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Thay Pagoda, or the Master’s Pagoda also known as Thien Phuc Tu “ Pagoda of the Heavenly Blessing” was founded in the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong ( 1072 – 1127) and is an unusually large complex fronting onto a picturesque lake in the lee of a limestone crag. The pagoda lies 30km from Hanoi in Sai Son Village, between Ha Dong and Tay Son. As this isn’t a popular tour destination, you’ll probably need to hire a car and driver for the excursion, or rent a motorbike. The easiest route is via Highway 6, taking a right turn in front of Ha Dong post office onto the TL72/ TL80 to Quoc Oai, where the pagoda is signed 4km off to the right. Note that this is a popular weekend jaunt out of Hanoi, at its busiest on Sundays.

The Master was the ascetic monk and healer Tu Dao Hanh (sometime also known as Minh Khong) who “burned his finger to bring about rain and cured diseases with holy water”, in addition to countless other miracles other miracles. He was head monk of the pagoda and an accomplished water puppeteer hence the lake’s dainty theatre – pavilion and, according to legend, was reincarnated first as a Buddha and then as he future King Ly Nhan Tong in answer to King Ly Nhan Tong’s prayers for an heir. To complicate matters further, Ly Nhan Tong’s life was then saved by the monk Tu Dao Hanh in his three incarnations as monk (the Master), Buddha and king.

Despite many restorations over the centuries, the pagoda’s dark, subdued interior retains a powerful atmosphere. Nearly a hundred statues fill the prayer halls: The oldest dates back to the pagoda’s foundation, but the most eye-catching are two seventeenth- century giant guardians made of clay and papier-mâché, which weigh a thousand kilos apiece and are said to the biggest in Vietnam. Beyond, the highest altar holds a Buddha trinity, dating from the 1500s, and a thirteenth- century wooden statue of the Master as a bodhisattva, dressed in yellow garb and perched on a lotus throne. On a separate later to the left he appears again as King Ly Nhan Tong, also in yellow, accompanied by two dark- skinned, kneeling figures which are said to be Cambodian slaves, while to the right sits a mysterious, lavishly decorated wooden chamber. The monk’s mortal remains and a statue with articulated legs repose in this final, securely locked sanctuary – though a photo on the altar shows the statue’s beady eyes staring out of gaunt, unhappy face to be revealed only once a year: at 1pm on the fifth day of the third lunar month the village’s oldest male bathes Tu Dao Hanh with fragrant water and helps him to his feet. Traditionally, this event was for the monk’s eyes only, but nowadays anyone can see, as long as they’re prepared to put up with the scrum. The celebrations, attended by thousand, continue for three days and include daily processions as well as a famous water- puppet festival held on the lake (fifth to seventh days of the third lunar month).

In front of the pagoda are two attractive covered bridges with arched roofs built in 1602 and dedicated to the sun and moon: one leads to an islet where spirits of the earth, water and sky are worshipped in a diminutive Taoist temple; the second takes you to a well-worn flight of steps up to Thanh Hoa cave ( Dong Thanh Hoa), now a sacred place hidden behind a screen of aerial banyan roots which lies between a mini – pagoda and a temple dedicated to the monk’s parents. Though the sanctuaries themselves are well tended, there’s nothing special to see beyond expansive views of a typical delta landscape over the pagoda roofs.


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