Photo Essay: The Perfume Pagoda

The Perfume Pagoda, a few hours outside of Hanoi, is a spiritual pilgrimage site involving a boat trip and a climb up a steep mountain.  The mountains are alien and ravishing, the air is clean and the pagoda itself, situated in a cool cave at the top of a mountain, is beautiful.  Stalactites hanging from the ceiling drip water onto the grotto’s slippery floor.  Pilgrims bow in prayer and place offerings of money before Buddha-statues flanked by lotus-shaped lamps.  Getting to the pagoda, however, is even better:  after a two-hour bus ride, you take a boat for another hour, then climb a mountain.

After four weeks breathing exhaust from the buses and listening to a symphony of motorbike horns on my way to work, leaving Hanoi seemed like the perfect way to celebrate the end of my first month here.

We left Hanoi and the first thing we saw was a cemetery.

The first thing we saw in the river was a grave–life and death happens along the river for the people living beside it.

Where the sidewalk ends… you take a boat upriver until you get to the mountain.

That mountain.

Naturally, you climb it.  Having made new friends, you’re so absorbed in conversation, the vista and taking pictures of colorful prayer flags that you don’t notice you’ve taken a wrong turn.

You notice things.  For instance, why are the burned frangipanis in one pile, the semi-burned in another pile and the non-burned ones in a third pile?

Obviously, you notice the architecture.

And a grotto here and there.  Eventually, you’ll get to the Perfume Pagoda but you won’t take pictures because it doesn’t feel respectful in a pilgrimage site.

It looks exactly how you’ve always imagined it, doesn’t it?

It’s even more serene on the way back downriver.

The lotus close up for the evening.

Somehow, this combination of lotus sculpture, handprint and Pepsi seemed perfectly ordinary.

The highway back to Hanoi cuts across rice paddy after rice paddy.


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