The Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong; admission 17,000d plus 8000d return boat trip) is about 60km southwest of Hanoi by road. It is a complex of pagodas and Buddhist shrines built into the limestone cliffs of Huong Tich Mountain (mountain of the Fragrant Traces). Among the better known sites here are Thien Chu (Pagoda Leading to Heaven);Giai Oan Chu (Purgatorial Pagoda), where the faithful believe deities purify souls, cure sufferings and grant offspring to childless families; and Huong Tich Chu (Pagoda of the Perfumed Vestige).
The fun boat trip along the scenic waterways between limestone cliffs takes about two-hours return, and allow yourself an additional two or three hours return to climb to the top. A word of warming; bring good walking shoes! The path to the top is steep in laces and if it’s raining the ground can get very slippery.
Great numbers of Buddhist pilgrims come here during a festival that begins in the middle of the second lunar month and lasts until the last week of the third lunar month (usually corresponding to March and April). It’s very busy during this period, especially on the even dates of the lunar month; you’ll have a much easier time of you establish the lunar date, and plan to go on a odd date. In 2002, on the particularly auspicious sixth day of the first lunar month, 3000 boats crammed the waterway and there was a boat jam that lasted from noon until 9pm! Weekends tend to draw crowds all year, when pilgrims and other visitors spend their time boating, hiking and exploring the caves. Litter and noisy stalls and hawkers are part and parcel of the visit you have been warned.
Getting There & Away
Getting to the pagoda requires a journey first by road, then by river, then by foot.
First, you will need to travel from Hanoi by car for two hours to the township of My Duc. Vehicles usually drop you about a 15-minute walk from the boat ramp, or hop on a xe om for 2000d. Then take a small boat, usually rowed by women, for one to 1 1/2 hours to the foot of the mountain.
Mrs.Thuyen, Boat Woman
‘I’ve rowed tourists to the Perfume Pagoda for about two years now. Our boat group is made up of 27 boats rowed by women who all belong to martyr’s families – our husbands or fathers of children were killed or injured in the war. There are more than 100 of us allowed to work at one time, so there’s an annual lottery to establish which of us will row each year. So I may not work every year, but when I do it’s consistent and I get paid 15,000d every day, regardless of how many trips I do, or even if there’s no work for day or two.
‘You see our group of martyr’s families has priority for rowing all the foreigners. It’s easier because there are fewer people in the boat and if we’re lucky we get tips. Other boats have to compete on their own for customers and sometimes might not have any and might not make any money. A boat costs about one million dong, and we all save to buy our own. Every three or four years we have to change the floor of the boat and that costs 250,000d.
‘We all also have a plot of land nearby, and we grow and sell things when we’re not working on the boats. I grow longan fruit. My husband raises bees; he moves his hives around other people’s plantations depending on what’s flowering, and pays for the bees’ use of the flowers with a liter or two of honey. Honey sells for aobut 70,00d a litre. Last year was a bad year; my husband only made 50 litres all year, butin the first three monts of this year he’s already made 30 litres.
‘I used to be a soldier, that’s how I met my husband. Our children are 19, 16 and 14 years old and when they were little I didn’t row the boat, I sold jewellery and incense at the pagoda. It’s hard work but I think about my children finishing their study and becoming successful and that keeps me going.’
The main pagoda area is about a 4km steep hike up from where the boat lets you off. Allow yourself at least two hours to make the return trip, longer if it’s been raining and is slippery. The combined fee for the boat journey and general admission ticket is 28,000d; if you want to charter a boat to go up and back at your convenience, it will cost you an extra 45,000d. Negotiate this while still at the boat ramp itself – the ticket office at the main entrance tries to charge 200,000d! The return trip to your vehicle is also by rowboat.
Most of the travellers’ cafes in Hanoi offer inexpensive tours to the pagoda. Yu can find day trips as cheap as US$9 or US$10, inclusive of transport, guide and lunch. For a better quality tour (ie, a smaller group as well as a more comfortable vehicle) expect to spend around US$14 to US$16. Take a tour! Unless our charter a vehicle, it’s a real pain trying to do this trip by public transport.