The sprawling Perfume Pagoda, or Chua Huong, is a series of revered shrines and temples tucked into the pretty Huong Tich mountains, a few hours' drive out of Hanoi.
The sacred pagoda is popular with Vietnamese devotees 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. Embrace the madness and see how a Vietnamese tourism destination operates: think lots of noise, souvenirs galore and plenty of snacks and food. This is arguably the mother of all domestic tourism spots in Vietnam, and should be experienced for that reason alone, whether you learn anything about Buddhism along the way or not.
The first temple on the site here is thought to have been built in the 1400s, though legend has it that the area was found by a meditating monk more than 2,000 years ago. A stele uncovered at the current temple dates the building of a terrace and stone steps to the mid-17th century; sections of the grounds were damaged by both the French and the American wars.
The Perfume Pagoda trip is one of the main day trips hawked by tour agencies in Hanoi. Priced from $25 up to around $39 for VIP service, they kick off with a hotel pick up around 08:00 to 08:30 and get back after dark, around 19:00 or 19:30, depending on traffic.
You'll drive a few hours, stopping for a bathroom break en route at a souvenir shop where you can also buy your own drinks and snacks, then stop at a boat pier where rowers pilot blue light steel boats taking either six Westerners or 25-plus Vietnamese tourist for the 45-minute river trip to the base of the pagoda. Many tourists often take the paddles and row for a stretch, mostly for the photo op. It's all very peaceful and pleasant, until you meet a boat that has purchased blow horns to toot up and down the river.
Vietnamese pilgrims usually 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.
When the boat pulls in you'll disembark and walk past dozens of restaurants and snack stalls, some selling exotic game like civets and ferrets, with the carcasses hanging rather garishly on display. More restaurants lie around the base of the pagoda, and you'll probably have a buffet lunch included in the tour somewhere around here. Drinks are typically extra.
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 you climb 2.5 kilometres up the slope, which takes about an hour.
A cable car whisks most people up to the top nowadays, but the walk is easy enough, though there's lots of steps. You can always get the cable car up, and walk down, or vice versa.
At the top is the location's raison d'etre: a large, natural cave, Huong Tich, which has numerous shrines within. While there are statues of deities here, many come to be blessed by the various stalactites and stalagmites, which are often named and have particular powers, such as bestowing fertility or prosperity. The cave is filled with incense, candles, and Vietnamese offering up prayers.
The Perfume Pagoda receives thousands and thousands of visitors on its busier days. This is not a place to come if you're crowd-averse.
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 if you come on your own. 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.
Be warned: We were promised a hotel drop-off as part of our $29 tour package, but on arrival in Hanoi it turned out our driver "had a programme" that evening, which meant we were dropped off at Hoan Kiem lake instead. Otherwise the tour was an easy way to get to the Perfume Pagoda and back, though the guide didn't really explain very much to us due to his quite limited English.
To get here from Hanoi under your own steam, head out of town on Tay Son Road 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. 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 overcharge. Find the ticket booth and a boat for six Westerner-sized people can be rented for 300,000 dong.
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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