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Climbing a buddhist stairway to heaven

(No.3, Vol.5,May-Jun 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Thi Vai Mountain. Photo: Le Thang My

Standing at the base of the great green slab of forest-covered rock dropped by the hand of the Almighty on a featureless plain and craning my neck to see the lofty summit at 461 metres above sea level, I wondered if I was going to make it to the top. I began to ask myself why people climb mountains. Malory’s famous, honest and straight-forward quote about Everest sprang to mind - ‘Because it is there.’ But I had more motivation than that. Not having climbed one for a few years and now approaching the age of fifty-nine, I wanted to see if my body was still capable of making an ascent. I have climbed to a few peaks before; most notably South East Asia’s highest-Mount Kinabalu in Sabah and Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak. On that December morning, Vietnam’s Thi Vai Mountain had me cowering and doubt was troubling my mind.
There were other reasons for me or anyone else to climb this particular mountain. Firstly, this is a Buddhist mountain and there are beautiful and inspiring pagodas to visit. There is an abundant supply of fresh air not so readily available to most of us who live in cities. The twittering of birds and squirrels leaping from branch to branch and the occasional skink scurrying away as I approached it gave me that longed-for ‘back-to-nature feeling’. You may be luckier than me and glimpse a deer or meet some of the resident monkeys. If you do conquer Thi Vai, you will have a great feeling of both physical and spiritual accomplishment. Lastly, we all need exercise and despite all the wheezing and stiffness of muscles, you are likely to feel a fitter person when you come away from here.
As above, so below, and even in the middle, there are pagodas. After nodding to a laid-back monk, I took some photos of the beautiful wooden roofed Lien Tri Pagoda at the base. On the wall by the first step were a few bamboo staves for loan. However, I was to rely on my long umbrella for leverage. It served the purpose well. The other essential for this thirsty business is water. Bring your own supply, though there is a potable water tank with plastic cup at the central pagoda. There is only a simple vegetarian restaurant at the base, so you will probably want to bring along food, too. There are 1,340 stone steps to climb. The good news is that they are wide, in very good condition and there is even a concrete railing painted to look like logs at least as far as the central pagoda. After that, the way is less frequented, rougher and in patches with no steps hewn out at all. The bad news is that this staircase is very steep. Mostly, the gradient is as much as fifty per cent!
Off I set. My initial target was a hundred steps at a time and then a break. I did this a couple of times, but I was so out of puff that I reduced the number to fifty and then to twenty-five. Panting and wheezing a lot after half an hour, I came to a small pagoda housing a golden Buddha with a belvedere, at which I paused for my first long rest. The day was a bit hazy but there was a great view of green fields, the industrial town of Phu My, and its port and across the river to the rural territory of H.C.M.C. There was a house opposite the pagoda with three generations of a family out taking the air in the courtyard. The children were curious to see a foreign face and being a teacher, I found it easy to organise some games with them. By now my small backpack had become a burden and the family kindly allowed to leave it there. I drank one of my bottles of water, figuring that this would be enough to get me to the top and back down again to this level and I was off on my way.
I passed a white Buddha perched on a rock bearing that symbol of peace most vilely misappropriated by the Nazis, the swastika. By now I was down to stopping every fifteen steps to catch my breath and beginning to feel quite stiff. Then, quite close together, I came across two tracks to opposite sides of the pathway. There were clear indications that they led to caves. Now, this mountain has its darker side. There is a harrowing account on the Internet of fighting on it when a base of The People’s Liberation Armed Forces established itself in caves on this mountain, only to be evicted by Australian troops in 1966. After an hour’s interesting but gruelling climb, I had reached Phuc Hong or central pagoda. The actual pagoda itself is open a few hours a day only. I contented myself with a long rest beside a stunningly beautiful lotus pond, guarded by a statue of a white lion. This would be the ideal place for a picnic. If you only make it to this, you will have been amply rewarded for your efforts.


