Spring is when sacred moments of cosmic renewal happen, signifying new beginnings. It is time for reunions and pilgrimages, to forget and forgive, as well as to mend and fortify relationships and faith. Thus, most major festivals, religious or non-religious, take place in spring to celebrate a new rhythm of life and send off the old one.
Considered to be the cradle of the Viets with a history recorded back to the mid-to-late 3rd century BCE, the Red River Delta and Northeast Coastal Region are Vietnam’s cultural juggernaut. Festivals are when culture comes alive, so, what better way to learn about indigenous Vietnamese culture than to embark on its three most sacred spring spiritual journeys with helloVietnam?
1. Hùng Kings’ Temple Festival – A journey retracing Vietnamese ancient roots
Hung Kings Commemoration Day (March 10th in the lunar calendar) was declared a national holiday in 2007 to pay homage to the 18 Hung Kings (2879-258 BC), the first emperors of the nation who founded Văn Lang (the former name of Vietnam). The headline’s event is held annually from the 8th to the 11th of March in the lunar calendar, unifying the hearts of millions of Vietnamese people from all over the world.
Lang Lieu offering Chung and Day Cakes to Hung King
The practice of worshipping Hung Kings is to perpetuate and amplify the profound philosophies of ‘Uống nước nhớ nguồn’ (when drinking water, think of its source) and ‘Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây’ (when eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree) of Vietnamese people, thereby establishing and enhancing a sense of belonging and community. There is an old Vietnamese saying passed down from generation to generation:
‘Dù ai đi ngược về xuôi,
Nhớ ngày giỗ Tổ mùng mười tháng ba.’
‘Wherever you go, up to the mountainous areas or down to the lowlands,
Remember the Ancestor's Death Anniversary on March 10th.’
1. 1. The dawn of Bach Viet Clans (100 Viets)
Vietnamese people take great pride in their ancestors’ origin, and refer to themselves as the descendants of the nation’s Great Father, Lạc Long Quân (a dragon) and Great Mother, Âu Cơ (a fairy). Legend has it that Great Mother Au Co gave birth to a sac of 100 eggs, which hatched 100 sons. Because Lac Long Quan was a dragon who lived underwater and Au Co was a fairy who lived in the highlands, they had no choice but to part ways. Therefore, Lac Long Quan took 50 sons to the sea and Au Co took 49 sons to the mountains, leaving their eldest son (who later became the first Hung King) in Phong Do – the capital of Van Lang and the ancestral land of the whole nation.
The Hung Kings’ Temple Relic Site is an aesthetically unified complex of architecture built in the 15th century on Nghia Linh Mountain, Phu Tho Province – 94km north of Hanoi. Each architectural work has its beholders captivated, owing to its historical and mythological backgrounds, representing a fusion of past and present, as well as of myth and reality.
After enduring the 225 concrete steps from the main entrance at the bottom of the mountain, there is Lower Temple where Great Mother Au Co gave birth to the first 100 Vietnamese people. Further up the stairs of 168 steps is Middle Temple, where the Hung Kings and government officials met to decide state affairs. This is also where Prince Lang Lieu gave the 6th Hung King Chung Cakes and Day Cakes on the occasion of the New Year. Upper Temple, where the Hung Kings used to perform rites and rituals to the universe and the God of Rice, occupies the highest place - which is 102 steps from Middle Temple.
Hung Kings’ Temple Festival is officially open on the main day, which is the 10th day of Lunar March, at Upper Temple. Like any other traditional festivals held across Northern Vietnam, this festival comprises two parts: ‘Lễ’ (offering ritual) and ‘Hội’ (festivity), hence the name ‘Lễ hội’ (Festival). Every demi-decade, it is celebrated on a much larger scale.
