Inside the Bai Dinh pagoda
Inside one of the Bai Dinh pagoda

The namesake mountain of the Gia Vien district hosts Bái Đính, which means “Towards Mount Đính”. Located about 5km northwest of the Hoa Lu ancient capital and 12km from Ninh Binh city, the area is known for many heroic events that shaped Vietnamese history. Nowadays, Bai Dinh Pagoda has morphed into a major tourism site of massive pagodas, temples, gardens, statues and stupas.

Legend has it that the First Emperor of the Dinh Dynasty, King Dinh Tien Hoang, built a sacrificial altar at this place to pray for favorable wind and rain, a strategic necessity due to the many battles he faced during his lifetime. The altar is supposedly still there but Bai Dinh is no longer a small religious reminder of the beginnings of an Independent Vietnam.

Modern day Bai Dinh “Pagoda”park” occupies an area of 1700 hectares. While only 27 hectares remain as part of the “old” Bai Dinh temple, the “new” Bai Dinh Pagoda area alone exceeds 80 hectares. It truly is a massive construct in any meaning of the word.

Besides their religious importance, traditional Vietnamese Temples and Pagodas are also artistic showcases – in a similar vein to the Great Western Cathedrals like the Sistine Chapel. Bai Dinh Pagoda upholds this tradition well. Much of the work was done by craftsmen from surrounding and distant villages renown for their handiwork. Besides the numerous concrete paths and entry points, there is little else “artificial” about Bai Dinh, its constructs very much following the precepts of traditional architecture.

Modern Buddhism at Bái Đính Pagoda

Even at first glance, the buildings at the site are massive, elegant, and extravagant, demonstrating the same level of care and consideration as the finest of ancient pagodas. Walls and ceilings are adorned with heavy ironwood beams and extensive worked stone and brick masonry .The walkways are lined with carved white marble Buddhas while the exquisitely cultivated gardens are dotted with smaller temples, towers, ancestor houses, statues and shrines. A rudimentary viewing of the site will take at least a couple of hours but plan to spend half a day or more if you wish to fully explore the site’s myriad wonders.

Bai Dinh Arhat
Part of the largest collections of Arhat in SE Asia

Bai Dinh Pagoda is not simply a static display of an ancient culture; it is a vibrant complex that reflects modern Vietnam’s liveliness, wealth, culture and color. While it may sometimes seem like a spiritual Disneyland, the monks and shrines are genuine and held in high esteem. Bai Dinh serves both traditional and contemporary worshipers, with ancient shrines hedged by numerous decks, alcoves, and niches specifically designed for those all important photo opportunities.

Bai Dinh Cave
The old cave at Bai Dinh

The old Bai Dinh temple is located about 800 meters south of the new pagoda area. To reach it, visitors have to climb 300 stone steps that go under the entrance area’s ornamental gate. Unlike the ostentatious splendor of the new pagoda, the old temple is a series of small caves and grottoes, all of which are home to a variety of Buddhist deities, spirits, and shrines, often on natural rock ledges laden with offerings and candles.

Ancient Buddhism

This section of the complex is arguably the holiest and undoubtedly the most ancient of all. Believed to be the place where Dinh Binh Bo Linh himself retreated for blessings and meditation, the center of this area is the Ancestor House, reflecting the more Confucian mores of that period. Ancestor shrines abound, places where offerings such as fruits, sweets, and gifts are made to the dead in fidelity and in the hope of future blessings. Often they will also have paper replicas of dollar notes (“Hell Bank notes”), motorbikes, cars, houses, and so on. After worship, these gifts are burnt to enable them to rise to the heavens for ancestral use.

Bai Dinh Pagoda
The large Pagoda at Bai Dinh

To juxtapose this, Buddha is worshiped in the “Light cave” on the right side of the Ancestor house, while a small temple dedicated to Genie Cao Son, the god of the Vu Lam mountains, is located nearby. On the left side of the pagoda, there is another temple honoring Saint Nguyen, a Zen Master and magician who is often revered as a Vietnamese deity. Vietnamese religions are nothing if not complicated!

The winding “Dark” cave, which worships motherhood and the spirits of the land, is adjacent to the temple of Saint Nguyen. The cave is full of various representations of the four (+ 1) goddesses plus the associated religious, ancestral, and mythical accoutrements. Candles decorate the dimly lit grotto, giving the various statues an ethereal appearance that is befitting of a place credited as the birthplace of a nation.

