The ancient capital Hoa Lu in the northern province of Ninh Binh, the backdrop for the upcoming Hollywood movie “Kong: Skull Island”, has enchanted visitors with its picturesque landscape, temples and pagodas. Two of its more memorable sites are Am Tien Pagoda and Cave.
A visit to Am Tien Cave, about 100km from Ha Noi, is like a journey back through Viet Nam’s history. This was the location where King Dinh Tien Hoang (who reigned from 968 to 979) raised tigers, built execution ground and also where the dowager Empress Duong Van Nga (reign 979-980) led a religious life in her old age.
King Dinh Tien Hoang is known for his dedication to his subjects but also for his strictness toward criminals.
One day, after discovering a neglected cave located in the centre of a mountain, he asked his warriors to turn it into a tiger breeding place where the most dangerous criminals would be locked up with the beasts. However, those who managed to escape from the beasts and this cruel punishment, would have their crimes absolved.
At the same time, the King assigned martial arts master Truong Ma Ni and his son, Truong Ma Son, to transform the cave into execution grounds.
On the foot of the mountain on which Am Tien Cave is situated, there is a pond where the King used to raise giai (turtles), which is also the name of the pond. The water is crystal clear, allowing visitors to see its bottom with lots of water plants that give it its unique green colour. The image of a pagoda roof reflected on the green transparent water paints a peaceful picture.
The area around the Cave seems isolated, enveloped as it is by high mountains. The surrounding scenery is both imposing and poetic, seeming to bear a mysterious and sorrowful aura of the past.
In the past, visitors had to walk past a small gate located halfway up the mountain, then follow a small path along the Giai Pond in order to reach Am Tien Cave. However, the local authority recently opened a tunnel running through the mountain into the valley and upgraded the path so visitors can now drive cars or motorbikes to the foot of the mountain where the cave is located.
From afar, the cave has the shape of a dragon’s mouth, so it is also called Dragon Cave. From the foot the mountain, visitors continue their trip, walking up 205 stone steps carved into the mountainside.
The entrance of the cave is about 20 metres wide and 30m deep. Despite the effects of time, the pagoda bell and the three ancient stone stele on which are engraved the names of those who helped build the pagoda are still well preserved at its entrance.
To the right of Am Tien Cave is a pagoda dating back more than 1,000 years. Dowager Empress Duong Van Nga chose the pagoda as a place to lead a religious life after she had help Dinh and Le kings fight against Chinese invaders and became enlightened.
The pagoda maintains its unique religious structure. In front are two imposing statues of two Buddhist Gods guarding the gate, as well as a word-of-mouth poem that partially summarises dowager Empress Duong Van Nga’s life and career engraved on a stone cliff.
According to nun Thich Dam An, Am Tien Pagoda worships Buddhas, renowned figures of the Dinh Dynasty and the dowager empress.
Despite the years that have passed and the humid condition of the cave, the statues have miraculously suffered no damage – a mystery perhaps best explained by the sacred Buddhas themselves?
After burning incense to pay tribute to the historic figures, visitors can take a leisurely walk around the pagoda to contemplate its unique structure, or take a break in front of the cave to enjoy the stunning view of the valley below. Those interested to stories about the mysteries or historical myths associated with this sacred location can talk to the locals or nuns.
With its mysterious and wild landscape, Am Tien Cave is one of the slices of heaven on earth with which Ninh Binh Province has been endowed. Many have visited the cave not only to immerse themselves in nature and to worship Buddha, but more importantly to seek peace of mind.