After a rather sedate NYE in Hanoi we were in need of some fresh air and having heard good things about The Perfume Pagoda near Hanoi we decided to venture out. The Pagoda known locally as Chua Huong or ‘inner temple’, is at the centre of a sacred site featuring a maze of mainly Buddhist temples built into the limestone cliffs of Huong Tich. At the heart of this complex lies the Perfume Pagoda in the Huong Tich Cave. I hear it is also referred to as the mini Hao Long Bay due to the steep limestone cliffs that are everywhere.
After researching long and hard on google about the various ways to get there and with tips and warnings from travelers everywhere, I decided to go it alone with the family and organize it myself. By nature I am a ) a control freak and b ) I detest the idea of tour groups / marching to someone else’s drum etc and also…I wanted to conduct a little experiment and see if we could beat the tour rates. I will break this up in to sections to try make it a bit easier for me to write and you to understand;
Firstly, I will say we called only one tour company, Mrs Ly 84 097 613 89 00 having seen her touted on TripAdvisor. She was very nice and patient as I asked a myriad of questions and her costs came out like this ; USD$107 for two adults and two kids to get on a shared minibus, travel out, enter the park, get on a return row boat and eat lunch. Cable Car, tip to boat rower and drinks extra. With cable car costing USD$13 one way (UP! ) for the whole family and tip equating to USD$5….total was going to be USD$125. She also offered a private car for USD$50return if we then joined the tour at the park or USD$68 return if we simply took the car. Mrs Ly was not pushy in the slightest and when I eventually declined her services, she wished me a Happy New Year and a safe trip. Lovely.
We rented a private car through one of my staff who had a cousin who drive for a living. He turned up in a very smart almost new diesel Ford Explorer and we loaded the kids and the day bags and set off. The traffic out of Hanoi was almost nonexistent and on this particularly grey and gloomy day the scenery was typical semi urban South East Asia. Not much to write home about. We arrived just under 2.5 hours later at the entry gate to the park. Here we paid VND260,000/USD$12 for 2 adults as kids were actually free (under 1.2m). We then proceeded to the boat dock and this is where things got a little funky.
Arriving at the boat counter we were instantly accosted by a group of women offering boat services and whilst I presented tickets to the counter for inspection by the “official” and attempted to ask her questions ( cost of boats power vs row, time to the pagoda etc etc ) , these women stood right by us and butted in with answers. So straight away my hackles started to go up as I wanted my enquiries answered by the official ….not by a bunch of gaggling annoying hawkers. Unfortunately, they spoke better English than the official so in the end I had to engage them. What they told me was that the boats wait until there are 6 people in a boat before they will leave. As there were only 4 of us and as I had only paid for 2 tickets ( kids were free remember ), I would need to purchase 4 more tickets at a cost of USD$26. This then meant the boat could leave immediately with only 4 on board. Whilst I pondered that I asked about a power boat ( 15mins vs over one hour for a row boat ) and was told USD$65 but that the powerboats left from a bit further across the river and therefore a row boat would have to take us there. By now my South East Asia rip off spidey senses are on high alert and with the wife fuming ( she is Cambodian and knows a rort when she sees one ) and the kids champing at the bit, I decided to just pay for the extra tickets and take the row boat. ( FYI – The lady with the power boat was lowering her price right up until we got on the row boat and was down to USD$42 ) . So…cost of return row boat for 4 people was either USD$38 if you count the initial USD$12 we paid at the entry gate plus the extra USD$26…..or USD$26. There was some talk that the gate price is actually for “guarantee” of some sort in case there was a “problem with the boat” which I took to mean insurance however by this stage I was so damned confused I did not really care…..we were on the way.
The row boat trip was pleasant enough and the kids in particular had a great time. I noticed there were no life rings or jackets in our boat whilst others had them. Also….the slim steel bench seats acted as anesthetic for the butt and mine was soon asleep. The scenery on the way up is very nice with limestone spires all around and lotus leaves providing splashes of color along the way. There were several other boats in front and behind us and the occasional power boat went past but overall it was very quiet and relaxing. Just over an hour later we arrived at the base of the attraction and we alighted safely to begin the next stage.
