The namesake mountain in the Gia Vien district hosts Bái Đính, which means “Towards Mount Đính”. It is located about 5km northwest of the Hoa Lu ancient capital and 12km from Ninh Binh city, and is known for many heroic events that shaped Vietnamese history. Nowadays, Bai Dinh Pagoda boasts a massive complex of pagodas, temples, gardens, and stupas..
Legend has it that the First Emperor of the Dinh Dynasty, King Dinh Tien Hoang De, built a sacrificial altar at this place to pray for favorable wind and rain, which was a strategic necessity due to the many battles he faced during his lifetime.
The current Bai Dinh Pagoda occupies an area of 1700 hectares, with only 27 hectares being considered part of the “old Bai Dinh pagoda”. The “new” Bai Dinh pagoda area alone exceeds 80 hectares. If traditional Vietnamese Temples are meant to be artistic showcases of a people’s wealth and power as much as their religious significance, then Bai Dinh Pagoda upholds this tradition well.
The modern constructs at the site are massive, elegant, and extravagant, demonstrating the same level of care and consideration as the finest of ancient pagodas. The walkways are lined with carved white stone Buddhas, and the rambling gardens feature small temples, towers, ancestor houses, statues, and shrines. Walls and ceilings are adorned with heavy ironwood beams and extensive stonework. 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 explore the site more fully.
Bai Dinh Pagoda is not simply a static display of an ancient culture; it is a vibrant complex that reflects modern Vietnam’s liveliness 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 worshippers, as evidenced by the numerous decks, alcoves, and niches specifically designed for photo opportunities.
The old Bai Dinh Pagoda, which shares the same name with the new one, is located about 800 meters south of the new pagoda area. To reach the old temple, visitors have to climb 300 stone steps that go under the entrance area’s ornamental gate. Unlike the new pagoda, the old temple is situated in a series of small caves and grottos, which are home to a variety of Buddhist deities, spirits, and shrines on natural rock ledges laden with offerings and candles.
This section of the complex is arguably the holiest and most ancient, 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, where offerings such as fruits, sweets, and gifts are made to the dead in fidelity and in the hope of future blessings. Ancestor shrines, which are more Confucian than Buddhist, have paper replicas of everything from dollar notes (“Hell Bank notes”) to motorbikes, cars, houses, and so on. After worship, these gifts are burnt to enable them to rise to the heavens for ancestral use.
The Buddha is worshipped 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.
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 figurines, including religious, ancestral, and mythical ones. 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 remembrance of things past, the new pagoda is a testament to the nation that Vietnam has become and aspires to. A rambling, multi-faceted palace to 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.
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. In addition, 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.
The spring festival, which takes place in the first month of the lunar calendar (usually between January and March), is a popular event. However, the exact dates can be difficult to determine since Vietnam follows the Lunar cycle rather than the Gregorian Solar calendar. It can get more confusing if Lunar and Solar dates are randomly interchanged. For instance, a give date of February 8 may be literal or can refer to either the 8th day of the second lunar month. Check just to make sure.
However almost every spiritual or cultural event in Vietnam is based on the timing of the lunar cycle. The confusion often comes in due to misinterpretation. Regardless,Ninh Binh literally blooms during the spring festival when the weather is warm but not too hot, flowers are rampant and the fields are vibrant with life.
Remember though, it is also the peak season for domestic tourism. Festivals celebrating the generous history of this remarkable city state. 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 Vietnam, it is a time not to be missed.
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.
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 Bai Dinh Pagoda is not close to any major villages, and it can be difficult to find a taxi or Grab for the return trip.
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 Bai Dinh Pagoda Tower costs approximately 50,000 VND.