|Scenic view: The temple overlooks the mighty, poetic landscape of the Red River. — VNS Photo Hong Thuy
by Hong Thuy
Believers taking part in religious pilgrimages, such as Muslims performing the Hajj or Buddhists visiting the four sacred sites in India and Nepal, are plainly recognised as "spiritual tourists".
This is also to be found at Bao Ha Temple, which many Vietnamese call a "spiritual destination".
Located 60km south of Lao Cai Province and 10 minutes by motorbike from Bao Yen station in the same province, the temple captures the attention of visitors because of its tranquility and the mighty, poetic landscape of the Hong (Red) River meandering through Cam Hill.
Backing up to the hill and overlooking the Red River, the temple offers a harmonious combination between natural landscapes and the architectural traditions of the Vietnamese.
Also surrounded by immense mountains and a vast green landscape, Bao Ha Temple offers a refuge for those seeking peace of mind and a journey back to the origins of General Nguyen Hoang Bay, who had gave his life to defend the Lao Cai border pass from foreign invaders.
History has it that at the end of the Le dynasty (1740-1786) the two districts, called Thuy Vi and Van Ban in Quy Hoa, were often looted and assaulted by Northern invaders.
To tackle the problem, King Le Hien Tong sent General Nguyen Hoang Bay to Quy Hoa to expel the invaders. The General led his army to the Thao River to drive off the enemies, liberating and building Bao Ha - a line of defence on the Red River in the northwest, which became a strong base.
It was at this base that Gen Bay trained soldiers and commanded them to march to Lao Cai to free Quy Hoa (Yen Bai and Lao Cai provinces).
Later, the enemies again attacked the border pass, forcing the Vietnamese army to fight. During a battle, Gen Bay laid down his life for the nation.
His body was thrown into the Red River and drifted onto the Bao Ha shore. Local people buried his remains and built a shrine to worship the General.
To commemorate his daring exploits, Kings of the Nguyen dynasty, including Minh Menh and Thieu Tri, confered him the titles "glorious guard of the frontier" and "deity of national defence".
Likewise, Gen Bay is worshipped as a god by different ethnic groups, such as Kinh, Tay and Dao.
His story has become part of their spirituality and the anniversary of his death, which falls on the 17th day of the seventh month of every lunar year, has become an integral date for spiritual tourists.
According to a deputy head of the Board of Management of Bao Ha Temple, Nguyen Van Minh, pilgrims frequently start their journey to the temple in the first lunar month.
By the end of the seventh month, the temple receives about ten thousand visitors each year.
This figure has been maintained during the past seven years, even when the country was hit hard by the economic slowdown, Minh said.
Perhaps, attending the temple gives pilgrims a clearer perspective and a sense of being blessed, even after they have returned to their every day lives.
|Spiritual refuge: The temple attracts about ten thousand visitors every year. Most come to attend the death anniversary of General Nguyen Hoang Bay, to whom the temple is dedicated. Others come to explore the tranquil setting.
Further, building and renovating the temple has received much attention since it was first opened during the Nguyen dynasty.
According to local tales, as soon as the General's remains were retrieved from the river, ethnic people built a 20sq.m shrine to honour him.
The shrine was later upgraded several times.
The temple underwent a significant restoration in 2000 to meet the increasing demand among the local residents, and people across the country, to pay tribute to the General.
Costing VND4.7 billion (US$220,000), Bao Ha Temple was inaugurated three years later.
A pilgrim, Tran Van Hung, said he had visited the temple during the past consecutive five years, with each visit giving him a sense of security and being blessed.
"Attending the temple gives me a feeling of being close to the god and the hope of receiving his blessings," Hung said.
Every year was the same, as Hung and his companions left Ha Noi one day before the anniversary of the death to journey to the temple by train.
The anniversary always starts in early morning and comprises two parts: worshiping and celebrating. A village head, usually the most respected man, prays on behalf of the community. He reminds the villagers of the reason they can enjoy a peaceful life.
During the worshiping process, adults wish for good health and bountiful harvests, while young people wish for better performances in their academic life.
After finishing the procession, gifts and food are shared with villagers and visitors, and people start celebrating, as they dance, sing, play games or simply enjoy the once-a-year festival.
Pilgrims visiting the temple today can hardly imagine how the scene surrounding the temple has changed.
Once, there was only a path wide enough for one person to go to the temple, as it was covered by wild grass and plants, and the entrance to the temple has not only been cleared, but has become a commune's trade area for the local residents.
Along the two sides of the entrance are shops and inns selling offerings, such as food and apricot - a typical fruit of Bao Ha Commune.
Most sellers are from the Kinh ethnic group who came to the mountainous commune to reclaim virgin soil and settle in a new life here as early as 1962.
Pham Thi Tan claims to be the first group to settle here and sell offerings and food to visitors.
During the month of the anniversary, she usually earned some tens of million dong.
"My family was the first household doing business. Later, more people followed, as they could see how my family earned money from selling offerings and food to visitors."
"As the temple has become a spiritual destination for pilgrims, we are able to thrive from its development," Tan said.
Even though the anniversary is by no means extravagant, it reflects the deeply-rooted tradition of uong nuoc nho nguon (drinking water remember its origin) of the Vietnamese.
Visiting Bao Ha Temple is very convenient because there is more than one way to travel. Visitors can go by bus, rail or waterway. If travelling by train from Ha Noi, take train LC1 from Ha Noi Station at 22.05pm. — VNS