Pilgrims have climbed to the top of Yen Tu mountain for over 700 years and this history is palpable when sitting at the top. Yen Tu in Thuong Yen Cong commune, Uong Bi district, Quang Ninh province, is regarded as the cradle of Vietnamese Buddhism. As you might expect considering its religious associations, the surrounding area is defined by beautiful and peaceful landscapes.
The mountain itself is peppered with numerous historical relics, pagodas, towers and now there is luxurious accommodation at its foot.
The most popular time to visit is during the pilgrimage for Yen Tu festival (from the 10th day of the first month to the third month of Lunar New Year). Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns, followers and curious visitors come to offer incense to King Tran Nhan Tong, who reigned over the country from 1279 to 1293, before abdicating and devoting the rest of his life to Buddhism.
When Tran Nhan Tong arrived he didn’t forsake his gift of leadership entirely. He founded a sect, Truc Lam Yen Tu, the first Vietnamese Buddhist Zen centre, which in time attracted thousands of followers, and he ordered hundreds of constructions on Yen Tu mountain.
Before the Tran Dynasty, the Ly kings were also keen Buddhists. Under the Ly Dynasty the Phu Van pagoda was built on Yen Tu. When Tran Nhan Tong came here he changed his name to Dieu Ngu Giac Hoang Tran Nhan Tong.
After his death, his successor, Phap Loa Dong Kien Cuong (1284-1330) ordered the building of 800 pagodas, shrines and towers with thousands of statues over a period of just 19 years. Huyen Quang Ly Dao Tai (1254-1334) also continued the construction.
During the Le and Nguyen Dynasties, Yen Tu remained the focal point of Vietnamese Buddhism, and often underwent restorations.
Stairway to heaven
Our pilgrimage begins at Giai Oan (Vindication) springs. Legend has it that King Tran Nhan Tong travelled here with a bevy of imperial maids who begged the king to return to the imperial palace without any success. Eventually, they committed suicide by diving into the river. King Nhan Tong set up a pagoda in honour of the maids, which vindicated their decision to take their own lives. Since then, the clear spring has been named Giai Oan.
In the past, you had to climb a six-kilometre track up thousands of slippery stone stairs and through a bamboo and pine tree forest to reach the top, but since 2002 there has been a cable car taking visitors up the mountainside. The two routes of Yen Tu cable car systems, manufactured by the POMA company in France, are developed and operated by Tung Lam company following European safety standards.
The Hoang Long cable car route starts from Giai Oan springs and goes to Hoa Yen pagoda. After disembarking the cabin, we visited Hoa Yen pagoda and Buddhist tower garden, located at a height of 543m surrounded by ancient pine-trees. This is where Tran Nhan Tong spent much of his religious life.
From Hoa Yen pagoda, we needed to walk up around 200 metres to Mot Mai (One-roof) pagoda to reach the second cable car route, the Bach Long line, which departs from Mot Mai pagoda to An Ky Sinh’ statue.
Leaving the Bach Long cable car. Further up at a height of 400m we climbed through the rocky and bamboo forest to reach Dong (Bronze) pagoda, which sits amongst the thick clouds atop the mountain at 1,068 metres above sea level.
The pagoda is skillfully carved and from far away looks just like a golden lotus. It’s a stunning and moving site which appears like Heaven’s Gate at the roof of the earth. Here, peace and tranquility reigns.
Yen Tu has been an important Buddhist pilgrimage site since the 13th century. It is a place of devotion, steeped in legend and covered in pagodas and religious relics.
At the peak of Yen Tu, in front of Dong pagoda where once Tran Nhan Tong sat to meditate amongst the clouds, I sat cross-legged, closed my eyes and quietly reflected. There are countless pagodas in Vietnam but sitting there I felt a tranquility I had never known before.
A long journey
After descending I decided to explore around the bottom of the mountain by following the old stone track from Bronze pagoda down to Giai Oan springs amidst bamboo forest and under the century-old pine-trees.
From the top pagoda, we chose another path which leads down to the Buddha statue cast from 138 tons of copper. The huge statue took four years to finish with nearly 5,000 workers at a cost of over VND75 billion.
As the sun set the cloud grew thicker and visitors fewer along the main Buddhist pilgrimage route. The time seemed to stand still and the mountain was quiet with just the sweet sound of the birds and the unceasing buzz of insects. The pagoda bell sounded through the forest and everything was Zen.
With the thick fog and cloudy weather, the steep way down was not easy. But with a bamboo stick as an aid, I pressed on to King Buddha statue, An Ky Sinh Temple, Van Tieu pagoda, Bao Sai pagoda, the One-roofed pagoda, then Hoa Yen pagoda, ancient pinetree path and finally down to Giai Oan springs at the foot of mountain.
I only came across a few employees of the Yen Tu cable-car company, who are out collecting rubbish, an old man behind a small kiosk flogging soft drinks and snacks.
Despite the lack of business, Toan seemed quite content.
“Since the cable car systems began, few tourists and pilgrims climb along this way, but I still want to keep this kiosk for them to take a rest during the way up to the land of Buddha. I live in the land of Buddha so I try to live with good behaviour,” he says, pouring a hot cup of tea.
The lower I climbed, the wetter and darker it seemed to become. Silence surrounded me. But I felt calm and peaceful. It’s not hard to imagine how monks in the 13th century felt enlightened in such a place.
I feel very regretful to my grandmother who inspired me to visit. She herself followed a lifelong dream to visit and when she returned she said would die without any regret. She climbed up without the aid of the cable car. Her belief and faith gave her all the strength she needed to climb to the top. At the time, she was 80 years old.