The Perfume Pagoda

    The Perfume Pagoda - which is often visited as a daytrip from Hanoi - was one of my first trips into the Vietnamese countryside and one I remember very fondly. Visiting the pagoda entails a very scenic boat trip up the Tay river, surrounded by lush green limestone hills as local villagers collect water hyacinth and lotus flowers from the river banks, to Huong Son, the Perfume mountain.

    Once you arrive at the foot of the mountain there is a steady climb up ancient stone steps through the forest (or the option of a cable car if you are so inclined) with plenty of stops for rest and refreshment along the way. At a lower level there are a couple of stone pagodas, yet if you climb all the way to the top you are rewarded by a beautiful cave nestled inside the mountain, with prayer flags hanging like bunting across the entrance and thick clouds of fragrant incense smoke filling the air.

    The temple inside the grotto, Huong Tich, was built around 1700 AD by a monk who found the site during his search for enlightenment. Over the years since many more shrines and temples have been built in the area, and a typical pilgrim may take as many as three days to explore them all.

    The Perfume Pagoda is an important pilgramage destination for many Vietnamese people, and the festival period between the second and third month of the lunar calendar (normally corresponding to March and April) is extremely busy - on one occasion in 2002 so many boats filled the river there was a jam lasting 9 hours that made the news around the world. If you plan to visit during this period, it is wise to check the lunar calendar and visit on an odd rather than an even day as visitor numbers will be smaller.

    At other times of the year it can be extraordinarily peaceful and serene; we visited in September and there were few other visitors around.

    Getting there is fairly easy - starting early from Hanoi a bus will pick you up from your hotel, before driving you for two hours through the countryside to a small town where you stop, disembark and board a small boat in which you row up the Tay river. This journey takes about 45 minutes each way, and you can expect a climb to the top of the mountain to take around one hour.