Quang Ninh, the province in the Northeast of Vietnam, is not only famous for its majestic natural scenery of Halong Bay but this landscape is also known as the home of various spiritual constructions. Known as the cradle of Truc Lam Zen Sect, Yen Tu Mountain is one of the most attractive cultural destinations in Quang Ninh. The massive complex of temples and pagodas on Yen Tu Mountain is the historical relics for the development of Buddhism in Vietnam since the 14th century. A journey to Yen Tu Mountain is a precious chance for tourists to know more about the history, culture and spiritual life of Vietnamese in the past and at present.
I. History of Yen Tu Mountain
Yen Tu Mountain is known as the home of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect, which is associated with the prestige of King Tran Nhan Tong, the third king of the Tran Dynasty. Becoming the king of Dai Viet (the former name of Vietnam) at the age of 20, King Tran Nhan Tong led the army and people of Dai Viet to defeat the Mongol Yuan invaders twice in 1285 and 1288. He played an important role in building up the most glorious feudal dynasty of Vietnam. At the age of 35, King Tran Nhan Tong left his throne to prince Tran Thuyen (King Tran Anh Tong) and lived his last years as a Buddhist monk.
King Tran Nhan Tong became the first ancestor of the Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen, the zen sect that has had a great influence on the spiritual life of Vietnamese for centuries. During his time on Yen Tu Mountain, he founded a large system of temples and pagodas for the purpose of leading a religious life. After King Tran Nhan Tong passed away in 1308, his disciples continued to build up the constructions and developed the Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect. According to the historical documents, it was estimated that there were more than 800 pagodas and temples built on Yen Tu Mountain as well as all over Vietnam during that time.
Through the ups and downs of Vietnam history, Buddhism of Vietnam in general and Truc Lam Zen Sect in particular have witnessed many fluctuations. Time and wars destroyed many ancient constructions on Yen Tu Mountain, some of which only existed in the historical documents. Thanks to the attention of the government and visitors, plenty of temples and pagodas have been rebuilt to give tourists a broad view of this national relic. A cable car system was built to make it easier for tourists to reach the peak of Yen Tu Mountain.
Nowadays, the Yen Tu Festival is annually held from the 10th day of the first lunar month to the end of the third lunar month. This is also the tourism season on Yen Tu Mountain, when thousands of domestic and international visitors come to this solemn worshiping place. Yen Tu Mountain is not only a tourist attraction of Quang Ninh but also a place of preserving cultural and spiritual values of Vietnamese.
II. Highlights of Yen Tu Mountain
Yen Tu Mountain, or Tuong Dau Mountain, is a peak of Dong Trieu Mountains in the Northeast of Vietnam. With a height of 1,068 meters, the top of Yen Tu Mountain is usually covered by white clouds, so people used to call it “Bach Van Son”, which means “the mountain of white clouds”. From the foot to the top of Yen Tu Mountain, tourists will have to pass a long way of 6,000 meters through the forests, which will take visitors at least 6 hours to conquer this mountain.
Your journey conquering Yen Tu Mountain will start at Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Monastery. This Zen Monastery is considered as the largest one in Vietnam. Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Monastery is the convent place of the ancestors of this zen sect as well as various Buddhists all over Vietnam. The second destination in the journey is Giai Oan Temple, where King Tran Nhan Tong hold a reqiem to free the souls of the imperial maids who commited suicide at Ho Khe Stream.
To reach halfway up the mountain, you can choose to go on foot or by cable car. If you go on foot, you will have to spend more time and energy conquering Yen Tu Mountain, but you also get a chance to contemplate the Pine Road, with ancient pine trees planted by King Tran Nhan Tong 7 centuries ago. In case you buy a cable car ticket, you can admire the beauty of nature on Yen Tu Mountain from above.
