Getting There is Half The Battle
One of the sites near Hanoi that I was told should not be missed is the famous Perfume Pagoda, or Chua Huong. At only sixty kilometres southwest of Hanoi, you'd assume it would take maybe 30 minutes to an hour to get there. This is Vietnam, however, and things are very different here. The trip to My Duc, the little town where you transfer to a boat for the remainder of the journey, took approximately two hours. The trip from Hanoi is fun right from the time you leave Hanoi in the early hours of the morning, as the roads are absolutely packed with frenzied motorcycles going in all directions. There were even a few people on the bus who were so amused by the scene that they leaned out of the windows to try and get a good photograph.
Calmness & Serenity
Once in My Duc, we were escorted down to the water's edge, where we were put into groups of three or four and loaded into tiny tin boats. It would have been a more authentic experience if we weren't in these factory-fabricated boats, but after noticing dozens of sunken wooden boats in the area, I was suddenly very grateful for our little tin watercrafts. The boat trip offered stunning views of limestone cliffs enveloped in a light fog. It was very peaceful, with only the sounds of nature surrounding us, and the occasional scream from a tourist. Along the way we passed by families moving, what seemed to be, an entire house on one of these boats.
The trek up to Chua Huong, which is actually a cluster of shrines and Pagodas, took approximately 1.5 hours. This is not an adventure for the artery-clogged heavyweights. The path was at best muddy, and at worst slippery rocks with very little to hang on to.
What's That Smell?
Four kilometres later, we arrived at Huong Tich Mountain, which translates to 'Mountain of the Fragrant Traces' in English. I immediately figured out how the cave got its name: there was a thick cloud of incense covering the top half of the Pagoda, and the lack of a breeze helped the cloud stay in its place. What I saw inside the cave not terribly impressive from a photographer's perspective, but very important from a spiritual one. I was expecting to see an actual temple inside the cave, but there were only colourfully decorated altars with statues and offerings. Thousands upon thousands of all ages make the trip each year to this location. I can't imagine how packed the area must be during the festival.
Down hill From Here
The trip back seemed quite a bit faster, but not much easier. With my body now completely drained from climbing and descending the hills, my mind was focused on the meal awaiting us at the bottom of the mountain. After inhaling my rice, vegetables and spring roll, we had some time to wander around the other religious sites in the area before heading back to the river. The Thien Tru Pagoda, which means Heavenly Kitchen, was quite an interesting sight, but I don't really know the significance behind it. I only know that it was built in 1686 and destroyed under French rule only to be rebuilt in 1954.
Our guide basically told us that what we offered was quite generous and well above what she should expect. So we left, but the incident left a sour note on what was otherwise a very fun experience.