Dau pagoda, considered Vietnam’s oldest, is located 24 kilometres south of the centre of Hanoi, in Bac Ninh province, and takes about one hour to reach by road.
In the third century, the area in which it is located was the capital of Giai Chi, at the time Vietnam’s political, economic and cultural centre. Khau Da La, an Indian monk, visited the area to do missionary work and founded the first Buddhism centre in Vietnam, called Luy Lau, and many pagodas were built, including Dau. Although the Dau pagoda is dedicated to Buddhism, the Goddess of Clouds and the Goddess of Rains are worshipped here too.
Although much has been destroyed and re-built or renovated over the years, the pagoda retains numerous striking architectural details and houses a wide range of Buddha statues and other antiques.
Besides its age, another of its claims to fame are its mummies of two monks, Vu Khac Minh and Vu Khac Truong, which date from the 17th century and were re-discovered in 1983. One body is coated in layers of gold and paint and the other in silver and paint.
The new area at the back of the pagoda is an oasis of calm, with benches set in the shade of numerous trees, ponds and streams, temples and a statue of Quan In, the protector against accidents. Also look for the stone lotus flowers which form steps across the pond: the seven flowers represent the first seven steps a baby Buddha takes.
Despite its importance, the pagoda is usually quiet, only coming to life on special days, such as the Dau pagoda festival, which falls annually around May. There’s little else around, although the ubiquitous drinks stall sits near the entrance if you need to quench your thirst.
The pagoda can easily be viewed in an hour, so it makes for a half-day trip from Hanoi; however, all but the hardened pagoda fan will perhaps feel it’s a bit too much effort and expense to just visit one sight. So consider a stop in Horn village (Thuy Ung), a few kilometres away. There’s not much to see there now in terms of horn craft but it’s a pleasant enough village.
Firstly, find the square pond in the centre of the village. Walk around it anti-clockwise and on the second corner after the small pagoda is a house where they still flatten the horns. There are sacks of buffalo horns waiting to be soaked in oil and flattened ready to be made into combs and other articles. Retrace your steps and continue straight – before passing the pagoda again – to reach Ung Xa Tu Pagoda and the Community House.
On the road out of the village are a few shops manufacturing and selling fake animal heads made from plastic and coated with fur, with real horns — not to our taste but it’s apparently a lucrative market.
As with most of the outlying pagodas and villages, it’s advisable to plan a trip via a travel agent, not just for ease of transport but for the added value an informative guide can offer. A number of agents in Hanoi can organise private tours to the pagoda and other sights in the area.
If you want to make your own way take Giai Phong out of town, turn right in Thuong Tin onto TL71 then left and follow the road with the river on your right. You can take a bus along the main road but will have to take a taxi or xe om the last few kilometres.
Other sights in Bach Ninh include Viem Xa village, Do Temple in Dinh Bang village, and Phu Lang Pottery village.
Overall, Dau Pagoda is certainly worthy of a visit if you have a particular interest in pagodas or are passing that way, although its location and the cost of a guided tour is likely to be off-putting for most.
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 25th February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.