“We’re going to pray at Chua Huong tomorrow. Would you like to join us?” my Hanoian friend Duc asks me one night after a late dinner in the Vietnamese capital. He’s taking his parents to visit a famous mountain temple, and figures this would be a good opportunity to show me another side of Vietnam. “Tomorrow will be a nice day trip. Many interesting things for you to see.”
I’ve been vacationing in Hanoi for almost a week, happily basking in the city’s freewheeling and eternally busy vibe. I’ve wandered the picturesque Old Quarter, dodging scooters in the narrow lanes, sampling tasty street food and admiring the charming French colonial buildings on every corner. This city, with its wealth of local color, is a fascinating world of its own, although it does occasionally get a tad too chaotic. I’m not exactly Buddhist, but the change of pace offered by a religious pilgrimage is too intriguing to resist. Never mind that I have to share in the cost of hiring a car and driver (Duc only has a motorbike) — this is something I want to experience. I tell him I would love to go. A few hours later, I find myself crammed inside a tiny Kia with Duc and his parents.
We begin our journey just as the sun begins to rise, and through the window, I watch the scenery change gradually from bustling inner-city streets, to drab concrete buildings and finally to green rice fields blanketed by early-morning mist. Before us, a long highway leads straight to our destination. Duc sits beside the driver while I share the back seat with his folks. As our vehicle zips past a tapestry of glistening paddies, thatched-roof huts and ambling water buffalo, Duc explains what this excursion is all about.
“My parents have been wanting to visit the temple for a very long time but they were too busy running our family’s pho shop,” he says. “My father is now 72 years old, and he fears that soon he won’t be strong enough to make the trip. So yesterday, he and my mother asked me to bring them to Chua Huong.”
Mr and Mrs Nguyen don’t speak a word of English, but they nod and smile along with their son’s narration. Like many northern Vietnamese of the older generation, the elderly couple are devout followers of Mahayana Buddhism — a religion that came to these parts around the second century by way of China. Duc tells me that pilgrimages such as this involve “50% sightseeing and 50% praying”, both by local families and groups of friends who have no qualms about mixing piety with pleasure. “The older folks are a little bit more serious than the younger folks, though,” he adds. “Maybe it’s because our parents lived during the (Vietnam) war and they learned to be closer to Buddha.”
“Chua Huong” means “Perfume Pagoda” in English, and refers to a cluster of ancient temples built into the Huong Tich mountains, some 70km away from Hanoi. Locals believe that these slopes were already a pilgrimage site as far back as the 15th century, when the Vietnamese emperor Le Thanh Tong ordered a temple to be constructed over a Buddhist meditation spot. It’s since attracted devotees from all over Vietnam. Visiting the Perfume Pagoda’s shrines, they believe, will attract blessings and good karma.
It’s not long before we reach our first stop after two hours on the road. By the banks of the Yen River, we park our car and step aboard a 10-seater rowboat that will take us to the foot of the mountain. On most days, the Perfume Pagoda sees a constant stream of visitors, yet on this occasion we appear to be among just a handful heading that way. Our rower paddles steadily, and we sit quietly as we cruise through still waters. Around us, a layer of mist diffuses the warm sunlight and turns distant mountains into moody silhouettes. The 5km ride is as scenic as it is peaceful — a beautiful start to a day of prayers.
“How long did your parents wait for this trip?” I ask Duc.
“Their whole lives,” he tells me, not taking his eyes off the surrounding mountain scene. “This is their first trip here.”
We dock at Tro Wharf and stop for a quick meal before proceeding with our temple run. Located close to the shore, Thien Tru Pagoda is the first of two entries on our list. It’s majestic even at first sight — a three-tiered courtyard leading to a sprawling pavilion with a large incense urn that greets visitors at the entrance. Prayer flags adorn the doorways to the main building, giving its wooden façade bursts of color. Inside the building, I watch Duc and his parents pay their respects. With joss sticks and clasped hands, they bow to a statue of Quan Am, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, before visiting a succession of altars to different deities.
These, of course, are part of the opening prayers, and there are bigger and more important temples to visit. Near Thien Tru Pagoda, a cable car whisks us up (it costs VND80,000/P185 one way) into the heart of the Huong Tich mountains. From our perch above the surrounding slopes I spot a number of small, nameless shrines hidden in the jungle below. Perhaps these were stopovers on the pilgrimage trail, back in the ancient days when devotees had to hike up steep, now-forgotten mountain pathways to reach Chua Huong.
The 2km ascent takes 30 minutes. We step off the gondola and make our way to the Perfume Pagoda’s most important site. Guided by a steep stairway carved into rock, we descend into the mouth of Chua Trong, or the “Inner Temple”, where the Buddhist monks of old used to meditate. Duc did imply that this was no ordinary shrine, but I didn’t expect to find a cave temple huge enough to fit a three-storey building through its entrance.
“This is the dragon’s mouth,” he says, pointing to the massive stalagmites and stalactites that resemble jagged teeth at the entrance. At the center of an opening, a huge natural rock formation bears an uncanny resemblance to the Goddess of Mercy. Nearby, an ancient inscription declares in Chinese that this was “The First-Ranking Grotto Under the Southern Sky” — a reference to its status as one of the foremost religious landmarks south of the Middle Kingdom.
Further inside we are greeted by incense smoke and the hum of religious activity. My companions set off to fulfill their spiritual duties while I walk around the cavern. In one chamber, monks chant before a statue of the Buddha. Another section hosts a pair of curious formations that look like male and female figures — “boy” and “girl” shrines that attract devotees wishing to conceive. Most amusing is the stalactite that bears the shape of a human breast, beneath which people gather to collect droplets of blessed “milk” for good luck. At one point, Duc invites me for prayers in a rock grotto called “the gold tree” — which, not surprisingly, caters to those seeking prosperity. We light incense sticks and send our messages up to the gods. Duc and his folks pray for a good year of business, while I simply thank the heavens for such a fascinating detour.
After the prayers, it’s time to make our way back. Close to the cable car station begins a paved walkway leading down to Thien Tru Pagoda. The 1.5km route is almost deserted, and I take the chance to stroll through the thinly forested path. Duc and his folks ride the gondola and will wait for me at the boat. The trail is steep but not too tiring, thanks to the cool breeze that keeps me company along the way. I watch the cable cars slowly recede into the distance while relishing the solitude offered by this trail. In a few hours we’ll once again be back on the lively, chaotic streets of Hanoi, but this eye-opening pilgrimage will be etched in my memory for a long time.