on making and improvisation. Archie can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

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