Incense offering ritual
Representatives of Vietnam at the incense offering ceremony
Accompanied by the sound of ancient bronze drums, the incense offering ritual is held solemnly at Upper Temple with the participation of representatives of the State and Communist Party of Vietnam, local authorities, as well as Vietnamese pilgrims from across the world. Aside from incense, Vietnamese people also make offerings of a variety of food:
- Vegetarian treats: 18 Chưng cakes (with meat stuffing) and 18 Dày cakes (without stuffing), water, fresh flowers, five-fruit trays, betel and areca, and local delights such as banh mat (molasses-sweetened glutinous rice cake), banh gai (black glutinous rice cakes), etc. The number ‘18’ represents the 18 generations of Hung Kings. Square Chung cakes and round Day cakes (symbolizing the Earth and sky, respectively, stemming from the principle of Yin-Yang) are associated with the legend of Lang Lieu – the 18th prince of the 6th Hung King who invented the cakes and then became the next Hung King. They are also a reminder of how the Hung Kings taught Vietnamese people how to grow wet rice.
- Carnivorous treats: According to Vietnamese tradition and the ‘Tam sinh’ philosophy, the sacrifices used in the ritual of worshipping Hung Kings include a pig (shaved and gutted), a cow, and a goat (both are shaved, gutted, and roasted). However, in order to adapt to changing times and practice minimalism, these offerings are simplified into a pig’s head or a boiled chicken, plain sticky rice, and rice wine.
An array of festive activities are carried out jubilantly by local villagers including:
Procession marching at the main gate
- Procession marches with bamboo elephants and wooden horses start from the three villages Cổ (Cổ Tích), Vi (Vi Cương), and Trẹo (Triệu Phú) to Upper Temple, with the expression that: ‘even animals yield to the Hung Kings’. Each march is associated with a different legend. One is symbolic of Son Tinh – the Lord of the Mountain, bringing the required bride wealth to propose to Princess Ngoc Hoa – the 18th Hung King’s daughter, while the other one is to honor the ingenious Princess Nguyet Cu, who contributed greatly to the defeat of Northern invaders, etc.
- As the incense offering ritual comes to an end, performances of Xoan singing and hymns take place at Upper Temple, and Ca Tru singing at Lower Temple. In the meantime, many exhilarating activities are held in the Lower Temple’s yard, such as du Tien (Fairies’ swinging contests), nem con (throwing cotton balls), crossbow shooting, rice cooking, wrestling, dragon dancing, playing chess, puppetry, etc.
Regardless of your faith, if you have a penchant for history, join helloVietnam travel to one of the most sacred festivals of the nation.
2. Hương Pagoda Festival – National spiritual values echoing through the ages
Immortalized in myriad poems and songs, the Huong Pagoda Complex (75km south of Hanoi) displays an intricate contrivance of natural beauty (caves, grottoes, mountains, and forests) and artificial works of art (pagodas, temples, towers, and shrines). Year round, millions of pilgrims make their way to this renowned Buddhist sanctuary to express faith and acquire merits.
On a pilgrimage to Huong Tich Cave
Huong Pagoda Festival is the biggest and longest pilgrimage in Vietnam, spanning from the 6th of January to the last day of March, and is in full swing from the 15th to 20th of February in the lunar calendar. Originally, it was a one-day celebration on the 19th of February honoring the birthday of the Goddess of Mercy. Over time, the festival has been prolonged until the end of March to accommodate the rising number of festivalgoers.
2.1. A holy pilgrimage site and the most beautiful cave in the South
Huong Son is generally referred to as the sacred ‘Buddhist land’. According to Vietnamese mythology, Princess Miao Shan (Ba Chua Ba), who lived in the 700s BC and was believed to be the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy, spent 9 years practicing Buddhism on Yen Stream (the only path leading to Huong Tich cave).
On an excursion to Son Nam Town in 1770, Lord Trinh Sam (1739-1782) conferred the name of ‘南天第一峝’ (the most beautiful cave in the South) on Huong Tich Cave, positioning this holy land as a national relic and shaping the early embryos of Huong Pagoda Festival.
Praised as a divine presence within nature, Huong Tich Cave is dedicated to the worship of the Goddess of Mercy, providing spiritual shelter for those seeking safety and intercession. At the cave’s entrance that resembles a dragon’s mouth lies a path of about 120 granite slabs leading down to Inner Temple.
