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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The sweet frangrance of life - Perfume Pagoda.

We are in Hanoi for five days, but by the dawn of the fourth I need to escape.  Hanoi is just too energetic for me.  Everywhere we turn there is a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of activity - be it dodging bride after bride in stunning outfits and serene smiles striking the pose -along with their grooms – as we attempt to stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake and try not to 'photo bomb' the happy couples (we stop counting couples when we hit the double digits), or ducking into the Vietnamese Women’s Museum only to find it is hosting a book fair in its courtyard and moving through the throng of excited bibliophiles is like trying to cross ‘beer corner’.  I couldn’t even dive in and join them as most of the books were in Vietnamese and the extent of my Vietnamese is ‘xin chow',. Or being brought to a sobering thud when we visit the Military Museum to try and make head and tail of the horrors this nation has endured for thousands of years, only to find the museum is hosting an event for the dignitaries of the 132nd Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly conference which is happening in Hanoi right this moment.   
Booking a private driver for the day, we make an early morning start and zip out of the city away from the mayhem and buzz.  Away from the old quarter we soon discover there is a very modern side to Hanoi and we pass high-rise after high-rise and upmarket suburb after suburb.   Soon we come to the countryside and the pace begins to become gentler – rice fields and duck ponds flash past the widows and every now and then we spy a village.  An hour later we arrive to the small sleepy village of My Duc with ornate pagodas surrounded by ponds filled with scruffy yellow adolescent ducks and a backdrop of white limestone karst cliffs of the Huong Tich Mountains, or sweetly nicknamed – the Mountain of Fragrant Traces.  Next to where we stop is a waterway, filled to the brim of blue aluminium row boats, some seating ten, some only six, and a couple with beautiful dragon head bows.  Our driver – who introduced himself as Brian, but is actually named Tan – organises a small boat to take us to the delightfully named Perfume Pagoda complex, five kilometres up the Day River. I have visions of me tumbling into the waters as I try to keep my tourist paraphernalia of cameras, water bottles, daypacks and handbag up out of the water as we clamour over the bobbing vessels to reach our boat which sits practically in the middle of the ‘harbour’.  Why is it I always turn into a hoarder-cum-baglady whenever I go on holidays? I think to myself. 
Our rower is a diminutive young woman with very strong arms and she thrusts the oars forward with such power and strength that we glide effortlessly along the river. There is almost no-one else on the river, except for fisherman in conical hats, pulling up tightly woven fish-trap baskets filled with small crabs and fish, and the occasional small tuck-shop boat rowing past; but we’re not asked to buy anything, we don’t even garner a glance.   Our first stop is at a small pagoda at the end of the ‘harbour’ - Trinh shrine - where we are to 'present ourselves for registration' and we find an offering ceremony in process.  It’s busy with locals and visiting Vietnamese tourists giving thanks and praying for a good new year.   Brian explains to us that for the three months after Tet, the Perfume Pagoda and especially the Cave are filled with Vietnamese nationals from all over Vietnam paying homage – the first month straight after Tet being the busiest, with tens of thousands visiting each day. 
The row down the river takes just on an hour and its incredibly peaceful.  Surrounding us are the huge karst outcrops and forest, closer are fish farms and small simple  abodes and lots of ornate graves – colourful and water-logged.   I ask Tan why the tombs are sitting in the river and if there is a chance of them sinking into the depths, he answers no and that this practise is common for the area but is being slowly phased out for the more modern practise of cremation.    

About half way up the river we start to see more boats, filled to brim of laughing and singing locals, some of them picnicking, wearing rubber gloves and munching on roast chickens, baguette and juicy pineapples.  They call out greetings of 'Namo Amitabha Buddha' and giggle behind hands when we call back our simple 'hello' and 'xin chào'. 
We reach the end of the row at another 'harbour', once again filled with blue row boats bumping into each other and we scramble over a couple of boats to get to the walkway which has an almost French feel to it - a wide cobble stoned promenade with ornate iron lamp posts.  On the other side of the walkway wood-fired bakeries waft out a fragrance of freshly baked bread. The little eateries next to them are busy with happy diners and upon closer inspection, I'm horrified to discover the delicacies being offered are roasted whole kitty, fido and a hedgehog, complete with quills still attached to the tail.   Entering the complex starts with a climb up a steep winding path lined with shops.   The shops are never ending and snake the pathway all the way to the very pinnacle of the complex - the  Huong Tich Cave, the Pagoda of the Perfume Vestige. I find it fascinating what they are selling - most of it is the usual fare - offerings, tee-shirt, hats, junk food,  but there's also stalls selling children's ride-on toys and bikes, and  kitchen-ware shops - complete with saucepans and utensils.
The first stop is "Heaven Kitchen" - the Thien Tru Pagoda which is just stunning to look out.  All the doors are intricately carved and heavily ornate with swathes of pelmets and prayer-flags and bells hanging from it.  Behind the Pagoda and up more stairs sits a very 'kitsch' shine in a cave featuring very psychedelic animal gods.
The pathway gets steeper and steeper and the crowds are thronging - we can hardly walk a straight line, in fact we spend more time standing, waiting for the crowd to move than we do moving.  We opt for the cable car, despite my intense fear of heights, and it doesn't help any that I've also heard the horror stories of  this cable-car having numerous malfunctions, leaving passengers hanging high above the forest - sometimes for hours. Still we jump in and trundle our way up, swinging away in the winds that flow through the jutting karsts.
It's an amazing site and we can see for miles and miles (despite the dirty windows) and soon we're at the very top.... well not quite, still a few more steps to go, but I'm extremely happy that we took the cable, as the path up is long and winding and chock-a-block full of shops.  There doesn't appear to be a break in the rows and walking up we would not have seen a single thing, not even the sky as tin, stripy plastic and blue tarp covers the walkway for almost all the way.
We make our way to the cave along with thousands of pilgrims and find we have to descend hundreds of steps down into the jungle.  It's steep and slippery and I'm terrified of replicating my 'Turkey tumble' (and my ankle is still sore, even some 10months later), so it's a slow walk down.   But oh so worth it!  The cave is enormous  and would have to be one of the best temple caves I've ever seen in Asia.  It's beautiful.  Although the stalagmites are worn smooth from all the worshipers rubbing - and the largest is practically fondled to the enth degree - it's known as the Mother's Milk Stone and does resemble a breast - they are still impressive to see.

We spend quite a bit of time in the cave, it's a cool respite from the intense heat and humidity of the jungle outside and  a ceremony is in process,  the chants resonate deeply though the chamber. Incense swirls and tickles our noses and all the gold and glitter from the offerings gives a warm amber glow.   The glow continues as we are rowed back to My Duc along with hundreds of other boats all filled with happy day-trippers who've paid their respects to the Buddha, music floats across the waters.  Our driver, Tan has invited us back to his house for dinner and we are embraced in the pure joy that is Vietnam.
Ebullient, vibrant, ALIVE.


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