"Chua Huong" - the Perfume Pagoda is the name of a collection of Buddhist temples which are very sacred to Vietnamese people of Buddhist faith, and an annual visit up here in springtime is a must to a lot of believers.
Located on the limestone rocks of Huong Son Mountain in beautiful and mystical surroundings, the pagodas are 70 km or two-hour driving out of Hanoi. Unlike other temples in Vietnam, the only way to reach this sanctuary is floating along a narrow but extremely poetic stream by rowing boats that takes 45 minutes. An iron boat can carry 3-5 people and a large wooden boat – up to 20 locals.
The stream is edged by rice, grass, small paths, and temples here and there. A local pilgrim can spend here traditionally three days to visit entirely the area and pray at all the temples. The first temple they often stop is called Den Trinh (i.e. The Shrine for First Presenting), where Vietnamese burn the first jossticks to inform the local deities about their presence and pray for a good trip and good luck for the year ahead. If you are anxious to reach the main Wharf of Huong Son mountain to start the uphill trip to see the Main Grotto of Huong Tich, you may skip this temple, especially in the peak season between January and early April.
The uphill trip takes an hour climbing on the ancient flat and sometime slippery stones, which have been here thousand years ago. The road is "breathtaking" in all aspects – you will have some exercise, and at the same time have chance to take some stops to contemplate beautiful scenery and daily life of local farmers, who plant cassava and apricots in the valleys, who run quickly on the slippery stone with their burdens of tapioca, apricots or medicinal herbs whilst you are careful with your steps. The main pagoda is set in a huge grotto containing a highly decorative shrine. Each stalactite and stalagmite inside, which are soaked by undercurrent, is combined with a legend about its miracle and good luck. Most of them became small shrines by now. Remember that the stone grotto is huge and very cool, so stop for a while at the entrance to dry your sweat before coming in.
The main festive days of Chua Huong stretches from January to early April, busy and exciting. Sometimes it's drizzling and the Vietnamese all believe that the real good things will reach you if you catch rainwater after praying in a sacred pagoda. And among all the sacred temples and pagodas in Northern Vietnam, Chua Huong is even more attractive and mysterious not only for its spectacular scenery, but for the painstaking road you passed over to reach to the top.