Vietnam Travel Guide : Bac Ninh

For the two thousand years in existence, Bac Ninh is vivid in Vietnamese mind as a land of the talents: there were times that the province contributed as much as 25% of people with doctorate degree in Vietnam. The talent is not only shown academically but also artistically. Bac Ninh is where, without doubt, concentrates the highest density of handicraft villages in Vietnam. Bac Ninh … #MustSeeInVietnam. Your Editor

The northern province of Bac Ninh is known as being the keeper of many of Vietnam’s most fascinating – but often fading – historical and cultural traditions. 

WHEN TO GO

The Lim Festival, the Dau Pagoda Festival and the Do Temple Festival all take place in the cooler months from January to March. But the best time to visit Bac Ninh’s natural wonders and craft villages is in the summer and autumn. And then the Duong River’s fields of canola flowers bloom brightly at the end of the year, so photographers usually love to come in December.

WHAT TO EXPLORE

Lim Festival

The Lim Festival takes place every year from the 13th to 15th days of the first lunar month. Along with a solemn opening ceremony, the festival attracts tourists by hosting numerous traditional games such as wrestling, pot breaking, tug of war and a human chess competition. The main attraction of the festival is quan ho(Vietnamese folk music) singing competitions, where local singers perform traditional folk duets.

In September 2009, UNESCO designated Quan Ho Bac Ninh as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The singing originated in 49 quan ho villages in and around Bac Ninh centuries ago. Some localities in nieghboring Bac Giang Province are also known for the unique art form – a blend of poetry, song and a kind of lyrical call and response performance that takes place with couples singing duets to each other from different boats on a lake. This form of singing is frequently performed at new year festivals, but can also be seen and heard at any other special occasion, or even just when groups of friends and/or families gather for smaller get-togethers.

Bac Ninh, which hosts 500 large and small festivals annually, in addition to the Lim Festival, is known as the capital of traditional Vietnamese festivals.

Artisans perform quan ho. Photo by Vietnam National Administration of Tourism

Do Temple

The Do Temple Festival is held in the third lunar month, but travelers from around the world are welcome to come at any time of year. The temple was the residence of eight kings of the Ly dynasty.

The festival in Dinh Bang village honors King Ly Cong Uan (Ly Thai To), founder of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225). The festival’s purpose is to express gratitude and pay homage to those who have helped the country, especially the Ly kings, while also praying for peace and happiness.

The festival includes procession ceremonies in honor of Queen Dowager Pham Thi, mother of King Ly Thai To, and eight other Ly Kings. The dragon dance, which expresses wishes for the prosperity of the local population, is also performed at the festival. Wrestling, human chess, and cockfighting are just some of the traditional sports locals participate at the event, which also includes rice cooking competitions, calligraphy, and quan ho singing.

Dinh Bang Communal House

The Dinh Bang Communal House, built entirely of wood, is a stunning piece of ancient architecture, Here, local Vietnamese have for hundreds of years worshiped the Mountain Spirit Cao Son Dai Vuong and the Water Spirit Thuy Ba Dai Vuong, who brought the land prosperity and peace. But Ming invaders destroyed the historic communal house in the 1400’s. However, 5 locals quickly rebuilt it once the Ming were expelled from Vietnam and now these craftsmen and artisans are worshiped alongside the two gods. 

Dinh Bang is located in the same captivating historical complex as Do Temple. Walking around here, you’ll feel you’ve been transported to another time hundreds of years ago.

Dinh Bang Communal House from the outside. Photo by Phan Duong

Tieu Pagoda

Tieu pagoda was a significant Buddhist center during the Ly Dynasty. The buildings are used to worship the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha (the exemplar), the dharma (the teachings), and the sangha (the community of practitioners). The pagoda also contains an ancestral house dedicated to worshiping the ancestors.

Zen Buddhist Monk Van Hanh, who raised King Ly Thai To, once chaired the pagoda.

In spite of numerous restorations, the pagoda has managed to preserve a number of its original architectural features from the Ly Dynasty, as well as the later Le Dynasty (1740–1786) and Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945).

Many rare artifacts and records chronicling the history of Vietnamese Buddhism are kept here, including ancient documents pertaining to the life and rule of King Ly Thai To, one of the founders of modern Vietnam. 