The next stopover on Yen Tu Mountain is Hue Quang Golden Stupa and Hoa Yen Pagoda. Both this two constructions were built hundreds of years ago, so they were covered by the gray color of moss. Also near this area, there are some smaller pagodas but no less attractive nestling under the ancient trees of Yen Tu Mountain, namely Mot Mai Pagoda, Bao Sai Pagoda and Van Tieu Pagoda.
To reach the top of Yen Tu Mountain, you can walk or go by cable car. The first image you can see when getting off the cable car is The Buddha Enlightened King’s Statue, which is made of copper. Passing by this statue, you will reach Dong Pagoda at the highest peak of Yen Tu Mountain. From this point, you can contemplate the whole view of Yen Tu Mountain, which is in the green color of forests. After a long and tiring way, a gift from heaven is waiting for you to discover at the top of Yen Tu Mountain.
Besides the cultural and spiritual values, Yen Tu Mountain also has a diverse system of flora and fauna. There are 206 animal species and 830 plant species on Yen Tu Mountain, many of which are on the verge of extinction that need protecting. There are some charming waterfalls on this mountain such as Silver Waterfall, Golden Waterfall and Ngu Doi Waterfall. It can be said that Yen Tu Mountain is the harmonious combination of nature and spiritual values of humans, which gives this mountain a mysterious appearance on the eyes of tourists.
III. What to See and Do in Yen Tu Mountain?
1. Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Monastery
Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Monastery is also known as Lan Pagoda or Long Dong Pagoda. The pagoda was built in 1293 by King Tran Nhan Tong. As mentioned in the historical documents, Lan Pagoda was the place where King Tran Nhan Tong preached sermons to his disciples. After King Tran Nhan Tong passed away, the other ancestors of Truc Lam Zen Sect such as Phap Loa, Huyen Quang and Chan Nguyen also preached to other monks.
During the wars in the 20th century, Lan Pagoda was completely destroyed by the invaders. Based on the ground of the old pagoda, the locals rebuilt a smaller pagoda as a place of worship. In 2002, Lan Pagoda was enlarged to become Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Monastery. This construction is used for giving instructions to Buddhists who follow Truc Lam Zen Sect, researching and preserving the cultural relics of Yen Tu and becoming a sight-seeing destination for tourists.
2. Giai Oan Pagoda
Giai Oan Pagoda leans on the foot of Yen Tu Mountain, in front of the pagoda is a stream that has the same name. According to the stories told by the locals, when King Tran Nhan Tong left his palace to become a monk on Yen Tu Mountain, hundreds of imperial maids followed him and persuaded him to come back. Failing to advise the king, the imperial concubines commited suicide on the stream of Ho Khe. To conduct a requiem and give the souls of the imperial maids a home to come back, King Tran Nhan Tong built Gia Oan Pagoda nearby the stream.
The time and wars destroyed the construction of the ancient Giai Oan Pagoda, and the pagoda that we can see nowadays was completed in 1994. Besides the purpose as a requiem place, Giai Oan Pagoda is also a worshiping place of Buddha Gods, the ancestors of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect and the mother of King Tran Nhan Tong; Giai Oan Pagoda is the only place in Yen Tu Mountain that worshiping mother of King Tran Nhan Tong. Also on the ground of Giai Oan Pagoda, there are 6 tower graves that keep the ashes of the monks who lived and led a religious life there.
3. Hue Quang Golden Stupa
From Giai Oan Pagoda, you will pass the Pine Road to reach Hue Quang Golden Stupa. This construction is a group of towers that contain the ashes of the famous monks of the Tran and Le dynasties. At the center of the tower garden of Hue Quang is the highest stupa, which is the grave of King Tran Nhan Tong. Located on a favorable position of the sacred Yen Tu Mountain, Hue Quang Golden Stupa is considered as the gathering place of the prosperous spirit of this mountain.
