Having a cave-style architecture that is very popular in Ninh Binh, Bich Dong is one of the most famous sacred temples in the North. It has been classified as a special national monument, and is recognized by UNESCO as a cultural and natural heritage of the world. Every spring, Bich Dong Pagoda attracts a large number of Buddhists and tourists from all over the world, who come here to worship and enjoy the scenery.
I - The architectural imprint of Bich Dong Pagoda
Source: Việt Đức Trần
As an ancient temple more than 600 years old, Bich Dong was built in the 15th century on a small scale, on the mountainside and surrounded by green forests. This work is so named because it is attached to a cave, which was once known as the second most beautiful cave in Vietnam. In 1705 during the reign of King Le Du Tong, there were two monks named Tri Kien and Tri The going to many places to spread Buddhism and build temples. When they came to this mountain and saw that this was a beautiful place, they decided to stop, call for donations and rebuild the old pagoda into 3 new ones named: Lower, Middle and Upper.
Initially, the Bich Dong Pagoda was named “Bach Ngoc Thach Son Dong”, which means “a beautiful, pure and pearl-like pagoda in the deep mountains and valley”, until it was renamed when Lord Trinh Sam came here to visit in 1774. Perhaps impressed by the panoramic view of mountains, river caves, fields and trees painting the scenery in a lush green color, the king named this place Bich Dong (Jade Green Cave). From 1740 to 1786 (Canh Hung Era years), the pagoda was restored and expanded, with the Lower, the Middle and the Upper Pagodas becoming three separate works.
1 - The main structure of Bich Dong Pagoda
Source: Việt Đức Trần
Bich Dong Pagoda was built to integrate with the natural landscape in a spectacular way, hidden among the rows of giant trees, making it even more solemn. This is an ancient religious architecture in the style of traditional temples and pagodas of the Le Dynasty, with the unique feature of being built in the style of the letter “三” (meaning three). It is shown in the fact that there are a total of 3 non-contiguous temples, which are divided into three levels along the mountainside from low to high, respectively:
Ha Pagoda (Lower)
Coming to Bich Dong Pagoda, you will have to cross a three-span stone bridge to enter the Lower Pagoda, under the bridge is a pink lotus pond that emits a fragrant aroma every summer. This work has an architecture in the style of the letter “丁”, including 5 compartments built of polished stone on a high foundation at the foot of the mountain, looks extremely superficial especially with 2 floors of 8 curved roofs. The trusses and beams are all made of ironwood, while the pillars and balustrades are mainly built from green stone in a single block, elaborately without joints.
The outer room of the Bich Dong Pagoda hangs a great letter in Chinese characters, which has the meaning that “the appearance of this ancient temple is sacred”, indicating that the heart of the temple is purity and sincerity from the past to the present. It worships Buddhism like many other temples in the Vietnamese countryside, at the top are three statues representing the past, present and future Buddha. The next level is placed a set of statues of three Pure Land sages, sitting in the middle is Amitabha Buddha, on the right is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, on the left is Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva.
Sitting in the third level is Thousand-Armed and Thousand-Eyed Avalokitesvara, in the fourth level is the newborn Shakyamuni statue, with eight generals on both sides. The group on the right wearing martial arts is the Eight Great Diamonds, the left group has the meaning of encouraging good deeds, punishing evil, and judging the cause and effect in the human realm. Finally, there are statues of Chi Kien, Chi The and Chi Tam - three great masters who have established and built Bich Dong Pagoda, along with a large stone stele engraved with the names of the contributors.
Trung Pagoda (Middle)
After visiting Lower Pagoda, follow the right side through 80 stone steps to the middle of Ngu Nhac mountain range, you will reach Middle Bich Dong Pagoda This place has a unique architecture with half of the roof exposed, the other half attached to the cave, on top of which carved the name of the pagoda in Chinese characters. On the left side, there is a stele inscribed with its history, built during the reign of King Le Du Tong (1705 - 1729), on the right side is a stele of the Canh Hung Era carved straight into the mountainside. Inside the temple there are 3 halls worshiping Buddha, with notably the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha surrounded by nine dragons, sitting outside are statues of Manjushri Bodhisattva and Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.
Thuong Pagoda (Upper)
Located at the highest position near the top of Bich Dong mountain, Upper Pagoda has a 2-room architecture facing Southeast, inside worshiping a statue of Guan Yin Buddha. On both sides of the pagoda are two shrines of Gods of Mountain and Land, in addition to a “Cam Lo water tank”, the Ngu Mon field in front, Chong Sach mountain of stacked rocks and Elephant mountain. Standing from above, you can admire the soaring scenery surrounding, with 5 tops called “Ngu Nhac Son” that look like lotus petals, namely Tam Sang, Gia Dinh, Con Lon, Dau Cau and Hang Dua.
