Yen Tu: A Pilgrimage to Vietnamese Buddhism

dong pagoda mists yen tu vietnam

              Yen Tu has been referred to as the center of Vietnamese Buddhism and, like most of the sacred Buddhist temples, the magic of Yen Tu lies in the journey.  Consisting of a series of temples following the monk king’s pilgrimage to enlightenment, Yen Tu stretches 6000 meters (about 6 hours of walking) from the valley floor all the way up to the cloud-wrapped, mountain top Dong Pagoda, 1,068 m above sea level.

yen tu pagoda garden vietnam
Garden walkway in the Yen Tu Pagoda

              The series of relics and protected landscapes make up the area on UNESCO’s list of tentative world heritage sites and it is well worth a spot.  The 6 km trek up the mountain is well worth the effort and many of the Vietnamese visitors do just that.  The trek is not at all an easy one though.  The 6 km journey is all up a seemingly endless path of stone stairs with the occasional temple to give you relief.  If trudging up these steps is not for you, there is the also the option of taking a series of two gondolas to the top.  

My Experience

stupas hue quang garden pagoda yen tu vietnam
Stupas at the Hue Quang Garden Pagoda

              I had first come across Yen Tu when I was mapping out all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vietnam.  It was on their tentative list so I decided to mark it on my map and try to make it out there if possible.  After doing a little research I found out that Yen Tu is considered by some as the capital of Buddhism in Vietnam.  I also found that it was first created as a sacred site by a king, who after abdicating his throne and becoming a monk, made the pilgrimage to the top of Yen Tu creating temples and pagodas along the way.  Beyond this, there wasn’t much information on blogs about Yen Tu, so on my way back from Halong Bay I decided to jump off the beaten path and make the journey myself.  

yen tu pagoda vietnam
Stairs to Yen Tu Pagoda

               I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started the journey.  The owner of the hotel we were staying at told us to follow the road up for 4 km and we would find the start.  That’s not to bad.  It was a bit of a hike, but there was a shop along the way to buy a cold drink and some fruit.  Finally making it to the end of the road we walked through a huge compound that is still partially under construction.  It was a beautiful place though and along the side there were an array of shops for tourists to buy souvenirs or the faithful to buy offerings.    

giai oan bridge yen tu vietnam
Giai Oan bridge

              Once through all of the shops, you cross a bridge over a beautiful little stream and are given the choice of either taking the first gondola or venturing further up the path to start your ascent.  I, of course, wanted to make the journey by foot (to the dismay of Jade).  A short walk up the path brought us to the first temple and the ticket booth for the mountain.  

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First series of stone stairs leading to the top

              From the ticket booth, the rest of the way up the mountain is a constant stair case.  In the beginning it is only a gradual climb, but that quickly changes and the stairs begin to become steeper and steeper.  While you climb the stairs, there isn’t much to see between stops.  The trees that line the trail block any view of the mountain range or the valley outside, leaving you only the view of the worn stone steps, tread by the faithful for over 700 years.  

hue quang garden pagoda yen tu vietnam
View of Hue Quang Garden Pagoda from above

              About 500m into the climb you come to a section of the trail lined with tall, green pine trees, reportedly planted by the monk king himself as he made the ascent.  This ends at the Hue Quang Garden Pagoda.  This is a small area with numerous stupas housing the remains of many of the monks that have served these pagodas, a small pond and garden, and a marble statue of the monk king, Tran Nhan Tong.  

hoa yen pagoda yen tu vietnam
Hoa Yen Pagoda

Following this is a short staircase to Hoa Yen Pagoda, the halfway point of the climb and the transition point for the two gondolas.  Because of the gondola switch you will find far more tourists milling around this area.  You can easily distinguish them from those that made the climb by the lack of sweat that is bore by those of us that made the hike.  It is from this pagoda that for the first time you will get a great view of the mountain range around you and, on a clear day, serves a great spot to take some great scenic photos.  

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Van Tieu Pagoda

As we made our ascent from the Hoa Yen Pagoda, it began to rain.  A small drizzle at first, it quickly turned into a down pour.  We were already wet from the sweat of our climb, so the rain wasn’t going to make to much of a difference, but it still put a bit of a drain on our moods as we continued climbing a staircase that seemed to never end.  While still in the rain, we finally came to Van Tieu Pagoda.  The pagodas began to become milestones in our climb.  Having seen a map of the climb, these points of interests were our only knowledge of how far we had climbed and, more importantly, how much further we had to go.  We didn’t spend as much time here as we did in the other temples due to the rain.   But as we began to leave we were baffled when we, already drenched, were offered rain coats to stay dry.  

direction signs yen tu vietnam
Direction signs for the different pagodas on our way up the mountain

From the Van Tieu Pagoda we had the choice of either going straight up the mountain or taking a detour of 230m to see another temple.  Since we were hiking up the mountain I wanted to see all of the temples on the way up, so we took the detour and quickly came to the Bao Sai Pagoda.  By this time, it was already beginning to be late in the afternoon and we knew we needed to get up to the top soon so we could make our descent while it was still light.  

stairs during rain yen tu vietnam
The trouble with trying to take photos during the rain

