Tourism

13th century pilgrimage

Architect Bill Bensley is creating an entire village on a remote mountain in Vietnam, using 13th century methods and materials. Jane Kitchen finds out more


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Yên Tu Mountain is considered to be the cradle of Trúc Lâm Zen Buddhism in Vietnam – around two million pilgrims from the region visit Yên Tu each year to pay homage to Buddha-enlightened King Tran Nhân Tông, who established the Trúc Lâm Yên Tu Zen sect there in the 13th century. Now, the Vietnamese government has a strategic development plan for the area, and architect Bill Bensley is working on a national cultural heritage site to include a hotel, shops, museum, wellness centre, restaurants and market with shops and stalls selling local arts and crafts and organic produce from Yên Tu Mountain.

The area is set to become a major tourism hotspot for Vietnam – a new-yet-ancient historic and cultural destination, which to date has remained more or less unknown to international travellers. Tùng Lâm Company is developing what it says will be a world-class, sympathetic tourism destination to sustainably support and preserve the sacred place, opening it to international tourism while also ensuring it remains accessible for future generations to enjoy.

13th-century methods
Bensley has designed the entire Hành Huong Yên Tu Village using 13th-century style, techniques and material, and focusing on those historical details in order to help connect guests with the area’s rich history and culture. He says it was refreshing to work with 13th century methods. “I am day in and day out presented with the latest modern-day materials, new fabrics, the hottest wallpapers, the most exotic stones,” he explains. “Here, the DNA we chose was simple: What did they use in the 13th century? Our palette was pared down to basics, but I also limited our sourcing to the neighbourhood, employing whole ceramic ateliers to revive methods and products that only their great-grandfathers used.”

A range of seasonal festivals and activities will be on offer at the village; these will include cooking and aromatherapy classes, yoga and meditation, health treatments and foot massage, traditional art and folk music performances.

‘Wellness sanctuary’
The five-star hotel – a 133-bedroom Legacy Yên Tu, MGallery by Sofitel – is described as a “wellness sanctuary” and has been designed with local materials including bronze, wood and marble. Built using ancient methods to emulate a peaceful way of life, the rooms feature a signature wooden-inked slab traditionally used for calligraphy, as well as outdoor patio living areas, many with views of the mountain.

The hotel will also include a 2,240sq m (24,111sq ft) wellness centre, due to open later this year, which will specialise in Zen meditation, herbal baths and remedies, and wellness counselling.

“The opening of Legacy Yen Tu, MGallery combines the quintessence of wellness tourism and luxury travel to provide a getaway for travellers in search for a complete rejuvenation of their body, mind and spirit,” says Patrick Basset, CEO for AccorHotels Upper Southeast & Northeast Asia and the Maldives.

The wellness centre has also been designed by Bensley, who worked with consultants Dorian Landers and Florence Jaffre. It will include a swimming pool, oversized steam rooms and saunas built inside four large brick kilns, and will have large windows to take in the natural setting around it. The Tue Tinh Am Wellness area also offers an open space for meditation, yoga and Truc Lam Zen practices, and the large outdoor square pool is designed after the ancient 5th century monk bathing pools found in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, which was a also great centre for Buddhism.

Evolved onsen
Landers worked on the spa concept with Bensley, creating a wellness centre that respects the key principles of Tung Lam Zen Buddhism, while also using hot springs and local herbs.

“As Yên Tu does not have hot natural springs, our idea was to evolve the Japanese Onsen concept to heating filtered water and simmering roots, herbs and flowers to make various types of hot baths,” says Landers. “Those types of baths were used in ancient times for therapies and relaxation. We added herbal steam rooms and herbal scrubs to widen the spectrum. The wellness concept is to use mostly local herbs, roots, leaves and flowers to create baths and treatments that will have a calming and relaxing effect and promote meditation and reflection on spirituality.”

For the herbal wellness centre, the design took inspiration from an old brick factory in the hills of Yên Tu; Bensley has recreated the kilns, and the spa makes use of the ‘old’ furnace to heat up the water needed for the hot tubs, hot pools and steam. Treatments in the herbal spa include a herbal steam bath in the large kiln brick steam rooms, where local herbs, roots and floral essences are added to the steam. Mineral pools use stones and gems from Yên Tu Mountain known for their mineral and magnetic properties; the water flows on the stones before entering the common bathing pool, with the idea that ions from the stones are leached into the water in the process.

The wellness centre also offers common herbal tubs for between two and four people, as well as personal wooden herbal tubs for individual baths. Most herbs are harvested or grown within a 50 km radius of Yên Tu, and the entrance of the Yên Tu village complex also boasts its own large nursery.

Rustic offerings
Yên Tu Village Lodge is the village’s affordable accommodation, offering four-bed dorms spread over nine buildings throughout the village. The Minh Tâm Festival Field is available for outdoor events, with a capacity of up to 10,000 people, and the Diên Hong Ballroom seats up to 800 guests.

Bensley originally trained as a landscape architect, and the influence of the dominant indigenous flora of the area – daisy, apricot, bamboo and pine – is visible throughout.

This is Bensley’s first Buddhist hotel – but not his last. He’s currently working on the Oberoi in Kathmandu, where he is building early Buddhist-inspired residential architecture in the middle of the city, including seven courtyards telling the story of Buddha.

Bensley says he hopes what he’s done to transform the Yên Tu Valley will bring a sense of the history and importance of the location to pilgrims and a new wave of international tourists. “The reorganisation, the elimination of cars, and the building of our 13th-century-like village shines a clearer light on why pilgrims journey to this holy place, and anchors the project into the reality of King Tran Nhân Tông,” he says. “It was the best possible way to reconnect him and his spiritual legacy to the present.”

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Tourism: 13th century pilgrimage
Sacred space: how Bill Bensley used centuries-old methods and materials to help guests connect to his new mountain retreat