Chùa Hương, The Perfume Pagoda

On our first visit to Vietnam we booked a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda.* The Perfume Pagoda is a major Buddhist pilgrimage destination. The Huong Mountains contain fertility and agricultural cults, too.

The name Perfume Pagoda really refers to a number of shrines on – and in – the mountaintop. The most important temple is the Perfume Temple found inside Huong Tich Cave. It’s northern Viet Nam’s holiest site and the setting for the country’s most important and longest religious holiday.

The fest starts in the middle of the first lunar month (February 15) and runs from February to April. Hundreds of thousands of worshippers make the trek to present offerings at the mountain’s shrines and temples. At the high point of the festival, peak traffic will back up for as long as 8 hours on the Yen Vi River.

While the entire trip can be made by road, we took the water route. Reaching the site involved a two hour taxi ride to the pier located 70 km southwest of Hanoi in My Duc Town, a boat trip being rowed for two hours on the shallow Yen Vi River to the base of the pilgrimage site, and finally a two-hour hike up into the limestone Huong Mountains.

For the taxi ride we traveled with our guide on one of Viet Nam’s first highways. As you can see in Uwe’s photograph, the traffic on this main artery a decade ago was nothing like what we’re used to seeing in America and Europe.

Autobahn traffic

Autobahn traffic

Boat launch at Bến Đục

Boat launch at Bến Đục

A young woman rowed us upriver. 12700_V_10_15_82The boatwomen at Bến Đục (Duc Pier) make enough money to support their families, and are chosen by lottery.

We made our slow way past rice paddies and limestone peaks. 11900_V_10_15_74Fishermen in impossibly tiny boats balanced, standing, as they shocked the water with weak electricity to stun the fish they collected in the bottoms of their flat vessels.12500_V_10_15_80

12310_V_10_15_18After disembarking we hiked 4 kilometers straight up.

Beginning the pilgrimage up the mountainside.

Beginning the pilgrimage up the steps

Good shoes are needed as the path is steep in places and the stone stairs are slippery if it’s been raining! The landscape is lush, and the spectacular views are worth the strenuous hike.

Taking a break

Taking a break on the hike up the mountain

07300_V_10_15_28The Huong Mountains are rich in myths and legends. One story relates how a Buddhist monk came here to meditate in solitude two thousand years ago. Another legend tells the story of the Perfume Pagoda’s Quan Am or Guan Yin.** A stone at Phat Tich temple contains her preserved footprint.

It’s believed that the Buddha stopped at the Giai Oan temple to wash. Pilgrims clean their faces and hands in the Long Tuyen Well to wash away past karmas.

But older deities are present. Cua Vong shrine is where believers make offerings to the Goddess of the Mountains. And inside the holiest of holies, the cave’s stalactites are sought out for blessings.

Entrance to Huong Tich grotto

Entrance to Huong Tich grotto

Once we reached the cave, we descended back down 120 wide stone steps to the Huong Tich Grotto, which translates as ‘traces of fragrance’. 08000_V_10_15_3507500_V_10_15_30We entered the cave, whose opening is a dragon’s mouth. Inside Chua Trong (Inner Temple), our guide positioned himself underneath a stalactite and tried to catch a drop of moisture on his tongue.08180_V_10_15_34

The stalactites grant good fortune. Pilgrims through the ages have named them: Basket of Silkworms, Boy Stone, Buffalo, Cocoon, Girl Stone, Nine Dragons Compete For Jewels, Pig, Rice Mound, Gold & Silver Mound, and the Mother’s Milk Stone.

Couples wishing for offspring gather under the Boy and Girl Stones; those wanting prosperity seek out drops from the stalactites hanging from the ceiling that grant abundance and wealth. The Perfume Pagoda Festival is considered an auspicious time and place to find a mate, and is the starting point for lots of successful romances.

At the time we visited, the remote northern region had just gotten electricity. And as our boat headed back down the Yen Vi we passed by boats bringing materials to build a new pier even further upriver.*** 10620_V_10_15_2211000_V_10_15_6510900_V_10_15_6410630_V_10_15_2011300_V_10_15_68

NOTES: *This excursion instantly became one of my favorite trips of all time.

**Guan Yin is the bodhisattva (usually female) associated with the quality of compassion. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who delays Nirvana, staying behind to assist others in finding enlightenment. The Guan Yin of the Perfume Pagoda is identified with Dieu Thien, the third daughter of Dieu Trang, King of Huong Lam. She refused to marry, wishing to spend her time in prayer instead.

***An ingenious way to transport the needed materials to the site!

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Go to my post The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ to read about south Viet Nam’s most sacred shrine. More pictures from our trips to Vietnam and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Advertisements

Broken In

An hour later Jeff could no longer see clearly in the increasing gloom of dusk. A thorough search of the grounds hadn’t revealed any gopher activity. Jeff wasn’t reassured; he examined the wire fence line separating his lot from the edge of the forest and found it badly bent in places. The fencing had been rolled out from a long heavy roll of reinforced wire, and twists in one section affected the entire fence line. Jeff repaired it as best he could. Before he was done, he decided he’d check the perimeter each weekend.

