The Quan Am Bodhisattva Festival
The Mahayana Buddhist goddess of compassion, Quan Am (a.k.a. Kuan Yin/Avolokitesvara), is perhaps the most popular religious icon of East Asia, and Vietnam is no exception. She may be found holding her signature vase alongside dangerous stretches of highway, atop remote mountains, on the shrines of wealthy cosmopolitan homes and modest country shacks, and inside virtually every Buddhist pagoda throughout the country. She’s sometimes depicted with countless eyes and arms, which are believed to see every living thing and reach a helping hand into the lives of those in need, and one popular myth has her riding a dragon across the ocean to rescue a handful of shipwrecked sailors. When Vietnamese Buddhists make a wish, rest assured it’s directed towards the one they believe can grant it – Quan Am.
Each year around mid to late April (the 18th to 20th of the second lunar month to be exact), Vietnamese from around the country flock to the sacred Marble Mountain between Da Nang and Hoi An in central Vietnam to pay Quan Am homage at a festival that carries her name. Marble Mountain is relatively well known on the Vietnam tourist circuit for its cave-shrines, pagodas and stunning views, but the festival, which takes place on a large field just beyond the west slope of the Mountain, has thus far remained beyond the foreign tourist radar.
As we arrived on the festival grounds the smoke of myriad joss sticks filled the air as the faithful crowded around images of Quan Am, as well as the Buddha, other bodhisattvas (iconic enlightened beings under oath to lead all beings from suffering) and even tiny statuettes representing ancestor and animal spirits. More than a few had tears in their eyes as they offered incense and flowers in the hope that their prayers would be answered. The atmosphere was defined by intense faith and had a powerfully mystical quality. Clearly, the faithful weren’t simply fulfilling superstitious rituals but believed whole-heartedly in Quan Am’s ability to have a positive effect on their lives.
The festival’s main Quan Am image stood part-way up the slope of Marble Mountain at the end of a long, winding stairway. Here, the people pushed in shoulder to shoulder to get as close as possible, some throwing bouquets of 30 or more flowers in the direction of the image as hundreds of joss sticks were continually dropped in to a large fire as a collective offering. The smoke from the incense was so thick that many wore coverings over their noses and mouths.
The faithful walked the grounds after making offerings to Quan Am and a large Buddha image that sat at the center of the field, stopping to pay respects to the countless small shrines found in every direction.
If you happen to be in Vietnam in April, the Quan Am Bodhisattva Festival offers a rare large-scale peak into the spiritual cosmology and culture of Vietnamese Buddhism, with the iconic Quan Am at its center. To get there, simply continue down the road past the main Marble Mountain gates and look for the signs. On the day we went there were literally thousands of Vietnamese heading there, so it wasn’t difficult to be swept up in the current of people. Ask around amongst the locals of Hoi An and/or Da Nang for specific dates.