All the formations magically sketch a lively and dynamic picture of rural daily life. Their rustic names illustrate the convergence of Vietnamese wet rice agriculture and a slight touch of fertility: Đụn Gạo (heap of rice) – in any agricultural society, rice dictates the rhythm of life and is the source of traditions and beliefs, Bầu Sữa Mẹ (mother’s breasts), Chuồng Lợn (pig’s cage), Núi Cô and Núi Cậu (Girl Mountain and Boy Mountain), Cây Vàng and Cây Bạc (Golden Tree and Silver Tree), etc.
A pilgrimage to Huong Pagoda is not just about devotion to Buddhism or admiration of the natural sublime. It is first and foremost the rhythmic synchronization between imperfect humankind and unpredictable nature, a fusion between dream and reality. The shimmering streams amid deep forests, together with enigmatic caves underneath immense skies are beautified and brought to life by the creative imagination and generosity of humankind.
Not only is Hương Sơn a land of worshipping Buddha, but it is also a symbol of religious coexistence. Aside from the potent presence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Catholicism, the practice of Buddhism at Huong Pagoda also encompasses
Vietnamese indigenous beliefs including:
- The belief in fertility and the Four Palaces (Heaven Palace, Forest Palace, Water Palace, Earth Palace)
- The customs of worshipping nature, ancestors, cultural and historical figures, and village’s deities.
One day prior to the festival, a thick veil of incense smoke envelops the sanctuary while its aroma permeates and cleanses the ambiance. The rituals are carried out in a minimalist fashion throughout all temples, shrines, and pagodas including Outer Temple (Thien Tru Temple - dedicated to the Gods of the Mountain), Inner Temple (dedicated to Goddess of Mercy), and Cua Vong Temple (dedicated to Princess of the Forest).
Thousands of pilgrims congregating outside of Thien Tru Pagoda
There are also Bac Dai Pagoda, Tuyet Son Pagoda, Ca Pagoda, and Quan Temple, dedicated to the worship of the Five Tigers and Fish God.
- Forest Opening Ceremony or Pagoda Opening Ceremony
Ngu Nhac Linh Tu
The solemn yet festive ceremony commences at Đền Trình (Presentation Shrine), also known as Ngũ Nhạc Linh Từ on the morning of the 6th of Lunar January, marking the beginning of Huong Pagoda Festival. Originally celebrated by indigenous Muong people, the ceremony was later nourished by Kinh people. Mountainous residents conduct this pre-agriculture ritual to express gratitude to the Lord of the Forest and Mountain God, as well as beg of the deities to grant people safety and a bumper crop. Any act of hunting and exploration in the forest is only allowed starting on the 7th of Lunar January.
2. Incense offering ritual at Inner Temple
Inside Huong Tich Cave
Huong Tich Cave is the first and the last destination of any pilgrimage to the complex, regardless of the reason behind it, whether it is for religious purposes or merely sightseeing. Offering incense at Inner Temple is a highly anticipated ritual, given that the temple is associated with the manifestation of the Goddess of Mercy in Huong Son. In preparation for the ritual, the temple’s monks make offerings of incense, fresh flowers, oil lamps, candles, fruits, and vegetarian food.
Since the festival is celebrated throughout spring, there is always an influx of pilgrims arriving at Yen Wharf and departing from Tro Wharf, creating a heated atmosphere.
Pilgrimage: Tended makeshift stalls selling votive offerings, incense, water, betel and areca, food and beverages, and walking sticks used for trekking up Huong Tich Cave atop the mountain are set up along the route from Tro Wharf leading up to Outer Temple. The 2km route from Outer Temple to Inner Temple is jam-packed with pilgrims going up and down.
A procession, led by flag wavers and drummers and accompanied by a ‘Bat am’ orchestra (an orchestra that consists of 8 musical instruments), starts out from Outer Temple, parades around the neighborhood before reaching Quan Temple.
Embark on a pilgrimage to Huong Pagoda with helloVietnam tour operator to be part of the experience (physically and mentally).
3. Yên Tử Festival – The testimony of a ‘Buddhist King’
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Quang Ninh Province is Halong Bay –one of the New Seven World Wonders. Yen Tu Mountain, on the other hand, is a holy existence that occupies a special place in the hearts of millions of Vietnamese Buddhist worshippers:
‘Trăm năm tích đức tu hành,
Chưa đi Yên Tử, chưa thành quả tu’
‘You may have been doing good deeds and leading a religious lie for a hundred years,
If you haven’t made it to Yen Tu, you haven’t attained Nirvana’.