A month later his peace of mind hadn’t increased. On the contrary, a deep unease kept growing. There were nights when Colleen didn’t wake him up by barking; he slept badly anyway. Jeff was unused to feeling disquieted, and it took a long time before he was willing to even admit to himself that the feeling existed.

On Saturday afternoon he headed down into the cellar. Ostensibly he wanted to check the heater, but his unease had stubbornly gone on growing unchecked. It was as if the weight of worry was breaking down and into his brain, too, like a growth of cells going rogue, lurking, a cancer of fear and vague suspicions.

The cellar’s double lock and bolt were firmly in place. Relieved, Jeff unlocked them and opened the door leading down into the basement. He felt for the light switch on the right wall. “See there, nothing to worry about,” he told himself aloud. His triumph retreated immediately upon realizing he couldn’t see. Well, bulbs did burn out and it had been months since he’d checked.

Actually, Jeff couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone down in the house cellar; the garage contained a laundry corner and the kitchen had a pantry. The only things in the little basement were packing boxes and old belongings he hadn’t found places for when he’d moved in. Those were all stacked on a long worktable at the back of the cellar in a room originally designed for power tools.

Jeff got a flashlight and extra bulbs from the top shelf of the hallway closet and descended the thirteen cellar steps in the light from the upstairs hallway. At the bottom he switched on the torch and ran the light over the walls and the hanging light cord. He frowned: the cord hung as it always had, but there was no light bulb in it. Jeff thought back but couldn’t remember if the bulb had burned out and he’d removed it and simply hadn’t replaced it; it really had been too long since he’d been down here. But he was holding a bulb now, and he grimaced and screwed it in.

Still no light. “What the..?” Jeff said out loud. The hairs at the back of his neck rose when Colleen barked from the top of the stairs. “Come here, girl!” he ordered. She raced down the steps, tail wagging. Jeff was reassured when the dog didn’t growl once she was in the cellar.

He played the flashlight over the small main cellar room but aside from the kaput light cord nothing looked different. This was troublesome though; he needed an outlet for a light down here. The circuit box was in the other cellar room. Maybe the switch for the main cellar room had gotten tripped somehow.

Jeff thought some more. There was an outlet at the back of the wall behind the stacks of his boxes. If need be, he could run a cord from there. He pushed open the door to the smaller room and gasped.

The room was ever so dimly lit up by a night-light in the cellar wall. The home’s previous tenants had needed it for their toddlers, and Jeff had left the discarded night light down there with his unneeded belongings. Boxes were in the exact same order they had been in when he first stored them, but they were stacked against the opposite wall. Someone had completely cleared the worktable. It was as if mischievous elves had executed a moving exercise in his absence.

Colleen wagged her tail at him but was otherwise unimpressed with the uncanny room. Jeff’s hand trembled as he held it an inch over the ridiculously tiny night light bulb. The little pink light was too hot to touch; it had been burning for days, if not weeks or months.

Jeff used his sleeve to protect his hand and turned off the light. When he got back up to the top of the stairs he double-checked the dead bolt on the cellar door. He was breathing much harder than climbing the simple thirteen steps back up into the house warranted.

He reviewed his actions of the past few weeks, going back for the past few months; the light could well have burned that long. Jeff was seeing someone new, and spent Saturdays over at her place. It had to be when the punks decided to play their practical joke. He’d been on a long project at work and had put in late hours. Perhaps that was when they broke in. But Colleen would have been in the yard, and surely would have barked at the intruders. Jeff recalled the words of his neighbor Jeremy, telling him how the dog barked incessantly all day long.

Jeff didn’t sleep at all that night. For once he allowed Colleen to sleep up on the bed with him. He lay with his arms wrapped around the collie trying to feel secure. Every time he closed his eyes he met the faces of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, x’es carved into their foreheads, eyes staring out in insanity and darkness. Those eyes contained pools as black and drained of light as his cellar. Creepy crawly, Jeff thought. He shivered. Creepy, crawly, creepy, crawly, creepy creepy crawly crawly… Jeff groaned and pulled the dog closer to his body. She whined for him to let her loose, but remained lying where he held her. Creepy, crawly…

The cellar was the only place Jeff found anything rearranged indoors. It didn’t stop him from inspecting the house. Jeff would tour it before leaving for work, trying to convince himself it was secure. He compulsively checked in the evenings both before and after it became dark.

Jeff couldn’t shake the image of the Manson Family. He sensed a family of deranged drug addicts, perverts tossing his house for the fun of it, breaking him in for something. It had to be a gang, a group, a motley crew. Jeff couldn’t decide if it would be worse if they were highly organized, or simply random criminals.

A week later the wire of his fence line was deliberately cut. It had rained since the fence was sabotaged; search though he might, Jeff found no footprints. One weekend he found chewed rubber balls scattered throughout the entire back lot. Were some neighborhood kids throwing balls at his windows, or at his dog? Was that what was going on?

Hulton Archive / Getty

– from my first book Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.