I'm falling behind. I've got a list of things stories and I feel I need to document if I can ever find the time.
At the top of my list is Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong) which I visited last Sunday. Perfume Pagoda is actually a collection of pagodas on a mountain 70 southwest of Hanoi. It is considered Vietnam's holiest Buddhist site. The 2nd and 3rd lunar months of each year (February and March) are pilgrimage season. There are prescribed times for pilgrims from each region of the country. It's hard to imagine that it would be a meditative experience at that time of year. From the sounds of it is madness. This time of the year is however very quiet.
The pagodas are stunning, but really it is the journey that is most impressive. The ritual journey begins in the small village of Ben Duc where you board a little aluminum boat for a one hour row on the Yen River through a spectacular Karst landscape (looks like a Chinese brush painting). The fantastic 18th Century Thien Tru Pagoda lies at the bottom of the mountain, but the journey continues with an hour and half hike up the mountain to the Huong Tich Grotto. Legend has it that pilgrims have been going to this cave for several thousand years, although the shrine was built in 1575. Well, enough said...I'll let the pictures do the talking.
A couple things though. First, it was strange to be amongst the tourists again (the Tay ba lo as the Vietnamese call them - Western backpackers). I see them downtown but I have no real contact with them. I probably seemed a bit aloof at first and kept my distance. Eventually I got to talking to them and in fact they are were all very interesting people. It made me realize what a very different reality I'm inhabiting compared to my tourist experience three years ago. I have learned so much and ended up interpreting things and signs and other various cultural phenomena to them. And yet I remembered how wonderful the tourist experience was. There are many expats in Hanoi who have never bothered to go to Perfume Pagoda or Halong Bay. Ironically sometimes you have to grab your camera and jump on the little Sinh Cafe tour bus just to expand your horizon, even if it makes you more conspicuous and pulls you (further) out of Vietnamese society for a time. Also there was a Viet kieu in the group, a Vietnamese-American returning to see the places and people of his long distant past. It's always fascinating watching Viet kieu on these tours interacting with the locals in a kind of benign avuncular way - distant and at the same time warm and sympathetic.
Another little experience I thought I should mention: on the way to Ben Duc we passed through a long strip of dog restaurants. Outside one of them was a cage with a small dog running around yapping at passers-by. I didn't find eating dog that disturbing really, but I must admit the sight of the live dog was a bit challenging.