The mouth of Dich Long (wind flute) Grotto, which hosts a Buddhist altar dating back to 1740
Lauded as the most third beautiful grotto in the country by Nguyen Dynasty King Minh Mang (1791-1841), Dich Long in the northern province of Ninh Binh has fascinated visitors for more than two centuries.
The story goes that a woodcutter stumbled upon the grotto in 1739 as he was climbing a mountain to look for juicy trees to lop.
Standing at the entrance, he felt a breeze blowing into the cave and heard a sound like a flute from within, so he named it "Dich Long" (wind flute).
Inside he saw many beautiful stalactites, including one that resembled the Buddha. In homage, he set up a Buddhist altar on the spot. A pagoda dating back to 1740 now occupies the first of the three linked caverns that form Dich Long Grotto.
At the bottom of the more than 100 stone steps that lead up to the cave's mouth is a communal house built to honor Ly Quoc Su, a Buddhist monk of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).
The monk from Ninh Binh was well-known for successfully treating King Ly Than Tong and many locals of a variety of ailments.
All 16 pillars of the communal house are made of stone. Eight are four meters tall and depict big dragons flying in the clouds and carp swimming in the water. The other pillars are three meters tall and inscribed with parallel sentences in the Han script.
Over the grotto's arching entrance hangs a bell made during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). The first of the three caverns contains Dich Long Pagoda, also known as Co Am Pagoda, along with a crowded of stalactites and stalagmites in the shape of elephants, tigers and lions guarding the entrance and the Buddha statues inside
Dich Long Grotto is located in Gia Thanh Commune, Gia Vien District, Ninh Binh Province. To get there from Hanoi, drive south along National Highway 1A for 70 kilometers to Doan Vi Bridge, and turn right. Dich Long is one kilometer down the road.
Dich Long Pagoda, also known as Co Am Pagoda, in Ninh Binh Province
Over on the right in Dich Long Pagoda there are gold-plated statues of the Tam The Phat (the three Buddhas of the Past, Present, and Future), and stone statues of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, and Amitabha Buddha.
The next cave is called Toi (dark) and contains a huge stalagmite resembling a woman's breast. The locals call it "Nature's Breast." Its many companions resemble an elephant drinking, a monkey carrying her baby on her back, an old woman selling cigarettes, and other forms of life.
Yet another world of stalactites comes into view at the entrance to the third cavern, which is called Sang (light) Cave. Each crevice and corner of the walls and ceiling is a sculptural masterpiece of nature, and the stalagmites resemble a kneeling elephant, a horse, or a lion making the cave look like a zoo.
A special feature of the second and third caverns is the musical notes formed when the limestone formations are lightly struck with a small rock; they sound like a bell ringing. Their colors are interesting too, and change according to the amount of natural light reaching them at the time.
Dich Long has been celebrated in many poems. King Minh Mang called it Nam thien de tam dong (the third most beautiful grotto in the country), outclassed only by Huong Tich in what is now Hanoi and Bich Dong in Ninh Binh's Hoa Lu District.
The cave was used as a hospital of sorts during the war and many wounded Vietnamese soldiers were treated beneath the glistening stalactites.
As with all such places, there is an annual festival at Dich Long. It's observed on the sixth and tenth of the first lunar month and includes an important ritual where a thurible is carried in great solemnity. For entertainment, there are unicorn and dragon dances, a chess contest, and plenty else for visitors to enjoy.