Chua Huong, or the Perfume Pagoda, is a complex of Buddhist temples and shrines spread throughout the Huong Tich Mountains, around 70km southwest of Hanoi.
Although there are a wealth of tour agencies offering organised day trips and overnight stays, going by motorbike is guaranteed to provide a few more funny (or scary) stories to what is destined to be a memorable visit to one of Vietnam’s most important spiritual sites.
Long Road to Ruin
Although officially belonging to Hanoi’s My Duc District, to say the Perfume Pagoda is in Hanoi feels misleading; it’s a long journey made longer by rough roads and an abundance of construction traffic. The first section of the journey just involves getting out of Hanoi, which at 8.30am means doing battle with a million coffee-fuelled commuters.
If you survive this morning melee and escape the boundaries of the urban centre, the second phase of the journey is dominated by dusty single-lane roads and lorry drivers who often forget they are not Lewis Hamilton.
The silver lining to this mass of road rage and near misses, of course comes in the form of food. For some reason, a bowl of pho bo always tastes better in the countryside, perhaps buoyed by the cheaper price and fresher air.
Once back on the road, a series of small towns and villages whose borders all overlap pass by, each one offering the chance for respite, with shops selling tea or repairing motorbikes, and a community temple or pagoda to check out.
For example, Dinh Ba Thon, or Three Village Temple, won’t appear in any guide books, but this ancient temple, found in Lien Bat, Ung Hoa District, is just about as picture perfect as any temple can be.
The peeling paintwork, crumbling concrete and worn wooden carvings on the doors, combined with the lily pond and absence of other visitors make this the perfect place to take a rest before the final phase of the journey in which the postcard- worthy rice fields finally reveal themselves.
The journey to the Perfume Pagoda is an integral part of the experience, which is why planning and executing a motorbike trip feels like the right decision, despite certain hardships.
Every year, pilgrims travel from across the country to join the Perfume Pagoda Festival. Starting on the sixth day of the first lunar month and ending during the last week of the third lunar month, it’s Vietnam’s longest festival.
“Catholics have the Vatican, Muslims have Mecca,” explains local woman Nguyen Linh Anh. “Vietnamese Buddhists have Chua Huong.”
People make the pilgrimage to ask for prosperity, happiness and health in the new year; although many also come to visit the innermost shrine, Chua Trong, found inside Huong Tich Cave, where they will seek a blessing of fertility.
The popularity of the Perfume Pagoda around Vietnamese New Year means it’s the least desirable time to enjoy a casual visit, as the intensity of the devout crowds will detract from the spiritual ambience and peaceful atmosphere.
As with any site of spiritual significance, there are a number of legends connected to the Perfume Pagoda. According to one such legend, the Bodhisattva Quan Am (or Guanyin) stayed in Huong Tich Cave in order to help save human souls; there is even a stone relic at Phat Tich Temple said to contain her preserved footprint.
Ride the River
Getting to the base of the complex is best achieved by taking a 45-minute boat ride along Suoi Yen, or the Placid Stream.
The boats, which are ache-inducing metallic vessels, follow the lotus-lined stream from Yen Vi Pier, all the way to the base of the main complex of temples and pagodas.
Even in the low season, there is a small battalion of boat operators and touts awaiting your arrival, each one trying to outdo the other. The champion among them, however, is a shirtless chap covered in tattoos and missing a few teeth. He interrupts another’s pitch by giving us a handwritten note, in near-perfect English, explaining that all the others were cheats and scammers, and only he was honest. Not suspicious at all.
After getting off the boat, there’s a bit of a vertical walk to get to the cable car station and the entrance to Thien Tru Pagoda, location of the Hall of the Triple Gem, where a large statue of Quan Am can be found.
During the high season, the walk from the base of the complex to the top of the mountain is lined by restaurants, tea stops and souvenir shops; but at this time of year, only a few remain open.
The view from the cable car station, however, is available all year round, and is rather spectacular.
The cable car itself is quite a mixed experienced. Anyone with a fear of heights would hope to see the most high-tech, well-organised and spotless equipment before they ascend a mountain in a booth hanging from a wire erected by the lowest bidder.
Unfortunately, this is not the case at the Perfume Pagoda, and the whole operation comes across as both amateur and poorly maintained. However, we make it to the top, having enjoyed more stunning views, and complete the final walk to the entrance of the Huong Tich Cave.
An inscription on the granite slab at the entrance to the cave bears a quote from Trinh Sam, an 18th century ruler of Northern Vietnam, which translates to “the most beautiful grotto under the southern sky.”
Inside the cave is the most sacred place of the whole complex. Statues of Lord Buddha and Quan Am can be found deep inside, along with statues of various Arhats.
However, perhaps the most interesting features are the numerous stalagmites and stalactites, given names such as dun tien (heap of coins), dun gao (rice stack) and buong tam (basket of silkworms).
The three most important formations, however, are Nui Co (the girl) and Nui Cau (the boy), where pilgrims seek fertility; and a stalactite resembling a breast, which leaks droplets of water. Pilgrims try to catch the droplets in the hope of being blessed with health from the “milk of the breast.”
During the low season, the bat-inhabited cave possesses a mysterious and spiritual energy which even a non-believer can’t shrug off as being nothing but the wind; it really does feel like this site has been revered for the last 2,000 years, as the legend claims.
Follow Nguyen Trai out of Hanoi, and turn left onto the QL21B road. Follow it all the way down to the intersection with the DT74 road, and turn off right, following DT74 all the way to Yen Village, where the Yen Vi Pier is.
A one-way cable car ticket, always sold separately, costs VND100,000. Boat prices can vary, but around VND130,000 is about right, if your boat has the maximum six people. If you want a boat for yourself or a smaller group than six, expect to pay more.
Organised tours usually cost between VND300,000 to VND600,000. There are lots of hotels, homestays and guesthouses in and around Yen Village for overnight stays.
Photos by Julie Vola