On my way back to Hanoi I realised my mistake. It was the monk who had put me right.
“You should take the dyke road through to Co Bi instead of the highway,” he told me. “It’s much quicker, and goes all the way.” He failed to mention how beautiful the road was.
Enclosed by vegetable fields, banana plantations and paddy fields, on one side slithers Duong River. On the other, villages break up the otherwise green patches of field. But not your typical, dusty, end-of-the-road, newly built collections of concrete houses. The area around Chua But Thap has been inhabited for so many centuries that even the clusters of houses maintain the age. Crumbling red-brick walls, maroon-tiled rooves, blackened, weather-beaten walls, wooden pillars, dark-wood doors. Normally drives out of the capital require tackling dusty, death-pit highways and crumbling asphalt, but from the vantage point of the raised dyke road, this route which comes out on Highway 5 in Gia Lam offers sweeping views rarely found so close to Hanoi.
One of the best-known and most revered temples in Vietnam, But Thap Pagoda’s 10 buildings house objects and statues considered to be masterpieces of 17th century wood carving. 50 different sized statues include the Triad Buddha, Manjusri on a blue lion, Samantabhadra on a white elephant and the thousand-handed, thousand-eyed Guanyin, which is described as a sculptural masterpiece. And, in the centre of it all, a young, brown-robed, grinning monk.
It had been raining intermittently that day in advance of an oncoming storm, and arriving semi-drenched I stumbled on a group of French tourists. A congregation of elderly ladies knelt on one side of the inner courtyard, led in prayer by the monk. Spread out in front of them was a makeshift altar — a blanket covered in ancestor-style offerings. As soon as the tour group left the grounds, the prayer abruptly finished, the women rose and the chattering started. I was ushered under a roof to avoid the drizzle, one lady offered me some xoi and a banana, and then the monk rocked up with a huge “Bonjour!”
I replied in French, but he was lost, so I switched to Vietnamese. The atmosphere changed. Had the prayer session been contrived, put on for the sake of the tourists?
The monk was openly friendly, not standoffish like many other of his creed. Quickly the standard questions flowed. Where are you from? How long have you been in Vietnam? Are you married? Seeing my camera he ushered me to take his photo. Monks are usually camera-shy, but this carrier of the faith posed readily, his face filled with pride.
Eventually I took my leave and wandered through the buildings. When you’ve seen one pagoda, you’ve seen many, goes the old adage. But not But Thap. The statues, the carvings, the ambience, the age — all provide this sacred space with an aura that sets itself apart from many of its contemporaries.
Built during the reign of Tran Thanh Tong in the 13th century and rebuilt to its present design 400 years later, the complex includes two white stone towers, a three-entrance gate and an eight-roof bell tower. Despite the accolades, the architectural accomplishments and the hard-to-fathom prayer sessions, the pagoda maintains its spirituality. It also acts as a reminder of the rich history of Vietnam, a history that war and conflict did its best to erase. Add in the journey from Hanoi, and this is a day out that easily etches itself in memory.
Take Vinh Tuy Bridge out of Hanoi. At the Nguyen Van Linh roundabout turn right towards Hai Phong. About 1km after the Lang Son intersection with Highway 1, turn left into Co Bi. Follow the road to the end and turn right onto the dyke road. Chua But Thap is in Dinh To, Bac Ninh. The trip takes just under an hour.