Paying tribute to goddess of safe waterways

April 02, 2023 - 10:23
A lunch time river cruise turns into a spiritual journey filled with history and much, much more
PLAIN SAILING: The misty boat ride on the emerald waters of the Black River. VNS Photos Mỹ Hà

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

Thung Nai, or the Deer Valley of Hòa Bình Province is renowned for its spectacular landscape. It's the perfect weekend destination if you want to dive into the chill waters of a large lake, stay in a cottage, or try local food marinated in wild peppers and local herbs.

It's still the second month of the lunar calendar this year as we have a double second month, so it's still the spiritually sacred time to visit pagodas and temples to honour our ancestors.

We opted to go to Thác Bờ with a cluster of temples to pay tribute to the Thác Bờ Goddess who was a Lady Saint in traditional culture. Born Đinh Thị Vân, a Mường ethnic woman, her story intertwines with the Cát Hãn Pass Battle by Lê Lợi, founding King of the Lê Dynasty.

We took a boat from Thung Nai, you can hire a large boat for yourself at VNĐ4 million for a full trip, or share with other groups to lower the cost. We were three different groups from Hà Nội, Bắc Ninh and Lai Châu, which was both less costly and more joyful as we made new companions.

The boat set out to the emerald water of the Đà River Reservoir. The Đà, or Black, River before Hòa Bình Dam was once the strongest, most powerful and mysterious river, but after the Hòa Bình hydro-power plant tamed the gushing monster, it has become peaceful and gentle.

SUPERIOR SNACK: Crispy stream fish deep-fried with shallot leaves for appetizer.

After about an hour, the boat docked at the Đền Trình, or Presentation Temple. We lit incense as a tribute. A brief climb of about 100 steps took us to the temple, where religious chanting was underway, and a chầu văn ritual singing was unfolding. The singing was too good to miss, and some of us stayed on to listen for a song or two.

Đinh Thị Vân grew up in Kim Bôi Commune of Hòa Bình Province. When the Chinese Ming invaded Đại Việt in 1407 and ruled for the next 20 years, Lê Lợi got his troops together to fight back and chased the invaders out, with Vân and a Dao ethnic woman whose name was not clear, calling on the people to donate food to feed Lê Lợi's troops. Legend has it that she organised boat troops to fight the enemies in the Northwest.

When Lê Lợi came back victorious, Madame Vân hosted a feast to treat his troops and encouraged people to make bamboo rafts to take the troops back to Thăng Long citadel. During this time, Lê Lợi used his sword to inscribe on a stone a poem to compliment the bravery of the local soldiers and people. The stone has been preserved at Hòa Bình Cultural House.

To acknowledge her contribution, the Lê Court assigned her to be the Lady Chief of the Mường land in Hòa Binh, where she helped people settle, taught them to plant rice on the hills, and catch fish in the Đà River. During her leisure time, she would row her tree trunk boat along the river.

We also followed her path, contemplating the beautiful misty morning on the lake, which was still cold from the new front that swept through the North. From inside the cabin, the landscape looks even more blurred on a day without the sun, but the water retained its emerald colour.

DELICIOUS DISH: The fish hotpot with sour pickled bamboo shoots and lots of green vegetables.

After she died, King Lê Thái Tổ ordered to build a temple bearing her name, and awarded her the Goddess title. A shrine and a temple were built to worship her in Hào Tráng Commune, Đà Bắc District. After Hòa Bình Dam was built villagers moved the shrine to Thung Nai Commune, Cao Phong District, and the temple was moved to Đà Bắc, further up the mountains, and known to be Hang Miếng.

Locals believed that Thác Bờ Goddess helped people pass the then notorious Bờ Waterfalls back when there was no dam on river. The Goddess watches over those who travel on the boats. In 2009, Thác Bờ Temple in Đà Bắc was recognised as a National Landscape Heritage.

At around 10am, we arrived at the Thác Bờ Grotto, which is a beautiful cave turned into a Buddhist shrine.

FLAME GRILLED: The vast kitchen at Phương Nam restaurant where your meal shall be cooked and delivered on your boat.

Before we entered the grotto, the boat rider advised that we go to the restaurant and order lunch. By the time we finished praying, our lunch was already on the boat, rather early for a normal lunch but since we got up at 4.30am, we all felt hungry and needed an energy recharge.

We met a lovely nice couple from Lai Châu, who drove all the way to Hòa Bình to go on this trip and invited them to join us for lunch.

A hot pot of lăng fish, grown by the fish farms along the Black River, that provide fish for Hà Nội's famed grilled fish restaurants. It set us back at VNĐ700,000, with a spring small fish as a crispy appetiser (VNĐ100,000).

It was just a hot pot, but set against a beautiful landscape and having a chat with our friends and the amicable new couple, it was just perfect, a really wonderful boat ride.

FISHY FUN: Spectacular scene of stalls selling roasted fish, chicken or sparrows line the way up to the second shrine.

It took us two hours to finish the hot pot, before we got to the final destination, the furthest and most important stop. Resting its back against the mountain facing the infinite beautiful landscape through giant bushes of large bamboo, it was a scene worth trying to get a glimpse of.

As we lit our incense, we prayed to the Goddess of the Waterway, guarding those passing over the rivers and lakes, for our own safety, for our family and our loved ones. VNS

Phương Nam Restaurant

The restaurant can cater to diners having the meals on the spot, or prepare full food trays to be consumed while you take your boat ride further into the temple at the top of the Đà River.

Full meal from VNĐ130,000 - 150,000 / pax with à la carte menu

How to get there: From Hà Nội, take a bus at Mỹ Đình Station for Hòa Bình city. From Hòa Bình, you can rent a motorbike or taxi to Thung Nai wharf, where you can get on a boat heading to Thác Bờ Shrine

Call the boathouse for a boat ride: 098 483 61 61 to all the temples and restaurant included