Breathtaking pagoda, my arse...

Trip Start Sep 09, 2011
Trip End Jun 29, 2012

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Where I stayed
May de Ville Hostel

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, November 3, 2011

I realise that the title sort of gives the game away about my feelings towards the perfume pagoda, but I feel strongly about this one.

We booked a trip to visit the 'stunning' pagoda, having been assured, even by Lonely Planet (!) of its' beauty. In fairness it actually started well. After a quite interesting hour and a half minibus drive out of Hanoi to My Duc, we bought fabulous bamboo hats, and then were rowed along the Yen Vi River by a little Vietnamese lady.

Most of the men in the area work away for weeks farming in the fields, and so the women row these big metal boats to the pagoda and back to try and make a little money. They only row one day a month, so getting tips can be really important to them. One of the weirdest things is that they row forwards, facing the direction they are rowing in... Tracey and I tried it, and it's really hard!

Once we got to the foot of the Huong Tich Mountain where the Pagoda is located (Huong Tich means Mountain of the Fragrant Traces... if you say so), we had lunch in a big canteen sort of cafe. There were a lot of other tour groups doing the same thing. The food was good, but the most interesting thing was that there were these huge jars of what looked like picked snakes, lizards, and blackbirds... all thrown in together in yellowing liquid. Appetizing. I asked 'Vinh' our guide, and he said that it is rice wine known as 'happy water.' They leave it there for a year, and then strain it off to drink. He said it made the men strong... I couldn't help but feel he was implying it might be a kind of aphrodisiac from the sort of hand gestures he was using to accompany his description.

We took a cable car up to the top of the mountain, and walked down a huge staircase which was pretty cool... and in front of us was a cave. Vinh sort of spread his arm in a gesture of magnificence, and we nodded. Yes... nice cave. It then dawned on us that was in fact the pagoda. 'No, it couldn't possibly be,' we said to ourselves, so we asked Vinh where the pagoda was. Now it was his turn to look puzzled. 'This is it.'

We were expecting some kind of beautiful temple, but no. Turns out that the cave was the bloody pagoda.

Vinh then began pointing out to the group different rock formations... "Look! Look! Can you see the Buddha reclining under the dragon's mouth?!!" No. I have a vivid imagination, I really do... but there was no Buddha! There was no dragon! There was a rock that looked a little like Bruce Willis in his heyday... but Vinh didn't mention this one. Spoilsport.

One interesting thing was a set of two shrines in the cave where couples can go to pray for children. There is one that you leave gifts at if you want a girl, and one if you want a boy. Vinh assured us that it was very successful with 95% of couples having their requested child within 3 years of visiting there! I would really, REALLY like to know where he got these statistics from, because I am seriously dubious about their accuracy.

Apparently the pagoda is called the perfume pagoda because of all the incense burnt there filling the cave with sweet aromas. Clearly we were there during quiet season as the most overpowering smell was that of the cigarettes being smoked by the French couple in the tour group.

We decided to walk back down the mountain to see if at the very least we could see some beautiful views... foiled again! The 4km track down is surrounded by closed shopping huts blocking any view you might have had. The Festival of the Perfume Pagoda is one of the biggest Buddhist festivals in Vietnam, and thousands and thousands of people walk up the track to visit the shrine. (I wish I could have warned them that it is in fact just a cave) When the festival is taking place the shops are open for business selling all manner of crap... souvenirs, religious stuff, drinks, food... and all screaming 'You! You buy from me!'

The ride back on the boat was nice enough, and once again the views from there were lovely, but even this experience was slightly spoilt by the way that the lady rower tried to grab tip money out of our hands at the end. I understand that she only gets to work once a month, but we were already giving her double what we were advised to, and she tried to take dollars out of Tracey's purse... felt a bit dejected really.

So I stand by initial statement. Breathtaking pagoda... my arse.

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