Sunday, June 20, 2010

Smells Like Fun at the Perfume Pagoda

On Saturday, I and four WUSC Students Without Borders students went on a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương) complex at the Hương Tích mountains. I was to be at the Hanoi Sports hotel at 7:45 AM. After getting ready to be in public, I realised that I had very little time to get to the place where I and the students were to be picked up. So I caved and took a xe ôm (xe ôms, also known as motorcycle taxis, are rather expensive, considering that the buses are usually at least six times cheaper) to the hotel where I was to be picked up. The bus did not leave until about twenty minutes after that. As a result, I had the opportunity to get some breakfast. Being the clueless foreigner that I am, I bought two bánh giò. Little did I realise that bánh giò is simply a rice-flour dumpling, filled with pork and saturated with oil, wrapped in a banana leaf, dripping with oil. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Việt Nam's Double Down Sandwich, disguised as quaint ethnic food. It wasn't bad. But as a Westerner heretofore on a perpetual health kick, the very idea of such a thing frightens me.

So much for my breakfast. Our tour guide, a recent graduate of Hanoi University's tourism programme (he had finished his final exam two weeks before), was sincere and lovable. His English was bad enough that I wasn't able to make out everything he said, but that didn't matter. He truly wanted us to enjoy visiting his country, and was proud to show it to us. It is perhaps no coincidence that he works for the tour company AST, AST standing for "Affable, Safe and Trustworthy". If only Toronto tour companies were so optimistic about themselves. My ticket cost me only 364,800 VND, which as of June 20 is equivalent to $19.71 CDN. It included transportation (bus and boat) there and back, the food of lunch (drinks were extra) and the guidance of the tour. The trip fills your whole day without forcing you to get home at an ungodly hour. Toronto tour companies give you two-hour tours of the city, no food included, for no less than $30 CDN. Something's got to give, and it's not Việt Nam.

I took two photos of the rice fields that I saw on the way to the Perfume Pagoda. Here is the better one:

Once off the bus, we are advised to buy hats if we did not have hats already. I had forgotten my very expensive and very nice hat in my hotel room, so I paid 20,000 VND for a hat that looks natural on a Vietnamese farmers but really touristy on me. I do not have any photos that show me with the hat - however, my travel companions do, and I will try to get their photos so that I can post that photo. After getting hats, we boarded the boats. These boats were not motorboats. They were boats propelled by the sheer force of middle-aged women. Us visitors sat in these boats for about fourty minutes as the women rowed, rowed, rowed their boats gently down the stream (also known as the Yen River):

Here are some photos of what lay by the river:

The swastika surprised me until I remembered that the swastika is a symbol of good things in Buddhism.

After lunch, and after an inordinate amount of steps, I and a few others took a cable car to the Perfume Temple, the main attraction in the complex. The Perfume Temple is a cave, and was first used as a temple in the 14th century. It was great feeling the coolness of the air as I descended the steps to the cave - natural air conditioning! The weather in Hà Nội had been really friggin' hot - 38 and 39 degrees Celsius were not uncommon - so the cave was a nice change.

I did not take pictures in the temple not only because there was a sign exhorting visitors to not take pictures, but because what lies within the temple should be awesome (in the biblical sense). It is not awesome (in the biblical sense) when seen in a photograph. I will say that there were splendid arrangements of lights and statues, burning incense and cool stalactites.

After visiting the main temple, I and some others walked all the way down the mountain to the second (and final) pagoda on the tour, the Thiên Trù pagoda. Here are some photos of that:

And it turns out that I do have some photos of me wearing the touristy hat. Exhibit A:

I swear to God, folks, this is the best one on my camera.

And some photos of the boat ride on the way back:

There's a thunderstorm right now, so I'd better sign off before my computer gets fried. Thanks for reading! I hope that we'll meet again soon.

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