With most museums in Hanoi closed on Monday, and rain in the forecast, we decided to book a day trip to Chau Huong, a mountain complex of many Buddhist pagodas (shrines). This is the site of the longest lasting festival in Vietnam, which lasts for three months - bookending the lunar new year, called Tet in Vietnamese.
It began to rain just as we left the hotel. Once out of Hanoi the drive took us through low-lying lands where many of the rice farmers also keep symbiotic creatures in their paddies - ducks and fish. Villages along the way gave us a good look at what I think are the original “skinny houses “, a design becoming increasingly popular in North America. On a previous trip I’d learned that this style of house originated along the coast as they are placed so as to best resist the typhoons and other heavy winds. Also, the design permits homeowners to add floors as their finances improve because mortgages were (are?) uncommon.
Rounding a bend, our first view of the rain and mist encompassed mountains immediately brought to mind our China 2017 boat trip from Guilin to Yangzhou. Regrettably, the van windows had such dark tint that photographs weren’t worth the effort.
We left the van at Duc Wharf and walked through the very heavy downpour to Yen wharf. We were therefore very pleased to find that the boat for our small party of five plus guide was one of the (relatively) few that had a cover. It was really surprising to see it would be a tiny lady rowing us up the Day River for an hour.
We were told that there are 6,000 passenger boats waiting to ferry pilgrims to the mountains to visit the various pagodas and temples. During the annual three-month festival, 1.5 million pilgrims come to the region to visit various pagodas and ask for specific kinds of blessings. Attendance the day before we went (Sunday) was around 6,000 people. No wonder our hotel lobby booking agent had discouraged us from going then!
Our destination was to be the most most revered and most visited site, the Perfume Pagoda. Even though it is so very important to the Vietnamese people, be they devout Buddhists or just honouring traditions, very few tourists visit. Rather, they flock to famous Halong Bay for views of the karst mountains and boating around the islands.
Once docked, we walked up shop-lined stone steps to the large Thien Tru (Heaven Kitchen) pagoda and monastery. It is specific to Big wheel Buddhist faith Mahayana Budhism concerned with well-being of the world. This is in contrast to small wheel that is concerned with the self.
Apparently, it is so named for an event not unlike the Bible storey of manna from heaven – the miracle of food falling from the sky to feed starving people. A good example of the religious architecture of Vietnam, the site is entered through a triple gate. Our guide explained such gates typically represent the three answers to prayers - yes, no, maybe. He also made it clear that the large central gate is the “Maybe”.
Our guide also pointed out that Vietnamese Buddhist pagodas have curved rooflines and brick tiling to represent the Vietnamese as the dragon people - the tile roofs mimic scales. Chinese pagodas, however, have straight roof lines lines and long curved “thigh” tiles.
The highlight of this festival region is the Perfume Pagoda, also known as Chua Trong, located in Huong Tich Cave. One can walk the steep concrete trail for 3 kms to get to it, which we would have chosen but on this down-pouring day we opted to go up by gondola. From that vantage point we could see the entire one-hour uphill route is lined with shops. It appears there would have been very few viewpoints as we trekked through a gauntlet of hawkers offering snacks, souvenirs and – predominantly – offerings such as incense, fruits and paper money.
After riding up the gondola we soon turned to descend 120 steps to the mouth of the grand cave which is the Perfume Pagoda. Millions of pilgrims come to request blessings from the stalactites and stalagmites, many of which are named and have special purposes.
For example, there is male formation to ask for a son, or a boyfriend and across from it is the female formation to ask for a daughter or a girlfriend. There are also formations named as gold tower and silver towers. Here people leave offerings to ask for prosperity - gold was significantly more polished. There’s another stalagmite growing up from the cave floor that is named the Breast formation. The water dripping onto from above was rubbed on head and face a breast, to in hopes of being blessed with health from the ‘milk’ of the 'breast.
We took turns honouring the traditions and headed out to go up the stairs and down the gondola. However, before we exited through the mouth of the cave we were asked asked to stand with groups and individuals for photos. The last of the women were so bold as to ask me to step aside so they could be pictured with Duncan alone – then they all wanted the I suspect they are smitten with him and his facial hair. Then the others wanted a re-take too!
The return boat trip was drier, thank goodness. Vendors such as I had purchased my coffee from now passed us with their stereos playing upbeat music and passenger boats sidled up alongside to buy beers, pop, chips or whatever treats.
Also of note, our row boat was overtaken by a couple of heavily loaded boats with what we joked were loaded passengers. They were certainly very lively, chatting and playing cards for the entire hour. We got lots of very friendly waves and hellos. Our guide said these two big groups were comprised of villagers from rural Vietnam and they were delighted to see their first-ever foreign faces.
The Perfume Pagoda cave honours a female female follower of Buddha, who we’ve become rather familiar with during our Asia travels. Known variously as Quan YIn, Kwan YIn and in Vietnam as Quan Am,
A devout Buddhist and one of three princesses, Quan Am rebelled against her father’s forced marriage. She ran away to practice her faith and the king’s men were sent to capture & kill her.
The local mountain god transformed into a tiger to rescue her and she lived in the large cave while seeking enlightenment. Through her devotion, she became imbued with supernatural powers. Many years later her father laying dying and despite his evil towards her she intervened and cured him.
She is therefore beloved as the Goddess of Mercy in both streams of Buddhist faith and among several other sects in Asia too.
On way back Photo “temple on hill w flag” is a memorial to Ho Chi Min