Off-The-Beaten-Track Pagodas

Posted 7th October 2013 by David McGuinness

Setting off from Hanoi

After breakfast I joined Phuong and Tom and we headed east out of Hanoi to visit some temples. These were not places on the tourist trail, but I was hopeful that they would be interesting and worth visiting. The rain fell heavily as we drove east, but people were used to this and life continued as before but with gaily coloured rain ponchos – pinks and yellows. The previous evening had been the mid-autumn festival (August 15th in the lunar calendar), an important celebration in Vietnam as in China. As such Phuong had brought me some moon cake to try. This is a traditional cake that used to be eaten while looking at the moon (hence the name) made from a sweet pastry filled with chicken, sausage, egg and sugar, usually eaten with tea and fruit. Nowadays most are store bought rather than home-made but they are still popular. It wasn’t really my cup of tea to be honest.

Visiting the Pagodas

After several stops for directions and a couple of wrong turns we arrived at the recently UNESCO heritage listed Vinh Nghiem Pagoda (since October 2012 to be exact). The pagoda was listed specifically for the Chu-Nom script printing blocks. Chu-Nom is an old Vietnamese script, somewhat similar to Mandarin script that has since fallen out of use. The blocks contain Buddhist scriptures and date back about 700 years.

Each block has two sides and contains about two thousand Chu-Nom script characters. The Pagoda itself is also very atmospheric and was originally built in the 10th Century. It became the centre of a sect of Mahayana Buddhism called Truc Lam Zen Buddhism (meaning bamboo forest) in the 13th Century and was also a monastery and the principal place of training for monks of this sect in North Vietnam. It is still practiced throughout Vietnam, mostly in rural areas. We were led through the various buildings of the monastery by a surly, stooped monk who wasn’t a great advertisement for the sect. Still the place was fascinating and there wasn’t a tourist to be seen.

Our next stop was Dau pagoda, a simple pagoda originally from the 2th Century but almost completely rebuilt. This was the first region where Buddhism took hold in Vietnam, before even it had reached China. Dau means mulberry, a fruit that was grown to feed to silk worms in this region in the past. It resembled a community hall more than a traditional pagoda with what they called a Harmony Wind Tower in the middle. The pagoda housed some black lady statues, as well as some Chu-Nom script print blocks and was home to an order of nuns.

Very close to Dau pagoda is the But Thap pagoda. This was the undoubted highlight of the day and one of the most beautiful and atmospheric places I have ever seen. As we entered through the front we could hear gentle chanting where three people sat and prayed. Their chanting was accompanied by a simple going and drum as well as the sound of the rain which had started to fall heavily again. The rhythm was very simple and powerful and carried throughout the grounds of the pagoda complex.

This pagoda was built in the 13th Century but much of its present form is from the 17th Century. The layout of the pagoda complex though not enormous was very pleasing with water features and plenty of greenery as well as classical style temples without a touch of the kitsch or plastic seen in many Vietnamese pagodas today. A 13m high, five level tower (leaning slightly) in an adjacent courtyard sported some beautiful stone carvings. The carvings were Chinese in style and represented many animals, both real and mythical in two and three dimensions.  A stone bridge to the central pagoda was also lovingly and skillfully crafted.

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