Chùa Hương, The Perfume Pagoda

NOTE: The extended festival of Northern Viet Nam’s Perfume Pagoda begins today, the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In honor of this sacred Buddhist site and holiday here is my original post. —Jadi

On our first visit to Vietnam we booked a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda. [1] The Perfume Pagoda is a major Buddhist pilgrimage destination. The Huong Mountains contain fertility and agricultural cults, too.

The name Perfume Pagoda really refers to a number of shrines on – and in – the mountaintop. The most important temple is the Perfume Temple found inside Huong Tich Cave. It’s northern Viet Nam’s holiest site and the setting for the country’s most important and longest religious holiday.

The fest starts in the middle of the first lunar month (February 15) and runs from February to April. Hundreds of thousands of worshippers make the trek to present offerings at the mountain’s shrines and temples. At the high point of the festival, peak traffic will back up for as long as 8 hours on the Yen Vi River.

While the entire trip can be made by road, we took the water route. Reaching the site involved a two hour taxi ride to the pier located 70 km southwest of Hanoi in My Duc Town, a boat trip being rowed for two hours on the shallow Yen Vi River to the base of the pilgrimage site, and finally a two-hour hike up into the limestone Huong Mountains.

For the taxi ride we traveled with our guide on one of Viet Nam’s first highways. As you can see in Uwe’s photograph, the traffic on this main artery a decade ago was nothing like what we’re used to seeing in America and Europe.

Autobahn traffic
Autobahn traffic
Boat launch at Bến Đục
Boat launch at Bến Đục

A young woman rowed us upriver. 12700_V_10_15_82The boatwomen at Bến Đục (Duc Pier) make enough money to support their families, and are chosen by lottery.

We made our slow way past rice paddies and limestone peaks. 11900_V_10_15_74

Fishermen in impossibly tiny boats balanced, standing, as they shocked the water with weak electricity to stun the fish they collected in the bottoms of their flat vessels.



After disembarking we hiked 4 kilometers straight up.

Beginning the pilgrimage up the mountainside.
Beginning the pilgrimage up the steps

Good shoes are needed as the path is steep in places and the stone stairs are slippery if it’s been raining! The landscape is lush, and the spectacular views are worth the strenuous hike.

Taking a break
Taking a break on the hike up the mountain


The Huong Mountains are rich in myths and legends. One story relates how a Buddhist monk came here to meditate in solitude two thousand years ago. Another legend tells the story of the Perfume Pagoda’s Quan Am or Guan Yin. [2] A stone at Phat Tich temple contains her preserved footprint.

It’s believed that the Buddha stopped at the Giai Oan temple to wash. Pilgrims clean their faces and hands in the Long Tuyen Well to wash away past karmas.

But older deities are present. Cua Vong shrine is where believers make offerings to the Goddess of the Mountains. And inside the holiest of holies, the cave’s stalactites are sought out for blessings.

Entrance to Huong Tich grotto
Entrance to Huong Tich grotto

Once we reached the cave, we descended back down 120 wide stone steps to the Huong Tich Grotto, which translates as ‘traces of fragrance’.



We entered the cave, whose opening is a dragon’s mouth. Inside Chua Trong (Inner Temple), our guide positioned himself underneath a stalactite and tried to catch a drop of moisture on his tongue.


The stalactites grant good fortune. Pilgrims through the ages have named them: Basket of Silkworms, Boy Stone, Buffalo, Cocoon, Girl Stone, Nine Dragons Compete For Jewels, Pig, Rice Mound, Gold & Silver Mound, and the Mother’s Milk Stone.

Couples wishing for offspring gather under the Boy and Girl Stones; those wanting prosperity seek out drops from the stalactites hanging from the ceiling that grant abundance and wealth. The Perfume Pagoda Festival is considered an auspicious time and place to find a mate, and is the starting point for lots of successful romances.

