The hero of what was described to me as “a Vietnamese bedtime story”, Thanh Giong, is revered for crushing invaders from the back of a steel horse with giant sticks of yellow bamboo. When he had successfully defeated his adversaries, he rode off into heaven from the top of Soc Son Mountain, now the site of a pagoda and monument in his honour, about 30km northwest of Hanoi.
I decided I needed to make a pilgrimage to this monument with my friend James, who had recently been gifted a tattoo of Thanh Giong on his left bicep by a talented Hanoian artist.
To get there from Tay Ho, we took the Nhat Tan Bridge towards the airport, turned right onto QL2A, and then left onto QL3 into the town of Soc Son. At this point, it got a bit messy. There were quite a few peaks dotted around the village, so I took us in the direction of one; after a few instances of “I don’t know where this goes, let’s find out”, we emerged on a road in the middle of a lake.
Very lost, we stopped to take some photos, and a group of teenagers pulled up requesting selfies. We obliged, and in return, asked for directions. James pulled up his sleeve to show them his tattoo. “O dau?” we asked, “Where?” pointing at the image of Thanh Giong. They laughed and gestured towards a mountain across the lake.
We repeated this scenario several more times, with some farmers on the side of the road who thought we were hilarious, a couple of women who made us coffee at a roadside stand across from a military base in the middle of active target practice, and a construction worker who barely wanted to give us the time of day. We finally pulled up at an ornate archway that led up the mountain, and parked at a large pagoda complex at the top of the road.
Inside, we found an enormous Buddha statue, towers of Choco-Pies at his feet in offering. Stairs behind the pagoda led up the mountain; as we climbed into the forest, they rose up in front of us at a steep incline. “It’s the stairway to heaven!” James exclaimed, convinced we were on the right path to Thanh Giong. It took us about half an hour with our smokers’ lungs, but at least the air we were panting was fresh (sometimes, in the city, it’s easy to forget what trees smell like).
When we reached the top, I was expecting pay-off. What we found was pavement. Pro-tip: If you don’t fancy a gruelling hike up thousands of stairs, it is possible to drive up the road to Thanh Giong’s monument. (But it’s definitely not as rewarding). There’s also a place where the stairs split; the steep way straight ahead leads to the road, and the less intense path to the right leads directly to Thanh Giong.
A quick jaunt up the road to the right took us to the highest point of the mountain, where a massive bronze statue of our saint on horseback stood, leaping toward heaven. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side, and the fog covered what I’m sure is a stunning view. With the sun sinking, we picked our way carefully down the stairs again, the faint sound of chants drifting towards us through the trees. A procession was underway; all the women of the monastery were slowly circling the Buddha, singing between the rhythmic tones of a giant gong.
On the way home, we made a rookie mistake and ended up on a highway going east. Choose your on-ramps carefully, because it’s likely you won’t be able to turn around for a long, long time. And in our case, you might get a flat tyre on an expressway with no exit, and have to push your bike for several kilometres to find a way out. Lesson learnt; when in doubt, just follow the signs back to Hanoi.
From West Lake, head towards the airport across the Nhat Tan Bridge. Take a right when the road splits, onto QL2A, then a left onto QL3. Drive through Soc Son Town, take a left on Duong Len Den Giong.