Do you like sweltering heat and unbearable humidity? Do you enjoy vigorous physical activity in said sweltering heat and unbearable humidity? If so, I recommend hiking the Perfume Pagoda in late-July. It’ll bring out your inner masochist, I’m certain.
On our fourth day in Vietnam, Melody and I boarded a bus for a three-hour ride to the foot of the Huong Tich mountains. There, we purchased hats to protect us from the sun. (“You’ll regret it later if you don’t buy,” said our tour guide. He was right.) Afterwards, we boarded tiny steel boats on the Yen Vi river to take us to the Perfume Pagoda. The one-hour ride was both terrifying (the smallest move would send the boat precariously tipping from side to side) and gorgeous.
We had lunch as soon as we arrived at the base of the Perfume Pagoda, at a spartan restaurant serving what can best be described as “prison fusion.” We loaded up on several bottles of water, and began our ascent.
The many pagodas that make up the Perfume Pagoda are spread out among the limestone hills and tropical forests in the area of Huong Tich. Legend claims that the site was discovered over 2,000 years ago by a monk meditating in the area, who named the site after a Tibetan mountain where the Buddha practiced asceticism. We spent some time exploring the colorful and eerily quiet Thien Tru Pagoda before continuing our hike.
Now, I’m pretty certain that I have a high tolerance to heat, and even humidity, but this was unbearable. When I found out that a mountain cable car that takes you through a third of the hike was in operation that day, I wanted to hug everyone within reach. Everyone — even our tour guide, opted to take the car. The ride afforded us picturesque views, and a chance to catch our breath. When we reached our destination, we continued our hike to Huong Tich Cave, or the center of the Perfume Pagoda. The cave was cool and dark, and a welcome respite.
The cave is huge, and there are statues of deities, but many pilgrims come to get blessings from the limestone columns and dripstones, many of which are named and have special purposes like fertility and prosperity.
We finished exploring the cave and slowly began our descent to the foot of the mountain, stopping often to admire the view, and, well, drink more water. The boat ride back down the Yen Vi River was a combined effort to not fall asleep and not go loopy from heatstroke.
Back in Hanoi, we arrived at our hotel and passed out. Forget dinner, we just wanted to sleep. I imagine the Perfume Pagoda is more approachable in the winter, which explains why so few folks were there that day. But was it worth it? Absolutely.