If you search for destinations on Google Maps without consulting any other sources, you don’t know what is waiting for you. Looking for places close to the city to visit, my eyes lit up on a large green area named Thai Son Pagoda.
Thai Son Pagoda is in the Uncle Mountain Range (Nui Cau) next to Dau Tieng Lake in Binh Duong. It’s around 90km away from Ho Chi Minh City and 30km away from Tay Ninh’s Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Den). Not many people know where it is, even the locals.
It’s always dangerous to drive while looking at a map, but it can provide you other good options to visit apart from your main destination.
I pulled my bike over at a T-junction where the map showed one way leading to the pagoda and the other to Diem Tham Quan Ho Dau Tieng (Dau Tieng Sightseeing Area). I decided to leave the pagoda for the timebeing and headed to the lake.
Dau Tieng Lake is one of the biggest manmade lakes in South East Asia, with a surface area of 270 sq. km and a volume of 1.6 billion cubic metres of water. Work on it started in 1981 and was completed in early 1985. It is the main water source for the rice, sugar cane and cassava fields of Tay Ninh and Cu Chi, and acts as a water provider for the Thu Duc Water Treatment Plant. It’s also the source of the Saigon River, which until it was diverted, started in Cambodia.
Standing at the dyke, I felt a lovely sweet smell in the air as the cool breeze gently touched my skin and hair. The lake was calm and had many different hues of blue, reflecting the bright blue sky. A few fishing boats were slowly gliding along its surface while three teenagers were attempting to swim in the lake despite a warning sign. There were also a bunch of tourists taking selfies, using the lake as their background.
Thai Son Pagoda has two locations — the bigger one is for monks, located at the foot of one of the mountains and the other one is for nuns. Built in 1988, the main pagoda covers five hectares and has a giant welcome gate roofed with green tiles. There is also a 36-metre tower with nine floors, a 12-metre female Buddha in the main yard and an inner sanctum lying opposite. According to a drinks vendor, the area gets crowded every mid-August, at the time of the Vietnamese and Buddhist equivalent of Mother’s Day.
I wandered to the far end of the pagoda and got curious about a stone staircase that was said to have more than 1,000 steps up to the top. Due to the steep incline, I stopped at an abandoned rest spot where there were several broken plastic stools and hammocks. Surrounded by rocks, bamboo trees and an earthy smell, I continued to climb, the noise of insects the only sound breaking up the stillness.
There was nothing special at the top except another giant statue of a female Buddha and a full view over the lake. The view was not that great as the trees blocked part of the vista, yet three men and a woman were sat there playing cards. They asked where I was from while I settled down on a chair and ordered something to drink.
When I got to the bottom of the steps, a motorbike attendant told me that people are not allowed to drive through the pagoda, and said that I should take the road behind the pagoda, following the U-shape of the mountain to go through a bamboo forest. It was, he said, an unusual experience.
Halfway along I pulled my bike over at a street stall — I saw a number of people crossing the road heading to the forest.
“It’s Bamboo Stream. You can leave your bike here,” a street vendor told me.
The stream starts at the top of the highest mountain here and its water level depends on the season. According to the vendor, the best months for visiting the stream are from July to February.
I left the stream and the bamboo and realised that I had travelled for over six hours without eating anything — it was already 3pm. I guess I was distracted by the landscape.
Take AH1 out of Tan Binh towards Cu Chi and then Tay Ninh. When you get to Trang Bang, take the right hand main road, DT782, towards Dau Tieng. At the end of DT782, rather than turning right into Dau Tieng Town, turn left and first right. This takes you to Dau Tieng Lake, close to the mouth of the Saigon River. At the lake turn right and follow the lake road round for about 3km until you get to Thai Son Pagoda.