Pilgrimage to Yen Tu – The Buddhist Land

The Yen Tu festival which is annually held from January 10 to the end of March of the lunar calendar in Uong Bi town in the northern province of Quang Ninh is one of the most anticipated festivals of the year, attracting thousands of pilgrims and visitors nationwide. 

Yen Tu Spring Festival

For a long time, the Vietnamese people have had a saying: “Tram nam tich duc, tu hanh/Chua di Yen Tu, chua thanh qua tu” (Even after 100 years of virtuous religious life, they cannot be called true religious people if they have not been to Yen Tu). This defines the significant meaning of the festival in their spiritual lives.

Yen Tu is a famous sacred tourist site with breathtaking scenery and hundreds of pagodas, temples and towers scattered under the canopy of primitive forests which are dedicated to King Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308) who reigned from 1279 to 1293 before passing the throne to his son and then going to lead a religious life on Yen Tu Mountain. There, he founded the Truc Lam School of Zen and worked to unify different Vietnamese Buddhism sects into Vietnamese Zen Buddhism. The Truc Lam School of Zen, which aimed to help practitioners transform their wandering minds into a peaceful state, soon attracted thousands of followers.

The opening ceremony of the Yen Tu festival 2017 at Trinh pagoda in Uong Bi City, Quang Ninh Province.

Most Venerable Thich Thanh Quyet rings the bell to start the festival.

The ceremony to pray for a peaceful nation and prosperous people.

A performance to reproduce the establishment of the Yen Tu School of Zen.

A dragon-unicorn performance on festival day.

To commemorate the founder of the Truc Lam School of Zen and promote tourism development, the province annually organises the Yen Tu festival. This year festival’s opening ceremony was held at Trinh pagoda with a solemn procession, which attracted the participation of more than 100 Buddhist followers, and a rite to pray for a peaceful country and prosperous people. The event also included an artistic programme with performances of drums, dragon-unicorn dances and others.

According to the Most Venerable Thich Thien Nhon, President of Vietnam’s Buddhist Shangha, the festival aims to uphold the Vietnamese tradition of “Uong nuoc nho nguon” (When drinking water, remember its source) and honour the merits of King-Monk Tran Nhan Tong.

At the festival, Most Venerable Thich Thanh Quyet, Head of Quang Ninh provincial Buddhist Shangha Executive Council acknowledged that the council has coordinated with ministries and branches of the province to compile a dossier to be submitted to UNESCO for its recognition of the thoughts and values of the Truc Lam School of Zen as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity and King-Monk Tran Nhan Tong as a World Cultural Celebrity.

Returning to the Buddhist land

The best time to visit Yen Tu is from January to March as the weather makes it ideal for hiking up the mountain. This period also happens to coincide with the yearly Yen Tu festival. The Yen Tu festival falls on the 10th day of the first lunar month and lasts for three months. The first week is usually the most crowded. Tens of thousands of pilgrims and visitors flock to Yen Tu and begin their climb to the uppermost pagoda. The worshipers use it as a time to show their belief and piousness and also to seek release from their sorrows and unhappiness for the past year. Foreign visitors take the chance to soak up the serene atmosphere of the festival, get up close and personal with the locals and of course take some pictures.

The statue of King-Monk Tran Nhan Tong is located at the peak of An Ky Sinh.
Tourists at Dong pagoda on the highest peak of Yen Tu Mountain offer incense to pray for a peaceful and lucky year.

The festival attracts a large number of tourists.

The stretch from An Ky Sinh to Dong pagoda is the most difficult for hiking.

Tourists behold the statue of King-Monk Tran Nhan Tong.

Climbing up to Dong pagoda since the early morning.

According to the festival’s organisers, the number of tourists to Yen Tu
during the first days of the festival saw an increase of more than 50,000 tourists.

The route of the pilgrimage from the foot of the mountain to the pagoda is nearly 30km. The highest point of Yen Tu is Dong Pagoda, which is located 1,068m above sea level. Visitors can get to Hoa Yen pagoda at the altitude of 534m by the cable car system recently put into operation and then continue walking up stairs to pagodas of minor note lined up along the path leading to Dong pagoda. Dong Pagoda, also known as Thien Truc (the Buddhahood), is located on the highest peak of Yen Tu Mountain, about 1,068m above sea level. The pagoda is covered by clouds all year round and has a beautiful landscape. Here, on clear days visitors can enjoy a picturesque view of the entire area.

In 2006, a new pagoda was rebuilt on the ground of the old Dong pagoda. It was cast in pure bronze in the shape of a blooming lotus. The pagoda has statues of Lord Buddha Sakyamuni, and the three founders of Truc Lam Zen School: King Tran Nhan Tong, Phap Loa and Hue Quang. In 2012, the pagoda was recognised as the largest bronze pagoda ever built in Vietnam and situated at the highest location. It is also ranked on the list of unique pagodas in the world and considered “a new wonder” in the Yen Tu historical relic.

To the relief of many, the cable car system was introduced in 2002 as an alternative to climbing 6000m of stone steps to reach the top of the mountain. The cable car makes its stop at Hoa Yen Pagoda where you can continue to explore the sights and hike up to the peak. However, most pilgrims if they are able to, including many old women over 80 years of age, will choose to walk as they believe that taking the challenging path up is a way of expressing their sincerity to Buddha.

Along the way, there are many places to visit which were built to replicate the path King Tran Nhan Tong followed on his first pilgrimage. They include Suoi Tam (Bathing Brook), Giai Oan (Vindication) stream near Giai Oan Pagoda and the Ngoc (Jade) Mount Hoa Yen pagoda. A must-see destination during the journey is Ngoa Van (Lying Clouds) architectural complex with many pagodas, towers and Ngoa Van temple which is believed to be the place where King Tran Nhan Tong completed his religious life.

For many centuries, Yen Tu has been a centre of Buddhism in Vietnam, and a famous spot that should not be missed when visiting Quang Ninh Province.

Story: Ngan Ha – Photos: Khanh Long