When I decided to escape Hanoi for some clean air, a friend of mine suggested Yen Tu Mountain — home to a Buddhist meditation retreat hidden in the mountains about 120 kilometres east of Hanoi.
Waking up at 5.30am, myself and our photographer, Trung, set off at the crack of dawn for a three-hour drive to Nui Yen Tu, equipped with a camera, a bottle of water, a notepad and half a dozen Kinh Do chocolate banh mi. Our drive took us along Highway 18 towards Halong City, a mix and match of busy towns, dusty tarmac and the occasional curious buffalo on the side of the road. About halfway there we encountered a grandiose victory monument and stopped to take some photos and a well-needed break from driving.
By the time we finally reached the mountains, Trung had sped ahead and in trying to catch up with him on the winding roads meandering into the hills I was for a moment oblivious to the astonishing scenery unfolding around us.
Littered all around are small trails leading from the road to ornate bridges and then into little temples covered by the uninterrupted canopy; and not another person in sight. We reached the base of the mountain path, parked our bikes and set out on foot to the first leg of the ascent.
A Feast For Road-Sore Eyes
The mountain is home to a number of impressive temples, in fact, there is so much there that it’s impractical to think you could see it all in one visit. A sprawling complex of pagodas, waterfalls and untouched forest are connected by a stone staircase that meanders up the mountain like an artery.
At the peak of the kilometre-high mountain is Dong Pagoda. Built in 2006, the structure is made entirely from bronze and weighs 70 tons. The craftsmanship is truly something to behold, especially when trying to imagine how the materials to build it were carried there. The atmosphere around the pagoda is one of calm and reflection; traditional music plays gently in the background while Buddhist pilgrims pray and make offerings. A heavy mist wraps itself around the rocks surrounding the bronze masterpiece and faint smoke from burning incense lingers among solemn faces.
Yen Tu Mountain is definitely worth a day trip. If the thought of hiking up a mountain intimidates you then fear not, there’s a cable car that takes you directly to the top for VND120,000. I just wish we’d known that before we climbed halfway up under the midday sun.
From Hanoi head north towards Noi Bai Airport on AH14. Turn right onto QL18 and follow the road for 90km until you reach Duc Chinh. At Duc Chinh turn left onto TL326 and follow for 30km before turning left onto Yen Tu. The journey takes around three hours. Buses are also available.