The Perfume Pagoda: Smelly?

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February 13th 2011
Published: February 24th 2011
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We've just finished our showers and breakfast after the overnight train from Sapa. We're scheduled to leave for the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương) on a day trip in three hours time. A 2 hour bus journey is fairly painful running on no sleep, not to mention that a nice, cold rain starts just as we arrive at the river to catch a boat to take us to the Pagoda.

Chùa Hương is an important pilgrimage site for many Vietnamese, and we're heading there at the beginning of the lunar new year, the busiest time for visitors. The perfume pagoda is at the centre of a vast complex of caves, temples and pagodas. The geography is similar to Ha Long bay, only inland. Huge towers of limestone with sheer faces appear out of the mist, with rice paddies, and the perfume river snaking its way between the mountains. There's a 1 hour row-boat ride up a river to the base of a group of limestone karst mountains. At the top is the 'Perfume Pagoda' located inside a cave.

When we arrive at the landing dock, I can see the river is FILLED with row boats of all shapes and sizes. Its a jaw-dropping sight, there are literally thousands of them. We jump on a boat rowed by a petit, wrinkled woman, I'm amazed as she strongly paddles us up the river. Our guide explains we have to stop to ask Buddah's permission to go to the pagoda. The first stop takes us to a smaller pagoda on the banks of the river that is jammed wall-to-wall with people praying for permission from Buddha. Our guide explains that this is a busy time of year, and in the first week after the new year there were 1,000,000 people per day travelling to see the pagoda. Ridiculous, given that the only way to get there is through a 1 hour row-boat ride and a 4km trek up a mountain.

We get back on the row boat and the tiny lady starts the 1 hour trip to the landing point for the pagoda, its still raining a cold, miserable rain and everyone is covered by a 10 cent poncho bought from a vendor near the river.

Aa hour later, we finally round the last corner and see a small makeshift city of shacks built against the river. Thousands of boats are moored on the shore, side-by-side and about 5 deep for a kilometer along the shoreline. Luckily, we get a place on the shoreline to park, and we don't have to climb from boat to boat, unlike scores of other people.

Because we got a shore spot, we have to walk along the length of the docks, past about 100 vendors, mostly food. I almost turn vegetarian during the walk... The way people advertise the food they're selling usually consists of whatever meat you can get from the store, hanging by a hook through its nose at the storefront. We see several large and small animals hanging, skinned, including deer, cows, chickens, pigs, dogs of all sizes, cats, ducks, squirrels (or small dogs, can't tell which). Its all a bit horror movie style, the vendors come out to the front of the store to hack off a peice of whatever meat you bought. The animals are semi-whole, bones, blood and slabs of meat are everywhere. Lots of heads hanging by their noses, followed by exposed back-bones and hind hooves. The guide explains that its odd the vendors are selling the meat, because Buddhist's are vegetarian. Yeah, odd, and terrifying!

We join the fray of the thousands of pilgrims walking to the top of the mountain, its similar geography to Ha Long bay, so its VERY steep. I'm one of two other white tourists, so I get smiles and waves constantly, accompanied by a chorus of 'Hello!'

Trung and I estimate there's at the very least a half million people here today, the crowd is about 20 wide, and a constant stream of people wind up and down the 4km long, steep, stone staircase. Its still raining so everything is covered in bright red mud, including everyone's shoes and pants. The stairs are gigantic (about up to my knees on average) so climbing is not easy.

Trung and I push it as fast as we can but only make it 3/4 of the way to the top in the 2 hours given to climb the mountain. Someone coming down tells us that its hopeless at the top, you can only get about 200m from the pagoda as it's jammed with people. Just making it here is enough, and we see several caves and other pagoda's dotting the trail along the way. I say a small prayer at the uppermost pagoda we make it to, praying for our safe return down the mountain through the people, and wave my hands 3 times in the customary way (1, 3 or 5 waves). When we make it to the bottom we stop for lunch at one of the horror shops. We're served tofu with tomato, bok choi, steamed cabbage and stir fry beef heart. The beef heart is actually pretty good, although I had only the meaty parts, while the girl beside me ate the valves and chewy bits... mmmmmmmmmmm...

The boat ride back is just as rainy as the way there, there's an armada of boats travelling back towards the city. The winding stream is about 50m wide and is full of boats running into eachother. Not an easy job. We're paying the woman $1.50 each, return. There's six of us. She paddled us there and back and waited the 2 hours while we were there. We decide as a group to tip her in the end because we're amazed at her hard work for such little pay.

The bus ride back takes forever, we were supposed to make it back at 6pm to meet up with Jo and Michael for dinner at Trung's parent's house, but we don't make it until 8pm. Dinner is amazing, again, thanks to Trung's parents, who cook up a storm making all of our favorites over the last two weeks. Jo and Michael are impressed.

Trung then has a challenge, he has to pack for the next 8 months of travel. He's got 3 full size suitcases and a closet full of clothes that need to be edited into one small backpack! lol. He's guaranteed going to go through clothing withdrawal over the next few weeks. Michael and Jo have been travelling for a long time and give Trung some words of wisdom, and he manages only to pack a shoulder bag, and a large duffel of clothes. Impressive!

The next morning, Trung and I wake up early for breakfast before walking with Trung's parents out to the street to catch a cab. Trung get's a teary goodbye from his Mom and Dad, which reminds me of the times I leave my parents. The cab is waiting, so there's only time for a couple of words of wisdom before we're whisked off in the cab to the airport to fly

The market stalls followed the trail the entire way up, people were selling EVERYTHING you could want. I even saw a roulette table! Buddhist roulette?
to Danang. We're going to spend the next three days exploring the ancient cities of Hoi An and Hue, before finding our way down to Nha Trang for a true beach resort experience. Bring on the hot weather!!!


Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13



Left to right: A chicken, a dog and a... cow?

Left to right: A dog, cat, pig and... deer?
Time to find the boat...Time to find the boat...
Time to find the boat...

We were told it was #13. As in, the number 13 was written on the side.
Where's the boat?Where's the boat?
Where's the boat?

Trung is excited to find the boat...

24th February 2011

Mmmm Beefy
Sounds like an amazing adventure! Those dangling carcasses are something else...
26th February 2011

Perfume Pagoda
Hi Andy.....just read your latest blog. Unreal! Thank goodness you guys are in good shape. After those pictures I think I would become a vegetarian as well lol. Amazing writing once again. Can't wait for the next one! Enjoy and stay safe. xox

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