Now that I have gotten settled in Vietnam with my friends, we’ve found ourselves with free time (and the motorbikes) to explore around Hanoi. For our first day trip we chose the Perfume Pagoda, about 60km south of the city, to check out.
And after it all, I think we’ve learned most people who visit the Perfume Pagoda tend to go on tours. But let me tell you -going without a tour group will almost certainly lead to an adventure if you’re willing.
One early morning, my friends and I got on our Yamaha Nouvo bikes and headed down road QL21B towards Lang Yen, a bit unsure of what would follow. It’s worth noting that this is the off season here and the town and pagoda themselves were nearly deserted.
Getting taken to the Pagoda
You can’t actually drive to the pagoda itself, instead you hop on a calm paddled boat in the town for a 1+ hour ride down the river. Now as soon as we pulled into the town and stopped to talk amongst ourselves about lunch, we were approached by multiple women on bikes wanting us to park with them or eat at their restaurant or take their boat. After some debate, we agreed to go with the first person we saw further up the street. She brought our bikes inside her home – next to where her boy was watching TV, and we sat at a little plastic table to eat lunch.
Now the fun part
The whole town must have gotten word of our arrival, because after lunch there were about 7 people around the restaurant wanting us to pay for various things. One women asked us if we wanted to take a motor boat+ticket for 300,000 VND per person, this sounded better to us since we we’re running late and a motorboat was much faster. We then found out that they aren’t exactly legal for tourists and we’d have to do it discreetly. So we hopped on the back of their bikes and were taken the opposite way of the river. We started off on a main road. Then a small farm road. Then a concrete path between rice paddies. Then a gravel path between chicken coops. Then finally a dirt path not much wider than the bike through the thick forest with the Marble Mountains jutting up around us. We came out at a dilapidated temple with a small canal next to it, where someone else was waiting. Our motorbike drivers said to wait 10 minutes then drove away – sure – so we explored the temple while we waited and contemplated which organ we were going to lose.
To our relief a motorboat came and we hopped on ready to explore the pagoda! We puttered along the river, until we could see the boat parking. Then our boat veered to the other side and next to a paddle boat. We we’re a bit confused but then, our guide signaled us to transfer boats – in the middle of the river(!) – onto the paddle boat. We changed and then she started rowing towards the parking we saw earlier. We pulled in and I guess it looks like we took a regular boat the entire way. But man, what a weird turn of events to get there.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the method we chose to get there, but if you’re short on time the motorboat could be an option. Otherwise you’ll need to arrive at the village by 10am or so, to ensure you have enough time to explore the pagoda and return by boat.
Around the pagoda
It was hot. This was middle-of-July hot. To get to the largest pagoda (Chua Trong) you have the option to take a cable car or walk to the top. I recommend the cable car in the off season because every shop along the path is closed and there’s not much to see. The cable car was 140,000VND round trip or 90,000VND one way. We chose one way and walked down. The walk was a bit boring but it gave us time to explore other small pagodas on the way down. At the pagoda itself, the scale of the cave is crazy. It is huge, with bats hanging from the ceiling above, and stalactites and stalagmites everywhere. It is also a bit cooler than the outside temperature so we hung around for a while, just looking at the cave and cooling off.
All in all, it was ridiculous getting there. I don’t think any of us will forget sitting on the back of those motorbikes driven by Vietnamese women with no idea where we were going through rice paddies and chicken farms.