The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 19th – Perfume Pagoda

Sleep comes only at 4AM, despite my sincere efforts to count sheep and other farm animals. Alarm goes off at 7AM – damn it! Down for breakfast at 7:30. Breakfast consists of a small side buffet with snack-sized foods, fruit and sweets. In addition there’s coffee and tea and a choice of regular milk as well as sweet condensed milk. Finally, there’s a menu with a limited selection of dishes, from which one can be picked by each guest. Everything is fresh and delicious.

We book the 3-day Sapa trip with our friendly receptionist. It seems that our prolonged stay and the fact that we’re arranging numerous trips through the hotel has bumped us to “VIP status”. So when we ask to book tickets for a train to Hue upon our return from Sapa it is the hotel manager, Mr. Son, himself that shows up to take care of it. He suggests we book a late afternoon train instead of the early morning one we originally requested. That will give us more time to rest and allow us to sleep overnight on the way to Hue. Mr. Son also says that he’ll give us a free room to use between our return from Sapa and our departure to Hue. At this stage I’m seriously considering to stay in Vietnam forever. Sure, on the one hand I’ve got my whole life back in Denmark, but on the other hand – free hotel rooms and sweet milk in my coffee! It’s a tough call.

“So let me get this straight – I don’t get paid to work here, but can have all the free coffee I want? Where do I sign?!”

At 8:00 we’re picked up by a minibus to be driven to Perfume Pagoda. The minibus stops at several other hotels to pick up the rest of the tourists. We’re joined by a Vietnamese man with his daughter, a young Spanish-Italian couple and an older French couple. After everyone’s picked up our United Nations delegation sets off on a 2 hour drive to the pagoda complex.

The drive is quite hectic. Our driver has an aggressive driving style and zig-zags through the motorbike masses, honking every few minutes. I have a sneaking suspicion that he believes he’s in a racing video game. At some stage during the drive the tour guide lady turns around and attempts to engage the group by introducing herself and giving us a sneak peek into the upcoming adventure. The group acts bored and largely ignores the guide. So, trying to be the nice guy, I listen to her with almost exaggerated attention, nodding and smiling after every sentence. At some stage she must start to think that I’m a bit retarded, because she wraps up her speech and stays mostly silent for the rest of the drive.

On the way to the pagoda complex we are surrounded by rice fields. I notice that many rice fields have tomb stones on them and ask our guide about this. She explains that up North it is quite common to bury family members on the plots of land the family owns. Down South the space is more limited, so the government enforces burials at central cemeteries. Here in the North you can grow rice and visit your family’s graveyard while you’re at it.

Even in her death my mother-in-law’s disapproving gaze is mocking my farming skills!

After driving through the rice fields and some small villages without proper roads (getting almost stuck a few times along the way) we finally arrive to the Yen River. An almost hour-long boat ride up the river is the only way to get to the Perfume Pagoda complex. We are divided into 2-3 person groups and each group is assigned a boat with a rower. Immediately, our attention is drawn to the curious rowing style employed here. Instead of sitting with their backs facing the front of the boat and pulling the oars towards them the rowers sit at the back and push the oars away from them to move the boat. This is not what we’re used to in the West. Maybe it’s an unknown variation of the Coriolis Effect?

Anything you can do we can do…in more a contrived manner

We get to sit in the boat with our female guide, which turns out to be quite useful as she shares some interesting trivia with us. For example, did you know that the Yen River is filled with many hundreds of boats at a time at the start of the Tet Festival? Locals swarm to the Perfume Pagoda in order to pray to the Buddha and to be cleansed, so that they start the new year from a clean slate. In their rush for this cleansing they rent out every boat possible and effectively block out the whole river. It’s like traffic jams in LA, but on water and without the road rage.

Another piece of information we pick up is about the typical conical hats popular in Vietnam and other places in Asia. The hats are usually made of palm or coconut leaves held together by bamboo strings. Apparently these hats do a lot more than just make you look extra fashionable and uber cool. They also offer sun and rain protection (and are especially quick to dry after rain). They can be taken down and used as fans when it’s very hot.

Finally, they can act as rather effective water filters. A hat owner can push one of these into a river tip-first and the hat will let the water through while keeping the fish, leaves and other river debris away. Then the lucky hat owner can use one hand to drink this filtered water, or maybe even dip his/her whole face in this pool of filtered deliciousness. I assume these hats can also act as pretty awesome Frisbees, but sadly I haven’t seen a lot of “hat frisbeeing” going on. Seriously though, that has got to be one of the most versatile yet simple items of clothing in existence. As long as you’ve got a conical hat and a Swiss Army knife you’re ready to dominate any Survivor series. (CONTUNE TO PAGE 2)