The creak and pull of oars is a sound that settles my soul.
Perhaps it is because I grew up in boats. Perhaps it’s just the ceaseless rhythm that beats a cadence to order my thoughts. Perhaps it is just the reality that there is nothing more to be done than simply to row, or be rowed, for a while.
The boat ride up river from a one horse town to the mountain home of the Perfumed Pagoda is one not to be missed. This time of year, in the middle of monsoon, just a handful of boats dotted the river; fishing and ferrying pilgrims in equal numbers. In March and April, during the spring festival, as many as 4000 boats crowd the water as a sea of humanity floods toward the holy site. The pilgrimage would be something to see, to be sure, but I find myself grateful to be one of a few dozen visitors today instead of an ant in the midst of thousands.
The Perfumed Pagoda is a cave at the top of a mountain, deep in the jungle of Vietnam, about 70 km south of Hanoi. The only way to get there is by boat. The mouth of the cave is described as the mouth of a dragon, with a huge rock formation hanging down as it’s tongue. Inside are shrines and the “perfume” is the incense that is continually burned to carry the prayers of the supplicants toward heaven.
The boat ride is the easy part of the journey. It’s a 4 km hike up the mountain to the mouth of the cave, and then 4 km back down. Elisha counted the steps, I can’t remember the exact figure (he’ll probably tell it in his blog post!) but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1600 steps. There is also a cable car to the top of the mountain, which those of us with broken shoes (Jenn), sore knee tendons (Tony) and blistered feet (Hannah and Ez) took. Gabe and Elisha hiked with some Belgian girls and were rewarded with fantastic interactions with monkeys and skinned knees.
At the bottom of the hill, nearer the boats, is a pagoda complex with a long and colourful history, including a woman who pretended to be a man so that she could be a monk, was then accused of fathering a child, took the rap for it (inexplicably) and was excommunicated. It was years later before she returned and admitted her gender and told the whole story. She’s now enshrined there and people come from far and wide to pray to her for children, or to have their children blessed and give thanks for them. It’s an odd story to us. Perhaps something was lost in translation.
As with so many things, words cannot capture the experience. We took a few pictures… perhaps those will help: