The Perfume Pagoda

While religion is technically not sanctioned by the government of Vietnam, people here tend to be very spiritual, if not completely religious. The beginning of spring is marked by a very large festival called the Tet Festival where the symbol of the spring awakening is the arrival of the Lunar New Year with the blooming of kumquats and peaches. Unfortunately, I missed this festival by just a week or so before arriving in Hanoi. While I missed the actual Tet festival, the festivities do not stop that soon: every year for one or two months after Tet, Buddhist pilgrims (many of which I would equate to Christmas-only Christians) flock to the Perfume Pagoda, aka Chùa Hương in Vietnamese.

The flags of the Tet Festival and the gate towards the Pefume Pagoda

The flags of the Tet Festival and the gate towards the Perfume Pagoda in My Doc, Vietnam

My guide book says that the Perfume Pagoda, which is 60 km south west of Hanoi near the town of My Doc is found in picturesque limestone mountains and is one of the prime places to visit in the located Hanoi area; however, the book warns about visiting it for two months after Tet due to the crowds. I must say, the warning was completely justified! Nonetheless, this was a cultural experience I am glad I partook in!

Prior to my trip to the Perfume Pagoda, my co-workers asked me for 70,000 VND which is roughly $4. I was unsure why they wanted this money, maybe it was for lunch for the week? I soon found out that they actually wanted me to join them on their annual pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda to pray for wealth, health, and prosperity for the new lunar year. We left on a Sunday at 5 AM, for a long but incredible day.

The row boats and the first glimpse of the scenery to come

The row boats and the first glimpse of the scenery to come

After a sleepless 1.5 hour bus ride to the town of My Doc, we finally arrived at the river filled with row boats that would take us to the foot of the mountains. The town was crawling with people and vendors of cheap trinkets and stacks of small denomination bills for offerings to the Buddhas. I could sense the urgency and the excitement in my co-workers who were non-stop chattering in Vietnamese. While they were so joyful, I actually felt very, very lonely. I was surrounded by thousands of people, but I couldn’t really enjoy what was going on in the same capacity as everyone else. I was sort of forgotten, maybe because I don’t know any Vietnamese and everyone wanted to talk about what was going on and obviously they’ll do that in their own language. Who knows; it was still odd feeling so lonely, but with so many people around. Only after quite a bit of alcohol and walking did I begin to feel apart of the group.

The Buddhist offering also known as lunch!

The Buddhist offering also known as lunch!

To get this party officially started we purchased a whole cooked chicken, plopped him/her on a pile of sticky rice, stuck stacks of money under it and added a few flowers (maybe for color?). We then marched the chicken and a platter of fruit into the first temple and put it on the altar with incense burning. Everyone was praying by this point, asking the Buddhas for prosperity. I assumed this was an offering, possibly even a lame sacrifice, but as soon as it began the chicken and fruit platters were quickly back out the door of the temple. Apparently they were lunch for the boat ride ahead…

Wouldn't you like to row here everyday of your life?

Wouldn't you like to row here everyday of your life?

The boat ride lasted about one hour and I was placed squarely in the middle, probably so I wouldn’t fall into the water since we were drinking beer the entire trip? The boat was rowed and directed by an extremely small but buff woman and a companion man. Her strength and nimbleness was incredible. Apparently all the women in the town of My Doc, aged 13 to about 65 row the throngs of pilgrims up the river every year, all year long. Not a single obese one amongst them.

The scenery on the river was literally awe inspiring. Too bad it was cloudy, because I bet with a blue sky and a blazing sun the limestone and lush green mountains would be phenomenal. Despite the clouds it was still pretty. As our boat made its way amongst the other boats my co-workers broke out into traditional Vietnamese songs until we made it to the docking point where the hike up the mountain would begin.

Roast...dog?...done seven ways, or just one. For now.

Roast...dog?...done seven ways, or just one. For now.

The hike up to the Perfume Pagoda is several kilometers and quite steep. It doesn’t make it easy that the stone-paved path has been trekked on so many times that the rocks have been rubbed smooth and thus are insanely slippery. All along the path up the view was blocked by more of the same vendors selling tacky trinkets and various over-priced food and drink stalls. This was a shame because I would rather see the amazing nature than horrible commerce, especially in a supposedly Communist country!

This is a Metallica concert, right?

This is a Metallica concert, right?

With roughly 1/3 of a mile to the cave, our ability to walk normally stopped. Suddenly I was at a rock concert back home: we were in a mosh pit. The throngs of pilgrims had finally all converged on one narrow path to the pagoda with intense pushing and shoving. I swear, at one point my feet were no longer on the ground and my body movement was only because of the sway of the crowd! Fortunately for me, I was a head taller than everybody so I was able to get fresh air, while everyone else must have been suffocating. At one point I began contemplating whether this trek to the pagoda would be worth in or not and if I should turn around and join the mass of people going back down since their side was actually moving. I am glad I decided against this.

The cave entrance to the Perfume Pagoda

The cave entrance to the Perfume Pagoda

The pagoda itself was breathtaking. After walking down about 120 stairs I found myself in a wide-open cavern with a giant pillar of stone in the middle. Behind the pillar was a grotto with several Buddhist altars where people were doing a number of things including praying, trying to catch ‘lucky water’, aka drops from stalactites, and stuffing money into fissures of the rocks (a sacrifice in hopes that wealth will surely be had this new year!). The intensity of the spirituality simply washed over everything in the cave. I was left without words.

While I was literally one of only four recognizable foreigner I saw the entire time (I only saw the other foreigners on my way back down the mountain) amongst the at least 100,000 people, I would surely visit it again during this time of the year. If I could I would edit the guide books to say “do not visit the Perfume Pagoda for the first two months after Tet, unless you want a truly unforgettable cultural experience that you’ll probably keep with you for the rest of your life.”

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7 Responses to “The Perfume Pagoda”

  1. Timi Says:

    Good editing of the video! Were you not allowed to film the pagoda? Or take pics?

  2. Kathy OMalley Says:

    Incredible!

  3. Kriszta Says:

    That was a huge crowd! I would have definitely felt claustrophobic as a shorty! Lots of interesting things we’re learning about through these posts, Nate. Were you standing on the boat by the way while you were filming?! Good thing you kept your balance!

  4. nmcutler Says:

    I was allowed to film the pagoda and take pics of it, but the problem is they didn’t turn out well inside the cave. Bad lighting and the flash made it worse. Also, I was indeed standing on the boat when I filmed it. It was actually quite smooth and stable, so no worries about falling over!

  5. Gillian Says:

    Wow…that’s great. The video really adds to the blog.

  6. Pierre Cutler Says:

    It’s astonishing what $4 can buy these days!

    Pierre

  7. cory lee Says:

    were those really dogs? thats so distrubing….

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