Forty minutes driving from the city centre brings you to the foot of Sai Son mountain, the location of Thay pagoda, also known as Sai, Ca or Thien Phuc, built in the 11th century during the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong.

The pagoda is closely associated with the monk Tu Dao Hanh who was well-known for his humility and generosity towards the poor. Legend has it that Hanh invented water puppetry to depict the lives of rural populations. This performance art became popular nationwide and remains so today.

Thay pagoda consists of three parallel buildings, including Ha (lower) pagoda, Trung (middle) pagoda, and Thuong (upper) pagoda. The outer Ha pagoda is for offerings and ceremonies, the middle Trung pagoda for worshipping the Buddha, and the upper Thuong pagoda is where Tu Dao Hanh is worshipped.

The age-old structure looks impressive, with its curved roof and airy, peaceful surroundings. Visitors can admire the beautiful lake with a floating temple where water puppetry is shown and the two bridges linking to Tam Phu temple.

Heading out here, the aim of my trip was not just to discover the ancient relic, but the new special live spectacle “The Quintessence of Tonkin” developed by Tuan Chau Group at the Baara Land Entertainment Complex in Quoc Oai district, next to the ancient pagoda.

Stepping through the tiled-roofed gate of the Baara Land at seven in the evening, I seem to be lost in an authentic rural market traditional to northern villages dating back hundred of years. Hospitable and friendly farmers in costumes made of silk and cotton and bearing traditional patterns gather at the market to sell their local food, traditional cakes and sweet treats. There is a bamboo watch-tower for a soldier in old-style uniform to hurry guests along to the show.

Entering the special stage area, a scenic and tranquil natural lake surrounded by bamboo hedges and outdoor seating is a pleasant surprise. The stage of the show is built between the auditorium and the hill on which Thay pagoda rests with a total water surface area of up to 4,300 square metres, allowing the audience to enjoy the performance against the backdrop of the pagoda.

The natural lake has been transformed into a stage, including a state-of-the-art hydrothermal system that raises the 15-ton Thuy Dinh pagoda from under the water in just under a minute. As the Thay mountain forms the background of the scenery, a unique illumination system had to be developed to light up the hills 1.5km away, using 40 lamps of 1500 watts.

The stage is permanently submerged under the water, and is large enough to accommodate 250 performers at one time performing stories depicting the rich culture and daily activities of Vietnam’s northern delta. Invested in by Tuan Chau Group and directed by Hoang Nhat Nam, the live spectacle explores six aspects of the cultural essence of the Tonkin, including poetry, Buddhism, nostalgia, music and painting, joy and festivities.

Drawing inspiration from the spiritual history of the nearby Thay Pagoda, the 60-minute live spectacle also tells the story of the pagoda’s founding by the venerable monk Tu Dao Hanh and the history of the ancient Thang Long royal palace.

The show features an array of traditional art forms and ritual practices from the northern delta, including Ca Tru (ceremonial singing), folklore melodies, Quan Ho (love duet singing), Hau Dong (Mother worshipping ritual), and water puppetry. The show attracts the participation of two groups of performers, including local farming families, who bring their personal experience to the stage to educate audiences about their way of life. Young talented students from the Hanoi College of Dance also perform, bringing their vitality and energy to the stage.

Years in the making and with hundreds of performers, an interactive stage, state-of-the-art technology and a stunning setting, this live spectacle is an unmissable highlight of any trip to Hanoi. Free parking is available on site at Baara Land.