Located approximately seventy kilometers to the South West of Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda is a vast complex of shrines and Buddhist temples built into the karst cliffs of the Hương Tích mountains.
Also known as being one of the most religious place in Vietnam, it’s also a sacred site dedicated to the Goddess Quan Am, and calls large numbers of pilgrims from throughout Vietnam, in order to lure prosperity, good health and success for the Vietnamese New Year. Thus, the event is a time to forgive, forget the mistakes of the past, and pray for fresh hopes to accompany the festival season of the Tet. The rites also consist of expressing respect and remembrance for their ancestors, whose spirits come back to earth for the special occasion. In order to commemorate the guardians of the family, the pilgrimage is a path from pagoda to another one : passing by Thien Tru (Pagoda Leading to Heaven), and Giai Oan (Purgatorial Pagoda) you finally reach the biggest honoring place of the journey, Hương Tích (Pagoda of the Perfumed Vestige), which is built into the limestone mountains.
It’s a day of November when we start the expedition, that doesn’t look like much of the hike with the numerous pilgrims normally there for the event. Good for us. All the poetic nouns will be ours.
Since there’s no road at all leading to the religious site, it’s aboard a sampan, a small boat of a kind used along the rivers of China, that a woman carrying oars and wearing a traditional Vietnamese head gear brings us to the shrines. It’s one hour to enjoy marvelous rural scenery along the Yen river, which is surrounded by dramatic limestone cliffs. The brooding clouds and the oppressive sky add a sort of gloom to the enigmatic atmosphere. When the rain starts to pour, we already reach the mountains.
First of all, you must show yourself at the Presentation Temple (Ðền Trình), home of a djinn, guardian of the shrine complex, who’s the only one to allow your registration. Then, we head toward the area of the main sanctuary, taking a cliffside way that affords stunning vistas of the forest, blanketing the entire area. All along the pagodas built over the centuries, everything here exudes serenity and radiates calm.
In this unshakeable harmony, we eventually get to the top, where a shaded stairway of 120 steps invites us to descend into the bowels of the earth : this is the entrance of the Dragon’s Mouth, a grotto built into the limestone cliff.
Hương Tích is there, surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. As we drop into the darkness of the cavern, we’re swallowed in the throat of the legendary creature. Behind the large bronze bell, right to the entrance, stands on the altar a glorious statue of Quan Am in a mysterious halo of light. All around the holy figure are gifts and treasures at her feet, to testify the faith of her worshippers. In her Godly kindness, she’ll give fecundity to women and guarantee success to the crops.
When we slowly head back to the boat, the rainfall breaks off as we walk away from the altar…