Hoa Lư Cave is also referred to as Thung Lau (Lau Valley) as it is not a cave in the normal sense of the word but rather a valley encased on all four sides by mountains. Like the similarly enclosed Am Tien, for centuries the only access was via a hidden and treacherous mountain pass. It was here in the hidden vales of Thung Lau, protected in its natural fortress, that the future King Dinh Bo Linh was born.
Those familiar with Vietnamese history will recall that this unassuming child would later unite the 12 warlords, overthrow 1000 years of southern Chinese domination and found Dai Co Viet. Also known as King Dinh Tien Hoang, he also inaugorated the Dinh Dynasty, the first of a long chain of Vietnamese Dynasties that lasted up until World War 2. So for many, Thung Lau Valley is the literal birthplace of the modern Vietnam nation.
The Valley of the Reeds
In recent years, the demand to see and worship at the lonely Pagoda has increased, leading the local government to expand the parking area and construct a 240-step stone stairway. The stairway winds in several sections, designed to resemble the body of a dragon and has replaced the original steep rocky track. The valley is surrounded by the 3 kilometer long and 500m wide Cut Lake (Đầm Cút), which acts as a natural moat around the surrounding hills, providing further isolation and protection for the valley.
Some 16 hectares in total, the “cave” is rounded and famous for the reeds that young Dinh Bo Linh played mock war games with. In one interpretation, Hoa Lư supposedly means “reed flower” so Hoa Lư/Thung Lau is aptly named. In this valley of limestone mountains, the wind blows through the reed flowers that intertwine into a silk line like fine white hair, creating a uniquely charming and photographic landscape. From the “dragon stairway”, the sacred temple peeks out from under the old trees while behind you the expansive “moat” below is framed by rugged limestone karsts and tilled fields where buffalo still come to play.
Also located here is the temple of Nguyễn Minh Không (1065-1141) – a monk who championed Buddhist during the Ly Dynasty. A Zen master, Nguyễn Minh Không is acknowledged as the father of bronze casting in Vietnam. Often called “Saint Nguyen” he was also endowed with legendary skills in Vietnamese traditional medicine and honored with the title Ly Quoc Su by the Ly Kings. Born in nearby Điền Xá village to poor parents, Saint Nguyễn spent much of his career based in Thung Lau and has given the place a huge reputation for herbal medicine and “magical” cures.
According to a present day guard, the road to the temple used to be very difficult and only a few people were willing to climb through the mountain trail to the small temple that worshiped Saint Nguyen Minh Khong. It wasn’t until historians came here to survey that they realized this was where King Đinh began his career.
Generally speaking, if a place of worship is named a Pagoda, it follows the Buddhist religion where a Temple will generally be of Confuscian or Taoist origin. This can be confusing in Vietnam as often a Pagoda will also contain Confusian type altars or statues of the famed Mother Goddess of the ancient folk religions and vice versa. However, the terms are not interchangeable and do not refer to the building style (Temples and Pagodas can often follow similar construction styles).
A Secret Location
While it may sound odd that the birthplace of one of Vietnam’s most famous sons was buried in obscurity but for many hundreds of years, the location of Hoa Lu Cave was a closely guarded secret due to its importance as a hidden strategic headquarters for the many incursions and wars that populate Vietnam’s history. It has only been in recent years that it has been opened up to visitors.
Located in the middle of the valley and behind the Nguyễn Minh Không temple is a second temple designated for worshiping King Dinh Tien Hoang and the generals loyal to him. The pair of temples are in traditional “Cong/Quoc” style while the altar itself is sculpted with dragons, phoenixes, flowers and foliage. The two kneeling horses at either side represent the war horses King Dinh used to great effect during his campaigns against the Song, Two large vases are filled with the reed (cane) flowers that have become the valley’s signature.
A Legendary King
Not to be confused with the massive Dinh Tien temple in Hoa Lu proper this temple was originally built on the foundation of the old Thung Lau palace, and has been renovated, repaired and expanded several times in its long and illustrious history. These days it is a popular pilgrimage for Vietnamese, to remember and reflect of their long and ultimately successful journey to independence.
According to legend, when King Dinh Tien Hoang was young he frequently went to herd buffalo to help his uncle. On one occassion he slaughtered a buffalo to share with his friends eat after winning a mock battle with reeds as swords and lances. His uncle immediately realized the herd was one buffalo short and demanded an answer from the young king-to-be. With some forethought, the young lad had placed the buffalo’s tail in a crack in the ground and claimed that the buffalo was afraid and hid underground. Although the Uncle did not believe the story and chastised the youth, locals have erected well and commissioned a statue of a buffalo hiding in honor of the legend of the king’s boldness even as a youngster.
The trip is relatively taxing but takes you through some very special and beautiful parts of the rural Ninh Binh. It is suggested to take your time and make it a full morning journey. The staircase into the valley is still quite steep and is best enjoyed before the midday sun arrives. Once there, the air in the valley is crisp and clear and great for a relaxing walk.
If time is available, head back to Van Long for a late lunch and some local color then catch the afternoon migration of the vibrant bird life at Van Long Lake before heading back to your hotel. If you are feeling adventurous, there is also accommodation in the Van Long area which will make for a truly unique visit.
An annual festival is held at the end of the reed flowering season to celebrate the birthday, life and works of the Dinh Bo Linh, on the 8th day of the tenth lunar month (around September-October)
While a reasonable distance from Ninh Binh City, it is fairly easy to find and makes a very scenic journey. First make your way to the marina of the Van Long nature reserve then turn left and continue straight on the long Van Lang dike concourse until you see the large sign for Thung Lau on the right. Of course, with Google maps directions are somewhat redundant but if you lose internet, these directions might help.
On festival days, you might be able to join a tour group however for most part, you will need to self-drive or charter a taxi/Grab ride. Make sure you stipulate the return journey as taxis and their ilk are a rare occurrence in these parts of the wood