The Perfume Pagoda

So we got up early this morning and got a 7:30am taxi to the bus station that serves the region where the Perfume Pagoda is found. The Perfume Pagoda is the tourist name for a large number of Buddhist temples located near the town of Chua Huang 60km southwest of Hanoi. When we arrived at the bus station we were hassled before the taxi even stopped with the doors being opened for us by touts keen to sell us trips to anywhere in the region. I was expecting this but didn’t know how bad it would be but I think it came as a little shock to Craig who is still new to this. Although the touts were pretty aggressive once you said no enough times and walked off they eventually started to leave us alone but I have to say I haven’t experienced anything as bad since I was in Africa and certainly nothing approaching this in Vietnam. We eventually managed to get directions to the correct bus from the one kind soul who you usually find in these places who sees you as more than a walking dollar sign and speaks a few words of English. This guy even told us how much the bus would cost (about 60p for 60km!) so we wouldn’t be overcharged! Once we boarded the correct bus we got seats and waited. The bus left pretty quickly but moved at a speed of about 10-15mph. We prayed that this wouldn’t be the top speed of this bus but as we slowly trundeled through the suburbs of Hanoi with people literally hopping on and off we got slightly worried. Luckily as the bus reached the outskirts of the city it picked up speed. Just over an hour and a half and a lot of people later the ticket man signalled that we had reached our stop and we got off in the middle of nowhere. Of course this being Vietnam we were immediately approached by motorbike drivers keen to drive us into the town about 5km away. Since we didn’t have the time to walk we were pretty much a captive audience and so took a very expensive 5km ride into the town (possibly called Chua Huong though we can’t remember). On the plus side we rode down peaceful country lanes surrounded by hills making for a beautiful trip! When we got into town we were met by a young woman who rowed the sampan boats required to get to the perfume pagoda. We were also met by the local ticket tout who had seen us coming into town and followed us to the boats. The ticket tout didn’t speak any English but the boat woman did. She explained in English that we had to buy tickets for the perfume pagoda from him. She told us that he would ask for a lot of money but that we could haggle down to $6.5 between us for the trip. In return for this the woman explained that the tout would pay her very little money for rowing us around for the day and made it clear that she expected us to pay her the extra directly. Since the boat woman was the person we’d be spending the day with and she’d told us how to save money we haggled with the ticket tout down to the price we’s been given which was actually less than quoted in the lonely planet. We bought the tickets from the tout and saw that we’d actually paid less than the face value of the tickets.

Since we were short on time we opted for a short tour of the temples so we boarded a boat along with our boat woman and her friend and they started rowing us up the river. We all wanted a turn at rowing so Craig volunteered first. The boats are small flat metal boats with two very home made wooden oars that are fixed to the boat by some twisted material. The oars are at the back of the boat and you row facing forward. This is actually very hard Craig gave it a go but, going forward was unable to make any progress much to our amusement. Craig then turned the boat around and started to row facing backwards. This was a little more successful but we still didn’t really head in the right direction so I took over. I decided to just row like you would in England and face the back as Craig had had more success this way. Rowing was very hard as the oars were uneven so you had to constantly correct the direction. It took me a couple fo minutes but I managed to establish a slow zigzagged route in the right direction. Since I was actually making some progress they let me continue and we slowly made our way upriver. Because of the way that the oars are attached to the boat I had to stop every couple of minutes to level the oars. After 5-10 minutes I let Tom take over, he was possibly the worst of the three of us and we span around and hit the bank a few times. I started shouting directions since I was facing the direction that we were travelling and Tom able to slowly start heading upstream. After a few minutes the girls decided we better hurry up as another boat passed us so one of them took ones of the oars from Tom and together they rowed us upstream. On the way we talked to the girls and established that they were both 22 year old children of local farmers who didn’t want to farm and rowed the boats to earn money for school. They both spoke quite good English and were fascinated by our phrase book.

Eventually we arrived at the end of our boat journey where there was a shop which sold us some water and some noodles. A very old man was hanging around the shop who seemed very interested in me. He told me that I’d live to 91 and make lots of money. He also told me that I was interested in sports and music. Everyone said he was a little mad and to ignore his ramblings! On the boat the girls had also studied all our palms. They told me that I’d have a long life and would succeed at anything I wanted to. They told both Tom and Craig that they would have a career change and some illness but live long successful lives with plenty of education. We’re not convinced but now its written down at least we can check it in 50 years time!

After some food the girls took us for a walk to the temples. We went to 3 temples in all each of which was very different. Two of the temples were inside caves and we were shown how to make a buddhist prayer and to leave joss sticks. The third temple was the biggest and was filled with carvings of buddha. We were given plates of fake money and sweets to leave as offerings at certain places around the last temple. To get to the temples we had a walk over hills along a path that has been used for centuries by monks visiting the temples. The view was stunning and I’ll upload some photos when I get the time. Once we had finished the walk we went back to the boat. The girls told us we could save money by getting a bus straight from the town and therefore avoid the expensive motorbike ride back to the bus stop but the bus left at 3:30 so we couldn’t hang around. The girls rowed us back to the boat dock where we were picked up by motorbikes that were directed to take us to the bus stop in town (a mere 30,000 dong together rather than 120,000). Before we got to the boat dock the girls stopped the boat to negotiate payment. They said because they knew we were students they only wanted one months school fees for each of them ($80 between us) we explained that we couldn’t pay this as we weren’t rich and eventually agreed to pay them about $10 dollars for each of them. While this was probably still a bit high we knew the money was going to them not a tout and we’d had a much better day that if we’d gone on an organised tour. They also saved us a few dollars by telling us how far we could haggle down the tout and by saving us an expensive motorbike journey out of town.

We got on the bus and paid an even cheaper 15,000 dong (less than 50p) and headed back to Hanoi. I was very tired and fell asleep. Tom and Craig started playing chinese chess which got them some interest from the locals. I awoke as we were arriving in Hanoi. The bus made lots of stops coming into Hanoi and about 3 stops (but still a significant way) from the bus station the bus stopped everyone got off and we were expected to aswell. We had no idea where were we are we were off the central Hanoi map in the guide and we were surrounded by guys offering us motorbike rides. Not keen to take a motorbike on a long trip through the city we walked out of the small bus station/stop to try and get our bearings. Luckily after about 5 minutes of wandering around we were able to flag down a taxi to take us back to the Hanoi guesthouse on Bat Su (luckily a really easy street name to pronounce).

After arriving home (or as close to a home as we have here) we headed out for some food at Sago cafe near the Hoan Kiem lake we we have been a few times for the cheap food, cheaper beer and good service. By around 9pm Tom and Craig were shattered so we headed back for an early night and while they went to bed I went on the Internet and wrote my previous post.

Anyway I’m writing this at 7:00am (I started at 5:30am) we’ve just got back from Sa Pa after an interesting but enjoyable experience and where, for the first time we were actually ripped off (but only by GBP3 each so its not the end of the world) I will write about that in a few days time while I wait in Hanoi for Alex to arrive (I’m very excited) but for now I’m very tired (falling asleep in front of the computer in fact) and we are heading out to Ninh Binh today so I better go and repack my bag!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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