Yen Tu Festival, held from 10th of Lunar January to the last day of Lunar March, is one of the three biggest and longest Buddhist pilgrimages in Vietnam, along with Huong Pagoda Festival and Bai Dinh Pagoda Festival. One of the most recognizable symbols of the festival is the flow of pilgrims traversing the sanctuary with bamboo sticks in their hands and children perched on their shoulders.
3.1. A king who relinquish power to pursue an ascetic life
Situated 120km northeast of Hanoi at an elevation of 1,068m above sea level, Yen Tu is the ancestral mountain of the Northeast. Over a thousand years ago, Yen Tu Mountain was recognized as a national landscape and praised as one of the four ‘heavenly abodes’ of Giao Chau (former name of Northern Vietnam). It was not until the 13th century, under the Tran Dynasty that Yen Tu developed into the major Buddhist center of Dai Viet (former name of Vietnam).
Yen Tu Festival is associated with the glory of a Buddhist King – Emperor Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308), a national hero who defeated the Mongol invaders twice. After ceding the throne to his son Tran Anh Tong in 1293, he devoted himself to the practice of Buddhism, founded Truc Lam Yen Tu sect (a Vietnamese Zen sect), and later entered nirvana on Yen Tu Mountain. In 2013, the biggest statue of the Buddist King Tran Nhan Tong was erected on top of An Ky Sinh Mount, at an elevation of 900m above sea level to honor his contribution to Vietnamese Buddhism.
Worshippers kneeling before the Buddhist King
While seeking temporary detachment from mundane affairs, pilgrims will get a chance to appreciate some of the most admired works of nature and religious architecture along the way. Votive purposes aside, Yen Tu Historic Site is a world of natural sublimity and ecological diversity.
Ritual and Ceremony
The traditional spring festival of Yen Tu is open at the bottom of Yen Tu Mountain on the 10th of Lunar January with an array of rituals and ceremonies such as: Offering incense to Buddha, annual opening ceremony ‘Dấu Thiêng Chùa Đồng’, paying homage to the progenitor of Truc Lam Zen sect, and art performances reenacting historical and spiritual events, as well as legends about the Buddhist King.
Yen Tu Festival Opening Performance
Many folklore activities will also take place, including dragon dancing, martial arts performances, and folk games.
The complex consists of 11 pagodas and hundreds of temples, stelae, towers, statues, tombs, etc., covering an area of 20 square km. The pilgrimage to the summit of Yen Tu Mountain is considered to be a trial of faith, putting an emphasis on mental and physical endurance, through winding trails and streams, underneath the canopy of ancient trees and the towering stocks of bamboo:
Bridge crossing Giai Oan Stream
- Giai Oan Stream (Vindication Stream), where 300 of the emperor’s wives threw themselves into after failing to convince him to return to his palace. Next to the stream stands Giai Oan Pagoda built by the king himself to alleviate their suffering.
- From Giai Oan Stream, hike up the rugged path lined by ancient pine trees (700-800 years old), you will reach Voi Phuc Slope (Kneeling Elephant Slope). Right next to Voi Phuc Slope lays Hon Ngoc Mount with many moss-covered towers and tombs, where generations of Yen Tu Pagoda’s monks rest in peace.
- Yen Tu Pagoda or Hoa Yen Pagoda is the biggest and most beautiful pagoda in the Yen Tu relic, situated at an altitude of 516m above sea level. Those who want to save energy and enjoy the mountains vistas from a cable car will start their pilgrimage at Yen Tu Pagoda.
Dong Pagoda quietly standing above the clouds
- Dong Pagoda (Bronze Pagoda), made entirely by copper under the Later Le Dynasty in the 17th century, sits atop of Yen Tu Mountain like a gate to Heaven. Dong Pagoda is recorded as the pagoda situated at the highest point in Vietnam (1,068m), leaving an impression of walking in the clouds ‘Nói cười giữa mây xanh’ (talking and laughing amid the blue clouds) – said the great poet Nguyễn Trãi (1380-1442). Once you have made it to the top, you will be rewarded with an aerial view of Halong Bay and the Northeast.