When we first read about the Perfume Pagoda in guidebooks, we immediately knew we wanted to go there. We booked a day trip on our first day in Hanoi for the next day. We booked through our hotel but travel agencies are everywhere in the Old Quarter. We were picked up early in the morning by our tour guide at our hotel, joining a small group of three other travellers for the trip.
We drove for about 2 hours from Hanoi to a jetty on the Day River. From the bus, we transferred to a narrow metal rowboat, powered by one woman! Our new travel friends were all shocked at the size of the boat, one lady kept laughing in disbelief the first 10 minutes we were on it. I was a little more prepared because I had googled photographs of the trip but was still extremely skeptical how we could all fit. The ride was about 40 minutes to the temple, it was really peaceful watching the beautiful scenery go by and listening to the rhythm of the rowing. Since it was the off-season, there was only one or two other boats on the water the same time as us. It drizzled throughout the day, making it a rather damp and humid trip. We were lucky that the heavy rains only came down at the end of the day just as we boarded our bus back to Hanoi.
Alighting from the boat, we first encountered the Den Trinh (or Presentation Shrine) and Thien Tru Pagoda (Heaven Kitchen Pagoda). These two buildings were located at the foot of the hills and accessible by walking. We ate a simple lunch at the only restaurant in the complex. You can't go wrong with hot, freshly-cooked food.
After lunch, we made our way to Huong Tich, the sacred centre of the Perfume Pagoda complex, where thousands of Vietnamese flock every year for their annual pilgrimage. Most Vietnamese prefer to hike from Thien Tru Pagoda to pay their respects at other temples along the way but there is also a cable car to the top. Be warned that even with the cable car ride, there is still a lot of walking up stone-tiled slopes (not fun when the weather was so wet).
The final descent to Huong Tich is 120-steps of rough hewn stones. From the top, the grotto looks like the inside of a dragon's mouth (Vietnamese revere the dragon!), and incense smoke perfumes the air. Within the grotto, there are many ancient carvings and stone formations that resemble Buddhist symbols. It was incredible! We made our way further inwards to pay our respects, giving thanks for our safe journey and praying for the future.