It was a misty spring day and the winding road taking us up Tam Dao Mountain was made longer by the thick fog that blocked our view of the road. But still, the scenery pierced through the mist and soon we were driving through the remains of old French neighborhoods, dilapidated villas and estates now worn and torn after half a century of neglect.
We passed some of Tam Dao National Park’s famous sites – like Thac Bac (The Silver Fall) and Rung Rinh peak – and finally reached the slopes of Thach Ban Mountain, one of the Tam Dao range’s three greatest peaks.
There sits Tay Thien, a well-known complex that is home to a cornucopia of historical Buddhist relics and temples. The complex boasts splendid architecture, rich history and breathtaking natural scenery. We were visiting in hopes that we could pray for luck and happiness this year while it was still spring.
We arrived at Tay Thien after three hours on the 85-kilometer-road from Hanoi, which, according to our drivers, normally takes just roughly 2 hours on clear days. It was 10 a.m. and the sky was still covered with silver mist.
Although the annual Tay Thien Spring Festival – held from the 15th-17th of the second lunar month each year – has yet to come, the pagodas and temples here were still full of visitors.
There is now a cable car station at the mountain foot, next to Cau Temple. The ride just opened last month and gave us a wonderful view of the mountain and its surrounding forests, thick, lush and dense with vegetation and life. At the slow pace of the cable car, we admired the sites and took lots of pictures.
Tay Thien is believed to be the birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism. According to our guide, a Buddhist monk from India traveling here in the 3rd century BC chose this mountain as the spot from which to propagate the religion.
We saw a number of temples, many of which have been mostly lost to time, and others that have been fairly well preserved or restored.
Our first stop was at Thuong Temple, one of the most important sites here. According to our guide, the temple worships the Goddess Tay Thien, named Lang Thi Tieu, queen of the 6th Hung King who lived around the year 2450 BC. She was born in this area and after becoming the queen, she helped the king defend the country against foreign invaders.
Situated 800 meters above sea level, Thuong Temple has undergone more than one renovation, the latest of which was in 2009, and the buildings actually look rather new. We spent some time admiring the sight and prayed to the Goddess there.
Another must-visit site in Tay Thien is the Truc Lam Tay Thien Zen Monastery, which together with a Zen Monastery in Da Lat and one at Quang Ninh Provinces’s Yen Tu Mountain, is one of the three largest monasteries in Vietnam.
Built in 2005 on the ruins of an ancient pagoda called Thien An Thien Tu, the Truc Lam Tay Thien Zen Monastery sits on the mountain’s peak and offers a stunning view of several other temples and pagodas scattered along the pine-decorated hills.
The site itself is at once tranquil and grandiose. The courtyards are large and spacious and the buildings tall and striking. The monastery is adorned with ornate carvings on its doors and embossed works on its walls, ceilings, and pillars.
The monastery boasts a library, a museum, a meditation house, guesthouses and a mess hall serving vegetarian food for visitors.
The Truc Lam Tay Thien Zen Monastery has become an increasingly popular training center for young students each summer. Students here spend those months essentially living like monks: they eat vegetarian, wear monks’ robes and give up many of their “worldly” possessions.
They attend classes each day, as well as maintain the monastery by doing housework and tasks that many of them have never done before.
We were served a fantastic lunch with the monks and other visitors at the monastery’s hall. We had plates full of vegetables, spring rolls, and fake fried shrimp, fish, and pork pie. It was hard to imagine that they were all made from soybeans. Everything was delicious!
By Phong Lan, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 16th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
The Tay Thien Zen Monastery, located not far from the birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism