On Monday 29th we left the hotel in Ninh Binh and drove for about five hours until we reached the town of Da Lat. At the top of a mountain just outside Da Lat is Truc Lam Temple, a temple that is apparently famous throughout northern Vietnam and was to be our home for the next two nights while we learned about Buddhism and meditation. For most people in the group this was their first experience of temple life but for me and Amy (plus a couple of others) it was a chance to brush up on our mind-clearing and leg-crossing skills.
By the time we had reached the bottom of the mountain it was dark so the long drive up to the top in the rattling old minivan was quite hair-raising. When we finally arrived at about 8pm, feeling rather green, we were confronted with a very imposing set of stairs up to the huge temple at the top. Yet another Kill Bill moment! We wearily climbed the steps and were met by a very friendly and positively beaming monk who welcomed us in. We were given a small bowl of rice for dinner and then shown to our
rooms before meeting again at 9pm for a lesson on meditation in the main hall. The basic principles that we were taught were the same as those in Thailand and we were told about how you are supposed to clear your mind and concentrate only on your breathing. However, there were also many differences. There was no walking meditation, only sitting. There was also a self-massage ritual to go through at the end of your session to help ease away and aches and pains that built up while sitting still. The lifestyle of the monks and nuns also appeared to be stricter than the temple we stayed at in Thailand. This was most evident when we retired to our rooms at the end of the lesson for some well needed sleep. In Thailand we had individual rooms that were rather bare but at least clean and fit for sleeping and showering in. At Truc Lam however, the rooms were single sex dorms to be shared with various other visitors and monks or nuns and they weren't exactly luxurious. The bed was just one long shelf made from rough planks of wood with a straw mat laid over the top and
the less said about the shower and toilet situation the better. The whole area was full of all sorts of weird and wonderful bugs and, whilst I like spotting them in the wild I'm not so sure about sharing a bed with them. Nonetheless, we settled down and tried to get some sleep before the wake up call at 3am. Yes, 3am. In the morning. And no, I didn't know there was a 3am in the morning either.
When the gong went off the next morning all the boys stumbled out of bed and went to the main hall while the girls left their dorm and headed to the female meditation area. At 3.30am meditation started and silence descended while everybody tried hard to think of nothing except their own breathing. In the guy's meditation area the session went generally well. We all mediated for an hour straight before leaving for a meeting with our friendly smiley monk before breakfast, as arranged the previous night. We waited for the girls to turn up for the 4.30am chat but when they didn't show up we assumed they were so deep in their meditation that they had forgotten and so just
got on with the session, talking with the monk about his life before the monastery and how long he had been there. When we went to the dining hall at 5.30am for breakfast and met the girls they were clearly rather distressed and told us that the nuns were terrifying and had hit anybody who didn't sit in exactly the correct posture with a large stick! The poor girls had meditated for 2 hours straight because they were too scared to tell the nuns that they were meant to be leaving after an hour to meet the monk. There were also stories of being reprimanded for virtually non-existent crimes such as using the wrong water to brush teeth with and turning fans on without permission the night before. Secretly rather amused that the conditions were even harsher for the girls we almost forgot the slowly fading pain in our legs and the grubby mens' dorm.
Breakfast was preceded by a lot of chanting and the food was probably the blandest thing that I have ever eaten. Afterwards we met with a different monk for a more in depth discussion on all things Buddhist and meditative. This guy was just
as friendly and answered our very probing and frank questions with a smile. Then we had some free time before proceeding in single file through the grounds behind the monks and nuns to the dining hall for an incredibly dull lunch, then another monk-chat. Dinner followed before we went back for another meditation session in the evening. Only Doug and I attended from the men's dorm, I'm not sure about the girls, but we both managed nearly an hour before our legs cried out in pain and we left the monks to the remaining hour. We did notice a senior monk patrolling the hall with the large stick but clearly the guys were disciplined enough meditators not to need a beating!
Another virtually sleepless night on the wooden planks followed before another early morning wake up call. Most of the guys decided to skip the 3am meditation and had a lie in until 6am. Only in a Buddhist temple can 6am be considered a lie in. I think most of the girls went for the 3am meditation session and a few more beatings from the stick-wielding nuns.
We then had our final monk chat before following the monks
and nuns to the dining hall in silence. Giang had suggested that we give a short speech before lunch thanking everybody for allowing us to stay in the temple, for spending time to talk to us and for teaching us about Buddhism and meditation. People have already realised I like the sound of my own voice so I was volunteered. After some chanting we filed up to the front of the dining hall and I gave a short speech that was translated by Trung, another of our tour guides. The head monk thanked us and wished us well before we all sat down for another slap up feast of boiled rice, limp vegetables and watery tofu.
The rest of the afternoon was free time until our taxis turned up at 1.30pm so we chatted to the local lads who we were sharing our dorm with. They were on their school holidays and were spending a couple of weeks living with the monks to learn more about the life with a view to potentially joining the temple when they were old enough. They were really friendly and we got out the football we had bought the previous week to kick
around the dorm with them before giving it to them when we left.
After saying our goodbyes we drove down the mountainside and then on for a couple of hours until we reached the base of yet another mountain. This one appeared to be even more severe and we spent quite a long time racing up the winding road on the way to the top in our overenthusiastic taxis, trying to keep hold of our lunch and praying for no oncoming traffic. Finally we reached Tam Dao town near the top and checked into our hotel. The town was small but quite charming and the locals were very friendly. After regaining control of our stomachs we had dinner in the hotel before heading out to a local pub for a few cold Bia Hanois. One of the guys in our group, Doug, had never tried alcohol before so at the ripe old age of 19 he decided that his first drink was to be the fearsome looking snake whisky behind the counter. We ordered a few glasses to share between us and, although it was incredibly strong it wasn't quite as evil tasting as it could have been. It
certainly did the job though and before long we were all fairly far gone, including our first time drunk Doug. We took a few hilarious pictures and if you look really carefully you might be able to see a rather merry looking Doug in the one I've uploaded to here. See if you can spot him...
The next morning a lot of people woke up hungover which wasn't exactly the best way to start the most physically challenging day of the trip so far. We had breakfast and then set off up the mountain road towards Tam Dao Mountain, the highest peak of the area. The summit is 1,592m above sea level and we were intending to trek to the top. We reached the end of the road and entered the forest which started off nice and gentle but quickly turned into a vicious incline that seemed almost vertical at points and was littered with slippery rocks and patches of mud. A few people also got attacked by leeches, some slipped repeatedly and after nearly two hours of struggling up the mountainside most of us were utterly exhausted. It's no exaggaration to say that there was literally blood, sweat
and tears on the way. Finally, and almost without warning we reached the top, bursting through a patch of undergrowth to find a clearing and the most spectacular view of the surrounding area, up amongst the clouds. We walked around the peak taking in the view from all sides and then sat down among the grass and huge bugs for a packed lunch. After the gruelling trek even our dodgy hot dog sausages, stale rolls and cheese squares tasted phenomenal. We have a short video of the group a few minutes after arriving at the top that you can see here:
We spent a while at the top before patching up any leech bites and blisters and starting the long trek back down. We had assumed that coming down would be far easier than going up but we were wrong. Although the ascent was more physically demanding the descent was more logistically difficult. At various points we stood at a rocky ledge unsure of how to get down to the next level and lots of planning was required, along with some sliding down slopes on our backsides!
Eventually we reached the bottom, bruised, sweaty but very
happy with our achievement. On the way back to the hotel we stopped to guzzle as much water as we could before showing and having the quiet night that our aching bodies demanded. The next morning, sore-limbed and tired we packed our bags and headed back to Ninh Binh for the weekend.
Aboriginal settlers arrived on the continent from Southeast Asia about 40,000 years before the first Europeans began exploration in the 17th century. No formal territorial claims were made until 1770, when Capt. James COOK took possession in the name...more info