The ancient artisans who built Bích Động Pagoda and the accompanying gardens have mesmerized visitors for a millenia. Together with their ingenuity in complimenting the exquisite natural landscape and the famed elegance and serenity, it has been maintained and added to for centuries and from a recent visit, the work is ongoing.
As both a national treasure and part of the Trang An global natural heritage complex, Bích Động Pagoda and Tam Coc are names that most domestic and foreign tourists are well acquainted with. The Academy award winning film Indochine features many scenes shot at Bích Động Pagoda, further enhancing its reputation. Truly, Bich Dong is a place with ageless beauty that entices all visitors to stay a little longer in this serene and revered Buddhist refuge.
To access the pagoda grounds, visitors must first cross a small green stone bridge over the adjacent lagoons strewn with Lotus. Passing through the “Triple Gate” entrance you are immediately transported into an ancient world of stone, wood and myth.
To further highlight its Buddhist origins, a statue of Quan Âm, also known as Guanyin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy and Compassion), sits above the entrance. After passing through the gate, visitors then follow a narrow footpath that leads to the main pagoda area.
A Serene Setting
The architects of the pagoda enhanced the natural landscape of the mountains and trees surrounding the area, with an orchard situated to the right of the walkway. Scenic all year round, the winter season is particularly stunning, as the persimmon trees shed their leaves to reveal ripe, juicy persimmons like red ink gems set against the backdrop of the pristine landscape.
The green mountains and woods blend with the blue-white sky and create the inspiration for countless ink wash painting. Visitors are invited to relax, take a deep breath of cool air and expel all thoughts and suffering. For Bich Dong Pagoda is a place dedicated to the serenity of the Buddha, a place to find healing for weary hearts.
Legend has it that the pagoda was originally named “Bạch Ngọc Thạch Sơn Đồng,” which roughly means “a beautiful stone pagoda like white jade hidden deep in the forest.” In 1774, Lord Trịnh Sâm (1739-1782) arrived at the pagoda and changed its name to Bích Động, which roughly translates to “The Emerald Pagoda.” Throughout the centuries, it has been a destination for many prominent Vietnamese and overseas mendicants, poets, authors and artists seeking inspiration and spiritual peace.
The Two Monks
Bích Động Pagoda was initially constructed in 1428 but was rediscovered in the early 18th century by two traveling monks who were spreading the word of Buddha throughout the countryside. Upon arriving at Bích Động, they were captivated by the beauty and serenity of the mountainous region, and they decided to settle down and renovate and expand the pagoda.A process that continues to the present day.
The two monks spent years seeking donations and assistance from far and wide to reconstruct the original temple. Further, they wanted to add two more structures, as well as design gardens that would complement the high mountain landscape. Thanks to their efforts, Bích Động is now a truly gorgeous collection of three temples, Hạ (lower), Trung (middle), and Thượng (upper), in a stunning location meticulously maintained.
Upon arrival, visitors will first reach Ha Pagoda, the lower temple with five rooms made from wooden and stone pillars. This pagoda worships both Buddha and the Buddhist monks who guided the creation of this renowned temple. It also contains a stone tablet (stele) that records the names of others who contributed to its construction.
Upon entering the pagoda area, visitors will see kiosks of local elderly ladies selling souvenirs and temple goods, which is quite common in Vietnamese temples. As this area also serves as the main administration area, not part of the temple proper, the stalls are handy for purchasing incense, mementos or perhaps a cool drink. As mentioned, the surrounding garden is also home to carefully maintained, ancient trees that are centuries old, including large examples of wizened persimmon and jackfruit trees.
Ha and Trung Pagoda
At the heart of the Ha pagoda campus are two moss covered, long-standing carved stone lions as well as a dragon statue with its face pointing upwards towards the moon, indicating spiritual submission to the Buddha’s strength and authority. There are also Buddha sculptures such as Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the Infant Buddha Shakyamuni, Amida Buddha, and others on the main altar.
