Mind­ful how you go in Viet­nam

THE LEGACY YEN TU HO­TEL IS BUILT ON A SA­CRED SITE CON­SID­ERED TO BE THE BIRTH­PLACE OF VIET­NAMESE BUDDHISM. RACHAEL BUR­NETT GOES IN SEARCH OF ENLIGHTEMENT

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WHAT bet­ter place to mas­ter a head­stand than at the base of a sa­cred moun­tain with a Bud­dhist yoga in­struc­tor?

De­spite be­ing quite a keen yogi, I’ve al­ways been ner­vous about try­ing the pose.

But my teacher, Thuy, pa­tiently demon­strates the steps and calmly guides me through them.

The tran­quil­lity of the Yen Tu Moun­tain must have worked its magic on me, be­cause I’m able to lift my legs for a few mo­ments, while bal­anc­ing up­side down with my hands either side of my head. It’s a modern in­tro­duc­tion to an an­cient world.

That’s be­cause my feat is achieved at the newly opened Legacy Yen Tu MGallery ho­tel, in the Quang Ninh Prov­ince of north­ern Viet­nam, built on Yen Tu Moun­tain – a sa­cred site con­sid­ered to be the cra­dle of Buddhism in Viet­nam.

It’s revered as the place where King Tran Nhan Tong, who reigned from 1279 to 1293, achieved en­light­en­ment af­ter he re­nounced his earthly posses­sions and es­tab­lished Truc Lam, the Viet­namese school of Zen Buddhism.

The moun­tain is rich in nat­u­ral beauty. Wind­ing stone paths, dot­ted with strik­ing tem­ples, snake up through the dense for­est and of­fer spec­tac­u­lar views. The 133-room ho­tel is part of a 2.8 hectare com­plex, which was in­spired by the story of the Bud­dha King.

It’s built in the style of a 13th cen­tury Viet­namese vil­lage, a quaint col­lec­tion of build­ings with lowslung tiled roofs, as well as shops and mar­ket stalls sell­ing lo­cal arts and crafts, in­clud­ing wo­ven bas­kets and de­li­cious gin­ger sweets, and a hos­tel for trav­ellers on a bud­get.

De­signed by Bangkok ar­chi­tect Bill Bens­ley, whose other works in­clude the Oberoi Vi­las projects in In­dia and Four Sea­sons’ award­win­ning re­sorts in Thai­land, it nes­tles in a val­ley at the foot of the slopes and fo­cuses on spir­i­tu­al­ity and tran­quil­lity.

“It’s all about the tomb, ev­ery­thing points to­wards it,” Bill ex­plains, as he proudly takes me on a tour of his cre­ation. He is re­fer­ring to a sa­cred site halfway up the moun­tain, which is said to con­tain some of the king’s re­mains.

Strolling through the tran­quil clois­tered hall­ways, it’s easy to imag­ine you’re in an an­cient monastery. The prop­erty is even more mag­i­cal when it rains and the se­cluded court­yards are filled with the sound of drum­ming wa­ter.

There’s a calm at­mos­phere and still­ness flow­ing around ev­ery cor­ner. Within hours of ar­riv­ing, I can feel the wor­ries of ev­ery­day life slip­ping away.

“Yen Tu means jour­ney back into your­self,” adds a beam­ing Bill.

When it’s com­pleted, the ho­tel will in­clude a swim­ming pool and well­ness cen­tre, of­fer­ing guests med­i­ta­tion, herbal steams and baths, and back scrubs.

I get an­other taste of spir­i­tu­al­ity when I join a singing bowl med­i­ta­tion class. It’s a won­der­ful mo­ment when I feel my metal bowl vi­brat­ing in my hands as I chant “om” while sit­ting cross-legged in a pil­lared hall.

Ev­ery as­pect of the ho­tel has been metic­u­lously de­signed in keep­ing with the tra­di­tions of the re­li­gion. A huge por­trait of the ma­jes­tic, pink-robed Tiger Princess, one of the king’s con­cu­bines, dom­i­nates a wall of the bar. Many of the rooms have high ceil­ings and all are fit­ted with solid wooden slid­ing shut­ters and tra­di­tional rice husk walls.