I had decided that I was just going to hop into the temple, take a quick picture, and then continue on our way up the mountain, but this isn’t what happened.  When I entered the temple, there was a monk inside who offered me a seat to rest and get out of the rain and asked Jade to enter as well.  Not wanting to turn down a monk’s offer we obliged and took a seat and after asking us a few questions the monk left.  As we admired the architecture of the temple we began talking about what to do next, when the monk returned to ask if we wanted to eat dinner with him.  Again, I didn’t want to turn down his offer, plus we were both super hungry, so we said we would join him.  The dinner was really good and was far more than we expected.  They even prepared sausages even though they themselves couldn’t eat them.  The pagoda doesn’t see many visitors, it being off the main path, so he was elated to have us there.  

monk bao sai pagoda yen tu vietnam
Talking with the monk at the Bao Sai Pagoda

After dinner the monk asked us to stay the night there at the pagoda, but this request we had to decline even though it would have been really nice to have stayed.  We really wanted to make it to the top before sunset, plus all of our clothes were wet and the we already had a hotel room at the bottom of the mountain.  He was very persistent that we stay, not wanting us to venture down the trail at night.  He warned us of the danger of traversing the possible slippery steps at night and that there might be snakes as well (something I didn’t tell Jade till we had reached the bottom later that night).  We told him we had a headlamp and would be careful and left his company as the rain began to let up.  

buddha king tran nhan tong statue yen tu vietnam
The Buddha King Tran Nhan Tong Statue

From here on the trail exhibits a different character and ‘walking on clouds’ takes on a literal meaning.  The clouds that for most of our hike loomed above us and poured its rain upon us were now amidst us.  No longer in the rain, our hunger abated, and having a renewed since of the hike we journeyed further up the mountain.  We made good time from here on out and soon made it to out next stop, the statue of the Buddha King Tran Nhan Tong.  A large bronze statue of the monk king turned Buddha, sitting in a meditative pose atop a lotus flower.  The statue is truly impressive, standing 12.6m high and looming in the clouds at 912m above sea level.  The statue also marks the final ascent to the top.  It is at this point that the second gondola ends and all visitors that wish to make it to the top must walk.

dong pagoda yen tu vietnam
Dong Pagoda

Known as Heaven’s Gate, the hike from here on isn’t so bad.  Either strengthened by the knowledge that the top is near or pushed further by faith, visitors trudge up the final ascent with relative easy.  About 2/3 of the way up, the stone steps begin to fade out and steps carved out of the solid rock take their place.  Reaching Dong Pagoda at the peak, 1,068m above sea level, is the ultimate goal.  Upon reaching the top we were more than thrilled to both be there and to be done with the climb.  Looking out from this mountain peak, there was nothing but clouds.  The view of the surrounding landscape was engulfed in a white mist so thick that we could only see a few meters in front of us.  We were told that this mountain top is always encircled by clouds, but on a clear day you can see out over a sea of clouds.  

buddha king tran nhan tong statue sunset yen tu vietnam
Buddha King Tran Nhan Tong Statue as the sun in setting

Having gotten our rest at the top it was time to start making our way down the mountain.  The sun was already setting and we knew that we wouldn’t make it far before the darkness of the night would overtake us and the trail would become even harder to traverse.  We made it only back to the Buddha statue just below before it was too dark to see and I had to pull out my headlamp to light the way.  We made better time going down but it was just as hard.  Taking each step on weak and trembling knees, down stairs made stepper by the darkness was not ideal, but we made it down easy enough.  By the time we reached the bottom there were no people to be found and we started to make our way down the road towards our hotel.  Fortunately, a truck of monks passed by and we were able to hitch a ride the rest of the way back.


yen tu map vietnam
Yen Tu map

              There are two ways to venture up Yen Tu, hiking or taking the gondolas (you could do a mixture of the two).  The hike is up 6 km of stairs and is fairly strenuous but is how most of the faithful get to the top.  There are also two different gondolas that go up different sections of the mountain.  The first one starts near the gate and ends at the Hoa Yen Pagoda (halfway point).  From there it is a short walk down an even path to the second gondola. This gondola will take you to the Buddha King Tran Nhan Tong Statue and you will have to hike the final 200m to the top. 

To hike Yen Tu: 40,000 VND/1.76 USD

To Take the Gondola:
One way (one gondola) - 150,000 VND/17.82 USD
Round trip (one gondola) – 250,000 VND/29.27 USD
Round trip (both gondolas) – 300,000 VND/35.64 USD   

How to Get There

yen tu sign vietnam

There is no local bus from Hanoi to Nam Mau, the town at the base of the mountain, so to get to Yen Tu from Hanoi you will need to get a local bus at the Giam Lam Bus Station headed for Halong Bay.  You will then get off in Uông Bí, a town south of Yen Tu.  Tell the driver that you want to go to Yen Tu and he will stop at the correct bus stop.  From this bus stop you will have to take a taxi or moto taxi to Nam Mau where, unless you got a very early start, you will want to stay for the night.  From town it is about 4 km to the beginning.  For this distance you can either rent a taxi or walk like we did. 

Where to Stay

khách sạn nhà hàng ngọc hải room yen tu vietnam

              Nam Mau has two hotels in town.  We stayed at the Khách Sn-Nhà Hàng Ngc Hi for 150,000 VND/6.56 USD and it was nice.  You can also stay in nearby Uông Bí, where there are plenty of options, and then take a taxi to the beginning of the hike (for this option you will want to make sure that you give yourself enough time to get back down in time to find a taxi back to Uông Bí).

yen tu pinpoint map vietnam

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