2 - The cave system at Bich Dong Pagoda
The architecture of Bich Dong Pagoda is very closely associated with mountains and caves, which has been shown from the name of this work. In which, from Middle Pagoda to about 6m high is Dark Cave, the most prominent one with a solemn and quiet look, long and slightly inclined to the east. If we consider the cave containing Middle Pagoda as the first floor of a house 6m high, this cave is the second floor up to 8m high, led up by a nearly vertical path. The cave entrance is shaped like a rainbow, above it hangs a large bronze bell cast in 1707 by two monks, Tri Kien and Tri The. Most people who come here often ring three bells as if to “clear” their souls at the Buddha's door, bringing inner peace.
Inside the Dark Cave of Bich Dong Pagoda is a large space with electric lighting, looking like a ossified legendary world with fairies, children, turtles, dragons, tigers, elephants, eagle, vault, barn,... Especially outstanding here are the three majestic stone statues, including Amitabha Buddha in the middle, Manjushri Bodhisattva and Guan Yin Bodhisattva on the right and left respectively. On the cave floor, there are large turtle-shaped stalactites and two strange stone blocks that make a sound like a bamboo tocsin when knocked, making this place feel like a temple built by mother nature.
Also there is Xuyen Thuy, which is a dark and flooded cave located along the length of Bich Dong Cave, through the mountain of the pagoda. Winding from the east to the west, it is like a semicircular stone pipe about 350m long, 6m wide on average with the widest part being 15m. The ceiling and walls of Xuyen Thuy cave are flat, the roof is created with large stone slabs forming various shapes. The entrance of Xuyen Thuy Cave is at the back of the mountain, directly in front of the road to Bich Dong, at the end of which you can climb the mountain to reach the main pagoda.
II - Guide to sightsee Bich Dong Pagoda
Source: Trường Huy
1 - Location and how to travel to Bich Dong from Hanoi
Located right in the Tam Coc - Trang An scenic complex of Ninh Binh, Bich Dong Pagoda is located in Ninh Hai commune, Hoa Lu district. You will have to go to Cac communal house in Van Lam village, take a boat at Ngo Dong river wharf to Tam Coc, and from there to the temple by bicycle, motorbike, taxi or on foot. Tam Coc is about 104km from Hanoi with a travel time of about 2 hours, you can go by coach or book a limousine for simplicity. Personal vehicles such as cars or motorbikes are also not a bad choice, you just need to carefully follow the instructions of Google Map.
2 - Bich Dong Pagoda opening hours
Bich Dong Pagoda is open for free all day for everyone to visit, but to get here you have to go through Tam Coc and the boats only operate from 8:30am - 6:30pm daily. The road from the wharf to here is more than 3km long, so you also have to add the travel time, making the opening hours of Bich Dong Pagoda be around 9am - 6pm.
3 - Some famous tourist attractions near Bich Dong Pagoda
This is a cave complex of 50 dry and 50 flooded caves, very diverse in form and type, each cave has its own nuance. A remarkable point is that the caves here are often concentrated in clusters, closely related to each other, with many niches and floors. In each cave, the dissolution and deposition of limestone has created a colorful stalactite system with shapes that are associated with fairy tales and myths of Vietnam. This place also has an extremely attractive beauty with a series of valleys, lakes with magnificent scenes of forests filled with water on limestone mountains. Especially on autumn days, Trang An is even more prominent with water lilies and lotuses blooming brightly on the water, mixed with the vibrant yellow afternoon sunlight of Ninh Binh.
Also located in Hoa Lu limestone mountain complex, this area has many beautiful natural landscapes that are harmoniously combined with ancient architectural works, in which the most prominent is Bich Dong Pagoda. You can sit on a boat down the Ngo Dong River, watching the green rice fields on both sides stretching to the horizon, or breathe in the fragrance of yellow rice in the harvest season. In addition, you should also visit Ca cave, Hai cave and Ba cave, as well as Thai Vi temple where the Tran kings are worshiped, Noi Lam temple worshiping Cao Son Dai Vuong, etc.
Bich Dong Pagoda is one of the unique religious architectures in Vietnam, surrounded by ancient and unspoiled natural landscapes. The most ideal time to come here is in April - June, when the weather is quite dry with mild sunshine, making boating and long-distance traveling less uncomfortable. If you have the opportunity to come to Ninh Binh province, you should definitely not miss spending time in this sacred Bich Dong Pagoda, combined with exploring the complex of Tam Coc - Trang An.