After I got back from Ha Long Bay, I decided to take a bus trip to visit Perfume Pagoda, which is one of the more important holy sites in Northern Vietnam. The trip, including lunch, was only $16, so even though The Lonely Planet told fellow travellers that it wasn't worth it, I figured it couldn't be all that bad. (As a side note, I'm mildly disturbed by how many people I met who seem to be married to their little blue guidebook. I understand that one does need some advice when in a foreign land or a new area, but really people. Let's take our eyes out of the books and look around us while on a trip, mmmm kay?)
I was unimpressed with our guide for this trip. He was maybe 17 years old and rather disorganized. On the bus, though, I met some cool folks from Scotland and England. They were friends from back home and traveling together, but we hit it off alright. So when we got to the village on the Perfume River where we caught our boat rides to the pagoda, we shared a four person boat.
Ok, to be honest, the complex at Perfume Pagoda was the dirtiest place I went in all of Vietnam. It may actually be the dirtiest place I've ever been in my life, not counting the detritus-filled swamp fields on Wallops Island I played around in for Biology class in tenth grade. It was a teeming tourist trap (though almost exclusively for Vietnamese tourists; besides our group I saw very few other non-Vietnamese visitors) and had the only toilets I've been to in Asia where I actually turned and walked out again saying, "I can hold it. The trip back is just four hours..." (and I've used an outdoor squatter located on a 400-year old farmstead with no hot water).
One of the disturbing things was the sight of all the recently killed animals in various states of preparation for feeding hanging around the restaurants on the docks. Especially disturbing were the dogs and ocelots (who looked like my kitties--boo hoo).
After lunch, we had only a short time to explore the areas around the base of the mountain and head up to the pagoda. I had to take the cable car to the pagoda because of the short time (too bad!).
I had a really good time exploring on my own. I could take all the pictures I wanted at my own pace. The Vietnamese tourists in my cable car kept trying to speak to me in English. And some ladies I met in the pagoda wouldn't let me leave until I'd washed my face five times with the cave water (this is supposed to bring me luck... and I complied even though I was already feeling really dirty). Honestly, if I went back again, I'd go just on my own, not through a tour company.
The pagoda itself was a small disappointment without a full understanding of its religious significance. Our tour guide wasn't much help on this subject. The boat ride and temple at the base was worth the trip, though, and I had a fun day overall. Then I ended up meeting the boys in my boat again for drinks one night in Hoi An (coming up in future posts).
Check out the album from the day (remember there is a more graphic pic of the animals in the album):