Yen Tu is a spiritual retreat and one of Vietnam’s most sacred sites. It features a series of temples, pagodas, and towered stupas set amidst a lush mountain landscape. It’s also here that Tran Nhan Tong, the revered Buddha Enlightened King, founded Truc Lam – a Vietnamese Zen lineage – some 700 years ago.
Spanning across verdant mountains, Yen Tu has long been a holy place in Vietnam. It is the cradle of Truc Lam, a native zen sect that promotes harmony between Buddhism and secular lifestyle. The school was founded by King Tran Nhan Tong, who heroically fended off the Mongols twice in the late 13th century. After his abdication in 1294, the king spent his time seeking enlightenment. He found himself at Yen Tu in 1299, where he became Buddha’s student. The king subsequently established a monastery to practice a religious life and received a substantial amount of disciples.
After the king passed away in 1308, his followers continued to build up the monastery into a religious complex containing hundreds of temples, pagodas, stupas, and steles. These constructions, along with many sculptures and fine artworks, demonstrated the artistic taste of the Vietnamese at the time. It also reflected the development of Buddhism in the Asian country by the 14th century. Later, as Confucianism became dominant in the royal court, the prominence of Truc Lam, and subsequently, Yen Tu started to wane. Worshipping places were neglected, with some structures now existing only in historical records. These days, plenty of temples and pagodas have been rebuilt to give visitors and pilgrims a broad view of this spiritual hub.
Because of its poetic landscape and sacredness, Yen Tu Mountains were chosen by many Vietnamese as their place of prayer, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. They believe that reaching the highest peak (1,068m) will bring good fortune. Meanwhile, pilgrims consider the hike to be a life-affirming journey. It demonstrates their devotion to Buddha. Therefore, it’s no surprise to see many elders climb up the flights of stairs.
The total length of the journey is approximately six kilometers with an elevation of around 1000 meters. It consists of thousands of stone steps, some of which are precipitous. Since the 2000s, a cable car system has been introduced to bring visitors to the summit. However, the gondola doesn’t bring you directly to the top of the mountain. There are still a lot of steps to overcome, especially in the last part where the path is not well indicated.
1. Hue Quang Stupa
Gliding over a soothingly green canopy, the first ride by cable car brought me halfway up the mountain. Here stands the oldest surviving structure within the complex – the Hue Quang Stupa. It was built in 1309 to contain the relics of King Tran Nhan Tong who passed away one year earlier. Throughout its history, the tower underwent restoration many times, with the largest one being conducted in the 18th century.
Measuring up to seven meters tall, Hue Quang Stupa is a fine example of the Tran dynasty’s architecture, from the roof designs, and the overall shape to the layout. Yet the most interesting part is the base which features abstract images of lotus flowers, clouds, and even dragons. Around the tower-shaped stupa are 97 smaller structures that serve as the final resting places of Zen masters and elite monks.
2. Hoa Yen Temple
From Hue Quang Stupa, a flight of stairs brought me to Hoa Yen Temple – the spiritual and historical heart of Yen Tu. Starting as a small shrine during the Ly Dynasty, it grew into a monastery under Truc Lam’s first patriarch, Tran Nhan Tong. He regularly opened courses on Zen Buddhism for his disciples here, including Phap Loa, Huyen Quang, and many others. After becoming the second patriarch, Phap Loa expanded the Hoa Yen into a vast temple complex, with assembly halls, worshipping halls, guest houses, a bell tower, and even a printing house.
Unfortunately, times and fires have brought demise to most of these structures. What remains standing are two peculiar lion statues (probably the bases of something) and a stele depicting the three patriarchs of Truc Lam. A large renovation took place in 2002 yet the scale of the present temple is hardly comparable to the former Hoa Yen. Behind the current main hall is the ancestor altar where a 1.2-meter-tall bronze statue of King Tran Nhan Tong and other historical figures are worshipped. The temple is embraced by various ancient trees which accentuate its solemnity.
3. Mot Mai Temple
The next stop on my journey is Yen Tu’s most unusual architecture, the Mot Mai Temple. Literally translated as a “half-roof temple”, this small and narrow building dangles on the side of the mountain. Half of its roof is concealed in the cave, while the other half is exposed outside. The shrine was built after Tran Nhan Tong attained enlightenment and he often came here to study and copy sutras.
Inside stand seven distinctive miniatures of Buddhas and Nhan Tong himself. They are made out of white marble and date from the later Le to early Nguyen dynasties. Flowing in one corner of the cavernous temple is a sacred stream that reportedly can cure diseases. The pristine water has never dried up, even in the height of summer.
4. Bronze Shrine
The challenging part started as soon as I stepped out of the second cable car: a winding path consisting of hundreds of uneven stone steps. It’s flanked on either side by bushes, low trees, and sometimes bamboo groves. I still remember my conversation with an elderly lady who was walking down. She was slender and fast for her age. I asked her how early did she start. She proudly claimed: “This 80-year-old grandma started at 04:00 and I walked all the way”. I couldn’t find any word but to admire her. She threw me a toothless smile and continued on her descent. Her cheerful spirit was indeed impressive and it inspired me to complete the hike on that day.
Near the summit, the flight of stairs was replaced by rocks and boulders. I had to tip-toe on them to reach the highest point, the Bronze Shrine. As its name implies, the shrine is made out of bronze. It measures 4.6 meters in length, 3.6 meters in width, and 3.5 meters in height, with a total weight of about 70 tons. The current shrine is a mere reconstruction made in 2007. The original one was much smaller and it dated back to the 15th century. However, at the time of King Tran Nhan Tong, there was only a large square rock outcrop on the summit that he used for meditation.
Tips for visting Yen Tu
- It’s possible to include Yen Tu in your trip to Halong Bay. Both destinations are located in Quang Ninh province, just 50 kilometers away from each other. It costs approximately 500.000 VND by taxi to travel between these places.
- The cable car system works all year round. It’s divided into two phases. The first one runs from the mountain base to Hue Quang Stupa, measuring 1.2 kilometers in length. From there, visitors have to walk to the second cable car terminal, passing by Hoa Yen Temple and Mot Mai Temple. The total cost for a return ticket is 350.000 VND.
- To fully enjoy Yen Tu, it’s recommended to have a local guide. He or she will help you navigate around this sacred mountain and explain to you the history and myths surrounding it.