Memories of Hanoi, part two: the Perfume Pagoda

Following my recent post about Hanoi, I wanted to show some pictures from my little adventure at the time to the famous Perfume Pagoda, or Chùa Hương in Vietnamese.1 As mentioned previously, I took these in 2001, with a cheap disposal camera (and overall lack of photography skills), so my memory is rusty and the pictures are not professional. The trip was part of our many excursions in Vietnam for us students who were part of the same program (another was Halong Bay where I caught a wicked flu or something tropical, but the island rock grottoes were amazing). For me it was in many ways my first real encounter with Buddhism and with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Kannon in Japanese, Quan Âm in Vietnamese) now that I reflect back on it years later. At that time, I knew nothing about Buddhism apart from a couple Zen books I had read, but had no experience actually going to a Buddhist temple, let alone seeing how other people actually follow it,2 so it was an eye-opening experience. :)

Anyway, the Perfume Pagoda, is a temple complex found to the south of Hanoi about two hours by car. There are five major roads that lead in and out of Hanoi the city, but as you leave the outskirts, things quickly turn rustic:

Hanoi Countryside 2

As it was a single one-lane dirt road, I remember our bus getting stuck behind a HUGE ox-cart full of crops ambling along the road at one point. Much of the northern Vietnamese countryside was a rolling series of villages and rice paddies, with the gorgeous mountains in the background, like one of those classical Chinese paintings:

Hanoi Countryside 3

I remember seeing small temples, and graveyards in the middle of fields sometimes, but otherwise endless paddy fields. At some point, we made our way to the first leg of our tour: the Yen River, or Suối Yến. The Perfume Pagoda cannot be accessed by road or path, one must hire one of the locals who can ferry you down the River in a small, iron boat:

River to Perfume Pagoda

The “river” is slow and shallow (according to my dictionary, Suối means “stream” anyway), at least when I went in June, but the intense heat from overhead with no shade took its toll. I came reasonably prepared and had already acclimated to the heat somewhat, but I remember getting a pretty good sunburn. The boat also was pretty small and barely able to hold me in (I am 6-foot tall, and somewhat heavy-set), so I was worried about falling at first. But the small lady who ferried me down the river was clearly an expert and I started to relax and enjoy the slow winding cruise. Still, I felt terrible she had to ferry someone heavy like me down such a long trip:

River to Perfume Pagoda 2

Along the river, there is a famous temple called the Đền Trình (sounds like “dayn cheen”) which means the Temple of Registration or Presentation. It’s a small, one-room temple on the shore where one can dock, and make an offering there. I don’t remember this too well, and somehow neglected to take a photo (or lost it), but I would encourage others to stop here anyways, and leave nice offering of incense. It helps set the mood of the pilgrimage if nothing else. People still call incense sticks “joss sticks”, but this sounds terribly antiquated to me considering how well-known they are now in Western culture. Anyway, the Vietnamese edition of Wikipedia has a nice photo of it.

Anyway, after leaving the temple we continued on the boat ride for another 20-30 minutes, and finally reached the shore. My exhausted pilot waited by the shore (presumably to catch her breath for a while), and I along with the other students ascended up the ancient stone stairs. Under the shade the trip was easier in some ways, but the steps are uneven and steep, and there are MANY of them. The Perfume Pagoda is not an easy climb, believe me. Anyway, after we starting climbing up, we soon came to a large complex:

Perfume Pagoda, lower temple

Here my memory gets very fuzzy. I believe this is the Thien Tru Pagoda (Chùa Thiên Trù, sounds like “choo-ah tee-yen choo”) which is a large temple that blocks the road. One must ascend the steps and pass through the gate in the back before continuing up. We didn’t stay here too long either, but I remember the temple interior having many devotional figures toward the back and to the sides (the building has one wing on each side). Here’s a slightly closer view:

Perfume Pagoda, lower temple 2

After this the trip up the trial gets long and steep. Along the route, there are many locals with small booths eager to sell food and drink, or carry your luggage. It was kind of frustrating at the time, as I was hoping for a quiet hike up but looking back, given the severe income disparity, I really can’t blame them. Plus, it was a quiet time of the year, so they probably just really wanted to make some extra money. Still, the stalls were all over the mountain, except when the climb got steeper, and I was dying from the strenuous climb. I was not in good shape then (no more than now…) and the constant stair climbing and 38-degree Celsius heat and humidity were just murder. I finally broke down and had some refreshments as I fell further and further behind the others in my group, while the poor guide had to keep coming back to check on me. :-/

Here’s what the view looks like about two-thirds of the way up. The stairs were narrow and steeper here and it was a bit quieter:

Perfume Pagoda mountainside

The mountains of northern Vietnam really are quite a sight to see. I remember reflecting on the fact that I was this dumb, naive American kid from Seattle in the middle of a sub-tropical jungle climbing an ancient temple that existed long before America ever did. The contrast was amazing. Sometimes I still can’t believe I was there.

