On March 30, 2008, I was lucky enough to make a day trip to visit the Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong in Vietnamese) outside of Hanoi, Vietnam. The trip ended up being a big surprise for me since I had no idea I was going to visit this famous Buddhist pilgrimage site. I just thought I would visit a popular pagoda in Hanoi. Ironically, a couple weeks before I flew to Hanoi, I saw a really good piece on the Perfume Pagoda on the BBC’s website.
My day started at about 4 AM in the morning after being told I needed to wake up at that time only 6 hours before. I would make the trip with several staff members from the Mekong Securitie’s Saigon and Hanoi offices. I was supposed to meet several staff members at 4:45 AM in front of the Ocean Star Hotel. They ended up coming out of their hotel at around 5:15 AM.
(Deserted Street at 4:45 AM in the morning)
(My view sitting in the front of the Ocean Star Hotel. Was the sign trying to tell me something?)
Finally at about 5:30 AM, we made our way from the Ocean Star Hotel and picked up two more staff members. We then headed out towards the Perfume Pagoda located about 60 km southwest of Hanoi. The trip took nearly one hour due to the traffic. One we got there, we bought some lucky money for the pagodas we planned to pray at. Due to the traffic, we had to get out of our car and walk part way to the boat ramp. Before everyone proceeded to the boat, they first had this to pray at the pagoda near the boat ramp. The process included making wishes and fortunes, buying more lucky money, and food for the pagoda.
(My name, address and birthdate was written on this piece of paper later to be burned in the pagoda)
(The boat ramp, already packed)
(The first pagoda everyone prayed at before making the journey to the Perfume Pagoda)
The whole process took about 45 minutes. It was already packed so you actually had to push your way through the pagoda to light your incense and make your prayers. I do not know how many times I was bumped. We then headed to the boat ramp and grabbed our reserved boat. The trip along the Perfume River took about 30 minutes. Since the sky was still overcast, I got some great shots with my Samsung D900 mobile phone.
(The boat ramp on the Perfume River)
(I just boarded our boat. They wanted me to board first to help balance the boat since they felt I was a bit, umm, overweight.)
(The Perfume River was packed.)
(Some nice shots coming)
(They went faster than us even though we had less people 🙂 )
I saw some of the best scenery I have ever scene in the world on this boat ride. The views were breath taking. Next time I need to bring a real camera for some great early morning shots.
(A little shrine)
(Bringing an empty boat for the return trip down the Perfume River)
(Half way through the boat ride, the sun was starting to come out)
(My friend really loved the red flowers in this tree)
(This woman can row, she was encouraging other rowers along the way)
When we got off at the next ramp, it was beginning to get hot. We then headed to the next pagoda which I did not pray at (I had to guard the bags plus I was beginning to get a little dehydrated).
(Getting some rest)
(Another nice hill from my sitting spot)
After everyone prayed, we then headed up to the gondola. Things started to get chaotic since the line was extremely long and packed. In Vietnam, there is no such thing as an orderly line. It just does not exist. Men, women, children, you name it, were pushing each other to try to get to the gondola. There as a mother who used her two sons to cut in front of everyone. Tensions was high, there was a lot of arguments. At one point, an entire family pushed between my friend and I forcing me to push about 10 people back so I could get to them. At the same time, several women were trying to pickpocket me (yeah, you can feel their hands going into my pockets AND pants. We finally got the gondola and got a much needed break.
(People pushing their way to the gondola)
The remaining part of the trip up the hill to the Pcave pagoda was not much better. It was push and shove all the way up the hill. There were policemen everywhere trying to keep every going in the right direction. Along the entire path were kiosks selling religious ornaments, etc. The walk up was actually nice since the people following us were quite nice.
(Many kiosks lined up along the trail)
The gate to the cave pagoda was probably the most dangerous part of the trip. There was only enough room to allow a couple people to enter at one time. As we got to the entrance, you actually had to hold unto something to keep from being pushed down. A Vietnamese guy and I had to help my friend enter the gate by holding back people behind us. She would have been squashed if we had not.
(The entrance to the Perfume Pagoda ahead)
Now it was time for the hardest part of the trek. Going down the slippery, yes very slippery) stairs. The steps and rocks in the entire pagoda have been polished smooth by the many pilgrimages here. Next time I will wear some non-slip trekking shoes. It was actually a bit scary going down the steps.
(Stairways leading down to the cave pagoda)
(A view from the bottom of the cave pagoda of the stairway)
After I got down into the cave, It was not really safe for me to take anymore pictures since it was just too slippery. I followed my friends as they made their offerings and prayed. Yes, there was a lot of religious fervor as people were frantically pushing and shoving on their way to Buddha’s shrine. Several times I nearly fell and had to be helped by a couple other people. I managed to say my prayers and offerings but most of the time, I tried to keep from falling.
Overall, believe it or not, I really enjoyed this trek. The trip back was much easier. We were all exhausted by the time we got back to our boat. It is definitely an experience of a lifetime and I will make the trip again with a better camera.