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Yen Tu pagoda

Yen Tu pagoda
Yen Tu pagoda is considered as the Buddhism centre of Vietnam. Situated within the majestic arched mountain range of north-eastern Vietnam, Yen Tu Mountain in northern coastal Quang Ninh Province bears at its peak the Dong Pagoda. At an altitude of 1,068m above sea level, the breathless climb leads one higher and higher till you find yourself at the top in the pristine of white cloud surroundings. The journey seems to gives one the feeling of a stairway to heavens – away from worries of the world, a peace of mind and heart.

It is said that the third emperor of the Tran Dynasty, King Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308), came to Yen Tu after his abdication and began a new life as a Buddhist monk. He dedicated his life to the Buddha – establishing temples, meditation centers, and undertaking Zen missions. Later, he co-founded the Truc Lam Zen School, the first Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Institution.

King Tran was renowned for having led the country to victory over the powerful Mongolian army in two wars in 1285 and 1287. Once the wars were over, he devoted his time and energy to caring for his people and developing the country. He paid special attention to improving agriculture and irrigation systems, allocating land to farmers, developing the economy, improving living standards, encouraging education and preserving culture.

With peace and progress established, the King was determined to lead a religious life and further his learning of the Buddhist teachings which he was most passionate about. In 1293 he abdicated the throne to his son Tran Thuyen (King Tran Anh Tong), although he continued to monitor situations in the country and at times act as an advisor to his son in some political decisions.

Best Time to visit Yen Tu is from January to March during spring time as the weather makes it ideal for hiking up the mountains. This period also happens to coincide with the yearly Yen Tu Festival. The Yen Tu Festival falls on the 10th day of the first lunar month and lasts for three months. The first week is usually the most crowded. Tens of thousands of pilgrims and visitors alike stream into Yen Tu and begin their journey to the uppermost shrine. The worshipers take it as a time to show their belief and piousness and also to seek release from their sorrows and unhappiness for the past year. Foreign visitors take the chance to soak in the serene atmosphere of the festival, get up close and personal with the locals and of course capture some Kodak moments.

Generally, it’s not advisable to go there during summer as the heat can get unbearable. If you would like to avoid the crowds and have more space for yourself, you can visit during the months of September to November as the weather is not as hot and it’s not yet winter.

A Pilgrim’s Journey
The many places to visit along the way are said to replicate the path King Tran Nhan Tong followed on his first pilgrimage. Other pagodas and shrines are built to remind visitors of the places where the retired king took his rest, read books, studied herbal medicine and worked as a blacksmith crafting garden tools.

To the relief of many, the cable car system was introduced in 2002 as an alternative to climbing 6000m of stony steps to reach the top of the mountain. The cable car makes its stop at Hoa Yen Pagoda from which you can continue to explore the sights and hike up to the peak. However, most pilgrims if they are able to, including many old women over 80 years of age, will choose to walk as they believe that taking the challenging path up is a way of expressing their sincerity to Buddha.

The first stop is Suoi Tam (Bathing Brook), where King Tran washed off the filth of his earthly life symbolically before embarking on his life as a disciple of the Buddha. Nearby is a pagoda called Cam Thuc (Fasting) where the king was said to have had his first vegetarian meal of plain rice cooked with water from the streams and vegetables gathered on the spot.

Next you will come to the Giai Oan (Vindication) Stream. Legend has it that as many as 100 of the imperial concubines tried to convince the King to return to the secular life but failed and thus drowned themselves in the stream. In order to give the wandering souls a home and a place for others to remember them by, the king built the Giai Oan Pagoda on the site.

A short walk takes you up to the Ngoc (Jade) Mount. This is the place whereby visiting royal family members and court officers had to step down from their sedans and proceed up the mountain on foot. The area has dozens of stupas – tombs of monks who led their solitary life in Yen Tu during the Le Dynasty (1428-1788). Not far is another cluster of stupas, the main one being Hue Quang Kim Thap, which surrounded by 97 other smaller stupas of Yen Tu monks from the Tran Dynasty. This is the final resting place of King Tran Nhan Tong.

The largest and most beautiful structure along the entire trail most certainly is the Hoa Yen Pagoda. It is no wonder that this is the place where the retired king meditated, preached and received his successor and court officers.

The path continues past the small Ngoa Van (Lying Clouds) temple, the Mot Mai (One Roof) pagoda, Bao Sai and Van Tieu pagodas at 700m above sea level. The term ‘a walk in the clouds’ takes on a literal meaning here and you cannot help but be enchanted by the mystic beauty of your surroundings. Walking on, you will come to Heaven’s Gate, where the path passes by a high cliff. Here, you will see the 2.2m high An Ky Sinh statue, carved out from the natural rock.

The ultimate goal is the Dong Pagoda, sitting on the peak of the mountain. The pagoda has statues of Lord Buddha Sakyamuni, and the three founders of Truc Lam Zen School: King Tran Nhan Tong, Phap Loa and Hue Quang. From here you can enjoy a picturesque view of the entire coast area up to Ha Long Bay, a reward well deserved for anyone who made it all the way to the top.

During this time, it’s heartening to see some pilgrims regardless of how tired they are, pushing themselves to complete the journey, possibly deriving strength from their faith in Buddha.


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