Ba Den or Black Virgin Mountain, Vietnam
In southern Vietnam, the title for highest peak goes to an extinct volcano that is forebodingly called Black Virgin Mountain. Núi Bà Đen (which more precisely translates to ‘mountain lady black’) sits, like an upside-down mixing bowl, in Tay Ninh province — about 100 kilometers northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and only about 30 kilometres from the Cambodian border. The cinder cone is just short of 1000 metres tall – not huge – but the flat farm fields that surround it make it impossible for the granite bulge to hide.
The earliest stories about the mountain date back to the 18th century, when the area was still apart of the Khmer empire, and tell the tale of how the mountain got its name. There are actually a few versions of the black lady’s story. Some say she fell in love with a soldier, and when he was forced to go to war she was so heart broken that she threw herself off the mountain. Another tale favors religion over love. A Buddhist monk comes to the mountain and builds a temple. The black lady studies Buddhism, devoting herself to the religion. Her father arranges for her to be married. To protect her virginity, she jumps off the mountain to her death. The mountain’s name was changed to Black Virgin Mountain or Black Lady Mountain in memory of this mysterious young lady.
The Vietnamese mountain is also a very important part of the country’s history. During World War 2 the Japanese occupied it. The Viet Minh fought the French on it. The Vietcong and the Americans both took control of it during the Vietnam War. It’s not hard to see its strategic advantages. From the top, you can see for miles. Also, it’s located somewhat close to the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After defoliating the area, American soldiers set it up as a radio-relay station. The Vietcong camped around the base of the mountain, hiding in caves and tunnels. Eventually, the Americans withdrew and their allies, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam retreated into the darkness as the Communist army of the north marched into the south.
Nowadays, the hill is best known for it’s temples. Buddhists come to worship at Linh Sơn Thiên Thạch pagoda. There’s a large reclining Buddha statue, and many pleasant paths to explore. It’s possible to hike up the mountain to the pagoda in about an hour, but the newly built gondola is a much less sweaty way to get to it. It costs about $7.50 round trip. For a bit of excitement, you can take the gondola up and the 1700 meter, winding slideway down. The slideway is kind of like a luge. It was closed while we were there — we assumed that too many people had died, but I guess it was just under repair and it’s now back in operation.
If you want to go to the very top of the mountain, it’s about a 6 hour hike there and back. From the pagoda it’s probably about 4.5 hours return. The views, of course, are beautiful. Dau Tieng Lake, Vietnam’s largest water reserve, can be seen from the east side of the mountain.
We drove our scooter to the mountain. It was a nice ride past farmer’s fields and rubber tree forests, through small towns with smiling people. Not many western tourists make it to Ba Den mountain, so you can expect a lot of smiles and the occasional “hello”. Some people may even want to pose with you for a photo or 5.
If driving a scooter isn’t an option for you, it is possible to get to Tay Ninh by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. From Ben Thanh bus terminal, take the #4 bus to An Suong bus station (about an hour). From there, you can catch a mini bus to Tay Ninh bus station (which seems to also be called Bến xe Long Hoa). They leave every 15 minutes and cost 60,000 VND (like $3). The last step is the one you should be slightly worried about. It’s about 13 km to the mountain from the bus station. A xe om or moto-taxi is probably your best chance. They’ll probably hang out around hotels. Ask around the bus station… or maybe just say “Nui Ba Den” in your best Vietnamese accent to anyone that will listen and see what happens.