Note to all would-be travellers: You need strong legs and a strong stomach for the Perfume Pagoda Tour from Hanoi, Vietnam. My legs were shaking when I got to the top of this mountain. My stomach was a bit shaky, too, when I saw what was hanging in the restaurants. I wasn’t expecting a day trip from Hanoi to feel so remote.
“Is your hair real?”
Not your typical tourist trap
I had people touching my curls and asking if my hair was real. Usually when you are a tourist you find yourself at all the obvious spots where all the other tourists are. This tour isn’t like that.
Most of the people I met were actually on a pilgrimage. Although not a pilgrimage for me, getting to the Perfume Pagoda was certainly an odyssey. Even though I wasn’t far from Hanoi, this is a pilgrimage that attracts people from remote areas of Vietnam where Westerners are not a common site.
It starts out like your average tour in your typical air-conditioned tourist van. This van drops you at the river lined with boats ready to transport your group up the river.
Row, Row, Row
The boats were a lot of fun. Well for me anyway. Perhaps they are not as much fun for the people – usually women – who are rowing them. There was a lot of waving and cheery shouts of “hello!” Entire extended families shared boats and ate picnics on their way up the river.
Then you walk. Imagine a large group of people walking up the side of a mountain. Now double the size of that group. Then make the path slippery from the rain. Line the side of the path with an endless stream of merchants. Sell everything from gold-leaf branches to plastic baby Buddhas with little plastic penises.
There is food to eat and food to take as offerings, food to bless and to take back home to those who are sick.
The woman beside me was 85 years old and still has a few of her teeth. She was walking with three generations of her family from the mountains. They pointed and I looked to see what they were pointing at. Then “hello, hello” and I realized they were pointing at me. My guide interpreted for me as we chatted to each other.
This is where I cheated
I have to confess I took the easy way out and chose to take a gondola for part of the trip up the mountain. Now there may be some fit people who can bound all the way up this mountain in spite of the crowds and humidity.
However, for me the gondolas were the way to go. It wasn’t actually included in the tour but it was an optional extra I found to be worth every penny. Because even with that extra boost, I found this to be a challenging tour. The heat was a factor, and the crowds. I think if it wasn’t a crowded day you could probably get to the top of the mountain but at the rate we were going, I don’t think I would have made it in a day.
And once you get to the top, it’s a long way down into the cave. And then you know you are going to have to go back up again. Battling the crowds of pilgrims.
Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In fact the crowds are what made this such a truly memorable experience. People of all ages making the trek up the mountain: waving, laughing, calling ‘Hello’. Not something I will forgot anytime soon.
And, for the record, my hair is real.