Perfume Pagoda

by Helen Conway, Nov 14, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

The Vietnamese have developed the art of mimicry into a shrewd marketing plan. Shrewd, and blatantly plagiaristic. As soon as the influential Lonely Planet guidebook recommended the Prince Hotel in Hanoi, several other Prince Hotels sprang up. I once walked past a narrow façade where a man up a ladder was changing his sign to "Prince Hotel." And right next door? Another Prince Hotel.

And so I was only a little surprised to stumble upon a Lonely Planet office in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Quite sure that this was not a new branch of the popular guidebook series, I discovered a tour agency, cunningly hitching a ride on the back of a successful bandwagon. How clever that they could tout their tours, "as recommended by Lonely Planet."

Lonely Planet (the book) recommended a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, claiming it a "highlight of the Hanoi area and [not to] be missed." And so I booked my trip with Lonely Planet (the company), which offered the excursion much cheaper than any other company. This made me wonder whether I might be thrown onto a 50-seater coach with several other tour groups. However, the bus I took- along with eleven other tourists and two guides- was clean, comfortable and reasonably new.

Perfume Pagoda, or Chua Huong, is located in the Ha Tay province, some 40 miles south of Hanoi. Chua Huong is actually a cluster of shrines and pagodas on Huong Son, or Perfume Mountain. The relatively short distance from the capital takes almost four hours as the journey involves negotiating a potholed dirt road and a scenic river.

We bumped and bounced our way along the rough road, passing through villages, which provided a snapshot portrait of Vietnamese life. Chickens scattered out of the path of our oncoming bus, with so little meat on their scrawny bodies that I doubted their egg-laying ability. Dogs barked close to our wheels, clearly with no concept of their own size compared to the bus. Children ran out of the houses to wave and call "Ello" to us, their endearingly sweet faces beaming up at our windows. All-female road gangs raised their be-nonned heads to see what was interrupting their work; they were slowly losing the battle to keep this road passable. The men appeared to have scored the easier job- manning the roadside stalls, with their pyramids of produce and towers of black-market petrol. Hats covered the heads of their bodies, lying prostrate in their hammocks.

Signs read, "Pho To Co Py," Western words in Vietnam being broken down into single syllables. I wondered why such rural villages required so many photocopying facilities. Then I remembered the children in the cities, with armfuls of books balanced against their shoulders. All the latest novels and guidebooks were available, with every page photocopied.

After a seemingly long two-and-a-half hours we reached Ben Duc, where the boats line up to take visitors to the mountain. Hawkers ran up to the bus immediately, swarming like flies round a tear duct, pressing their wares into our hands. One wizened lady, who called herself 'Moi', pushed a wooden beaded bracelet onto my wrist. She insisted I take it as "sou-ni" despite my protestations; somehow, I just knew it wasn't really going to be a souvenir.

"'Member Moi. Me Moi. 'Member Moi," she stressed, reiteration clearly being her selling-point. How could I possibly forget her?

We delicately climbed into the shallow, steel rowing-boats, their flat bottoms wobbling precariously at our imbalance. Three people sat in each boat, rowed by what tended to be tiny, old women. They looked so frail and yet their strength and stamina were quite astounding. My conscience was eased slightly as I sat in the middle of a boat rowed by a young man, with one of our guides, Thuy, perched on the prow.

We made our way along the Yen Vi River for 90 minutes, gently meandering through the placid waters. The region is often likened to an inland Halong Bay, with jagged limestone karsts rising out of the water. A handful of houses dotted the riverbanks. Next to some of the houses stood large, elaborate headstones, where previous generations had been laid to rest. Water lilies extended their petals towards the morning sun, hoping to soak up enough rays to retire at lunchtime until the following day.

The cool water ran clear and shallow. A few fishermen waited patiently for a bite, several lines extended from their small boats. At one point, three young girls passed us, apparently delighted to overtake us. It was hard to imagine that these children had to row a couple of miles just to reach the nearest town.

At one point, we navigated our way through a thick patch of reeds. Our rower struggled on, oars snagging on roots, endeavoring to forge a route through to the other side. The other boats banked up behind us, trying to push through quickly, before the reeds drifted together again.

Thuy passed the time by telling us some of the history of the Pagoda. She first explained that, in Vietnam, a pagoda is dedicated to Buddha whereas a temple is dedicated to a deified person. The site of the Perfume Pagoda was said to have been discovered some 2000 years ago although the first shrine was not installed until the 16th century. A monk was said to have found the place in his search for enlightenment, since when, a group of monks has always inhabited the area. The remote location, with its magnificent scenery, is said to be conducive to peaceful meditation and enhances the spiritual connection with nature.

