The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 19th – Perfume Pagoda

The boat ride is very soothing and peaceful. We’re surrounded by hills and lots of green. There are only a few other boats on the river and this leads me to conclude that it is not Tet Festival time. This and the fact that it’s July, while the Tet Festival occurs in early spring. We see a few fishermen using an interesting approach to catching fish. They stand upright in their boat and hold a long pole with a flat metal sieve at the end. The sieve is connected to a wire that runs along the length of the pole. It appears that this crazy apparatus zaps the fish, allowing the fisherman to scoop its zapped body up with the sieve. Humans have truly invented countless ways of using technology to mess with the rest of the animal kingdom.

“Science, bitch!”

The heat becomes quite strong during the trip and I can feel the metal parts of my army hat start to burn my skull. We finally arrive at the mountain complex, just when the heat becomes almost unbearable. We make a quick trip to one of the closest pagodas before settling down for lunch. Each pagoda always has an altar with a sitting Buddha and this is where the locals bring all sorts of gifts. I notice that most of the gifts are chocolates and cookies. Buddha must have quite a sweet tooth. We have a quick lunch at a local restaurant and finally start our trek up the mountain to the main attraction – the Inner Temple (Chua Trong).

The uphill trek is rather long – it takes about an hour to get all the way to the top. Along the way are countless stalls with people strategically selling water and other cold drinks. At the top of the hill there’s a small descent into a huge cave, called Huong Tich. It’s also called “Dragon’s Mouth”, because that’s sort of what it looks like. Walls of the cave are lined with Buddha mini-shrines, built for different purposes around stalagmites and stalactites. There are two altars where people come to prey if they are infertile – one of them to ask for a boy, the other one for a girl. I was trying to locate the shrine where one could pray for a billion dollars, but it was pretty dark, so…

I’m certain it’s there, somewhere…

Even further into the cave is the main altar. You enter from one side, but you must exit on the other one. If you exited the same way you came in then you’d turning your back to Buddha and he doesn’t like that at all, apparently (what a drama queen). There are also a few places where water drops down from the ceiling of the cave. This water is said to have healing properties. We see many people drink this water and throw it on their faces, so we follow suit. Hell, if I can’t have a billion dollars, at least I’ll take me some free magic cave water.

Back at the entrance our guide points out some naturally formed sculptures in the walls of the cave. One of them is of three buddhas – past, present, and future. The other is a female Buddha with an elephant. The third is a monk on a horse, said to be the one to have brought Buddhism to Vietnam. I wish I could make a joke about how locals are imagining crazy things, but seriously – tell me that’s not a monk riding a horse:

The monk, his horse, and the creepy baby stalking them

We return to the hotel by tracing all of our steps in reverse…which is in fact how you usually “return” somewhere. Downhill, boat ride, minibus, home. Back in the hotel we take a quick shower and then head out to watch the water puppets at the Thang Long theatre.

The show consists of a number of scenes, representing different activities – rice planting, playing with bulls (people in Asia do that too, apparently, so take that Spain), serenading, and so on. Each scene is accompanied by a live orchestra of authentic instruments and live singing. Some of the instruments are quite curious, such as the one-string Dan Bau, operated by a woman who makes quick twitching movements with her hand to produce different sounds. Traditionally, people suffering from seizures have quickly become virtuosos of the Dan Bau.

The puppets themselves are made out of wood and are attached at the bottom to long poles that stretch all the way to the puppet masters hidden behind curtains. The “control poles” are submerged in the pool of water where the show takes place, creating the illusion that the puppets are floating on their own. The nature of the setup makes for a pretty limited range of puppet-motion. The puppets can basically move forward and back, swing from side to side and hit the water with their arms forcefully like they’re trying to get a drum beat out of it. When many puppets are spazzing out in this way in a synchronised scene it’s quite entertaining to watch.

“Remember The Time”: water puppet version?!

After an hour of the show we have a meal in a random restaurant called Lien Phung and finally head home for much needed sleep. We have one more day left in Hanoi and tomorrow evening we’ll be on the way to Sapa.

The diaries continue here.

Remember to check out Katka’s pictures from the trip on Flickr. Also, feel free to browse other posts and share them with your Twitter and Facebook friends. Remember to subscribe (“Follow Me” on the left) if you want to stay updated on all of the latest stuff.

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