Ok, you got me! It doesn’t really smell like the cologne counter at Macy’s, as the name might suggest. It comes from the English translation of the Vietnamese word Hương, and also the name of the mountains it lies in I believe. Jump on the boat and take a ride down the river and up the mountain and inside a cave with me!
A few weeks ago I was up in Hanoi on assignment for World Health Organization. It was great project to work on, but anyway, that’s neither here nor there! With a few extra days before it started, my good friend and fellow photographer Tim and I decided to take a little road trip to Chùa Hương, aka the Perfume Pagoda, to check out the festival we heard was happening there. After a short two hours or so on the bikes, and a wee accident I had caused by a typically horrible local driver, we pulled in to the massive strip of restaurants and guesthouses in place to handle the many thousands of visitors that come here in the first two months of the new lunar year.
The festival, better described as a pilgrimage I think, actually takes place at a number of pagodas that line the Yen Stream, and are only reachable by boat. Just after we arrived, we grabbed a boat and driver, or rather they grabbed us. We got taken for a bit of a ride, both literally and monetarily, as we weren’t sure what to expect, but let’s just forget about that for now…:)
Being it was late afternoon, the first thing we noticed was the nearly endless torrent of people and boats returning from the pagodas back to the town. We didn’t get very far that day, but being Sunday, it was apparently the busiest day and all the boats made for beautiful subjects for us to capture!
One of our boat captains. I gotta give it to them, they never seemed to get tired even rowing a boat full of people an hour downstream and back. I can only imagine my arms would feel like three day old spaghetti after just 10 minutes!
There was one small bridge that crossed the stream, so of course I had to get up there to get a view. Sticking out like a sore thumb even meters above the water, if I had a nickel for every hello that flew my way, let’s just say I’d be driving a new Ferrari today!
Back on the water, and still being the only foreigners I remember seeing, we were subject to a further constant barrage of hellos and fleeting screams of ‘what you name.’ I was thinking if this perpetual attention is what it’s like to be a celebrity, I’m not sure I’d be that into it… 🙂
Some of the fellow visitors we passed along the way.
Once back at the port, the deluge of metal canoes are de-boarded and neatly arranged, awaiting the next morning’s crop of eager pilgrims to head out.
Ok, so enough of the boats, let’s actually get up to the pagoda! The main temple, and final destination for visitors, rests in a cave at the top of a mountain. There are two ways to get there; a one hour hike uphill, or a five minute cable car ride for a few bucks. Guess which one I picked? The view of the Hương Tích mountains as we ascended in a small basket dangling from a few inches of wire, which even as mildly scary as it was, is still very much preferable to the other option.
And this is the payoff! Well, I guess as good as it gets. Not exactly a photographer’s wet dream, but not really too bad either. A few hundred steps descend into the mouth of the cave.
The pilgrims walk around leaving their prayers and offerings at the various sites, with some being a bit more in to the visit than others, obviously.
A monk in portrait as he sits inside the cave.
We were there on a Monday morning, which I guess was a quiet day, judging by the number of boats that joined us on the way out, a fraction of what it was the previous day as you’ve seen above. It was definitely crowded enough for me then, and I can’t really say I’d want to co-mingle with another five or ten thousand folks in there.
And finally, one of the last frames I made on the trip before we had to head back to Hanoi. A stalactite that hangs from the cave’s roof drips down water, which the visitors try to catch in hopes it will bring them good health, luck and fortune for the rest of the year.
That’s it! I hope you enjoyed this little journey, and I can’t wait to take you on the next one, coming very soon hopefully!