Curious visitors can also admire the mysterious and precious statue of Zen Master Nhu Tri, who collected the Buddhist sutras and popularized them throughout Vietnam. In addition, this is a rare pagoda in the north without a merit box, which is commonly placed in temples and pagodas so that visitors can donate money for temple repairs, daily operations, monks’ salaries, and charitable donations.

The ancient Tieu Pagoda stands out in the middle of the mountain. Photo by VnExpress

Dau Pagoda

Dau Pagoda was first built in 187 and completed in 226 near the Luy Lau citadel. The pagoda attracts visitors not only to pray for world peace but also to view its distinctive architecture, which includes the Hoa Phong tower in the center. In 1313, during the reign of King Tran Anh Tong, Confucian scholar Mac Dinh Chi restored the pagoda and built the tower. Inside the tower, there is a set of bronze bells cast respectively in 1793 and 1817.

Views of Dau Pagoda from the outside. Photos by VnExpress

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Phat Tich Temple

Phat Tich Temple is an ancient gem on Lan Kha Mountain. Ten unique kneeling animal statues from the 11th century guard the temple, thanks to artists who created them during the powerful Ly Dynasty.

These are all original, one-of-a-kind sandstone artifacts. Standing watch at the Three Jewels Gate are stone spirit beasts, including lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinoceroses, and horses, which are arranged in pairs.

The elephant artifact in Phat Tich Temple. Photo by VnExpress.

Cung Temple – Ngoc Well

Cung Temple is located in Bac Ninh City’s Diem village and is famous for it’s local legend about defending Vietnam from foreign invaders: the imperial army came here to pray while engaged in combat with the enemy along the Cau River, and the battle was won.

In the middle of the courtyard of Cung Temple is Ngoc Well. Visitors frequently get water from the well to drink on hot days after visiting and entering the temple to make offerings. To get water, visitors have to leave their shoes and sandals on the shore and walk barefoot down. Water from the well can be drunk directly without filtering or boiling, it will have a cool, natural sweetness.

At the beginning of the year, thousands of tourists go to Cung Temple (Viem Xa village, Bac Ninh) to drink water from the Ngoc well, hoping for good health, youth, and beauty. Photo by Tien Dat

Dong Ho Painting Village

Dong Ho village, on the Duong River’s bank in the Thuan Thanh District, is well known for its paintings depicting national identities. The paintings of Dong Ho village are not painted but printed with printing molds. A painter with strong drawing skills is necessary to achieve a sophisticated level of painting on the molds. The paper used to print pictures is called “diep paper,” and it is made from “do paper,” which is made from the do tree’s inner bark and then mixed with powdered scallop shells. The colors and images will have a natural harmony once printed as pictures.

Artists use the image of a mouse in many works. Photo by VnExpress

Phu Lang Pottery Village

Phu Lang Pottery Village, Que Vo District, was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016. it is easy to see images of ceramic products lining the streets of Phu Lang. In addition to household products such as pots and jars, Phu Lang pottery is also used for interior and exterior decoration.

Here, ceramics here have brown, black, and light yellow colors. Each finished product goes through many stages from shaping, cutting mold, drying, firing, etc. The use of carving-based embossment techniques is the highlight of Phu Lang pottery. This method allows the product to have a natural, durable and unique appearance. The pottery’s rough but sturdy shape exemplifies the beauty of earth and fire.

Visitors can try creating the patterns on ceramic products. Photo by Pham Trac Vu

Le Chi Vien Relic Area

The relic is located in Dai Lai village, Dai Lai Commune, Gia Binh District. This is the place to worship the national hero Nguyen Trai, who fought alongside Le Loi, a Vietnamese rebel leader who founded the Later Le dynasty against the Ming invaders and made great contributions to the nation’s glorious victories. 

He was also the author of 110 poems and Binh Ngo Dai Cao (Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Wu), one of the nation’s first declarations of independence. Nguyen Trai’s concubine Nguyen Thi Lo is also worshipped here. The Le Chi Vien relic area is also associated with King Le Thai Tong’s death, who died at Nguyen Trai’s house. 

Nguyen Trai was accused of killing the king and together with members of his family was executed in 1442. In 1464, King Le Thanh Tong cleared his name and made his surviving son an officer of the royal court.

In 2010, this area was named a Provincial Historical and Cultural Relic by the Bac Ninh Provincial People’s Committee.

WHERE TO STAY

In Bac Ninh, you can easily find a variety of homestays, hotels, and motels at various price points.

