Going on pilgrimages to pagodas and churches is an important Lunar New Year activity for most Vietnamese people
Tourists visit Bai Dinh Pagoda, a popular pilgrimage destination, in the northern province of Ninh Binh / FILE PHOTO
When New Year, the Lunar New Year in particular, is in the air, Vietnamese households get really busy preparing to celebrate the most important festival of the year.
There are specialty dishes to be made, gifts to be bought, sweetmeats readied to serve guests and so on.
But for many households, the most important activity, by far, is going on pilgrimages to pagodas and shrines to express their gratitude for a blessed year, and pray for good things to happen in the upcoming year.
Such pilgrimages are typically organized between the middle of the 12th and the third lunar months (January to April).
If you happen to visit Vietnam around this time and would like to join the households in their religious activities, it is a fairly easy matter to follow the crowd. Of course, due care has to be exercised, because crowds can get out of hand, especially at some of the more popular pagodas, shrines and churches.
One of the most popular pilgrimage destinations during the Tet (Lunar New Year) season is Ninh Binh Province in the north of Vietnam.
Situated some 93 kilometers to the south of Hanoi, the province is famous for the Bai Dinh Pagoda complex, the largest of its kind in Vietnam, covering an area of 539 hectares.
It includes a pagoda built at a height of 187 meters on Bai Dinh Mountain more than 1,000 years ago, and a new one built in 2003, about 800 meters away.
The ancient pagoda has two caves "“ one dedicated to the worship of the Buddha, and another to Mau Thuong Ngan, a legendary goddess of forests and mountains.
There is also a temple where Nguyen Minh Khong "“ the pagoda's founder and a famous healer under the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) "“ is worshipped, and another for Than Cao Son "“ a mountain god.
A festival named after the pagoda starts on the first day of the Lunar New Year and ends on the last day of the third lunar month. If you are not up to getting stuck amidst massive crowds of pilgrims, give Bai Dinh a pass during this time.
Bai Dinh has more than religious sustenance to offer visitors, because it is also part of Trang An ecotourism area, well-known for a network of nearly 100 caves, limestone cliffs, and rich biodiversity. The area also stands in close proximity to many other famous tourism destinations like the Cuc Phuong National Park.
Yen Tu Mountain
Another popular religious destination during the Tet festival season is Yen Tu Mountain, one of Vietnam's major Buddhism centers, in the northern province of Quang Ninh.
According to historical documents, King Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308), founder of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism, attained enlightenment on the 1,068-meter high mountain. In the 19 years that he stayed there, he wrote books and built hundreds of pagodas, temples, and towers, it is said.
Yen Tu is now home to 10 pagodas, the most famous of which is the Dong (copper) Pagoda situated on top of the mountain.
The pagoda, originally the place where the king led a secluded life of contemplation, was first built with copper as the main material, but it was destroyed by a storm a long time ago. It was only in 2007 that the pagoda was restored, using the original material.
Last month, a 15-meter high and 150-ton copper statue of King Tran Nhan Tong, the largest of its kind in Vietnam, was placed at the height of 1,000 meters on the mountain, becoming yet another draw to pilgrims and tourists.
When people make their way to the top of Yen Tu, either on foot or the cable car, they can stop by sites like the Thac Vang and Thac Bac ecotourism areas.
Yen Tu Festival starts on the 10th day of the Lunar New Year and ends at the end of the third lunar month.
Huong Son, a complex consisting of dozens of Buddhist pagodas and towers dating back to the 17th in Hanoi, draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.
However, in recent years the complex, better known collectively as Huong (Perfume) Pagoda, has become infamous for excessive crowds, massive littering and rip-offs during its festival held between the 6th day of the Lunar New Year and the end of the third lunar month.
Meanwhile, in the south, pilgrims gather in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang, where there are Buddhist pagodas like Van Linh and Phat Lon, both built decades ago on the Cam Mountain.
The temple dedicated to Ba Chua Xu, goddess of prosperity, is another popular destination. A five-day festival organized at the temple, located at the foot of the Sam Mountain, attracts two million pilgrims every year.
Pagodas in the central region, like Thien Mu in Hue, and three pagodas named Linh Ung in Da Nang, are less crowded destinations.
Our lady of La Vang
The Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang in Hai Phu Commune, the central province of Quang Tri, is one of the country's largest pilgrimage draws for Catholics.
According to some documents, the basilica was originally a church built on a site where an apparition of Mary wearing the traditional Vietnamese dress, ao dai and carrying a child, also wearing Vietnamese clothes, is said to have appeared in 1798.
The apparition is referred to as Our Lady of La Vang.
In 1961, the church was named a basilica, but it was heavily damaged during the Vietnam War in 1972.
Many parts of the building have been repaired since 1995 and a project to build it into a national pilgrimage center was launched in 2012.
After praying at the basilica, pilgrims have the option of visiting famous sites in Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Binh provinces, like the Phong Nha "“ Ke Bang National Park, a world heritage site with magnificent caves.
While Ninh Binh attracts many Buddhist pilgrims to the Bai Dinh Pagoda, its Phat Diem Cathedral, which covers 22 hectares in Kim Son District, is a popular destination for devout Catholics.
Despite being a Catholic church, it has the appearance of a Buddhist temple or pagoda, adopting the traditional Vietnamese architectural styles, and statues of the cross have lotus bases, like statues of the Buddha.
It was built with stone and wood for over 30 years, starting in 1875.
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