A corner of Thay Pagoda
Following the flurry of spring festivals nationwide, Hanoi's Thay Pagoda Festival appears rather late on the calendar, but always attracts its fair share of visitors as it is an opportunity for locals and tourists to pay tribute to Buddhist monk Tu Dao Hanh, the founding father of water puppetry.
The festival is held from the 5th to the 7th of the third lunar month, March 26-28 this year, at Thay Pagoda (also called Thien Phuc Pagoda) in Sai Son Commune, Quoc Oai District.
Just 30 km from the city center, Thay Pagoda attracts visitors all year round but takes on a boisterous atmosphere during the annual spring festival as Buddhist pilgrims and interested travelers flock to the site.
Built in the 11th century during the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong, Thay Pagoda honors Tu Dao Hanh for his outstanding achievements in terms of popularizing Buddhism, treating the diseases of local people and creating many traditional activities, the most famous of which is water puppetry.
Thay Pagoda is not only famous as a sacred place but also well-known for its classic religious architecture, archetypical of northern Vietnam. Situated at the foot of the beautiful Sai Son Mountain, surrounded by rice fields and peaceful villages, the pagoda draws thousands of Buddhism pilgrims every year.
The pagoda consists of three parallel temples: the outer Ha Temple, used for offerings and ceremonies; Trung Temple in the middle for worshiping Buddha; and the inner Thuong Temple for paying respect to monk Tu Dao Hanh.
In front of the pagoda, in the middle of Long Tri Pond, sits a small stage called Thuy Dinh House. It is the place where water puppetry performances are held during important events.
Visitors would be wise to also visit the nearby Phat Tich and Cac Co caves, each of which is about a 10-minute hike uphill from Thay Pagoda.
Visitors can make their way to the site by bicycle or motorbike. Follow Thang Long Highway and turn right at a signpost indicating the route to Thay Pagoda. Along the route, travelers can witness the daily lives of Red River Delta farmers and enjoy the fresh air and the beauty of the rice and maize fields.
Thay Pagoda can also be reached easily by public buses Nos. 71 and 79, which depart from Hanoi's My Dinh Station.
If you decide to explore the festival on your own, be warned that locals may follow you, volunteer to be your guide, and then ask for big tips. It would be wise to simply refuse all such offers.
Though the festival is still several days away, Buddhist monks have already begun cleaning up the pagoda with the help of local people. Like every year, they will carry out the statue bathing ritual in which pieces of red cloth are used to clean the statues. The used water, which is considered holy water bestowed by Buddha, will then be scattered all over the pagoda as a prayer for good crops and prosperity. The used cloths are torn into smaller pieces to divide among the people as they are thought to have the power of warding off evil. After "˜bathing' the statues, people clean other objects of worship and then light candles and burn incense.
The most important ceremony of the festival is the procession of Tu Dao Hanh's worshipping tablet which takes place on the last day. The tablet, which is covered under a yellow cloth, is carried by four representatives from the villages in the commune. Another ceremony is the ritual of presenting offerings to Buddha. Fruit, traditional cakes and votive papers, are arranged on the altar. Then Buddhist monks hold cành lá»™c - sticks which are decorated with leaves and flowers- and chant Buddhist sutras while dancing to represent the journey of mankind striving toward noble pursuits.
And of course, during the festival, visitors will have the chance to enjoy water puppetry performances at the Thuy Dinh House.