Perfume Pagoda

This morning I thought I'd vary my breakfast. The normal breakfast in Vietnam is pho, which I've always said is my desert island food. What a luxury, having pho every day, sometimes for two meals instead of one, but this wasn't a desert island. Instead of the normal pho bo, which is made from beef, I ordered pho ga, which is a Hanoi variation made with chicken. (If you think this is petty, think about the bacon and eggs and cereal that people have each and every day in the West. There's something predictable about breakfast that people enjoy.) It surprised me how chewy the chicken was. All the chickens run around and peck in Vietnam, so by definition, they're all free-range. In the West they pay extra, but in Vietnam, that's how you get them.

After breakfast, Chuck Norris came around with the car, and we headed off with Manh to the Perfume Pagoda. We were told this was a trip not to be missed. Not only is the Perfume Pagoda a popular tourist spot, it's a popular place of pilgrimage. We drove to a small village called Duc Khe, whose main industry, it would seem, is to row people out to the Perfume Pagoda. Where the river cuts the town in half, there's a set of shallow-bottomed rowboats, that are manned by women who row tourists out to the temples. The trip is over an hour, so these women are in pretty top form. We left Chuck Norris drinking tea at a local cafe and got into a boat.

The trip was very nice. The country around the river was karst, as much of it is in northern Vietnam and southern China. Karst is limestone, so the mountains form in unique and often mirrored shapes, and these areas typically have caves as well. It looks like a Chinese watercolor painting, and you're absolutely sure you're in Asia. We rowed like this for quite a while, and so did the other tourists. We spoke to a French couple in another boat, who had been to a concert of Mendelsohn the night before. It was their second time in Hanoi.

We passed several temples, including a large one that we skipped for reasons of time, and finally got out at a temple called Thien Chu (Pagoda Leading to Heaven). Thien Chu was absolutely stunning. It was built in the 17th century, and is still in use today. There are monks who live on the premises, and it's very well-kept. After spending a while there, we went on to climb to the Perfume Pagoda.

The setting may be beautiful, which makes it a popular pilgrimage, but let me repeat the word "popular" for emphasis. This is a tourist spot with no other reason for being, and from the beginning of the climb to the end, you're hounded by hawkers selling souvenirs, sodas and anything else that can be carried. It's a pilgrimage for them as well.

Typically, it starts with "Where are you from?", an innocent and friendly-sounding question that's designed to stop you in your tracks. Then it progresses to "You buy from me." OK, you say, but you're starting the climb. "Maybe later." "Later. Later you buy from me. Remember me. My name is [???]. I have grey jacket. Remember me. You buy later." You could argue that this makes you climb faster to get away, but there's someone waiting farther up the mountain. We were followed by souvenir hawkers, would-be tour guides and an entire entourage for most of the trip, which is a steep, 4 kilometer climb.

Besides the hawkers, there were villagers along the climb. (Who knows, this might be where all the hawkers might come from.) There were chickens all over the place, and people coming up and down the mountain with yokes full of cassava. I had no idea that people even ate cassava in Vietnam, but apparently it's used for breakfast, and even for noodle dough in So village. It was the staple diet in the Cu Chi tunnels, and for all of Vietnam during the 80's when Russia demanded repayment for war aid with Vietnam's entire rice crop. In the valley below we also saw people lighting fires. Apparently it was to produce a clothing dye that comes from a local tree.

It was a good climb, and we finally got to the Perfume Pagoda, which was actually a cave. There really wasn't an awful lot to see when we got there, but as they say, the journey is the end in itself. There was a Buddhist monk with a kitten on his lap, calmly chatting with some of the visitors. We hung around for a while, bought a couple of coconuts and drank from them, and then began the trip in the other direction. 

As we got near the bottom, I heard an American-sounding voice. It was a Vietnamese-American girl in her twenties, who had gone ahead of her family. She had been born in Vietnam, but left in 1975 as a baby, and now seemed to be more American than me. We invited her to join us for lunch at the restaurant at the bottom of the mountain, and when her family caught up they sat down with us. 

For a snack bar at a tourist attraction, the place wasn't bad. We ordered tofu with tomato, ginger and coriander, watercress with garlic, beef with lemongrass and mustard green soup with rice, and all of it was pretty good. When the food came out and we started to eat, this Vietnamese-American girl looked at me quizically and said in her best East-Coast accent, "You eat that stuff?" She really was more American than me. 

Her cousin, who was sitting next to me, had grown up in France, and he was more French than Charles de Gaulle. I had a conversation with him in French, and he had the same way of seeing things. He told me they had spent the evening in their hotel in Hanoi, thinking it wasn't safe to venture out. This girl's poor mother did a gallant job, translating from English to French to Vietnamese, but sorry to say, it was a little late to communicate the culture.

Back in Hanoi that night, we ate pho at a restaurant with small chairs on a side street near the hotel. We sat near where the motorbikes were parked, the napkins kept blowing away, and we had a great time watching the world, all of whom seemed to crave a bowl of soup at 10 PM. We went back to the hotel and stayed up very late again talking with the staff.