I have been wanting to write about this amazing little mountain in Northern Vietnam for some time after spending a day exploring this area. If Mt Hiei is the obscure Zen mountain of Japan, then Yên Tử was a birthplace of Zen in Vietnam (Trúc Lâm School), marking the only period of prosperity in the long history of this nation during which the head of state (the Emperor) was also a devoted practitioner of Zen. Much of the insights he gained from Zen practice was captured in state policies and his unique approach to governance. If one knows where to look, one can still find the legacies he left behind in the culture and civilisation of Vietnam today.
I had been here once before in 2013, a year before running came into my life and showed me a glimpse of the person I could be. But just like Kilimanjaro and other sacred mountains, one visit is never enough. The lingering magic surrounding the precipitous single-roofed pagoda (Chùa Một Mái), the Copper Pagoda (Chùa Đồng) half hidden in the mist at the summit, and the subtle aroma of grapefruit blossoms in season had been urging my return for some time.
I made an early start shortly after sunrise. Passing bushes of blossoming camellias and rhondodendrons, I soon arrived at a picturesque stream weaving alongside a pagoda at the foot of Yên Tử, known as Chùa Giải Oan. In the autumn of 1299, when this stream was still known as the Tiger Stream, the Emperor Trần Nhân Tông renounced his royal life to become a monk on Yên Tử. Legend has it that his maids and imperial concubines followed him here. The Emperor counselled them to return home or live in nearly hamlets. But many of these women chose to drown themselves in the stream to prove their loyalty. These days, pilgrims pass pagodas on the way to Giải Oan, purifying their body and mind in preparation to climb Yên Tử. Metaphorically, Giải Oan is the final place to wash off the “dust of a secular life” before entering the world of Buddhahood.
The trail is exceptionally well maintained. It is approximately 4km one way to the summit, generously paved with stone steps intertwining with deep roots of cedrus and spruce trees, some hundreds of years old. It was not long before I reached a fork on the trail. I took the right path, known as the Cedrus Path, lined with cedrus and spruce trees. The left path, known as the Bamboo Path, would be my way down.
Passing the Diamond Tower Garden (Vườn Tháp Hòn Ngọc), I arrived at the Hoa Yên Pagoda, filled with ancient trees and frangipani flowers in full blossom. This would be the final destination at Yên Tử for pilgrims who are not fit enough to get to the summit. People unwilling to climb could take an even more comfortable option – the cable car – though they would have missed out on a large part of the Yên Tử mysticism.
I had the trails and the pagodas all to myself at this early time of the day, but apparently, thousands of people fill these small stairs during seasons of festivity. From this pagoda, I enjoyed an expansive uninterrupted view down onto the valley.
The next segment up to the Single-Roofed Pagoda (Chùa Một Mái) passed through ancient ochna and grapefruit trees. At this pagoda, the Emperor Trần Nhân Tông had spent much of his time after renunciation in meditation and poetry. Up from here, I paused at Bảo Sái Pagoda (Chùa Bảo Sái). I made friends with a two-month old puppy, and a ten-year-old dog whose left front leg had been badly injured by a fox trap. The caretaker of this pagoda had left his village in north central Vietnam during his teenage years and somehow chanced upon a life of solitude at this pagoda. He invited me to a simple vegetarian meal on the way down. I accepted on the provision that my return route would take me through this pagoda again, but did not make a promise. Promises create tension, especially as I am inclined to honour mine. Therefore, I am usually careful about not making unnecessary promises. I was quite touched by his offer nevertheless. This simple and spontaneous gesture said a lot about the expansive hearts of the locals.
At this point, I was still feeling strong and was running up the steps for most of the way. The air was getting cooler, the scenery mistier as I arrived at a large statue of the Emperor. The sound of the wind instruments created by wind passing through from all directions created beautiful melodies. During my last visit, this statue was still being commissioned. I had had a short glimpse of it when it was stored away in a local warehouse. Surrounded by the songs of the wind and tropical birds, I sat down in zazen. It was one of those places where one could just pause for eternity.
The Copper Pagoda (Chùa Đồng) was at the summit. Much had changed around this area. Six years ago, large slippery natural rocks had formed the path leading up to the pagoda. This time around, there was some basic steelwork forming a supporting bridge. It was safer and more convenient to walk on this man-made structure, but the downside was the clutter it imposed upon the natural view. Weighing more than 70 tonnes and carved out of pure copper, this pagoda was built as an altar revering the Buddha Sakyamuni and the three founding ancestors of the Zen School of Trúc Lâm. I made friends with another puppy. It was literally a puppies’ heaven. I was surrounded by bitches who watched all human movements with caution.
On the way down, I opted to go through another path passing the Vân Tiêu Pagoda (Chùa Vân Tiêu). I missed the simple meal with the generous host at Bảo Sái Pagoda. It would have been nice to sit down with him for a while and hear more about his life. The steep mossy steps, dampened by the overnight rain and permanent mist, were rather tricky to descend upon. Parts of of the way down were impossible to run on without tripping and risking a nasty fall. One of the features I liked best about this trail was the clear marking of all types of native flora. It certainly enhanced the whole experience for nature lovers.
From the Vân Tiêu Pagoda, I followed the Bamboo Path down to the foot of the mountain. Contrary to my expectation, there was not much variety in the types of bamboos growing in that area. The steps were starting to get busy along this segment. When I reached the bottom, I went back up to the statue near the summit and down again, all in a fast run without lingering anywhere.
The weather was pleasant throughout the day. There was no Typhoon Trami as in the case of running Mt Hiei near Kyōto last year.