Homestays like My Retreat – Hien Van, Jungle House Bac Ninh, and Zen Villa are excellent options if you’re traveling in a large group with friends or family. For a group of four to eight people, the cost per night is between VND2,000,000 and 3,000,000 (US$84.98 and 127.50).

My Retreat – Hien Van. Photo courtesy of the homestay

Hotels like Le Indochina Hotel, Muong Thanh Luxury Bac Ninh, and Mandala Hotel & Spa can be booked for between VND1,000,000 and 1,600,000 ($42.54-68.07) per night if you prefer a more private and plush experience.

The Muong Thanh Luxury Bac Ninh commands the Bac Ninh skyline. Photo courtesy of the hotel

You can also find less expensive options like the Hana Apartment & Hotel, Asia Apartment Hotel Bac Ninh, and Xuan Hoa Motel. The prices at these quaint locations range from VND300,000 to 450,000 (US$12,74 – 19,12) per night. 

WHAT TO EAT

Dinh Bang’s Phu The Cake – Dinh Bang’s conjugal cake

Dinh Bang Phu The cake (conjugal cake) is a specialty of Bac Ninh. The cake is boiled after being wrapped in the dong leaves (that are used to wrap the Tet square cakes banh chung). Under the transparent yellow crust, the cake appears inviting. The cook also adds white sugar, copra, lotus seeds, and five spices to the steamed, and mashed green beans. Cake flour is made from glutinous rice, milled then filtered to extract the essence, squeezed and then dried. The elastic texture of sticky rice, the crunchiness of papaya, the rich taste of green beans, copra and lotus seeds, the sweetness of sugar…, all blend together creating such a flavorful combination.

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Phu The Cake has an appealing appearance. Photo by Le Bich.

Banh Te – Rice Cake

Banh te – rice cake is a specialty of Cho village in Yen Phong District. Plain rice with a pleasant aroma and average softness is frequently chosen by the residents of Cho village as the primary ingredient to produce the cake. 

The filling includes pork rump or shoulder meat, wood ear mushroom, fried shallots, seasoning, fish sauce, and pepper. The cake tastes best when eaten hot. The fragrant aroma of the cake combined with the aroma of dong leaves will draw in diners. The cake has a soft and chewy texture. 

Banh te is wrapped in dong leaves. Photo by Phung Dung

Nem Bui – Fermented Pork 

When visiting Bac Ninh, travelers should not skip nem bui – fermented pork, one of the famous dishes here. The residents also call this dish nem thinh, as thinh – ground roasted rice is a crucial ingredient in this cuisine. Depending on each person’s preference, the fermented pork can be wrapped with fig leaves and dipped in chili sauce or fish sauce.

You will feel the sharp taste of the fig leaves, the sweetness of the meat and the aroma of the roasted rice powder. The dish originated in Bui village, Ninh Xa Commune, Thuan Thanh District. In the past few years, this cuisine has become more popular and is known of as a delicious and cheap dish.

Nem bui is an affordable treat among the residents of Bac Ninh. Photo by Phong Vinh

Diem Village’s Banh Khuc – Sticky Rice Balls

Banh khuc – sticky rice balls are made on Tet holidays, summer festivals, full moon or the first day of the lunar month to invite relatives and guests. To make the rice balls, the residents of Diem village pick cudweed leaves that grow along vacant lots, alluvial land along rivers, and fields.

The residents of Diem village start preparing banh khuc whenever a visitor arrives because it doesn’t take long to make. The sticky rice ball is a unique flavor impossible to find elsewhere. Diners can easily eat 4 to 5 balls and still crave more.

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Cudweed leaves (R) are a key ingredient in banh khuc. Photos by Vy An

Van Village’s Wine

An essential souvenir for visitors to Bac Ninh is Van village’s wine. The wine is made with glutinous rice, heirloom yeast, and 35 rare medicinal herbs that give it a smooth, rich flavor.

HOW TO GET THERE

Bac Ninh is about 40 kilometers from Hanoi, and it takes an hour to get there. This is a suitable destination for cultural tourism activities on the weekend. Transportation from Hanoi is quite convenient, as you can choose to travel by motorbike, private car, taxi or bus.

Traveling by bus is time consuming, but is the cheapest option among other transportations. A bus ticket from Hanoi to Bac Ninh costs about VND10,000 (43 cents). 

The urban center of Bac Ninh province. Photo by Ba Do

Story by Du Hy, Phuc Trinh For Travel Guide of E.VnExpress.net

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