The Vietnamese believe the place to be Buddha's heaven and it has great significance to the people. Thuy informed us that Mahayana Buddhists try to make the journey to Chua Huong at least once in their lives, rather like the Moslems undertaking their hajj to Mecca. Each year there is the Hoi Chua Huong, or Perfume Pagoda Festival. This is held from the middle of the second lunar month to the end of the third lunar month, when thousands make the pilgrimage to worship, sightsee and explore the area, taking the opportunity to reconnect with nature.

Once we reached the foot of the mountain, we left our boats tied up and had to tackle the obstacle course through the incredibly persistent hawkers. Cola, snack bars, fruit, walking sticks: all were thrust in front of our hands and eyes, accompanied by frantic shouts and entreaties for us to buy something.

The path led up granite steps, the vegetation growing thickly on either side. The densely forested slopes of the Huong Tich mountain range surrounded us. Several paths wound off the main route to smaller pagodas, their vivid reds and golds eye-catching against the lush greenery.

It was easy to see why the monks felt so at peace here, although I doubted they had to contend with offers of Co Ca Co La every few paces. As well as the ubiquitous drinks stalls were stands selling religious paraphernalia and incense.

It took around 90 minutes to reach the top, the thick, humid air causing us to stop frequently to catch our breath. Eventually we neared the Chua Trong, or Inner Temple. Through an archway, 120 steep steps led down to the main grotto. We slowly descended, taking care not to fall on the slippery, wet moss. It took a short while for my eyes to grow accustomed to the gloom, especially through the intense incense haze.

This "pagoda" was not a building, as I had imagined, but rather altars bedecked with colorful statues and offerings, sheltered under the enormous overhang of a cave. In front of the main altar sat a meditating monk, his face and posture exuding serenity. Behind this large altar, paths led a short distance into the cave to other smaller altars, complete with more statues, including ones of the Lord Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy.

Stalactites and stalagmites decorated the cave and several rock formations had become focal points of worship. At the 'Gold Tree' people prayed for riches and at the 'Boy Stone' and 'Girl Stone' they prayed for children.

Once the incense had grown too heady, we climbed the 120 steps to the archway and headed back down the mountain. Outside a small red and gold pagoda, a monk beckoned us over to a bridge. He gestured for us to look down. Below us was a small fishpond with a stone tortoise on its banks. We soon realized this was a feeble ploy to get us to come into his pagoda.

Once inside, we gleaned, via hand signals, that we were to chime the large brass bell to alert the gods to our presence, before lighting an incense stick, placing it in the urn and offering our prayers and thanks. Another monk sat officiously behind a desk and indicated for us to sign his visitors' book. They then smilingly presented us with a small gold-plated tablet, engraved with a seated Buddha. Outside, we contributed to the donation box, which I am sure was the intention of showing us the stone tortoise.

At the bottom of the mountain, a large tarpaulin covered a dining area. Here, all the tour groups ate an excellent lunch, with a variety of fresh dishes. Near the dining area stood Thien Tru pagoda, which means Heavenly Kitchen. It is also known as Chua Ngoai, or Outer Temple. The original building was destroyed under French rule but was rebuilt some twenty years ago, Thuy informed us. It is still the base for a settlement of monks who climb to the Inner Temple every day to worship and meditate.

Our patient rowers had been waiting to take us back to Ben Duc and we cruised back, savoring the peace and tranquility. Thuy advised us to tip our rowers, which they thoroughly deserved. At the wharf, I gave the young man a note and a small, fierce-looking woman marched over to me. She was perhaps his mother and she clearly thought he warranted more money than I was offering, as she roughly tried to tear the other notes from my hand. Needless to say, this did not persuade me to part with more money.

Moi found me once again, which did not surprise me. Yes, I assured her, I did 'member her. And now, predictably, she wanted money for the bracelet. I finally managed to push the bracelet back onto her wrist before hiding on the bus from the other indefatigable hawkers.

On the way back to Hanoi, I talked with other people on the trip. Most admitted that there was a real sense of anticlimax at the Pagoda. We had all been expecting some fantastical building and, whilst the cave was impressive, it was not the spectacular sight we had been anticipating. However, it is often the journey to a destination that is the most memorable part and this day-trip had proved no exception.

© Helen Conway 2002