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Yen Tu – Buddhist Capital of Vietnam

“Trăm năm tích đức tu hành – Chưa về Yên Tử chưa thành quả tu”

This Vietnamese saying goes “You may be charitable and lead a religious life for a hundred years, but if you haven’t made it to Yen Tu, you haven’t reached the highest religious bliss.

Yen Tu, Buddhist capital of Vietnam, is famous for its beautiful landscapes, historical relics and ancient pagodas thus making it uniquely positioned in the hearts of the Vietnamese.

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.

Vietnam Yen Tu Summit Dong Pagoda
Dong Pagoda: Sitting on the peak of Yen Tu mountain

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

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.

Vietnam Yen Tu
Cable car up Yen Tu mountain

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.

Vietnam Yen Tu stairway to heaven
Stairway to Heaven

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.

Vietnam Yen Tu
A Pilgrim’s Journey

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.

Where to Stay

Yen Tu is only 17km away from Quang Ninh City Center as such there’s not many hotels to stay over. Most visitor visit Yen Tu as a day trip however, for those who would like to extend their stay, they can check the lodging selections available at Quang Ninh Center.

What / Where to Eat

Yen Tu is famous for their ivory bamboo and bamboo sprout and is featured in most of their dishes. The texture and taste makes it different to any other type of vegetables Bamboo sprout can be boiled, fried or simply eaten with sesame seeds and salt for its freshness. There are several restaurants down the mountain serving mostly vegetarian food. Freshly packed in bags or preserved in jars, the bamboo shoots can be purchased for VND10, 000-20,000.

Things to Take Note

– Respect local people’s beliefs and practises because Yen Tu is considered as a holy land of Buddhism in Vietnam.
– You should assess your own health situation before deciding if you are fit to make the hike.
– Bring along a pair of good walking shoes if you plan to climb up the mountains yourself. The way up and down are very slippery in spring festival.
– Cable cabs will not operate on days with strong wind or heavy rain. Therefore, you should check the weather forecast before deciding on whether you can manage the hike both ways.
– Local people there may offer various types of traditional medicine or herb butit will be advisable not to try anything you are unfamiliar with..
– You should be careful with pickpockets while climbing especially during the festival season. Sad but true, there are some people who are not there for the right reasons and they will not hesitate to commit a theft.

How to Get There

From Hanoi, you could take a bus to go to Yen Tu which is 125km away. Bus ticket can be purchased over the counter at My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi for VND 45,000.

Filed Under: Featured, Quang Ninh

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