Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Perfume Pagoda: Pilgrimage, Mystery Meat and Big Crowds – Feb 22

For our last day of travel, we went to Chua Huong (or Perfume Pagoda). It’s set in beautiful limestone cliffs, similar to Halong Bay, by a river. It is 100 km south of Hanoi, which equates to about a 2 hour drive. The drive was especially bumpy in the minibus and the guy in front of us actually started puking. Luckily, we were at the midpoint stop (the usual toilet stop/tourist trap, a big warehouse that sells all sorts of things, at jacked up prices) and were able to leave the minibus. Then you need a 1 hour boat ride that covers maybe 10 km.

According to the travel books, it was likely that there would be big crowds because we were in the middle of the THREE MONTH long Perfume Pagoda festival, during which Buddhist pilgrims come to pray for fertility, good health and probably money. However, with our luck, we were there on the 16th day of the lunar month, which is especially attractive to pilgrims. Supposedly even numbers having more meaning than odd numbers – not sure why. This means that as we went to visit the first pagoda, Thien Tru Pagoda, it was jammed with people bringing offerings and praying. We took a few pictures and hid in the shade for the remaining half hour allotted. While most of our trip has been spent in the cold, this day was hot and sunny – perfect timing with the big crowds and large amount of stairs we would have to climb.

All the boats arriving at the mountain site.

Massive crowds walking to the Pagoda.

Thien Tru Pagoda.

Inside, worshippers are praying.

On the bus ride, we had indicated to our guide that The Boyfriend is vegetarian. As we walked by food stalls and sat down at a specific one (lunch was included), a few of us, including myself, conveniently became vegetarian. This is because at every food stall were hung carcasses of small, mystery animals. My stomach’s getting upset just writing this… When I questioned the guide, he informed me that the biggest was a baby water buffalo (not bad), the medium body was that of an animal that looks like a dog, but not a dog (our guess was some type of weasel? it actually sort of like an ant eater) and the smallest one he agreed was a rabbit when I asked him, but then also agreed was a cat when someone else asked. Note that our guide seemed a bit confused about everything. No matter, I didn’t want to eat any of the options available.

Mystery meats. Rabbit, cat, skunk, who knows?

Now being in the North of Vietnam, the specialty dish is actually dog meat. I have seen restaurants advertising dog meat but not seen any carcasses like these. As a meat eater myself, I think it would be hypocritical to judge people for eating dog meat, while I eat beef or pork. How can I say one meat is ok to eat while another is not? However, this doesn’t mean that I’m willing to eat any or that I don’t feel sick thinking about it.

We were brought rice, boiled cabbage and a dish of tofu with meat. Not knowing what meat it was, most of us just picked the tofu. It was actually a bit confusing to have meat as an option near a very important Buddhist pagoda. Most strict Buddhists are actually vegetarian. Three of the Vietnamese people in our bus actually requested vegetarian meals and only had boiled potato-like vegetables.

After lunch, the plan was to go visit the most important pagoda: Huong Tich Pagoda, which is set in a cave in a mountainside. Our options were either to go by cable car or by foot, i.e. climbing the steep steps, which would take an hour. The 5 Vietnamese people, including an elderly man, opted for the cable car. The two German couples, a French couple and ourselves decided to go by foot. Our guide pointed the way and told us there really was only one way to go, which wasn’t quite accurate. I assumed that he was going to follow at the end of the group. As we climbed, we realized the guide was not with us. We then assumed he went up by cable car and would meet the rest of up there.

As we neared the cavern, there were people waiting in line to enter the cavern. Using the word "line" supposes people waiting in an orderly fashion, just as the word "pilgrimage" supposes peacefulness and tranquility. Rather, people were pushing and shoving their way ahead of the line. As The Boyfriend put it, climbing up the stairs with the pilgrims was having all your senses attacked: there were vendors on all side selling food and beverages, music blaring from speakers. I had imagined pilgrims contemplatively climbing up the stairs, maybe chanting prayers in a low tone. Not so.

While waiting in line, The Boyfriend and I decided the wait was not worth it. It was too annoying having people push you and we most likely had a long wait ahead of us. Realizing we had also lost our guide, we decided to wait for everyone at the cable car. We were still hoping the guide was waiting at the cave. An hour later, the French couple gave up, having gotten to the entry of the cave. Finally, half an hour later, the Germans came back, without our guide. They showed us pictures they took – a cave jam-packed with people.

We all decided to take the cable car down, having no idea where the guide or the rest of the group were. People waiting in line for the cable car were also shoving their way through. Each cable car could only take 6 and people were pushing each other to get through. It was ridiculous! There was a cable car every 10 seconds. But when we finally got into a cable car, the silence was so wonderful and the scenery beautiful that it almost seemed worth it; this lasted for a whole 5 minutes.

Crowds waiting for the cable car.

View form the cable car.

As we climbed down the remaining stairs, we saw our guide, who obviously seemed panicked without any group. Supposedly, he had stayed behind because he didn’t like big crowds. Whaaaaaaaat?! He sure didn’t tell any of us that. We had to wait another 45 minutes because the people who went up by cable car decided to go down by foot.

Boat ride back to land.

Since we were an hour behind, we did not have our scheduled stop during our drive back. In addition, our driver seemed to try to make up the time by speeding; the ride was so bumpy, we were literally airborne at a point. And that’s when the guy started puking again. This is the only time on our trip when we didn’t tip the guide; the whole trip was such a mess.

So what's the final verdict? Do I recommend going? I think it is a beautiful setting. I would suggest avoid really busy pilgrimage days. There are supposedly calmer days, even during the 3 month festival. As for the food, maybe have an alternate plan if you're not willing to eat mystery meat.


Anonymous said...

Somehow I stumble onto your website, and becoming a big fan. I remember the song "Ddi Chua Huong", so romantic and beautiful, "Hom qua em ddi Chua Huong, hoa co con mo hoi suong...", ... and then reading your blog!!! :(. Thanks for a true experience. I guess one has to be there to see.

Miss.Adventure said...

Thanks! Actually, we went to Chua Huong at my mother's suggestion and she told me about the song.