Between the 2nd and 3rd lunar month of the year, the Vietnamese people celebrate a festival that stretches for 3 long months. During the festival, most Vietnamese take a "mecca" to the Perfume Pagoda which is 80 km southwest of Hanoi and accessible only by a river canoe- a calm, sun-drenched traipse along the Yen River amidst rice paddies and impressive limestone cliffs that equal the grandeur of Halong Bay's peaks.
Our $18 tour jumpstarted with an 8AM pick-up from our hotel. There were 14 of us in a mini-van. Along with our amiable guide Loi, we took a 2 hour drive to the Ha Tay Province. Upon arrival, it was obvious that we chose to visit on the wrong day. It was the weekend and sleepy Hatay has turned into a bustling congested place. A lot of the 85 million Vietnamese decided to turn up today.
Rachel, a girl from Washington and a moviestar-looking Brazilian guy and his German friend - both towering- were part of the tour. The guys currently live in Bangkok as marketeers. There's a Spanish couple- the lady from Valencia and the quiet hubby from Madrid. They've been to Hoi An, Hue, Saigon, Halong, etc. Then there were these well dressed Vietnamese ladies who were preoccupied flirting with Loi. I learned that one of them works as a TV presenter for a TV show.
Upon reaching the Thien Tru Harbour, we waited for Loi to buy our tickets. From there, we boarded an iron canoe which plied the cool waters of the Yen. One hour of awe-inspiring sceneries. Upon arrival, we passed through a turnstile that led to the sanctuary. There were rows and rows of makeshift stalls. The estaurants blatantly displayed skinned goats, calves, dogs, etc. There were flags for prosperity not unlike those Tibetan flags. Inside the compound, the stalls got more prolific, selling items from dvds, to turtles, garden plants to shirts, and every possible thing you can think of. What’s assaulting to the senses is the enormous throng of people walking about. This will be a hard trek up the hill - and caution for the unfit.
There was a new cable car system worth 40,000 dong one-way or 70,000 return. Problem is, the tickets for the way up were all sold out. It was a 1 hour trek up the hill, walking on slippery, uneven stones. I almost gave up. It felt victorious once I got to the top. By which time, I didn't care much about the temple. I took all my resolve and endurance to make it there. The way down was just as hard and my knees were the like jello.
We were given 2 hours to climb the hill and back. I was running late as I had several stopovers (there are a number of temples to see on your way up). I paid 2,000 dong for the use of the toilet. A piece of sausage cost 10,000 dong. It was 2:30PM by the time most of us were where we were supposed to meet Loi. We had lunch and it was a nice opportunity to chat with the other tourists. Rachel was having the time of her life and felt sad to be leaving Hanoi day in 2 days. The German and Brazilian giants were going back to Bangkok tomorrow. The Spanish couple had 3 more days before flyng back to Spain.
The canoe ride back to Hatay was serene. People were tired from the climb. There were other canoes around us - a surreal sight. I saw the trinh Temple on top of the hill. To be honest, I didn't find anything special with the Thien Tru Pagoda or the Huong Tich Cave, but I was aware of their significance to the Viet people. Though I am truly worn out, I was glad to have been there although I don't have plans of a second visit anytime in the future.
Our main rower, he looked glum and morose during the whole trip. Can't say I blame him. I hope our cumulative tips made him smile.
The 'Perfume Pagoda' is not a single building, but a large tract of 'karst' limestone landscape extending over about 30km2. Located in the heart of the Ha Tay province, and within this area of rocky peaks and paddy fields bisected by the Yen Vi river is a large complex of temples, pagodas and shrines.
The 70km journey from Hanoi takes about two hours. It's possible to reach the location by road, but most visitors opt for a trip along the river in a small iron boat - most are rowed by women. Thankfully, motorised boats are banned. As you near the Ha tay province, you see serene Huong Tich mountains (“Mountain of the fragrant Traces”). During the festival, they are putting on a total of 3,600 boats to take everyone down the river to the base of the temple complex for the 1 km hike up to the caves.
The main pagoda is located in a large cave. The usual path starts from the Den Trinh temple (The Temple of First Presenting) where pilgrims burn incense to alert the local deities of their presence. Next is the Chua Thien Chu (Pagoda Leading to Heaven).
From there, it's a long walk uphill - walking at normal speed, it takes about an hour (not including stops on the way). The trek up the hill is a daunting task even for fit travelers. On the way, the route passes a sacred stream where pilgrims wash away their negative thoughts.
From there, visitors head for the Tien Pagoda at the mouth of the Huong Tich grotto and its Inner Pagoda.
Popular belief says that the pagoda was built around the end of the fifteenth century on a site discovered by a monk searching for enlightenment. Since then, the Perfume Pagoda has been a major centre for pilgrims and followers of Buddhism.
The story behind the name goes: every spring, the area, surrounding by hundreds of kalachuchi trees and another species (which escapes me at the moment) is awash with the scent of the kalachuchi flowers, creating a mystical veneer to the whole surroundings. The whole place is bathed in perfumed scents of these flowers, thus it’s name.
There's no doubt that the pagodas and the landscape are very attractive. Less agreeable is the commercialisation of the area. The route to the Tien Pagoda is lined with vendors and is usually crowded.
During its three lunar month festival (at varying dates between February and March) thousands of Vietnamese people worshipping Buddha and his disciple, Avalokitasvara, crowd the buildings, grottoes and paths. To give an idea of the scale of the invasion of pilgrims, on February 3rd, the first day of the 2006 festival, around 400,000 worshippers flocked into the site!
50,000 WORSHIPPERS DAILY
During such dates, estimates of 43,000 to 50,000 worshippers flock to the site DAILY! I would not personally recommend visiting such site during these months unless you are a devotee yourself. This can be compared to our very own Black Nazarene procession in Quiapo every January where foreign tourists wouldn’t be able to appreciate why the ruckus over a dark antiquated cross and statue. When Rachel (from Washington DC) met us back down. she was gripped with a sense of disbelief, “God! All those people brushing against you, I could hardly move. I swear I don’t wanna touch a single person right now! I’ve never seen so many people around me.” And she was right! Even when you’re going down the hill, you cannot rush coz of the manual congestion. The shiny rocks you step on don’t help either.
The authorities have tried to mitigate the crush by demolishing recently-built illegal pagodas cashing in on the tourist bounty, widening the paths and roads, and installing a cable car (40K one-way, 70K return, but then where is the fun in using a cable, unless you’ve a schedule to catch). Nevertheless, heavy congestion during the festival period is likely to make a visit to the Perfume Pagoda a less than pleasant experience.
The peak times are the first few days, the 19th of the second lunar month, and the week before the end of the festival. Unless you're happy to join a Mecca-style crush of Buddhist devotees, we recommend staying well away from the Perfume Pagoda on those dates. On hind sight though, I was glad to have been a witness to such crash of devotees in a single place.