14th May 2007
Sim says: Pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda
Hey people¬ÖI realise this entry is lengthy in words, so if you don¬ít feel like reading my dribble, then the pictures also tell the story This is from a trip which I did about two months ago but have never got around to posting my story¬Ö
It was a miserable, rainy morning at 5am when I rode my motorbike to the bus which would take me and my class of students to Chua Huong, otherwise known as the Perfume Pagoda. I didn¬ít really know much about what to expect of the day- an excursion planned for my students at my school- and the early start and torrential rain which required me to wear my raincoat and drive practically blind down the almost-flooded streets didn¬ít really spark much of a sense of excitement in me.
Things got progressively better though. The rain cleared, revealing a day where the sun was hinting that it may even emerge, and my students took me to a little Hanoi street diner for a hearty and satisfying breakfast of bun rieu (a type of soup with vermicelli noodles and tomatoes and tofu). Amazing what some good, tasty street food can do for a girl¬ís mood in this city!
The bus ride 75km south-west of the city, in Ha Tay province, actually rates highly in my experience of the day ahead. It was a scenic and interesting trip, first through the hectic and chaotic city traffic, the bus honking its too-loud bursts all too frequently as it careened recklessly though the hoardes of motorbikes and bicycles and general city traffic¬Öas I looked out the window I was treated to a passenger¬ís view of the street life which makes Vietnam so special, where there is never a dull moment and always something to see which is candid and/or ironic. Once we left the city¬ís boundaries, we entered the small villages that exist on Hanoi¬ís outskirts as they always have. The traditional little townships are small, and nestled among bright green rice paddy fields, and remind me that I am in Asia, in Vietnam, in Hanoi! Sometimes the routine of life here becomes so routine that I forget the simple but important things.
Each village that we pass through is known for specializing in a cottage industry of some sort. First we drive through a town that sells firewood, then a bamboo pole village, there¬ís one that specializes in making the conical hats of which Vietnam is renown for, there is a ceramics village, a pottery village, a village selling tiles of all shapes, sizes and colours in shops along the road, and even a township specializing in making the colourful shrines which adorn every shop and are included in every home in Vietnam. It makes me happy knowing that these traditional villages still operate as they have for centuries; I am told that one village which used to sell fireworks had to change its cottage industry when a new law was passed which banned the fireworks from being made any longer. I am reminded of just how adaptable and resourceful the Vietnamese are and how they can make a major hardship become just a mere and minor hurdle in the road. I wonder where the supplies that are used in making the handicrafts actually come from, as all around all I can see are the sparse rice fields surrounding each village. Any bamboo fields or forests or pinewood plantations are not apparent in the close vicinity, so I am sure that everything must be transported to the village, probably on the back of a bicycle pushed by an ageing, elderly local who has been doing the same thing every day for their whole life.
It is extremely scenic as we hit the open road, a long, straight stretch of Vietnam-style highway. The green rice paddies flank both sides of the road, and the traditional agricultural scenes continue. There is a farmer with his buffalo pulling a cart through a half-harvested field; women outlined by their conical hats as they work in the fields; men in Vietcong style round, green army hats ride past on rusty bicycles; young boys squat precariously on the edge of a river bank as they idly play cards and fish with a basic bamboo rod and line; there are cemeteries within some of the fields, indicated by the headstones which seem to have been haphazardly plonked in random places in the field; and I love seeing what to me is like a traditional Vietnamese scene with a woman in a conical hat with her long hair flowing behind her as she rides her bicycle through the rice field, her body outlined by the green fields around her.
I am so wrapped-up in the scenery outside the bus that I am oblivious to the goings-on inside the bus, where my class of students are chatting and joking. There¬ís a child-like nervous energy abuzz as my adult students start to anticipate the day ahead at the pagodas. The Perfume Pagoda is actually a complex of pagodas and temples nestled in the Huong Tich Mountains (Mountain of the Fragrant Traces). It is in fact a pilgrimage for Vietnamese people to visit the pagoda in March or April (the first month of the Lunar New Year) to pay their respects, say their prayers and wish for good luck, wealth and health for the year ahead. This is a busy time of year to be visiting the pagoda, but also the best, as it is in the midst of the festival season. Apparently if this was a weekend day we would be lucky to get into the Perfume Pagoda due to the crowds of people which decide to go on the pilgrimage at this time of year.
