Birds sing merrily in the trees that overhang the murky water.
The sun beams warmly down on the little rowboat that makes it’s tedious way up the river. The oars creak loudly, but except for that sound and the birds, all is still. Around us, a few other boats row peacefully up the Perfume River. There aren’t half as many now as there will be in the spring, when thousands of Vietnamese make a pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda. For now, it is calm. Our guide peeks out from beneath her wide umbrella to smile at us. She’s been telling us Vietnamese legends the entire ride.
It takes an hour to reach the docks. In the spring, this strip of concrete would be absolutely crammed with rusty metal boats. All of them look identical, all of them are rickety and old, and all the drivers know exactly which one is their own. Stretching the cramps out of our limbs, we climb out on to the docks, and begin the long climb up the seemingly endless stairs.
Like any good Wat, the stairs number in the hundreds. My brothers leap eagerly up them, leaving me hobbling behind in the dust. On a normal day, I would be at the head of the pack, reveling in the joy of having longer legs than they do! But I have done that too many times already, a fact which has made itself evident in the multitude of painful blisters assailing my feet. I can barely walk; each step is pure agony. Dad takes pity on me, and we decide to take the cable car like the good wimps we are. My brothers mockingly take the stairs, and reach the top laughingly telling stories of monkeys and fat centipedes seen on the way. Over two kilometers of stairs fail to make the least impression on them.
The main temple in the Perfume Pagoda complex is located in a deep cave at the top of the mountain.
Placid Buddhas rest on mossy rocks as water drips slowly from the ceiling. Bats chirp and squeak, fluttering from wall to wall. Incense burns constantly, the smoke convening in a haze that burns the eyes and mouth. We venture deeper, to where candles are the only source of light. The beauty of the cave is astounding, and well worth the climb up and then back down the mountain. Too soon, we have to climb back up the few flights of stairs to the cable car.
My feet ache horribly. Mom makes me sit down and take my shoes off. As it turns out, my feet have turned white and smell awful from the constant wet. I have 29 blisters total, on both feet. My parents are horrified, and Mom allows me to go barefoot the rest of the day. Dad warns me of the dangers of jungle-rot. Luckily, a few days of exposure to the air heal them quickly.
Soon we are loaded into the boat and on our way back down the river. From there, we take a bus down one of the many muddy, potholed roads in Vietnam, and by dinner we are back in Hanoi.
Despite the long hours of transit, the long hike, and the blistered feet, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The Perfume Pagoda is well worth the effort it takes to get there, and I recommend it to anyone traveling through the area!