Chua Huong - the Perfume Pagoda

On its way to the Perfume Pagoda, the Yen Vi river meanders through striking limestone 'karst' sceneryThe Perfume Pagoda temple complex
The 'Perfume Pagoda' is not a single building, but a large tract of 'karst' limestone landscape extending over about 30km2. Within this area of rocky peaks and paddy fields bisected by the Yen Vi river is a large complex of temples, pagodas and shrines.

The 70km journey from Hanoi takes about two hours. It's possible to reach the location by road, but most visitors opt for a trip along the river in a small boat - most are rowed by women. Thankfully, motorised boats are banned.

Visiting the Perfume PagodaThis is the view from the Tien  Pagoda  - it's a long climb!
The main pagoda is located in a large cave. The usual path starts from the Den Trinh temple (The Temple of First Presenting) where pilgrims burn incense to alert the local deities of their presence. Next is the Chua Thien Chu (Pagoda Leading to Heaven).

From there, it's a long walk uphill - walking at normal speed, it takes about an hour (not including stops on the way). On the way, the route passes a sacred stream where pilgrims wash away their negative thoughts.

The entrance to the Tien Pagoda leading into a large grotto where the Inner Pagoda is located From there, visitors head for the Tien Pagoda at the mouth of the Huong Tich grotto and its Inner Pagoda.

Popular belief says that the pagoda was built around the end of the fifteenth century on a site discovered by a monk searching for enlightenment. Since then, the Perfume Pagoda has been a major centre for pilgrims and followers of Buddhism.

The Perfume Pagoda festival periodThe Inner Pagoda on a very quiet day
There's no doubt that the pagodas and the landscape are very attractive. Less agreeable is the commercialisation of the area. The route to the Tien Pagoda is lined with vendors and is usually crowded.

During its three lunar month festival (at varying dates between February and March) thousands of Vietnamese people worshipping Buddha and his disciple, Avalokitasvara, crowd the buildings, grottoes and paths.

To give an idea of the scale of the invasion of pilgrims, on February 3rd, the first day of the 2006 festival, around 400,000 worshippers flocked into the site!

The authorities have tried to mitigate the crush by demolishing recently-built illegal pagodas cashing in on the tourist bounty, widening the paths and roads, and installing a cable car. Nevertheless, heavy congestion during the festival period is likely to make a visit to the Perfume Pagoda a less than pleasant experience.

The peak times are the first few days, the 19th of the second lunar month, and the week before the end of the festival. Unless you're happy to join a Mecca-style crush of Buddhist devotees, we recommend staying well away from the Perfume Pagoda on those dates.

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