In the vil­lage square, a pro­ces­sion of dancers dressed as lions, birds and drag­ons put on a mes­meris­ing dis­play of mu­sic and move­ment.

I’m even in­vited to join in and man­age to do the tra­di­tional bam­boo dance, where par­tic­i­pants run over a line of poles as they are tapped and clapped in rhythm to the mu­sic.

At the end of the evening, I’m pre­sented with an ar­ray of ex­otic fruits which have been carved into the de­signs of fish, por­cu­pines – and even a puppy.

Max­i­mum use has also been made of the en­vi­ron­ment. I spend a quiet mo­ment sat at a gran­ite ta­ble on my bal­cony, over­whelmed by the lush green moun­tain slopes across the val­ley.

Swathed in wisps of clouds, the 1,086-me­tre sum­mit of Yen Tu Moun­tain is beck­on­ing me.

It’s pos­si­ble to walk, but I take the eas­ier op­tion of glid­ing above the tree­tops in a cable car.

The first stop, be­tween the lower and up­per cable cars and around halfway to the top, is a sa­cred stone shrine said to con­tain relics of the Bud­dha King. Gnarled trees form a ring around the site and lean pro­tec­tively over the spot, giv­ing the place a slightly eerie at­mos­phere.

Of­fer­ings of food, fruit and flow­ers can be seen nestling in an­cient nooks within the stone mon­u­ments.

The next stop is the Mot Mai – or ‘one roof’– Pagoda which clings pre­car­i­ously to the side of the moun­tain. Half of the struc­ture con­sists of a nat­u­ral cave filled with carved stat­ues of an­i­mals and gods that date back hun­dreds of years. There is a moun­tain spring in one cor­ner and it’s said that any­one who drinks the wa­ter will be granted one wish.

Af­ter my sec­ond cable car ride, there’s a short hike through dense bam­boo for­est with glimpses of the spec­tac­u­lar scenery be­low. My fi­nal stop is a tow­er­ing golden statue of the Bud­dha King, just be­low the sum­mit. The ef­figy is flanked by a huge bronze gong and bell, which are used dur­ing re­li­gious cer­e­monies and said to bring good luck if you touch them.

Although sit­u­ated a few hours along the well-trod­den route from Hanoi to Ha­long Bay, Yen Tu Moun­tain has yet to be dis­cov­ered by in­ter­na­tional tourists but it works per­fectly in com­bi­na­tion with the two bet­ter known bucket list des­ti­na­tions. It’s a con­trast to the hec­tic streets of Hanoi, teem­ing with scoot­ers and lined with cramped bazaars. I en­joy ex­plor­ing the nar­row streets of the Old Quar­ter, each one filled with a dif­fer­ent spe­cial­ity, from shoes and bags to door han­dles.

The grand el­e­gance of the colo­nial era Leg­end Metropole Ho­tel in the French Quar­ter of­fers the per­fect place to un­wind af­ter a busy day of sight­see­ing.

My fi­nal des­ti­na­tion is the tow­er­ing lime­stone for­ma­tions of Ha­long Bay.

Kayak­ing is the ideal way to get up close to the dra­matic peaks and I feel like a proper ex­plorer pad­dling through nar­row gul­lies and caves. An­other unique way to see the Un­esco World Her­itage Site is from a 12-seater sea­plane.

It’s only with the bird’s eye view that I re­alise the mag­nif­i­cent scale of the bay, with rows of lush green peaks stretch­ing into the hori­zon. Re­mote fish­ing vil­lages can be seen float­ing on rafts in hid­den nooks, while ma­jes­tic cruise ships glide through the turquoise wa­ters.

Af­ter a sur­pris­ingly cush­ioned land­ing, it is time to say good­bye to this en­chant­ing coun­try. I leave Viet­nam feel­ing en­light­ened and in touch with my in­ner peace.

The path to the top of Yen Tu Moun­tain

The Legacy Yen Tu MGallery ho­tel

The cable car lead­ing to the top of Yen Tu Moun­tain

One of the bed­rooms at Legacy Yen Tu

The golden Bud­dha of Yen Tu Moun­tain

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