My dreaming outside the bus window is brought to an abrupt halt when we arrive at the entrance to the town where the excursion begins. Our bus has stopped so that we can purchase a busload of entrance tickets. While we wait for the tickets to be issued we are suddenly surrounded by a bunch of women who are haggling at us through the bus windows. They are speaking fast and frantically, waving wads of red cash notes wildly and insisting that we all purchase. Some of my students actually do hand over a 100,000 note and in exchange receive from the touts the equivalent amount (or probably proportionately less!) in lucky red 200 Dong notes. It turns out that these will be used as part of the offering ritual at each of the temples we visit, as a way to tell the ancestors that they want money and wealth in the year ahead.
We eventually arrive at a river, called the Yen Stream, where every pilgrims¬í trip to the Perfume Pagoda begins. I chuckled nervously, out loud, when I saw that 30 of us were being told to pile into one small, metal boat. The boat had about 6 bench seats no more than 2 metres wide, and somehow we were all meant to squeeze in together for a ride up the stream! We managed to get ourselves on-board and off we floated, with two weathered-looking Vietnamese women as our front and rear oars-women, steering us up the river.
The ride is stunning, if not a little uncomfortable. We are surrounded by picturesque limestone karsts and mountain formations, there are rice paddies where people are diligently working, small temples and shrines nestled on little hilltops, a beautiful red flowering tree is in blossom and the scene is simply peaceful and serene.
We make our first stop at the Trinh Temple which translates into Heaven¬ís Kitchen, where we carefully (so as not to submerge our boat or fall into the river!) file out of the boat and back onto dry land. Here I get to see, for the first time, preparations of an offering plate. It is quite a process that is done with love and attentiveness. In my group, there were several being prepared and I watch with interest as a huge plastic plate is filled with many delights of life, which will later be presented to the ancestors in the pagoda so as for them to bring forth prosperity, health and happiness. Along with bundles of lucky red 200 Dong notes, food such as chickens and biscuits, fruit, small bottles of vodka, cigarettes, incense, flowers and little note-lets with family names inscribed on them are placed neatly together on the plate, ready for presentation.
Next, the offering plate is taken into the temple and up to the shrine where it is passed to a monk who blesses it while prayers are made with three shakes of hands pressed together in prayer position. Everyone participated in this ritual, and continued to do the same thing at all the smaller temples which adjoined the main temple. It was so interesting to watch as my Vietnamese students fully embraced this opportunity to show their respect to ancestors and to worship openly and proudly among their colleagues.
When we emerged from the temple and back to the river bank, the sun had revealed itself and was shining down on us brightly and warmly. The first sun I¬íd seen in weeks, this truly was a spiritual journey! I prayed quietly to myself as I sat back into the boat which simply seemed overcrowded. The hard seat and my squashed legs became uncomfortable by the time we hopped out of the boat again in half an hour, although I did make sure I admired the scenery which continued to show off its beauty. My students continued their banter and passed around snacks, which were taken directly from the plate which had just been offered to the ancestors. At first I was taken aback that they would eat the food they had just offered, and then it was explained that by eating the blessed offering food, the goodness would actually enter the living body and make the luck happen. Seemed reasonable to me!
There was another stop, this time at the Thien Tru Pagoda, an apparent must for this pilgrimage. This is where everyone stops to burn incense and make offerings for the God of the Mountain. This is where the spectacle really began for me, where I started to understand the description of the pagoda at this time of year as a festival, and gained a greater insight into the spiritual aspect of this trip. There were many, many people at this temple, all crowding around together to make their offering plate and then forcibly making their way through a wide crowd to present their plate to the altar. It was so difficult to get to the front of the temple to present the offering plate that some people had to hold the plate on their head and carry it forward.
There was a gathering of nuns and monks all chanting together in the temple as our group approached with its beautifully presented plate, and it sounded divinely magical. I wandered around the complex and noted that this looked as though it had a working monastery attached, where mostly nuns were dressed in brown robes. As my Vietnamese students all prayed and made offerings at the various temples and shrines, I continued exploring the area and discovered a lot of greenery and beauty, small ponds, many shrines and left offerings. There were many groups of people all congregated on the ground with their offering plates before them, which they were eating heartily picnic style, for the second time today I was pleased with the Vietnamese ingenuity and liked knowing that they would never let a whole chicken go to waste on an offering plate left at a shrine.
