Our 1st stop today is the celebrated cathedral at Phat Diem, remarkable for its Sino-Vietnamese cum European architecture. As the site is about 25kms south of NB, we had time to chat with Toan en route. He mentioned that NB had only become a city 4 years ago as before that, it was just a town. Now its population is 400,000 and there are more than 1 million in the area. With the immense building boom going on in NB, I'm sure the city would be all but unrecognizable for us if we were to return in 10 years.
On the way to Phat Diem, we passed through lush lowland rice fields and many combined Christian and Buddhist burial sites and lesser cathedrals like the ones above and below. 25% of Vietnam's people are Catholic and Buddhism is followed by about 65% of the populace.
Approaching the cathedral, we saw a large courtyard; in its center is a pond with a large statue of Jesus and, beyond that, our first glimpse of Phat Diem through the trees. The cathedral was built about 140 years ago and the grounds also include many smaller chapels and even small Chinese pagodas.
Toan explained that the honey iron wood used to build the cathedral came from Ho Chi Minh's homeland in central Vietnam. The cathedral was dark and mysterious and unlike any other I've seen. The main altar was cut from stone block and was consecrated on 10/6/91, on the 100th anniversary of its being built.
Out front, in 4 languages, is an engraving that reads 'Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pray for Us.'
Our next destination was Tam Coc or the Three Grottoes located near the village of Van Lam.
Before heading to the grottoes, we stopped in Van Lam to walk around some of the village's many embroidery shops.
We have seen SO many embroidered pictures since viewing the first ones in Da Nang, I can't begin to tell you!
I am a sucker for table runners and bought this beautiful handmade one which took the woman above about 10 days to make. People greeted us in Van Lam in French which had not happened anywhere else. My brief conversation with the woman was entirely therefore in French.
Toan and the driver had left us to walk through a few shops but then we couldn't find either one of them as they hadn't stayed where we last saw them! We ended up walking down to the wharf thinking they might be there but no luck. Found them a bit later parked by a restaurant enjoying their endless 'cancer vitamins' as Toan called them.
Lunches each day of our tour were included in our fees but we were overwhelmed with the amount of food that kept appearing. We could not believe that was food for 2 as it should have been enough to feed 6 people.
The very cheerful cook tried to stuff this rice paper roll she had just prepared in front of us, in his mouth but Steven said no way!
He ate it himself only to discover a moment later that it contained the hottest chili pepper he'd ever had. Poor Steven said that even his eyelids burned. The cook meanwhile looked on with great glee at his predicament!
After lunch, we drove out to Bich Dong which was built 700 years ago under the Ly Dynasty. Also known as Jade Grotto, Bich Dong is a stunning cave temple complex at the base of high cliffs comprised of pagodas on 3 levels.
Photos of Bich Dong Temple:
The temple's Stone Bell is made from a special stone found in this mountain as normal stones don't make the same sound.
Toan mentioned that the 3 Buddhas, above, represent the past, present and future. The female Buddha, below, guides the new ghosts and shows them the way.
After having wandered around the pagoda on the 2nd level, we were game for a further climb up the mountain to see what the 3rd level had for us to see!
The temple in the small cave didn't count as one of the 3 levels, Toan said, so on and up we climbed to the 3rd level at last!
Andrew: I thought of you right away when I took the photo of this man with such an amazing head of hair on the way to the car.
Back at Tam Coc Wharf again, where Toan left us to go on a 2.5 hour boat ride through 3 grottoes. I had forgotten my hat so the driver kindly lent me his to wear while out on the water.
Photos of Tam Coc Boat Ride:
I think the subtitle of our trip to Vietnam should be 'Boats Galore' as we've been on such a huge variety of water conveyances the last three weeks! I hope I shall never forget how fascinating it was seeing rowers using their feet in such seamless motion.
Our rower took us through 3 caves; this first one was more than 100m in length and was so shallow that we had to bend over at the waist to avoid being hit by the roof! If you're claustrophobic, Tam Coc is NOT for you.
Steven commented that at times during the boat trip it was as if we were on Disney rides! Not unusual seeing men in this area of Vietnam wearing oith helmets like this rower did.
Our rower took turns rowing with his arms and his feet as did others too. He was noticeably faster when rowing with his feet. He caught up with these rowers and they were all laughing and joking back and forth. I was curious to know what they were chatting about but Steven wasn't in the slightest!
I thought our last stop of the day was seeing Mua Cave but clearly Toan had something more exhilarating in mind for us at the end of the day. Toan told us about the fast growing bony fish in the pond and then said 'he'd hold down the fort' while we climbed the mountain in front of us! His English often was quite poor so it was amusing when he came out with such apropos idioms.
Walking down the road toward the mountain made us wonder what children's movie set we had entered as there were all sorts of animal statues and tiny figurines on the premises. See that climb up the mountain - well, that's where we headed. It was called the Lying Dragon Mountain.
We were tired after being dropped off at the hotel and getting a bite to eat for dinner but enjoyed walking for a few blocks on one of Ninh Binh's main drags before calling it a night.
Posted on 10/31 from Hanoi, Vietnam.