Hue Quang Golden Stupa was built in 1309, one year after King Tran Nhan Tong passed away. This tower has been restored many times for 700 years, and the largest restoration recorded in historical documents was in the 18th century. The stupa is 7 meters in height, with the typical architecture of the Tran Dynasty. The base of Hue Quang Golden Stupa took inspiration from the image of a lotus flower and the decoration of dragons, clouds and daisies. Hue Quang Stupa is surrounded by more than 97 smaller towers, which are the graves of major monks of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect.
4. Hoa Yen Pagoda
The next destination on your journey discovering Yen Tu Mountain is Hoa Yen Pagoda. Built in the Ly Dynasty, this pagoda is the largest one in the system of pagodas and temples on Yen Tu Mountain. At the height of 534 meters above the sea level, Hoa Yen Pagoda has been the center of the whole pagodas on Yen Tu Mountain. This pagoda used to have a name as Van Yen, and the local residents often called it Ca Pagoda, Chinh Pagoda or Yen Tu Pagoda. In the 15th century, when King Le Thanh Tong visited this pagoda and realized its peaceful appearance, he changed its name into Hoa Yen.
Hoa Yen Pagoda was the monastery of the ancestors of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect from Ly to Le Dynasty. Due to the destruction of time, in 2002, Hoa Yen Pagoda was rebuilt on the ground of the old pagoda from the Tran Dynasty. As many other pagodas in Vietnam, Hoa Yen Pagoda is the worshipping place of the Buddhism Gods. Behind the main hall of Hoa Yen Pagoda is the ancestor house, which worships King Tran Nhan Tong and other historical figures. Hoa Yen Pagoda on Yen Tu Mountain is surrounded by various ancient trees, which adorn the solemn atmosphere of this pagoda.
5. Bao Sai and Van Tieu Pagoda
Bao Sai Pagoda was named after a monk called Bao Sai, who was the first disciple of King Tran Nhan Tong. Bao Sai Pagoda was restored in 1989 and 1995, and in 2021, this pagoda was enlarged with more complementary constructions. In addition to the main hall worshipping Buddha, Bao Sai Monk and three ancestors of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect, the ground of Bao Sai Pagoda includes a courtyard and a sacred stone well. The fresh atmosphere on the high mountain in Bao Sai Pagoda will help you to enjoy the whole beauty of nature and spiritual constructions on Yen Tu Mountain.
About 180 meters to the west of Bao Sai Pagoda is Van Tieu Pagoda. According to the historical stories, Van Tieu Pagoda was the place where King Tran Nhan Tong preached to the second ancestor of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect, Zen Master Phap Loa. The most outstanding feature of this pagoda is Vong Tien Cung Stupa Garden. This garden is in front of Van Tieu Pagoda, which is about more than 700 meters above the sea level. Due to the majestic scenery from this point, it was named Vong Tien Cung, which means “the place to see the fairy land”. Vong Tien Cung Stupa Garden has six brick and stone towers, which worship the monks who used to lead a religious life in Van Tieu Pagoda.
6. The Buddha Enlightened King’s Statue
Before reaching the top of Yen Tu Mountain, you will see the statue of King Tran Nhan Tong located on an outstanding area of the mountain side. This huge statue was built in 2009 and inaugurated in 2013, with the work of nearly 5000 people. The Buddha Enlightened King’s Statue is 12.6 meters in height, which was made of 138 tons of copper. This statue is not only a mark of Yen Tu Mountain but also an evidence for the technique of traditional copper-casting in Vietnam.
The original version of the Buddha Enlightened King’s Statue is the small statue used for worship in Hue Quang Golden Stupa. The huge statue simulates the sitting position of King Tran Nhan Tong on a lotus flower. The statue of the king faces south as if he was overlooking the whole magnificent beauty of Yen Tu Mountain. The Buddha Enlightened King’s Statue is a symbolic construction of Yen Tu Mountain in general and the system of pagodas there in particular.
7. Dong Pagoda
On the highest peak of Yen Tu Mountain is Dong Pagoda, the last stopover on your way discovering Yen Tu. Like its name, Dong Pagoda was completely made of copper. This pagoda is 4.6 meters in length, 3.6 meters in width and 3.5 meters in height. The total weight of Dong Pagoda is 70 tons, and the expenditure to build this construction was contributed by the domestic and international Buddhism.
