Embarking on pilgrimages to sacred pagodas and churches is a pivotal activity for most Vietnamese during Tet, the Lunar New Year Festival.
Families across the country are often very busy preparing for the most important festival of the year. There are specialty dishes to be made, gifts to be bought, decorations to be readied to welcome guests.
But for many, Tet is not complete without planning for at least a ritual pilgrimage to a pagoda or a church to express their gratitude for a blessed year, and pray for good things to happen in the new year.
The pilgrimage season actually outlasts the main festival. People can choose to start their pilgrimage trip anytime during the first three months of the lunar year, which this year is between mid of February to mid of May.
Here are two of the most popular pilgrimage sites during the Tet season.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
More than 90 kilometers to the south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh Province is famous for the Bai Dinh Pagoda Complex, the largest in Vietnam.
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 completed 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, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a heritage site.
Trang An is 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, including 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.
Pilgrims pray at Dong (Copper) Pagoda on Yen Tu Mountain.The Yen Tu Festival is held from the 10th day of the lunar year till the end of the third lunar month. Photo: Ngoc Thang
According to historical documents, King Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308), founder of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism, attained enlightenment here 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.
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.
In December 2013, a 15-meter-high 138-ton bronze statue of Tran Nhan Tong, the largest of its kind in Vietnam, was placed on the peak of An Ky Sinh at the height of 900 meters above sea level, becoming yet another must-see for pilgrims and tourists.
The 15-meter-high 138-ton bronze statue of King Tran Nhan Tong, placed at a height of 900 meters on Yen Tu Mountain. Photo credit: VnExpress
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 (Golden Falls) and Thac Bac (Silver Falls) ecotourism areas.
Yen Tu Festival starts on the 10th day of the lunar year (February 28, 2015) and ends at the end of the third lunar month (May 17, 2015).