At the time we visited, the remote northern region had just gotten electricity. And as our boat headed back down the Yen Vi we passed by boats bringing materials to build a new pier even further upriver. [3]






NOTES: [1] This excursion instantly became one of my favorite trips of all time. [2] Guan Yin is the bodhisattva (usually female) associated with the quality of compassion. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who delays Nirvana, staying behind to assist others in finding enlightenment. The Guan Yin of the Perfume Pagoda is identified with Dieu Thien, the third daughter of Dieu Trang, King of Huong Lam. She refused to marry, wishing to spend her time in prayer instead. [3] An ingenious way to transport the needed materials to the site!

© Jadi Campbell 2017. My post The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ is scheduled to post. Go there after May 5th to read about south Viet Nam’s most sacred shrine. More pictures from our trips to Vietnam and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at 

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.


Egypt 2: Along the Nile

Cleopatra: He’s speaking now, Or murmuring ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’ — Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene 4

This is Part 2 to my post about our brief trip to Luxor, Egypt. As I look through Uwe’s photographs from that week I’m struck by his images of the Nile.

D31_8536_DxO10 D31_8660_DxO8 D31_9064_DxO8

There is something sensuous about this river… One of my very favorite Shakespeare plays is Antony and Cleopatra. Here is the description of Cleopatra floating down the Nile:

Enobarbus: The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick with them, the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

…From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her, and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too
And made a gap in nature.

Agrippa: Rare Egyptian! (Act II, Scene 2)D31_8592_DxO10

The Nile is iconic. It’s the longest river in the world, around 4,160 miles or 6,670 kilometers The Nile originates at Lake Victoria and Lake Tana, and ends at the Mediterranean. It flows northward through Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and Egypt.



It is the largest oasis on the planet. When we visited in May 2013 tourism had declined so far that there were no longer any direct flights to Luxor. Instead, we flew to Hurghada on the Red Sea and a van met us. We drove for four hours across the barest desert landscape imaginable. No nomads, no towns, no vegetation or animal life to be seen. When we reached the Nile, visible signs of life appeared again.

D31_7870_DxO8 D31_7871_DxO8 D31_7872_DxO8All of the great ancient cities we visited are on the river’s banks. Karnak, Luxor/Thebes. Dendera, Edfu. From our hotel balcony we gazed directly across the river to the Valley of the Kings. The Valleys of the Kings, the Queens and the Nobles are on the west bank of the Nile River as you must be buried on that side in order to enter the afterlife.


We sailed downriver to Dendera, enjoying the scenery that flowed slowly past. D31_8555_DxO8


The fertile Nile was the original source of Egypt’s wealth and today 40 million Egyptians (50% of the population) live near its banks. There was life on the shores and in the water everywhere we looked.

Cleopatra: …we’ll to th’ river: there, My music playing far off, I will betray Tawny-finned fishes. (Act II, Scene 5)D31_8562_DxO8


D31_8627_DxO8Antony: The higher Nilus swells, The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain, And shortly comes to harvest. (Act II, Scene 7)

The Egyptian calendar was based on the Nile’s three flood cycles. According to Wikipedia, “[t]hese seasons, each consisting of four months of thirty days each, were called Akhet, Peret, and Shemu. Akhet, which means inundation, was the time of the year when the Nile flooded, leaving several layers of fertile soil behind, aiding in agricultural growth. Peret was the growing season, and Shemu, the last season, was the harvest season when there were no rains.” [1]

As I looked out at the river and thought about my mother, I sensed the rhythms of life and death more clearly than ever before.


D31_8557_DxO8To the ancients, the Nile was the River Ar meaning “black” because of the rich, fertile sediment left on the banks from the Nile’s flooding. When the Aswan Dam was built in 1970, the annual flooding ended. But by the time we left I knew why Shakespeare’s hero confessed,

Antony: Egypt, thou knew’st too well My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’ strings, And thou shouldst tow me after. (Act III, Scene 9)

NOTES: [1] Wikipedia: Season of the Harvest

All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. More of Uwe’s pictures from Egypt and his photography may be viewed at