It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Now maybe it’s metaphorical or metaphysical (or another fancy word beginning with meta), but surely lying on the beach is better than being sat in a tiny airline seat for hours on end.
But perhaps at the Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong in Vietnamese), near Hanoi, the saying is true. Every visitor arrives by boat – a narrow copper-coloured boat rowed at a very gentle pace. There are no screaming teenagers desperately clinging to a turbo-charged banana here – just perfect peace and quiet as a flotilla of boats lazily slip between porous limestone mountains that, like a mini Ha Long Bay, rise tall and slim from the unflappable waters.
The name Perfume Pagoda is actually a bit misleading. It’s shorthand for all the local mountains, the temples and shrines scattered among them, and the ultimate goal for pilgrims and tourists alike: a sacred mountaintop cave.
Trinh Temple is the first stop of every voyage, where pilgrims announce themselves and their intentions. Trinh means ‘to register’. The temple honours two individuals: The King of the Forest and General Hung Lang. The latter drove Chinese invaders from the country circa 1600BC. On retirement, the victorious general chose the village of Yen Vi, where the temple now sits, as his home.
Back on the flat-bottomed boat for the hour long journey into the heart of the mountains, it’s time for all to relax. All that is except the mostly female rowers, whose backbreaking job it is is to propel us along. The river is a refreshing antidote to Vietnam’s crazy roads. The choking dust, noxious pollution and obnoxious noise are jettisoned for contemplative silence, purified air and shallow waters.
Eventually, perhaps too soon for some, the wharf is reached and disembarking passengers are thrust back into real life. A throng of stalls touting altar offerings, souvenirs and sustenance compete rowdily for business.
Perfume Pagoda is as romantic as anywhere, yet as touristy as anywhere else. With every step someone new peddles another golden gift, food and drink, or this year’s essential accessory: a red cowboy hat with Chua Huong scrawled across the front. The only strange thing is that almost no one’s a tourist. Perfume Pagoda is for the Vietnamese.
One stall owner grabs a microphone and declares “You haven’t experienced the Perfume Pagoda unless you’ve tried my food.” Nearby, a half-carved deer carcass dangles from a rusty hook. Alongside is a school of fish-shaped bread. More stalls line a flight of concrete steps up the foothills of the mountain before us as we being the accent.
Following everyone else up the steps, Thien Tru Pagoda (Heavenly Kitchen) curls into view. The natural rock formations were thought to resemble chefs at work. Destroyed by French colonists and rebuilt 20 years ago, Thien Tru Pagoda – which also goes by the name Chua Ngoai (Outer Pagoda) – has been home to Buddhist monks since the 15th Century. More and more pilgrims visited Thien Tru as word spread of its beautiful location. And with their donations, the pagoda flourished.
More steps, more stalls, then a choice. The arduous climb all the way up to the top of the mountain, in the footsteps of millions, or the easy option: a ride on the newly-installed cable car. For those keen to show their sacrifice, the trail snakes its way up the mountainside, the valley’s plunging neckline, draped with snow white apricot blossom, to one side. The apricots are harvested in May and sold as is or used to make wine, syrup or salted throat medicine.
Onward and upward, timid pagodas and temples shelter in the dim light of cave after cave. And then finally, after a truly exhausting climb – or a quick ride on the cable car – visitors reach their final destination: Huong Tich Cave.
A stone staircase descends into the cavern’s gaping mouth, much like a dentist subduing a tongue with a stick. Below, on the cave floor, pilgrims pray before an altar as they tell Buddha their basic details: name, age and (ancestral) address. It is believed that the Goddess of Mercy, reincarnated as Princess Dieu Thien, made Huong Tich Cave – aka Chua Trong (Inner Pagoda) – her home. Her heavenly scent gave the area its name.
Sometime in the late 18th Century, Lord Trinh Sam carved five Chinese characters into the cave’s sombre stone. The characters read Finest Cave in the Southern Sky. Money – real notes, not the fake ones usually burnt as offerings – is tossed into a hole, fluttering into the darkness and out of sight. More notes are stuck to the sides of an incense burner.
Deeper into the cave, people try to squeeze trays of flowers, money and Choco-Pies onto an overloaded altar. The air is thick with smoke from hundreds of incense sticks lethargically burning to banish bad luck. Tiny candles flicker as prayers are whispered and the broody stroke the Boy Stone or Girl Stone in the hope of a baby. The foreign tourists who blindly follow suit may be in for a surprise.
The cave is a work in progress. Water continues to drip feed stalactites and stalagmites, sculpting abstract art. At one bottleneck, hands reach for a drop of pure water dripping from the dank ceiling. The water represents a mother’s milk and is said to bring wealth.
Every year, the Perfume Pagoda hosts Vietnam’s most popular festival, which starts on the sixth day of the Lunar New Year and continues for three months. On the first day, pilgrims give thanks to the woodland that scrambles up the mountains, with the festivities reaching their climax on the nineteenth day of the first lunar month, when the Goddess of Mercy’s birthday is celebrated.
During these days, the Perfume Pagoda is impossibly crowded. Thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese make their way here, from babies to their proud great-grandparents. The river becomes a clanking metal walkway, as every boat available carries pilgrims along the Yen Stream, and on land the crowds create inevitable logjams as they’re funnelled up and down steps, in and out of cable cars, and squashed into temples.
So, if you want to visit the Perfume Pagoda –60 km (37 miles) southwest of the capital in My Duc District, Ha Tay Province – it is much quieter when the festival is not on.