Dong Pagoda is the worshipping place of three first ancestors of Truc Lam Yen Tu Zen Sect, who are King Tran Nhan Tong, Zen Masters Phap Loa and Hue Quang. In addition, this is also an iconic construction of Yen Tu Mountain. According to many tourists, it is such a pity if you come to Yen Tu Mountain without conquering the mountain peak. From the highest point, you will get the whole imposing appearance of Dong Trieu Mountains in general and Yen Tu in particular. The nature in the Northeast mountainous area of Vietnam will help you to free your soul after a long and tired trip.
IV. How to Get to Yen Tu Mountain?
Yen Tu Mountain is located in Uong Bi City of Quang Ninh Province, which is about 150 kilometer from Hanoi and 50 kilometers from Halong City. To visit Yen Tu, you can choose to go by coach, by private car or by motorbike. According to the experience of many tourists, getting to Yen Tu by private car is the most convenient way. On your way travelling to these tourist attractions, you can have some breaks wherever and whenever you want to take some photographs. The price for hiring a car depends on the type of car and the distance from your position to Yen Tu Mountain, which ranges from 1.5 million VND to 5 million VND.
To get around Yen Tu Mountain, you can take a tram car from the parking area to the ticket-selling point. The price for a turn is quite reasonable, which is only 15,000 VND. In order to reach Dong Pagoda on the peak of Yen Tu Mountain, you have two choices: going on foot or going on a cable car. If you choose to go on foot, it will take you more time and energy, but you will have more time to admire the beauty of nature on Yen Tu Mountain. In case you choose to go by cable car, you can enjoy the whole scenery of Yen Tu National Forest from above, and it is also a memorable experience.
V. Best Time to Visit Yen Tu Mountain?
Since the journey to Yen Tu Mountain takes place in a high mountainous area, the best time to visit this mountain is the dry season. The most crowded time in Yen Tu is the first three months of the year, which is the time of Tet Holiday and festive season on Yen Tu Mountain. The weather at this time is quite cool and dry for climbing mountains as well as other outside activities.
In addition, if you want to go sightseeing, the time from September to November is quite suitable for you. The weather at that time was relatively favorable, and this is not the tourism season, so there are not many tourists visiting Yen Tu Mountain at this time. During this period, you can enjoy the tranquil and peaceful atmosphere of a sacred worshipping place, enjoy the beauty of nature and learn more about the stories of Yen Tu Mountain.
VI. Extra Tips
- Whenever you go to Yen Tu Mountain, you should watch the weather forecast to make the best arrangement for your trip. Don’t go on a rainy day because the way to the mountain top is quite slippery and dangerous.
- Prepare some bottles of water when you are climbing the mountain. The water on the mountain top is quite expensive.
- The temperature on the top of Yen Tu Mountain is lower than at the mountain foot, so you need to prepare a coach or jacket before starting your journey.
- Keep an eye on your belongings, especially in the tourism season in Yen Tu Mountain. The pickpockets can appear at any time.
- You should protect the historical constructions and nature there. Do not pick flowers, cut down the trees or carve on the stone and other relics. Be a polite visitor.
- Yen Tu Mountain is a spiritual place, so you have to wear polite clothes while visiting this destination. Do not wear shorts, skirts or sleeveless shirts on the ground of Yen Tu Mountain.
In recent years, Yen Tu Mountain has attracted a lot of domestic and international visitors. As one of the largest Buddhism center in North Vietnam, Yen Tu Mountain is the reserving place of the spiritual, historical and cultural features of an Asian country. Yen Tu Mountain is the place where you can find your soul in nature, explore the ancient values and recharge your battery after hard working days.
Keyword: Yen Tu Mountain: The Peaceful Landscape of Buddhism in Vietnam