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Travel back to ancient capital

Update: October, 11/2013 - 10:12

Panorama: The view from the top of the hill that houses Phat Tich Pagoda. — VNS Photos Tien Thanh

Tien Thanh

When did Ha Noi become the capital of Viet Nam? What are Dong Ho paintings? What pagoda is the oldest in Viet Nam? What pagodas have unique structures or Buddhist treasures?

You can find out all the answers by taking a one-day tour to Bac Ninh Province, just north of Ha Noi.

Starting from Hoan Kiem Lake by motorbike or bus, you arrive at your first destination in half an hour. Do Temple in Dinh Bang Village (Dinh Bang Commune, Tu Son District) is one of the country's most important national historic heritage sites.

The temple, which dates back to 1030, marks the birthplace of Ly Thai To, the first king of the Ly Dynasty (1009 – 1225).

The complex has a symmetrical structure with a temple dedicated to civil mandarins on the left, the biggest and most illustrious temple for the eight kings of the Ly Dynasty in the centre and a temple for military mandarins on the right.

Holy site: The front yard of the Do Temple, which looks neat and clean after getting a renovation last year.

The temple is dedicated to worshipping the Ly Dynasty kings, but it's a puzzle which is which as all their statues were carved identically.

Leaving the Do Temple, you can reach an equally old religious site in ten minutes: Phat Tich Pagoda, situated on the side of Lan Kha Hill in Phat Tich Commune, Tien Du District.

The pagoda underwent some restoration but much of it has been preserved in its original state. Plus you get a sacred and ancient feeling which you don't get at the previous temple.

The dozens of steps leading to the pagoda's main building are a bit energy-sapping, but the interesting statues make up for it.

The pagoda has many statues, but the most striking one is the altar dedicated to the Buddha and Buddhism, which features a statue of Amitabha Buddha carved in the 11th century from a single slab of black limestone. It is considered one of the most important treasures of Buddhism in Viet Nam.

Sacred statue: The altar at Phat Tich Pagoda's main building, with a 1000-year-old original Buddha sculpture at the back.

The complex is undergoing an extensive expansion with a lot of construction towards the top of the hill, which houses two formidable structures. One is a 50m tower, its diameter measuring about 20m at its base, built with a special kind of brick. The other, which is about 100m further, is a giant version of the Amitabha Buddha placed on a three-level platform.

From the top of the hill you have a stunning view, stretching tens of kilometres to villages and rice fields in the surrounding areas – another great reward for your stair-climbing efforts.

Another ten-minute journey, which takes you past Ho Bridge, will bring you to Dong Ho painting village in Song Ho Commune, Thuan Thanh District. Here you will get a chance to witness the process of how centuries-old Dong Ho paintings are produced and purchase any paintings you like. Prominent artisan Nguyen Dang Che describes the significance of the paintings for visitors.

Leaving the painting village, you can drive five kilometres to Dau pagoda, widely recognised as the oldest in Viet Nam and the birthplace of Buddhism in the country. Admission is free of charge.

The pagoda dates back to the second century but was expanded into today's size in the 13th century. The feature distinguishing the pagoda from others is that it is dedicated to worshipping indigenous cults worshipping the goddesses of rain, clouds, thunder and other natural phenomena.

One spectacular tower made of bricks dating back to the 13th century stands strikingly in the middle of the yard between the main worshipping buildings and the gate building.

The last destination on the itinerary, just a few kilometres from Dau pagoda, is But Thap Pagoda.

Like many other pagodas, the pagoda is symmetrical with 10 buildings covering an area of few hundred square metres. It is decorated with numerous ornamental plants arranged neatly in the spaces between buildings, creating a pleasant feeling for visitors.

"The pagoda is quite different from other ones. It looks ancient and pleasant," Frenchman Barberot Bernard said after visiting the pagoda with his wife.

Unlike many other pagodas, the But Thap pagoda has much of its structure still in its original state. Pedestals are supported by pieces of rounded stones, similar to almost all ancient Vietnamese houses.

The most unique feature of the pagoda is probably the thousand-handed, thousand-eyed Goddess of Mercy, a famous sculptural masterpiece of Viet Nam.

Last but not least, foreign tourists who cannot understand Vietnamese might be frustrated because there is not any annotation in English, so if you need detailed explanations, consider hiring a local guide for your visit to Bac Ninh. — VNS

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