Anyway, I managed to persevere and after getting lost on one trail, I managed to find my way to the top, the famous cave of Động Hương Tích. The Vietnamese edition of Wikipedia has a great photo of this, and another here. If memory serves, the stone in the middle was the altar to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, but after that long climb I was kind of crestfallen to see such a small altar. I did snap a small blurry photo:

Perfume Pagoda inner sanctum

I was also crestfallen to see a monk at the cave entrance playing board games with one of the locals too, which led my tour guide to tell us a story from his life when a local eminent monk he was interviewing for a college report tried to violate him when the two of them were alone. For reasons like that, he had given up on Buddhism, and I felt pretty disheartened hearing this. It wasn’t until a long while later, after having a pivotal chat with my wife, that I started to take an interest again.

Also, I didn’t know who Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was at the time and wasn’t impressed by what I saw at the top. Since then, I’ve been on much less dramatic pilgrimages in places like Kyoto and Nara in Japan, but I’ve learned to appreciate more the importance of the journey more than the end-result, and so if I had a chance to go back I definitely would. I would love to view the Pagoda again with a more appreciative eye for religion, and Asian culture, and explore much of the things I missed early in the journey, in my rush to get to the top. I was too focused on the result, just as I do sometimes even now. Not to mention I’d lose some weight and get some exercise first before trying that again, as I am 10 years older now. :p

As for the problems with the Buddhist institutions in Vietnam, when I read about similar problems among clergy in the West, I am reminded that not everyone in robes has a good heart, and that organized religion is still a largely human institution with all its faults and foibles. I am reminded of a set of verses from The Dhammapada, where the Buddha teaches about what constitutes a true monk:

264. Not by shaven head does a man who is indisciplined [sic] and untruthful become a monk. How can he who is full of desire and greed be a monk?

265. He who wholly subdues evil both small and great is called a monk, because he has overcome all evil.

266. He is not a monk just because he lives on others’ alms. Not by adopting outward form does one become a true monk.

267. Whoever here (in the Dispensation) lives a holy life, transcending both merit and demerit, and walks with understanding in this world — he is truly called a monk.

268. Not by observing silence does one become a sage, if he be foolish and ignorant. But that man is wise who, as if holding a balance-scale accepts only the good.

As for me, I wonder if I hadn’t climbed that arduous trek up the mountain to see Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, would I still tread the Buddhist path I do now? I don’t know the answer, but having years now to reflect on that trip, I don’t believe it was all in vain. As a verse from the Lotus Sutra chapter 2 says:

If someone with a confused and distracted mind
should take even one flower
and offer it to a painted image,
in time he would come to see countless Buddhas.
Or if a person should bow or perform obeisance,
or should merely press his palms together,
or even should raise a single hand,
or give no more than a slight nod of the head,
and if this were done in offering to an image,
then in time he would come to see countless Buddhas.


1 Vietnamese language has lots of tricky vowel sounds that don’t exist in English. The ơ, an “o” with a small hook, sounds like “uh” as in the word “done”. It’s also found in the excellent noodle-soup Phở. Anyone who calls to “foo” or “foh” has got it wrong. Imagine the “f-word” without the “ck” sound at the end, and you’re much closer! The ư is utterly absent in English. As my teacher once taught me in college, see “ooh” while smiling and that’s what it sounds like. The vowel combination ươ, which frequently appears in Vietnamese, is therefore a combination of the two, vaguely sounding like “oo-uh”, but again make sure you actually pronounce each letter right as there is a different “ooh” sound (“u” without a hook) too. Vietnamese is easy to read, but sure it hard to pronounce. :p

2 I think Western Buddhists can learn a lot about Buddhism by seeing how Asian Buddhists have incorporated it in their lives for so long, without getting themselves caught up in petty philosophical arguments and intellectual games. Too often we rely on books, and not enough on living it. I learned a lot from my wife, who’s Japanese, about that. Readers who are Westerners living in Asia may or may not agree with this, but a recent article on Prapañca online Buddhist journal eludes to this too.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Taoism, Travel, Vietnam. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Memories of Hanoi, part two: the Perfume Pagoda

  1. johnl says:

    Very interesting. Makes me want to go there!

  2. Doug M says:

    Thanks John! Somehow your comment got blocked as spam, so I was late in catching it. Apologies.

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