Ninh Binh, a modern city in North Vietnam, is mainly famous for the surrounding landscape - one of the best examples of karst mountains in the country. But besides nature, it also has a number of less frequently visited cultural attractions: an ancient citadel, a weird pagoda-like Christian cathedral, and the largest Buddhist temple in Vietnam. Finally, it is renowned locally as the center of the dog meat trade - a juicy culinary delight for unscrupulous food tourists.
The ancient capital of Vietnam, the citadel of Hoa Lu, would be of more interest to history buffs than ordinary tourists. Not much is left standing of the original township, and even less has retained any semblance to the original looks after the intense restoration. This is what most guidebooks and websites claim, and they are partly true, with one correction: the annual Hoa Lu festival (date set according to Vietnamese Lunar calendar, usually around mid-April) when history comes to life through an elaborate ceremony. This is not a reconstruction, nor a show - paying homage to ancestors is an essential part of Vietnamese beliefs, and the emperors who used to rule from this place deserve such devotion. The festivities are centered around the tomb of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang and involve the ritual acquisition of water from the river, processions of brightly dressed worshipers carrying palanquins with the emperor's symbols, dance performances, and impressive fireworks at night. At any other time, the tomb, two other temples, and a garden with a number of exquisite arches are the only things to see.
If you think you know what a Christian cathedral looks like, you are up for a big surprise. On the outside, the massive church in Phat Diem is indistinguishable from an average Vietnamese pagoda. Inside, it is no less bizarre. High reliefs on the walls depicting Biblical scenes seem to have been created by someone who has heard about St. George's heroic victory, but not European dragons. So, the poor slain reptile resembles a crossbreed of a mighty Chinese celestial being and a heavily stoned eel. The entrance comes equipped with a large pavilion, more lavishly adorned than the temple itself - in olden times, local royalty used to sit here and watch those weird followers of an executed god perform their incomprehensible rituals. Built in the late 19th century, the cathedral is supposed to possess great historical significance, but to a traveler it is primarily the most exotic church to visit in South-East Asia.
The recently completed pagoda complex of Bai Dinh is not a historical monument but an active place of worship. Its claim to fame lies in its size - it is the biggest temple in Vietnam. Perhaps not so exceptional, it is worth a detour to see the daily religious observances of the Vietnamese, whose "triple faith" combines localized versions of Confucianism and Taoism with Chang Buddhism. Photographers will appreciate the typical dark interiors with blue smoke of the incense burners highlighted by sunbeams from the windows and rows of arhat statues in the semi-outdoor galleries.
No, this is not where you go to feed your Fido. This is where you eat it. Ninh Binh is the focal point for the controversial culinary attraction of North Vietnam: dog meat (Bich Dao and Dong Thanh neighborhoods are where most of the specialized restaurants are located). Leaving aside the moral issues, it is undeniably an integral part of the culture, intertwined with folklore and spiritual beliefs. If you patronize the dog restaurants here, you will notice significant fluctuations in the number of customers. This is because the magical benefits of eating dogs depend on the moon phase: for example, the yellow dog is particularly good for health during the final quarter of the Lunar cycle. Animal rights activists may keep their hopes high, as the dog meat trade gradually gets restricted all over Asia; fans of old customs and wannabe ethnographers should hurry for the same reason. And of course, it is tasty.
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