Junkets for foreigners start at 08:00 and get back after dark.
The Vietnamese start off at 04:00, get to the pagoda by 08:00, and make a day-long visit out of the pilgrimage or do an overnight. Many make the trip out of faith, but clearly for others, religion is an excuse to get away from the grind, and the trip is also popular for young, courting couples.
The site is popular year round, but particularly from the middle of the second to the end of the third lunar months following Tet and on even days of the lunar calendar. But rather than avoid peak periods, we'd recommend embracing the madness.
There are numerous pagodas around the site and strewn over the mountain, but few foreigners visit them all. Some require your boat to take a detour, but unless they have particular religious significance to you, you'll do fine with the main ones.
You'll probably skip everything except the Trinh Pagoda at the base of the mountain, and then visit additional sites along the way as they climb 2.5 km up or down the slope, which takes about an hour.
At the top is the location's raison d'etre: a large, natural cave with numerous shrines within. The cave is filled with incense, candles, and Vietnamese offering up prayers, usually for prosperity during the coming year. Some days, the site receives as many as 7,000 visitors.
You'll reach the Perfume Pagoda by boat. There are about a thousand metal barks absolutely packed into the area of the boat landing, all nearly identical, painted rusty-red and made of light steel. They all have names and each driver knows their own boat. After paying for your ticket at the ticket booth you'll be hooked up with a paddler for the hour-long trip. Many tourists often take the paddles and row for a stretch, mostly for the photo op.
The boats let off at a gauntlet of restaurants, all of which serve exotic game, like weasel, ferret, deer and snake. You'll find the carcasses hanging garishly on display in front of every eatery. Less adventurous fare is also served.
This is a good place to wind up the night before returning by boat after dark. Boats continue running until 21:00 or 22:00, and the trip is serene and gorgeous at that time (not to mention romantic), so don't hesitate to plan a late-night return.
Even if you're on a tour, you can blow off the return bus and stay on your own. Returning by public bus is slightly tricky, but doable.
There's a cable car going from the base of the mountain to the top. Opinions are divided on whether it's easier to walk up and take the car down, or vice versa. Subjecting your calves to an hour stumbling downhill has as many disadvantages as an hour lugging your mass against gravity. Or you can just decide that discretion is the better part of valour, and take the cable car both ways.
We stayed the night, and even though it's as touristy as Vietnam gets, the scene is not for foreigners and gives a good sense of an important aspect of Vietnamese culture that shouldn't be skipped. Basically, this is the mother of all domestic tourist spots in Vietnam, and should be experienced for that reason alone, whether you learn anything about Buddhism along the way or not.
How to get there
To get here from Hanoi, head out of town on Tay Son Rd to the southwest, which turns into Tran Phu and continues for 14km to the town of Ba La in Ha Dong district. There you'll find a turnoff to the left for Route 21B (look for the distance markers, and a huge billboard at the triangular roundabout pointing the way). Continue for 33km to the village of Dai Nghia. A sign there points left to the pagoda, but market stalls often block it with their umbrellas, so watch out. From there it's 21km to Huong Son, at the middle of a four-way intersection. Continuing straight as you arrive leads to the bus station, but departing buses pick up from the intersection. To reach the boats, take a right where the sign indicates Ben Yen/Yen Vy, 1km away.
Once in Ben Yen/Yen Vy, rent a boat, but DO NOT go directly to the boat ladies on the landing, who will try to charge you 200,000 dong per trip. Find the ticket booth by looking for the sign reading