Although there are plenty of temples in Hanoi that are worth exploring, one of the best is this large complex set among dramatic limestone karst outcrops. Chua Huong, or the Perfume Pagoda, is situated about 60kms south of Hanoi and the easiest way to visit is to sign up for a day tour, which costs in the region of US$25-$30. Just ask at your hotel or guesthouse reception and they’ll fix you up.
Part of the fun of the visit is the journey itself. It takes a couple of hours by road to reach the small town of My Duc, from where it’s necessary to hop in a boat for a spectacular ride between limestone cliffs, and then a steep climb up to the temple buildings.
In this setting that looks straight out of a Chinese ink painting, a cluster of halls, temples and grottoes attract Buddhist pilgrims to make offerings at the various shrines.
The first building you reach on the path is the Chua Thien Tru, or ‘Pagoda leading to Heaven’, where there is a beautiful bell pavilion with a triple-tiered roof. From here it takes another hour or so to climb the three kilometres to the massive grotto that houses the Perfume Pagoda.
There’s not a lot of interest on this walk, and especially in hot weather it maybe worth considering taking the cable car (50,000D) to save energy. The path can also be slippery after rain, so take care.
Steps lead down into the huge grotto of Huong Tich, which is often compared to a dragon’s mouth, with a stalagmite inside representing the tongue. The temple inside is dedicated to Quan Am, and there are several Buddha images and unusual rock formations, though you’ll need a torch if you venture far from the entrance.
Apart from enjoying a day out among some of North Vietnam’s most dramatic scenery, the trip offers the opportunity to witness Vietnamese in a pious mood as they make offerings of incense at the shrines and mumble quiet prayers.
Since this is a religious site, make sure you dress respectfully (no shorts or sleeveless shirts), and be prepared to be pestered by souvenir vendors, who have been known to follow visitors all the way up the mountain to try and secure a sale.