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Motorbike tour to the birthplace of Vietnamese Zen


When life in Ha Noi becomes stifling, as it often does at this time of year, the weekend getaway is the best cure. And one famous mountain northeast of the capital allows you not only to get away from the city, but also to transcend city life itself.

Vietnamese pilgrims who come to Yen Tu Mountain, 120km north-east of Ha Noi, have a saying: "Although you may practise Buddhism for 100 years, you cannot attain enlightenment without reaching the summit of Yen Tu."

Their destination is Dong Pagoda on the summit of Yen Tu Mountain in coastal Quang Ninh Province. And as they say, getting there is half the fun.

Renting a motorbike and hitting the highway is a great way to go, although buses are an easy option. But on a motorbike, with the wind in your hair, it's a fun way to travel through the countryside, and this way you're free to travel at your own pace.

There are plenty of motorbike rental shops in Ha Noi's Old Quarter, and once you've put on some sturdy shoes and packed a hat, some sun screen, insect repellent and lots of water, it's time to get on your bike.

While the mountain is only 120km away, it's best to give yourself two to three hours to get there. The roads on the way are in good condition, but it's best to safely cruise at about 50km/h.

To reach Yen Tu, head for the city of Ha Long Vietnam. After an hour and a half traveling on Highway 18 through green rice fields, I made a pit-stop at a roadside shop in Hai Duong Province and bought some green bean cakes, a local specialty. The small cakes are made from crushed green bean powder and melt in your mouth.

Back on the road, I drove along the highway until it started getting hilly, and I knew I must be getting close to Yen Tu.

The highest mountain in the surrounding Dong Trieu mountain range, Yen Tu is the scenic birthplace of the Truc Lam School of Buddhism, also known as the Bamboo Forest School.

The mountain and its series of pagodas and historical sites draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, mostly Vietnamese. Yen Tu has long been considered sacred, but its fame spread in the 13th century, when King Tran Nhan Tong founded the Truc Lam sect here. It was one of the first national Vietnamese offshoots of the legendary Zen school of Buddhism.

Most visitors begin their trek at Giai Oan brook, situated at the foot of the 
mountain. Legend has it that King Tran Nhan Tong, after abdicating the throne in favour of his son, stopped here on his journey up the mountain.

An inscription on a stone memorial by the brook says "This marks the spot where the king's concubines threw themselves into the river to show their loyalty to the king, upon his decision to become a Buddhist monk."

Today, some people come here in the hope of salvation. The Vietnamese call it "the clearing of unjust charges". A Vietnamese friend had told me about a popular ritual among visitors to the brook. It involves writing your name, and perhaps a wish, on a leaf and throwing it into the brook.

The nearby Giai Oan Pagoda draws many people. It's said the king established the original pagoda here in memory of the concubines who chose to drown in the river after failing to convince him to return to the royal court or to allow them to continue serving him up on the mountain. People now come here to offer incense and hope for peace and happiness.

There are two ways to get to the summit - by foot or by cable car. I chose to walk. Old tree roots snaking across the stone path up the mountain can make the going rough, although the fresh mountain air makes the steep climb that little bit easier.

It's a picturesque trek through pine and bamboo forests. One long stretch of the stone staircase is lined by towering, 700-year-old pine trees, said to have been planted by the king after he received seeds from an Indian Buddhist monk.

It takes four to five hours of walking to get to the summit, but I decided to take my time to explore some of the many historical sites along the way. These include the stupa of King Tran Nhan Tong. It houses the king's ashes and is surrounded by dozens of smaller stupas with the remains of Yen Tu monks.

Paths branching off the main trail reveal a bamboo garden, a stream or a waterfall. There are plenty of picturesque places to take a rest and enjoy the scenery. At Golden Waterfall near Hoa Yen Pagoda, which is about halfway up the mountain, I saw a monk meditating by the falling water. He seemed part of nature.

The monk was following in the footsteps of King Tran Nhan Tong, who practiced meditation here more than 700 years ago. The king also established meditation centres on the mountain and elsewhere across the country.

There's so much to see that I decided to spend a night halfway up the mountain at Hoa Yen Pagoda, that way I had time to visit all the most important sites on the way up.

Hoa Yen Pagoda is the biggest pagoda complex on the mountain and includes sleeping quarters where visitors can rest for the night.

At Hoa Yen, perched on the mountain, the power of nature was revealed in sprawling vistas that stretched forever. I could see why the king had decided to spend his final years here. the perfect place to sit down, focus on breathing and clear the mind. I felt time slipping away..

As a Zen Buddhist sect, Truc Lam places an emphasis on a meditative life - a mindful acceptance of the present and the letting go of self-conscious thinking. The sect aims to apply the principles of meditation to all aspects of everyday life. The power of concentration is the focus of Zen, or as the Vietnamese say, Thien.

The accommodation at Hoa Yen Pagoda is basic. There are no rooms with soft beds, only a couple of restaurants offering sleeping mats in large communal rooms. But because of my earlier half hour of meditation, I felt at peace with the world, and fell into a deep sleep.

I woke early the next morning to continue my trek up the mountain, which leads to more beautiful pagodas, including the small Mot Mai Pagoda located inside a cave, and Bao Sai Pagoda, which features dozens of beautifully carved sculptures of lions, elephants and dragons.

Continuing upwards, the wind grew stronger as I made my way through a bamboo forest. Eventually, I reached a weathered two-metre-high stone that resembles an old man. Some say it represents a Taoist monk, An Ky Sinh, and has weathered away during the course of a thousand years.

An Ky Sinh is believed to have come to Yen Tu a couple of centuries before King Tran Nhan Tong. The Taoist arrived to practice martial arts and make medicine and concoctions for longevity. Today, the tradition continues with small stalls selling herbal remedies for everything from headaches to hemorrhoids, as well as for a long life.

From here the trail gets more difficult to traverse. Visitors have to clamber up stones near steep slopes facing deep abysses.

After a climb that felt a bit like an ascent to heaven, I finally reached Dong 
Pagoda, which is unique not only because it's the highest pagoda in Vietnam, in terms of altitude, but it's also made entirely from bronze.

Standing on the summit, exhausted but elated, I took the time to enjoy the view and light up some final incense sticks. A fitting end to a weekend pilgrimage. 

(Source:VNS, URL: http://english.vietnamnet.vn/travel/2008/06/789765/)



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