Baring in mind we had chosen an “off peak” time to visit, what greeted us was…in a word…. random. It really was very odd. A huge entry portico with entry gates etc that we just strolled through, some random souvenir shops selling kids toys ( yes…because one never knows when one might want to buy a remote controlled car or a flashing AK47 for the littluns ) and then a hike up up up up past all manner of strange hawker stalls carved into the hills that were all either closed up or being feverishly worked on by their owners. This was to be a recurring theme the whole day. Half way to the cable car there is a lovely flat section with huge overhead trees, some restaurants and some vendors selling live squirrels, pigeons and sparrows. Not sure if these were for releasing or eating but I really felt for the little squirrels that were being kept in nylon mesh pouches that just allowed them to turn around and no more. Several were in manic fits and one’s nose was all bloodied from the nylon. Here is where we bought our Cable Car tickets and these cost USD$13 for the four of us one way only. Our plan was to cable car up, walk down and picnic somewhere with our home made lunch.
We arrived huffing and puffing at the cable car and were glad to flop into a bubble car that took us up the mountain. The kids loved this and I have to say the scenery was great albeit a little misty. The cable car pretty much tracks over the walking path and you can see that the entire way there are wall to wall hawker stands. There is a station mid-way that you cruise through without stopping and then you arrive at the top. Some more steep stairs take you up to the cave.finally ! As you descend the stairs into the cave all of the mornings hassles and stresses dissolve as the sheer size and spectacle of it hit you. It really is something to see and there were only small groups of people down there so we were able to move around with ease into the stomach of the cave where there are some lovely shrines and stalactite overhead. We spent about 30 mins in the cave before heading up and out. Note ; there is a “no shorts or t-shirts” sign at the top but I was wearing exactly this and had no issues.
Having packed our own lunch of baguettes, BBQ drumsticks, bananas and cake we now only had one way to go and that was down down down. Now…you would think that going down would be a godsend after the up stuff but let me tell you….going down was hard work in some places. The stairs are steep and T R E A C H E R O U S and I am super glad it had not rained as it would make it diabolical on the smooth flag stones. My 5-year-old boy took several falls after catching uneven stones and you really had to pay attention. As mentioned, the path is lined – without any break – wall to wall with these horrid tin shacks and as a result…you do not see ANYTHING. A real shame. I cannot think of anything worse than actually eating in one of these sheds as very few had windows looking out over the forest etc. Very odd. In the end we got very lucky and I spied a tiny little temple directly opposite the mid-way cable car station. A 10m climb off the main track so us sitting on a lovely terrace under a flame tree staring down the valley while we noshed on our lunch – and a few cold beers ( USD $1 a pop ). We spent an hour here cooling down and giving the legs a breather and it was mostly quiet other than the odd power tool starting up.
Eventually we reached the bottom and I wanted to stop in at this awesome shop I saw on the LHS as you head up from the very bottom that really stands out amongst all the other tacky stalls. This chap has a lovely cave / grotto set back in to the hill full of slabs of wood and lengths of bamboo painted with Chinese characters. At first I actually thought it was a temple and people had paid to have a good luck talisman hung in there but is soon became apparent everything was for sale. We bought two lovely 75cm long large pieces of bamboo that had panels carved out of the sections and Chinese lettering painted on. No idea what it said but they were USD$40 for both. He happily posed for a photo with the kids and we were on our way back down to the boat. ON arrival at the dock our Lady Rower tries to fond her boat and cannot and she tells is to “wait wait” and hitched a ride with another row boat and heads off down the river without us. This is the last thing I feel like at this stage of the day with kids almost asleep on their feet and I kick up a fuss such that another lady starts rowing us home and then eventually we are met by the original lady returning with her boat. All rather bizarre. I tipped the boat lady USD$5 (she was pushy and demanded it and I was too tired to push back) and the car driver USD$10 (he never asked but did an excellent job ).
So…all in all I calculate our DIY visit cost USD$127 vs the tour cost of USD$125 if we had gone on a tour. I am more than happy with this outcome as it allowed us to move at our own speed, have our own itinerary, stop for lunch etc etc. Some small tips FWIW ; 1. Do not even think about walking the path UP unless you are really fit and certainly not with small kids. If it has rained or is raining, personally I would not walk it at all. Our ankles particularly at the end of the day were very sore as the ground is very uneven. In fine weather, catch the cable car UP and walk DOWN. We noticed the cable car stopped for over 30 mins while we ate out lunch and that would not have been fun. 2. I hate crowds and I imagine at TET this place must get absolutely smashed. Pick when you go. 3. Pack your own lunch but water etc readily available 4; If you are going to take the row boat, take a small travel cushion. Your butt will thank you. 5. Deep breaths when the haggling commences.
The trip is WELL worth it for the Huong Tich cave even if everything in between is a bit random etc.