Once our group re-gathered we kept going on our journey to the Huong Tich Pagoda and Grotto. We walked together past the Tro Wharf where our boat would remain moared, and past numerous restaurants and cafes which had dead animals apparently captured from the nearby holy mountains, and then killed and strung in the restaurants entrance to try and lure diners. Totally gross. We then walked up a muddy, slippery incline, past many more stalls which totally confused me. We were meant to be in a peaceful, spiritual place, yet stall after stall was selling tacky souvenirs, plants, herbs and medicine and the most strange item of all- karaoke DVDs which were being played loudly and also traditional Buddhist songs and chants which were also blaring out obnoxiously.
In decades previous, the tens of thousands of pilgrims who visited Huong Pagoda would have to have walked a few kilometres up the mountain. However now, it is possible to catch a cable car, which is the quicker and probably the more scenic option. I imagine that walking up the steep, slippery steps for an hour or two would mean a lot of looking down, watching every step, whereas we could look out and enjoy the scenery in the comfort of our little carriage strung between the valleys.
Once we hopped out at the top we had to walk a short way up to the Huong Tich Cave gate¬ís entrance. This cave is known as the most picturesque in Vietnam, and is located down 120 steps deep into the mountain. One of my students shows me an inscription on the stone gate which says "Nam Thien De Nhat Dong" and which he translates to me as saying ¬ďThe most beautiful cave in the South¬Ē. Everyone is quite excited about what lays ahead, even those who make this pilgrimage every year. I guess there must be a reason why this has been a place of worship for over 1000 years.
As I walk single-file behind the other pilgrims, all walking carefully down the precarious walkway into the mouth of the enormous cave, I notice a shower of ash is falling from the sky. It really seems to be raining ash, an indication of the amount of lucky money that has been burnt in the surrounding temples on this day. Once we reach the grotto¬ís entrance I look inside to see many stalagmites and stalactites among which are nestled numerous shrines dedicated to Buddha all lit up with lights, and there are hundreds of people all crammed inside with their offering plates and joss sticks burning, making their prayers solemnly at each shrine. There is one stalactite which drips small droplets of water every few minutes, and groups of people stand holding their hands up expectantly hoping for the holy, lucky drop to fall into their hand. It is festive, and quite a spectacle, especially for a first-timer like me. I am just pleased that I am here with locals who can show me around and tell me stories about the place, and that I am not like some other foreign tourists attached to a tour group, wandering around and just looking confused!
After visiting the cave, the most exciting part of the day was over. We walked back up the rickety steps, caught the cable car back over the Tuyet Son Mountain, which was stunning, avoided getting sprinkled with too much rain and boarded our boat for the return trip down the Yen Stream. My students munched away again on the food from their offering plates, others napped and we eventually made it back to the pier.
The next part of our day- a long day of being a pilgrim!- is a visit to a temple which I am sure most regular tourists don¬ít get the chance to visit. Called Duc Thanh Ca, we had to drive to another pier and then catch a motorised ferry across the river to get to the temple. It was much quieter here than in the Perfume Pagoda complex, and the most spectacular part of the day was watching a sunset over the river, that caused burnt orange reflections in the water and filled the sky with a pink coloured hue. Most peaceful and relaxing as we sat and drank tea and soaked in the serenity, watched a local farmer ora a boat with his feet, watched cattle meander through the fields and children playing on the river bank. A little piece of rural Vietnam just a few hours from Hanoi.
I feel I have learnt a lot about Vietnam on this day, about the spiritual aspect of the country which is evident everywhere, but not in an in-your-face way. I note that the whole complex has an interesting energy, one that is peaceful and serene among the festivities, and I feel grateful to have been treated to such insights as well as so much natural beauty and friendship and comraderie. A trip to the Perfume Pagoda is likely to be a different pilgrimage for everyone, but I think it would be impossible to walk away without feeling even just a little bit enlightened!