Gate of Ban Long Pagoda
The Gate of Ban Long Pagoda

Bàn Long Pagoda stands out as one of the oldest sites within the Hoa Lu Ancient City complex, well-known even before the time of Dynasties and written histories. Amid an area where every other building dates back a millennium, it is an impressive achievement. However, the main attraction of this pagoda is the unusual stalactites/stalagmites rock formations concealed within the adjacent cave.

Situated on Đại Tượng Mountain, locals describe the mountain’s shape as that of a war elephant facing the Hoa Lu ancient capital. Unlike the most other temples in the area, Bàn Long Pagoda does not have the typical triple arch entrance known as “Tam Quan,” but instead features a single gate.

Nevertheless, the pagoda building itself adheres to typical Vietnamese temple styles, with an old Logan tree situated next to a large pond. There is also an Ancestor House, where former abbots at the pagoda are venerated, and a monk’s house where present-day monks reside. Visitors are led to the steps along a straight path decorated with rose pots.

Ban Long Cave

The altar inside Ban Long cave
The altar inside Ban Long cave

In Vietnamese “Long” means dragon and “Bàn” means bed or pedestal. Legend has it that some early foresters found the cave, perhaps as a refuge or a place to shelter for the night and discovered a stalagmite resembling a coiled dragon at rest.

The legend of dragons is a common one across many cultures (St George in the UK, tales of “Naga” in Indonesia, even ancient Greeks spoke flying serpents). So naturally petrified example discovered in a deep darkened cave hidden in mist-covered mountains would give rise to more than a few legends. Remember, this was centuries before there was even a name for geology or biology

Wnen Lord Trinh Sam ( 1739-1782) visited here, he had three words inscribed on the gateway. ” Bàn Long Tự”. Which roughly translates as “a coiled dragon stone pedestal”. Locals tell of other holy legends about sparkling dragon scales stretching across the outer cave and how the water runs regardless of how dry it is outside. Water is a powerful element in Vietnamese mythology and every year Ban Long Pagoda has a ceremony to pray for rain, peace, and the bountiful fruitful season.

The Cave Pagoda

Ban Long Cave
Examples of Stalagmites at Ban Long

Navigating the corridor into the cave, the space is generous and is filled with the scent of incense wafting through this most sacred place. The sound of water murmuring from the stalactites in the cave flowing into a small pond creates a gentle symphony, giving the souls of visitors who come here to offer worship a sense of lightness, relief, peace, and relaxation.

A beautiful monolithic green stone Amitabha statue stands on the pagoda’s left. This satue is believed to have been crafted at the pagoda’s inception and is reportedly the oldest stone Vietnamese Buddha figure still intact. The caves namesake is under the statue, a coiled stone dragon nest created by God and nature. Around the Buddha statues on the cave walls are stalactites that the locals believe were carved by the Creator into the four spirits of feng shui: Long, Lân, Quy, and Phượng (dragon, lion/tiger, turtle, and phoenix),respectively symbols of success, wisdom, longevity, and immortality.

Temple to the Mother Goddess

Stairs at Ban Long
The “Stairway to Heaven” at Ban Long

Those four stone spirits, together with a statue of the newborn Shakyamuni sit aside the altar, worshiping both Buddha and the Earth Mother of Vietnamese folk religion. The high cliff in the middle of the cave also has a stalactite that, according to some, resembles the image of Buddha riding a white horse.

Opposite is a large inscription is etched in stone, telling the history of Ban Long pagoda over more than 1000 years and giving homage to Saint Trần Hưng Đạo (1228-1300).A hero in Vietnamese history, Thánh Hưng Đạo was active in the struggle against the Mongols – Yuan Empire, and has since been recognized as a Saint and is worshiped as such.

After exploring the cave, there’s a small trail that leads about halfway up the mountain. Take note that this path is tough to walk so use caution when ascending but from here you can see a panorama of magnificent limestone mountains. Especially poignant in the late afternoon, flocks of white birds return to their nests after a busy day of foraging while sunset gradually reduces the harsh sunshine into a soft multi-colored prism shining trhough the white ivory clouds that float above the blue-green of the mountains forests.

Travel Tips

View from the middle of mountain
View from the middle of mountain

Ban Long Pagoda is located at Ninh Xuan commune, Hoa Lu district, Ninh Binh. Travel north-east along Tràng An Street and there will be signs directing you to the pagoda, or just check it on google maps.

Entry is free and if you have a motorbike just park in the yard of the pagoda. Remember though that on the Tet holiday, it is bustling and crowded and a fee may be charged. As always, be careful to lock your vehicle and don’t leave your valuables unattended, especially on crowded festival days.

Discover Ninh Binh