On the ceiling hangs a horizontal lacquered board engraved with Sino-Vietnamese characters, which reminds us that a pure mind is in the reach of all. The roof of the pagoda has two layers, curled at the end like white birds extending their wings and flying over the beautiful green rice fields.
The journey from Ha Pagoda to Trung (middle) Pagoda is a 120 step s-shaped stone pathway that passes through the stupas, and overlooks the panoramic landscape below. Looking back, the roof of the Ha pagoda peeps out from behind the Malayan Banyan tree canopy that grows on the down slope and create a lush green curtain separating the two levels.
The Trung Pagoda is located in the center of the complex and is half Pagoda (chùa) and half cave (Hang). Making use of the cave’s topography, the pagoda has three compartments. The main room has an altar for Sakyamuni Buddha (Buddha), Buddhism’s founder, encircled by nine dragons. The two outer sculptures are of the Manjushri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.
The ceiling here is the cave’s dome. On the left side of Trung Pagoda, there is a small entrance with a narrow passage leading into the “Dark Cave” (Hang Toi). A little stairway of 21 steps leads visitors to the main expanse of the Dark Cave. Although relatively small compared to many Ninh Binh cave systems, the Hang Toi is famous for the limestone stalactites that festoon the ceiling in a variety of fantastical shapes. The grotto itself is for worship of both Buddha and Mau Thuong Ngan, the Mother forest goddess of Vietnamese folk religion.
A special feature is the large 18th-century copper bell that, if rung three times, reputably alleviates the pain of injustice. Although there are auxiliary lights, it is named the “Dark Cave” for a reason and guests who wish to fully appreciate the full grandeur of the pagoda should carry a flashlight to see more clearly.
After passing through the Dark cave, visitors then ascend a further 40 stone stairs to reach Thượng Pagoda, which is positioned near the peak of Bích Động mountain. Standing on the pagoda grounds, visitors will be able to see the full complex of pagodas surrounded by the mountains.
The large frangipani trees in front of the pagoda when in-season produce fragrant blossoms that celebrate the “spring hue”. In the afternoon light of spring the scent adds to the rich atmosphere of the brocaded mountains and rivers concealing themselves in a fading light.
Inside, there is a statue of Bodhisattva Guanyin or Quán Thế Âm in Vietnamese, and on the left is a stele recording the pagoda’s renovation time. Outside, there are two modest shrines with statues of gods and Buddha in the Vietnamese spiritual tradition.
Using the principles of feng shui, Bích Động is said to resemble a lotus center, with the five surrounding mountains symbolizing petals encircling the lotus bud. Visitors are often astounded to see the large jagged stones with sharp surfaces behind the pagoda and the large frangipani trees whose roots puncture the earth for nutrients.
The vision of the tangled roots spreading across, clinging to the deep green mountains and refusing to let go despite the wind on all sides symbolizes that despite hundreds of years of hardships, the spirit of Bích Động is still steadfast and strong.
Xuyên Thủy Cave
Underneath Bích Động mountain lies a dark and flooded cave known as Xuyên Thủy Động, which is around 350m long and crescent moon-shaped from east to west. Often tourists will explore this cave as part of the Tam Coc-Bich Động boat trip – but check first!
The complex of the Bích Động pagoda is not only magnificent in its charming and poetic scenery, but is also represents a distinctive religious architectural beauty reflecting the cultural and historical motifs of the Vietnamese nation.
Visitors can walk from Tam Coc wharf to the pagoda, which is about 1-2 kilometers away, or they can take a Tam Coc boat trip that includes the Pagoda. It is important to be careful of scammers who may try to sell entrance tickets as visiting Bích Động is free. However, it is polite to leave a small donation, but that is entirely up to the visitor.
If visitors choose to self-drive or ride, parking fees will apply. For motorcycles, parking is 10k VN and bicycles, it will cost 5-10k VND. If arriving by car, parking fees will be around 40-50k VND. As an alternative, many of the cafe and restaurants that line the entrance to the pagoda will allow you to park for free if you buy something. At all times remember that a taxi or Grab from Tam Coc only costs around 15,000 VND each way.