New Years Eve
It's Vietnamese New Year Eve and I have just checked in to my hostel after a long nine hours on the train. The town is sedate, with the local populace at home forgetting the troubles of the year past and wishing for better days in the year to come.
The evening is a late one. Myself and two German ladies left one hour before midnight to watch the fireworks welcoming the new year. However, as soon as we left the front door, we are grabbed by a group of Vietnamese, none of whom speak English, and a group of travellers, none of whom speak Vietnamese, to join them for Bia on the street corner. The Vietnamese very kindly offer each of us a can of Bia and we gladly accept. We chat away and toast to the new year, with "cheers" and "happy new year" being our shared vocabulary. Soon enough we are standing in the middle of the road with traffic banked up all around us watching the midnight fireworks. The fireworks end and the traffic resumes its steady march.
Bich Dong Temple
View from Bich Dong Temple
For the past few years I have attended temples scattered around the world for the Lunar New Year. Though, I am not particularly religious, I like the habit of making my thanks for the year past and making wishes for the year to come. Each year I pray to achieve my goals, and for the happiness and health of those closest to me. The first year that I made my prayers was 2015 and I had a very good year that year, and then again in 2016, and so on until now. Perhaps there is no divine intervention, however the act certainly solidifies what is important in my life and generates empathy towards those I care for.
The new year was entered with fatigue: the late night and free Bia certainly took its toll on my body, particularly because I am not much of a drinker. So, my day didn't start in earnest until after midday. The first temple was the unfortunately named Bich Dong. It is a lovely little temple, built in to the side of a small mountain. The temple also seems to be off the main tourist trail, which was appreciated. I spent some time wondering around the grounds, before noticing that people were scrambling up the karst mountain directly above the site. Curious, I followed and climbed my way up the hill. The stone of the Karst mountains is very interesting. It is a soluble bedrock, so is easily manipulated. The stone which saw a lot of foot traffic is very smooth to touch, almost soft. While the stone which is seldom touched is very sharp and brittle. My heavy rock climbing shoes sometimes shattered the black edges. I read online that Karst is one of the most fragile and unstable geographic formations. Because it is soluble it has lead to some spectacular caves over time, in fact the largest cave in the world, Son Doong, is in a Karst area. I wrote briefly about Son Doong in my previous article. Eventually I reached the top of the mountain where there were just four of us: two Vietnamese, a Russian man, and myself. We took some photographs of each other, then of the landscape, before descending back down the brittle black cliffs.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
The Bai Dinh Pagoda
From Bich Dong I jumped on the scooter and headed through to Bai Dinh Pagoda. By this stage it was early evening, with just a little light in the sky but the drive to the Pagoda was spectacular. It travelled through some of the mount beautiful Karst landscape which I have seen so far in Vietnam. It's just a pity that it is in such a developed area. The Lonely Planet mentions this fact as well, describing Ninh Binh as "cement factories mixed with stunning national parks". This seems to be due to a lack of foresight on the Vietnamese government's behalf.
Main Temple and Pagoda
Bai Dinh pagoda is absolutely enormous. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the temple compound is said to be the largest in Vietnam. I'm not surprised, I only saw the main attractions of the complex: the Pagoda and the main temple, but even those two took me more than two hours to visit. The temple I think is very interesting from a design perspective. I went at night and it was just beautiful the way it was lit up. I saw perhaps a dozen other people in the two hours that I was there; a pro of going at night. The scale of the complex is just breadth taking. It's quite new and so doesn't have the classic beauty that antiquity provides. If I had to use one word to describe the temple, I would probably say "stately", which is not often a word that you associate with religious sites. It has very clean lines, muted colours, and lacks the intricate details that older temples have in surplus. It is like it has been designed by a team of interior designs and architects following a unified vision, rather than having grown organically over centuries. The new complex was built between 2003 and 2010, and has the feel of a big-budget tourist attraction, rather than a historical site seeping with religious significance. It is striking nonetheless, and certainly unique. Worth a visit, especially considering it is free if you are willing to walk rather than jump on one of the electric buggies which are available.
All in all I had a nice day visiting the temples of Ninh Binh. Consider subscribing or following me on Instagram or Twitter to stay up to date.