Peace in the pagoda

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A lesser-known religious site helps travelers forget their worries

Chua Ha, the lowest temple at the Bich Dong Pagoda

The northern province of Ninh Binh is known for its many tourist attractions: the limestone karst formations of the Tam Coc waterways, Cuc Phuong National Forest, and the Hoa Lu historic citadel.

But often overlooked is Bich Dong (Green Emerald) Pagoda, situated above most tourists' radars on Bich Dong Mountain.

The pagoda was built in 1428 and is located in the Tam Coc-Bich Dong tourist area in Ninh Hai Commune, Hoa Lu District. But 600-year-old Bich Dong now sees far fewer visitors than Tam Coc and the nearby Hoa Lu citadel complex. But that also means the place is more peaceful and quiet, and without the bother of incessant hawkers.

The three small temples that make up the pagoda complex should not be missed. We didn't see anyone on the first part of our walk to the three sites: no monks, no travelers, no anybody.

Eventually we reached the Hoang Long River, where a few friendly locals invited us for a ride on their boat. The river runs around Bich Dong Mountain and the plentiful lotus flowers were in bloom, exuding an incredibly sweet and pleasant scent everywhere.

However, the real journey up begins at Chua Ha (Lowest Pagoda). This is where Bich Dong's famous 100-year-old jackfruit tree stands. When in season, the tree is abundant with fruit. Two towers mark the burial spots of the pagoda's founding monks. A look up from this spot provides a great view of the limestone mountain and its stalactites and stalagmites

The walk up the mountain from there to Chua Thuong (Highest Pagoda) is calming and peaceful. Limestone karst formations provide shade where a few shop keepers have set up makeshift souvenir stands to sell little gifts. The journey crosses over a concrete bridge that offers a wonderful view of the area, and especially its lotus flowers. Its 120 somewhat steep zigzag steps from Chua Ha to Chua Trung (Middle Pagoda) were cut directly into the mountain a hundred years ago.

Only half of Chua Trung can be seen from the outside because the other half is cut into the mountain. In front of the pagoda is an incense burner where visitors may burn incense to show respect to the holy spirits that are said to live in the area. Chua Trung provides the trip's first truly spectacular view of the countryside below.

The most interesting part of the visit, however, is a walk through Dong Toi (a dark tunnel).  We entered the tunnel by following the steps outside Chua Trung near a small shrine. The steps went straight up the mountain and at the end of that path was the beginning of the dark tunnel.

The tunnel, about 21 steps long, was pitch black. In the middle of the passage was an old bell made in 1707. We rang it because it is thought to bring good luck. There was also a black copper statute of Buddha facing the mountain range.

Exiting the tunnel put us on the mountainside. Looking down from there, the valley below was lush with giant trees and climbing plants. The view was so beautiful it did away with any tiredness the climb had brought on.

Across from where we were standing, we could see the five mountains that make up the Ngu Nhac (Five Hills) Son mountain range, namely: Tam Sang, Gia Dinh, Con Lon, Dau Cau and Hang Dua. This was the most stunning vista of the trip.

Then, we walked over a bridge called Giai Oan (Ablution) Bridge. According to Buddhist legend, anyone who walks over that bridge will forget all their worries. We certainly did.

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