If the old pagoda area is in reverence of things past, the new pagoda is a celebration of the nation that Vietnam has become and aspires to. A rambling, multi-faceted palace reflecting the living soul of Vietnam, it would be impossible to sum up all that Bai Dinh Pagoda offers to the interested visitor in a few short paragraphs.

Buddhism Reborn

Maitreya (Future Buddha) statue
Maitreya (Future Buddha) statue at Bai Dinh

Take your time when exploring South East Asia’s largest pagoda complex, as it is continuously expanding. The complex comprises numerous structures built in various phases, starting in 2003, with the initial design completed in 2010. More than 500 artists, builders, and craftspeople from traditional villages across the nation were involved in constructing the complex.

Mainly using locally available resources, the Ninh Binh green stone, ironwood and dark brown Bat Trang glazed tiles were purposely selected as to be as close to the original Ancient city materials as possible. The various constructs themselves are dazzling works of art from famous Vietnamese craft villages. Places like Y Yen (bronze work), Ninh Van (stone carving art), Phu Loc (carpentry) and Ninh Hai (embroidery) among many others.

Bai Dinh Pagoda boasts several impressive features including the tallest gold-coated bronze Buddha statue in Asia (Phap Chu Hall), the biggest Great Bell (Bell Tower), the most populous Bodhi forest in Vietnam, the longest corridor of Arhat (“perfected person”) statues in Asia, the largest Ngoc (Pearl) Well in Vietnam, and more. While at times it might seem like a competition, visitors can enjoy the great walks and vistas to contemplate the beauty and majesty of this fertile, ancient land. So take your time and savor all that Bai Dinh Pagoda has to offer.

Festivals

Bai Dinh Bell
The mammoth bell at Bai Dinh

The spring festival takes place in the first month of the lunar year(usually between January and March) and is a highlight of the festival calendar. Exact dates can be difficult to determine in advance due to the difference between the Vietnamese Lunar and the Gregorian Solar cycles. It can get more confusing if dates are randomly interchanged though the confusion often comes from misinterpretation, not malice.

For instance, a given date of February 8 may be literally February 8 or alternatively can refer to the 8th day of the second lunar month (thang hai tam). Since almost every spiritual or cultural event in Vietnam is based on the lunar cycle, learn to always double check it.

Ninh Binh literally explodes into life during the spring festival. The cool winter weather gives way to warm sunny days where flowers are rampant, a green carpet of rice coats the fields and the forest teeming with bird and wildlife. People are generally in a happy mood, putting the past bihind and looking forward to, hopefully, a prosperous future.

Remember though, it is also the peak season for domestic tourism. Festivals celebrating the generous history of this remarkable city state are well attended. There are thousands of visitors at every venue, resulting in overcrowding, price hikes, hotel shortages and so on.But if you are truly interested in the spiritual and social life of North Vietnam, you could not find a much more apt region. If you prefer peace and quiet, this might be the time to get out of town to a more tranquil setting such as the Cuc Phuong National Park.or the Van Long Wetlands. Just bring your mosquito repellent.

Bái Đính Pagoda Travel Tips

Bai Dinh Pagoda is located approximately 5km from Hoa Lu Ancient Capital and 15km from Ninh Binh city. The best transportation options are tour groups taxis, Grab/GoViet, or self-driving on a rented motorcycle. Keep in mind that Bái Đính Pagoda is not close to any major villages and it can be difficult to find a taxi or Grab for the return trip. You can try to arrange a return pickup with a taxi but demand is high and the likelihood of being stranded miles from town is high.

The park entrance is free and parking fees range from 40-50000 VND for cars and 15-20000 VND for motorbikes. Since the parking lot is around 4 km from the Tam Quan gate of Bái Đính Pagoda, most visitors choose to take the electric tram service, which costs about 30,000VND each way.Bái Đính Pagoda. The park entrance is free and parking fees range from 40-50000 VND for cars and 15-20000 VND for motorbikes. Since the parking lot is around 4 km from the Tam Quan gate of Bai Dinh Pagoda, most visitors choose to take the electric tram service, which costs about 30,000VND each way.

Tour guide services are available for +/- 300,000 VND in the new temple and +/- 500,000 VND for both the new and old temples. The cost to use the toilet is 2,000 VND per visit, and climbing the iconic Bái Đính Pagoda Tower costs approximately 50,000 VND.

*note: Prices are circa 2023 and a guide only,

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