A rainy boat ride to the Perfume Pagoda

We pulled into Hanoi station at 5:15am and I was surprised to discover that the sun had already risen and as usual, Vietnam was alive with activity at a time when most people in England would still be in bed. We spent the day watching the T’ai Chi and aerobics groups, joggers and badmington players down by the lake, drinking inumerable cups of coffee, continually bumping into Colm and Rory, wandering around the shops, and abusing the free internet facility offered to us by our hotel.
I moved around the corner to the grottier (but cheaper) Tam Thuong Guesthouse and Sam moved to Laos – well, on to the bus that would eventually take her to Laos. So, after travelling around in a group of 7 a couple of weeks ago, I am now solo once again, a feeling I haven’t properly experienced since leaving Laos (with the exception of a couple of days in Mui Ne)
The tour I wanted to book to The Perfume Pagoda, 60km outside Hanoi wasn’t running on a sunday (?!) so I spent the day soaking up the sights of life in the northern capital :
  • I was eating breakfast at The Whole Earth Restaurant and watched an old lady hanging out newspapers on her balcony at the apartment across the road. Yes, you haven’t read this wrong : she had a washing line strung across the balcony but instead of hanging laundry on there to dry, as most people do, she was hanging out old newspapers!
  • A little boy ‘watering the streets’. Nothing subtle about it at all : he was standing on the pavement, holding his little banana and peeing out into the street, causing cyclists to swerve out of the way of his firing range!
  • A old lady carrying watermelons in two large bamboo baskets suspended from the end of a long wooden pole, which rested upon her shoulders. Nothing remarkable about this as you see women carrying foods like this everywhere in Asia, but what was amazing was the quantity she was carrying : if you consider how much your average watermelon weighs. she had about 15 or 20 of them piled up in each basket!

The next morning I set off to The Perfume Pagoda, a complex of pagodas and Buddhist shrines built into the limestone cliffs of Huong Tich mountain. When we arrived at our destination after a 2 and a half hour bus journey, rain was falling heavily from the sky, leaving ripples in the murky river water. Having left my umbrella at the Mountain View Hotel in Sapa (it’s probably still drying under the sink in reception), it was time to get back into that very fetching plastic rain mac (they must make a packet selling them at 4000VND each)

I sat in a little paddleboat, along with 2 German girls (Liza and Nicole) and their mother, as we were transported downstream along scenic waterways between limestone cliffs. As a result of the persistent rain, a heavy mist was obscuring what would otherwise have been a spectacular view. Numerous other paddleboats were plying the river, most of them full of locals and containing huge piles of rice plants that had just been harvested. A few ducks were splashing around in the reeds at the rivers edge, and numerous colourful dragonflies were buzzing around just above the surface of the water.

When we arrived at the entrance to the Perfume Pagoda, the rain had cleared up but the paths were still very wet, and the rocks we had to climb in order to reach the pagoda, were very slippery. It was a tough climb in long trousers, the bottoms of which were caked with mud and soaking wet and thus wouldn’t stay rolled up due to the weight of the water. At the top, there were a series of steps leading down into a large cave. Inside the cave were numerous buddha statues, candles and burning incence, and worshippers had left money wedged between the folds of the stalagmites.

Only 4 out of the 12 of us decided to walk the slippery route back down, the rest of them choosing to take the 30,000VND cable car ride. I lost count of how many times I was offered a coconut or a can of coke by the numerous food and drink vendors who’d set up shop along the route. I can’t stand coke and a coconut would be a rather awkward and bulky object to carry whilst trekking!

Back on the river the sun was attempting to shine through the grey rain clouds and we all had a bit of fun, as the ladies who were rowing our boats decided to partake in a bit of an Oxford/Cambridge boat race! One cocky gentleman passenger obviously thought he could do a better job than the professionals, but ended up rowing the vehicle around in circles! As we were pulling in to the docking station, our lady demanded that we give her a tip. The rich German family (you didn’t see the hotel we picked them up from this morning!) gave her 20,000VND, which she accepted very ungratefully and immediately asked for another 30,000! I certainly wasn’t going to tip someone who was demanding, ungrateful and downright rude! That’s one thing I won’t miss about Vietnam : the people that try and milk you for every dollar you have . . .


Pagoda we explored on the climb down from the cave entrance

Rowing boats plying the river, which was surrounded by limestone mountains


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