Pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda

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Right after Tet we made a pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda, also known as Chua Houng, located on Perfume mountain on the Yen Vi river, about 70km southwest of Ha Noi. It’s actually a grouping of many pagodas clustered along the mountainside and they are visited in succession as one makes their way up the mountain to the highest and most exquisite temple. This cluster of pagodas is most easily accessed by boat.

Year-round the Perfume Pagoda is a popular attraction for tourists; however, right after Tet the river ways are overtaken by the Viet people who visit the temples to pray for an auspicious new year. During the month after Tet hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese make this pilgrimage. We couldn’t believe the mobs of people! It seemed that half of Vietnam was there the same day that we were—the first official day of the season.

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You start the journey in the city of Ben Duc.

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The boat drivers were amazing, they came in all ages, shapes, and sizes ranging from little kids to old women.

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The first stop is at a temple located at the mouth of the river. You must come here before you head upriver to the main grouping of pagodas in order to make offerings and pray for permission to go the main temples.

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Before you begin the pilgrimage you can have a prayer written for you in Chinese characters on a piece of tissue paper. This prayer offers peace and prosperity to those that are in the afterlife. (You want to do this in hopes that they will also look after you.) On this paper is written a prayer, your name, year you were born and in some cases your address. Then you burn it, which sends it on the afterlife.

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Then you burn incense and leave offerings at one of the many alters in and around the temple.

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And people do leave piles of real money. That’s not the fake stuff. It’s amazing to me … there is so much money left out in the open on alters everywhere and there is absolutely no theft at the temples.

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There are vendors set up all over the place who will change larger bills into small denominations for you.

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Finally you can start the journey up river to the Perfume Pagoda.

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The trip to the first Perfume Pagoda at the base of the mountain takes about an hour. All along the way the scenery is gorgeous and quiet. People watching folks in nearby boats is a fun activity and every once in awhile a boat of village singers goes by serenading travelers.

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When we got to the docks we had to park our boat five boats away from the dock and then walk over all the boats in between. It was hilarious trying to pick your way across. It was a kind of randomly organized mayhem.

Once onto dry land you just get swept up into the crowd headed for the first temple.

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All along the way are vendors selling everything from food to eat (there was tons and tons of street food and snacks—absolutely fun and delicious) to items to create a tray of alter offerings. You could get fruit, fresh flowers, small statues, books of poetry … you name it and you could probably find it. The vendor scene reminded me of the vendors at a local country fair. The vendors here sure know how to hawk their wares.

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Making our way up to the first temple was like riding a wave of people. You almost didn’t have to walk by yourself.

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At this point I stopped taking photos because there were just too many people to be able to get shots that weren’t completely blocked by people.

You make your way up the mountainside visiting all the various temples, which represent different deities until you reach Houng Tich, the temple deep within the mountain’s cave system.

This was an incredible experience and once again, a great way to bring in the new year.

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