Pilgrims on Thi Vai Mountain

Then I got a little lost. I took a path that led me to a minor pagoda, but then the path became rudimentary and finally I turned back upon seeing a sign with a cross on it. Luckily I came across a man of my own age who must have been a pagoda worker. He led, jumping about like a mountain goat, with me wheezing behind and he told me the top was still far off-about 500 metres’ distance. Now I really felt like giving up, but somehow I soldiered on. How could I write this article if I allowed Thi Vai to defeat me? This was what spurred me on. I was now stopping every five steps! Then a wonderful sight; the sun shining through a rock that had been cleft down the middle. I named this spot the ‘Gate of the Sun.’ A little further beyond, I found myself on a black rock with the path now horizontal, not vertical and with the bright shining Buddhist Goddess of Mercy statue at the Linh Son Buu Thien Pagoda (the top pagoda) in full view at about two hundred metres away. Wow, Jack had finally climbed the beanstalk!
Thi Vai has a fairy tale of its own. In the late nineteenth century, the mountain’s sole inhabitant was a hermit nun called Dieu Hanh, who dedicated her life to the Buddha. She gave refuge in her hut to Nguyen Phuc Anh, a fugitive from the Tay Son rebellion. A few years later, he was crowned King Gia Long (1802-1814). He remembered his mountain saviour and conferred open her title of Linh Son, Holy Mother and rebuilt her hut into a pagoda. It is from this time that Thi Vai became a place of Buddhist pilgrimage.


A pagoda on Thi Vai Mountain

I paused at the summit only for a short time. In the near distance, there loomed an even higher mountain. On a clearer day than this, there are views taking in the ocean, the swamp of Can Gio and the city of Vung Tau. Lien Son Buu Thien pagoda is of recent construction and the least attractive of all. Soon, I was making a careful descent, fully aware that this is the most dangerous part. I borderlined between being intrepid and being foolhardy. I knew I should not be doing this alone. In case of a serious fall, I only had my cell phone to call for help. I made it down to the central pagoda with no mishap, where I stopped for a cup of water and a final view of the lotus pond. By now, I was very tired indeed, but there was none of the wheezing of the ascent. I reached the house and belvedere where I met my first other climber of the day. He was, I think, another pagoda worker. The people of the house were having their siesta, but the grandmother was awake to hand me my back pack. Just before reaching the bottom, I came across three young fellow climbers, one of whom was a monk. I was here on a Monday. If you come on weekends, it will be much busier. A word of warning: be sure to be back down before 5 p.m. They close the gate then! As another reminder of the war, I noticed a sign warning of mine clearance activities as I was leaving the hamlet and making my way to the H.C.M.C - Vung Tau express way.


A Buddhist sculpture on Thi Vai Mountain
Photo: Le Thang My

Thi Vai Mountain makes a good day out from the city at only a short distance away. However, it is mainly visited by local Buddhist folk. I have not found it any guide book and there is even not much information on the Internet either. I only learned about from Ong Hai, a devoted Buddhist friend of mine. There is certainly no one in Pham Ngu Lao touting trips there. Yet it is so much easier to access than the other sacred Buddhist mountains I have climbed. They are all far out; Chau Doc’s ‘Sam Mountain’, The Black Lady Mountain at Tay Ninh and Ta Cu Mountain are around twenty five kilometres south of the city of Phan Thiet.
If you do not have your own transport, you can reach Phu My Township very cheaply and easily from Saigon. It is 65 kilometres to there and a further 40 to Vung Tau. You can other take local buses, or for a few dongs more, the Futa Bus Lines comfortable express bus from which has regular departures from 205 Pham Ngu Lao Street. From the centre of Phu My town, take the road east a kilometre or so and then turn down a bumpy country lane for a further three to get to the Mountain.
I apologise to my Buddhist friends and indeed family members for mentioning heaven in the title. I know the aim of Buddhism is Nirvana and not heaven but spiritually if not physically (my poor aching body!), the mountain gave me quite a heavenly day out. If I have inspired you to take the stairway I am sure you will be a better boy scout or girl guide than me and be better prepared. Having said that I think I have demonstrated that all you really need to enjoy Thi Vai is a healthy pair of legs.


By Pip de Rouvray
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