Yen Tu Mountain is home to the Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) Buddhist sect, who are now enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. Their yearly festival kicked off on February 21 – and 3,000 pilgrims flocked to the site in the first few days.
I/ YEN TU MOUNTAIN INFORMATION
Some 150,000 pilgrims are expected to make the trek before the festivities wrap up, making Yen Tu one of the nation’s key tourist attractions. The site deserves its popularity. The breathless climb leads one higher and higher, giving the climber the impression of an ascent to the heavens. But those seeking a quicker route to salvation can take the cable car. It may seem like cheating, but the birds’ eye views are superb. This year, most tourists and pilgrims are sticking to the well-worn path. The trek may be tough, but a pilgrimage isn’t a pilgrimage without a dose of suffering, or at least exertion. And visiting this holy site is, after all, a must on their religious calendar.
Yen Tu Mount, which stands some 1,068 metres above sea level, is the highest peak in the nation’s north-east. It is also known as Elephant Mountain, because those with creative minds think it resembles a reclining elephant looking out towards the sea. It has played a part in history for centuries, as monks seek out its sanctuary and solitude. But the mountain, just north of the provincial capital of Uong Bi and nestling close to the world-famous Halong Bay, really came to prominence after King Tran Nhan Tong retired from the throne in 1299 to become a monk.
Tong (who lived until 1308) took two other monks: Phap Loa Ton Gia (1284-1330) and Ly Dao Tai (1254-1334), and founded the Zen Buddhist sect known as Truc Lam. Before Tong came to prominence for his religious activities, he had already established a reputation as a strong and true governor. Aided by legendary general Tran Hung Dao, the young king led the nation to victory in two out of three resistance wars against the Yuan- Mongol invasions in 1285 and 1288. The first Mongol invasion in 1258 was repelled by his father, King Tran Thanh Tong (1240-1290). Even after King Tran Nhan Tong had abdicated in favour of his son, he still advised the court and came up with strategies to protect the northern and southern borders. He had developed a taste for Buddhist teachings and a love of letters in his childhood.
But it was only after he retired from the throne that he could pour his heart and soul into his religion. Yen Tu Mount, and the Truc Lam sect, flourished during the reign of the Tran Dynasty (1200-1400). Pilgrims wishing to pay their respects to this founding father nowadays walk a 20 kilometres path, passing 10 pagodas and hundreds of shrines and stupas. Their ultimate goal is the Dong Pagoda, sitting on the peak of the mountain. The many places to visit along the way are said the replicate the path King Tran Nhan Tong followed on his first pilgrimage. The first stop is the Suoi Tam (Bathing Brook), where he washed off the dust and grime of his earthly life.
Legend has it that the Yen Tu peak is the final line separating heaven from earth, where the celestial world touches the clouds. Whenever the pagoda’s bell chimes, rain clouds will mass. Visitors to this mount cannot fail to notice a row of pine trees, believed to have stood in this spot for more than 700 years. They are said to have existed when King Tran Nhan Tong ascended to the peak. But these trees are now at risk, from the very popularity of their homeland. Travellers use their aged roots as stepping stones or resting places, and quite a few of the trees have died as a result. A new path bypasses them, but few pilgrims want to change the habits of a lifetime – even if it means giving new hope to a part of their revered place.