A somewhat whimsical figure in Western culture, The Unicorn (Kỳ Lân) is one of the four mythical animals in the spiritual culture of the Vietnamese. Symbolizing peace, wealth and luck, it also represents intelligence and goodness. A composite creature of horse, buffalo and dragon, it is believed to be a strong and faithful creature and as such is often depicted in stone, guarding holy sites and temples.
In Vietnam however, it can also appear in a more “nightmarish” stylized form, with deer horns, dog ears, a camel forehead, devil eyes, a lion nose, a broad mouth, a horse body, deer hooves, and an oxtail. Quite a deviation from the single horned white horse of the west.
Kỳ Lân Mountain (Núi Kỳ Lân) is a well-known landmark in Ninh Binh. While “mountain” might be euphemistic for a 50 meter high natural stone protuberance, it gets its name as it has traditionally believed to have the shape of a Unicorn’s head facing north, with a slope with a dip representing its jaws. But like most landmarks in Vietnam, there is also a local legend to suit.
In ancient times, it is said that residents in this area were troubled by a creature called a “black unicorn”, a malevolent creature which caused havoc and terror, known to kill and frequently eat local people. In despair and out of compassion for the people, it was decided that one of the king’s daughters would sacrifice herself by offering herself up to the demon but secretly taking a slow acting poison prior to the meeting.
As a matter of course, the black unicorn killed and ate the unfortunate princess but in doing so was poisoned and perished. As it laying dying in the moonlight, its corpse gradually melted into the rocky landscape, forming a mountain where trees, flowers, and grass grew luxuriantly around the hanging cliffs, like the beard of a unicorn.
These days, visitors can easily observe Kỳ Lân Mountain as it is situated adjacent to the National Highway 1A and at the beginning of Trang An Street area (the route leading to tourist attractions such as Hoa Lu old capital, Trang An and Hang Mua viewpoint). Adjacent with Hoa Lu hotel and the two towers of the Silver Pagoda behind, it is encircled by the Trang An River, which connects to the “historic” Sao Khe River of Hoa Lu’s ancient capital.
Although Kỳ Lân Mountain is modest in size, it is has 5 limestone caverns, each “trying to hide” in the lush green trees and foliage. To enter Kỳ Lân Mountain, there is picturesque small stone bridge barely wide enough for one person that spans the Trang An River at the northern foot of the mountain. Or visitors can choose the the 4m wide stone bridge on the south side, near Hoa Lu hotel.
In honor of the princess’s self-sacrifice, the people constructed a temple at the foot of the mountain in the northwest. An incense burner stands in front of the temple’s entrance door, and on both sides are two sculptures of “cranes standing on the back of a turtle”, signifying the noble harmony between heaven and earth. Inside the temple, there is altar for worship of the ancient princess, with a statue of the noble girl and her servants in the middle, surrounded by statues of the 5 Venerable Mandarins below.
Follow the walking path from the temple there is a stone corridor along the mountainside leading to Kì Lân Pagoda at the summit of the mountain. Created with a “one-pillar” architecture with a curving roof, statues of imperial guardian lions safeguard the little pagoda on both sides. Representing “two dragons flanking a moon” the pagoda gives homage to the strength of the gods. There are Buddha sculptures inside, and the centerpiece of this little pagoda is a finely crafted large bronze bell.
The tranquil panorama in a corner of the bustling city is a delight, captures the vision of visitors from the top of the mountain, with the golden color of the two Buddha towers behind and the green color of the trees gradually fusing “heaven and earth” together.
The Bac (Silver) Pagoda towers are located behind the Kỳ Lân Mountain region on the path across the narrow northern flank and the little stone bridge mentioned earlier. Although these are newly built constructions, they have formed a majestic “wonder” retaining the mark of Vietnamese Buddhism. Inside the Silver Pagoda is a Buddhist hall, and all of the murals within the pagoda are carved entirely of volcanic stone, which is the work of artisans from Ninh Binh’s mountainous region.
When night falls, the lights on the twin towers that were built to resemble lotus buds are mirrored in the shadowed depths of the waters of the Trang An River. Along with the bustling beauty of Hoa Lu Old Town next door, the vibrant lights blend with the beauty of “cold colors” of the moonlight and the rich beauty of Ninh Binh fills the air, like being “drunk” with a sip of strong wine, letting the wonder and awe of the centuries of human endeavor gradually take root in each person’s soul.
From the mystical to the mundane, these days Ky Lan Mountain is a popular spot for locals to meet and greet. A well-appointed coffee shop from the Highland Coffee chain holds pride of place at the side of the mountain and tha paths and Bac Towers have been lavishly refurbished. Across the small canal and down the city side of the entrance are several high end restaurants and boutiques.
It may seem sacrilege but the Vietnamese are nothing if not a pragmatic people and the place retains a calming, medatative vibe. And who doesn’t like their meditative state served with chilled caphe sua da and a thick slice of chocolate mud cake? Besides, there are ancient temples to spare in Ninh Binh and one suspects even the Gods would forgive such a delightful reinterpretation.
Even If you are not into history or ancient temples, Ky Lan Mountain is a beautiful, relaxing spot and great for photograpy. It is also easy to find as it is on the main road out of town and is a great spot to unwind after a hard day’s sightseeing. Be warned though, the main area shuts down around 7-8pm in the evening and with the lights out and the crowds gone, Ky Lan returns to its mysteries and secrets.