At first, when I was making my list of things to see in Ninh Binh, Bai Dinh pagoda did not make the cut. This temple is new, and we usually like to visit old temples that showcase traditional architecture and have a neat history. An older Bai Dinh temple is located nearby, but we didn’t visit it during our time in Ninh Binh. The newer Bai Dinh pagoda was just completed in 2010! However, as we were driving to our home stay, we realized that the pagoda was SO CLOSE to our home stay it would be silly not to go. We visited as our last stop on a long day of sightseeing, boat rides, and hiking, so we were dead tired. As I’m accustomed to Buddhist temples in Japan, China, and Korea, I assumed it would be a fairly short visit of an hour or so, and then we would go back to our home stay for dinner. When Scott, our driver, dropped us off, he said, “See you in 2.5 hours!” I was not expecting that!
The car park and drop-off location is actually very far from the gates of the temple. The only way to get to the “front” of the temple is by large golf cart-style electric cars, which cost 30,000 dong/person. I had not done research on this place, so we took the electric car and ended up at the front gate, very far away from the main buildings that we wanted to see! Way in the distance we could see the multi-storied pagoda and the large worship halls, but to get there we had to climb stairs up a long, gradual hill. Landon was not super excited about this prospect, and to be honest neither were we!
This temple was one of the most spread out temple complexes we have ever visited! There was a front hall, and then a corridor that we walked along with steps up the mountain. Along the side of the corridor were statues of what we assumed were Vietnamese influential teachers of Buddhism. It was fun to notice their different poses, hair-dos and facial expressions. Some were wielding knives, while others were in more docile, Buddha-like poses. We are very thankful for these statues, because it was the only way we got Landon to hike up all those stairs!
The first building we visited was the bell tower. Most temples have a small pagoda or just a roof over the bell and drums, but this bell tower was several stories tall! We climbed up the stairs to the level of the bell, which had the added bonus of giving us a good view of the surrounding area. Around this time, I realized that our DSLR that takes most of our photos was low on batteries. I had checked the battery before our trip, and it was full, but I did not charge it just in case. Well, after a full day of taking photos and video, our battery was done. Sad day. Fortunately, we did have Landon’s point and shoot little Nikon digital camera, so we switched over to shooting photos on that camera. It was more difficult for me to use, so we don’t have as many photos as usual.
After the bell tower, we were really confused about which way to go. We had caught up with a large school group that mobbed Owen for pictures, and then they exited the long corridor and started walking up the road. We followed them. While walking on the road, Landon started collecting two inch red millipedes on a piece of broken tile. He was really intrigued by these little guys, and it was keeping him happy and occupied, so I allowed him to walk with us holding the millipedes on the tile. Soon, we came to one of the main halls. The buddhas in the main hall were huge, and everything was covered with gold leafing. Even though it is a new temple, it was really neat to see the Vietnamese architectural influences in the ornate red and gold decorations. The exterior of the pagoda had the traditional turned up corners, which I learned are fashioned this way to look like phoenix tails.
After a short stop at the great hall, we moved on to the pagoda. I also brought my DSLR back out to use at the pagoda, because I really wanted pictures of the view from the top! For 50,000 dong (about $2), we could go inside the pagoda and take an elevator up 12 floors to an observation deck. Landon had to ditch his millipedes to go inside the building, which he did after a little bit of cajoling. First, he had to set up an obstacle course for them… Inside the pagoda, there were more Buddhas. On the first level, a guard took our tickets and gave us shoe covers to put on. There was also a golden Buddha with a golden ceiling. SO MUCH GOLD! It was so beautiful! We were looking all around for an elevator when we realized we had to climb up two flights of stairs to reach the elevator! It was fine, just unexpected. There was another Buddha room above the first, and then the elevator floor. When we reached the twelfth floor, we realized that there was construction going on. The pagoda was not yet completed! There were a few guys with very loud saws installing something on the top floor, which dampened the peaceful, quiet mood.
The view from the top of the pagoda was well worth the price! We could see the beautiful landscape of Ninh Binh stretching out in all directions. We saw the other main hall that we did not have time to visit, a big standing Buddha, and all of the buildings we did see on our way up.
After relishing the view for a few moments, we headed back down the elevator. There, we met a 10-year-old girl that comes to the pagoda in her free time with her mom to practice English. We talked the whole walk back from the pagoda to the car park, about one mile. Her English was really good! Landon, in the meantime, found more red millipedes. He did not have a tile to put them on anymore, so he just held them in his hands. As we walked, he collected more and more, until he had twenty! As we neared the car park, there was a gauntlet of souvenir and food stalls, where we found a plastic cup for Landon to put his millipedes in. As we approached Scott’s car, he again let all the millipedes go into the wild. It wasn’t until later, when we were showering off before dinner, that Austin and I noticed that his hands were stained a dark red color. I thought perhaps the millipedes had stained his hands, so he washed them but the red did not come off! It almost looked like a bruise or blood blister. Around this time, Landon got super freaked out that he had been poisoned by the millipedes. After some frantic google searching, I discovered that although Vietnamese millipedes are not poisonous, they do secrete caustic chemicals from their skin when they feel threatened. Chemicals like phenol and hydrochloric acid. The staining was a chemical burn, and it lasted for weeks afterward! First aid treatment of millipede chemical burns include icing and Tylenol to help with pain. Weirdly enough, Landon just had the hand staining and did not complain of any pain! So, just another crazy story brought about by traveling with kids!Back to Bai Dinh pagoda. This place is very big and very neat. Add it to your itinerary in Ninh Binh. Give yourself two or three hours. Pack snacks, water, sunscreen, hats, etc because there are long walks in between buildings. Unless you really want to see the front gate, don’t bother with the electric car and just walk from the car park up the hill to the tall pagoda. All of the main things are close to the tall pagoda. There is the electric car service from the front gate back to the car park, so if you go backwards from the pagoda down the hill you can totally take the car back.
One more thing- learn from our mistakes. Don’t pack the Trang An boat tour, Mua cave, Hoa Lu and Bai Dinh pagoda into one day. It was an awesome day, but we were SO TIRED by the end of it!