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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

If I had a fiver for everyone who remarked on how red we were today ...

... I'd have one hundred and fifty five pounds.

That's because we visited the Perfume Pagoda today. It was very exhausting - a 2 hour bus ride, just to get to the jetty where the boats set off from. Hanoi seemed to go on forever. It also seemed to be a very flat city; most cities have large buildings in the centre, with smaller buildings on the periphery. Hanoi appears to go on with the same type of building for ages, then stop completely. It took probably an hour for us to leave Hanoi proper, and then we were suddenly into the countryside: paddy fields with girls plucking rice, dirt tracks, wild looking cows, and, in the centre of many of the fields, a grave where the ancestors are remembered every time the land is worked.

By the time we arrived by the jetty, we were needing a break and drink, but unfortunately here began the theme of the day - people with their hand out for money. Prices here were two to three times the prices in Hanoi, and drink was even dearer than our hotel minibar! The Perfume Pagoda is apparently a highly venerated site for buddhists throughout Vietnam, and there is a three month lunar festival from January to March each year, where the Pagoda is flooded with Vietnamese pilgrims.

This means there is a highly developed Vietnamese tourist industry, and even though the guide books were all in Vietnamese, it didn't stop the people manning the various way stations from realising there was money to be made from a weary foreigner out of cans of drink and honey cakes.

From the town, we took a shallow metal boat down the Yen river. The boats were not large, and they put four of us into each one, with someone at the back rowing, so they were very close to the water line, and we could not afford to move fast or allow the boat to rock at all.

The journey down the river, both going there and coming home, was by far the most magical part of the trip. We passed people fishing, trading, and farming by the banks. Some were wading in the shallows, gathering plants up into baskets, while others were in long boats, apparently spearing something. On the way back, we were followed by a couple of older women, also in a long red boat like ours, with one doing her washing at the front, and the other singing a soft, quite haunting song in Vietnamese.

We spent about an hour on the river, in each direction and our driver rowed non-stop, with one oar in each hand for the whole time. In fact, this was another theme for the day - how the slightest Vietnamese person seemed capable of feats of endurance that were beyond us.

After landing the boat, we were taken on the most exhausting 2 hour walk I've ever had. This was a trek rated as "easy" by our hotel, but although a number of old ladies passed us, carrying their baskets strung over one shoulder on a piece of bamboo, we were panting and wheezing, and had to rest very frequently. Well, it was 3km up a mountain in tropical heat!

Our destination, the "Perfume Pagoda", was a bit disappointing. It was (obviously very holy and venerated) buddhist shrine in the heart of a cave full of stalacmites, but quite small, and, because of the cave surroundings, impossible to feel whether it was ancient or had just been planted there. It was fragrant with incense, though, as well as flowers, and it is this "perfume" which led to its name.

The cave was cool, and a nice place to recover our breath before heading back down the mountain. There we were introduced to the other Pagoda - one we didn't find out the name of. This was very chinese-influenced, and much more ancient-feeling. It also made a nice end to the day - strolling around the pagodas and cool, green ponds outside, before moving inside to the dark, ornate temples within.

We were, though, completely exhausted, and the day was completed with a beer on a balcony overlooking the Hoan Kiem lake, and a couple of spring rolls. Tomorrow, we shall look round the city, before catching the sleeper train for Hue, the old imperial capital.


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