Perfume Pagoda

perfume pagoda thien tru vietnam

              The Perfume Pagoda is located 60 kilometers southwest of Hanoi where the karst limestone mountains jut out of the rice fields below.  The Perfume Pagoda is a very revered and sacred site featuring a maze of Buddhist pagodas built into the limestone cliffs of the mountain.  It is northern Vietnam’s most famous pilgrimage site and one of Hanoi’s most visited tourist day trips.  

What to See

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Entrance way to the Thien Tru Pagoda.

              Thousands of Vietnamese travelers make the pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda every year.  The festival season is mid-January to mid-March and is a great time to go if you are hoping to witness or participate in the pilgrimage yourself.  During this time the complex is packed with people and it may be hard to get around and see the sites.  Visiting outside of festival season on the other hand allows you to take in the sites without all of the people in the way.  

Yen River

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Row boats docked in My Doc.

              From My Duc you will need to take a one-hour boat ride up the river.  You can get a ticket for a boat at the office by the pier.  The boats normally hold 6 people, so if you are a small group and it is the off season you will probably be waiting for quite a while before filling your boat.  On the other hand, you can rent the entire boat yourself for a round trip for 500,000 VND/22.72 USD. 

boat trip perfume pagoda vietnam
Boat trip on the Yen River.

The boat ride in general is nice and the scenery is good.  The river snakes through green rice fields and karst mountains that create a great scenery.  Though if this is the main reason you are coming to this location then I suggest skipping it and doing the boat trip in Trang An instead.  The scenery is far better, the oarswomen are nicer, and it’s just an overall better experience. 

convience store boat perfume pagoda yen river vietnam
Convience store boat on the Yen River.

Note: The oarswomen will expect a tip when they return you to My Duc.  Although this is normal, expect that they may not be happy with what you give and will ask for more; an experience that many tourists have faced here.  After giving a good tip to ours, she demanded that it was not enough and wanted 250,000 VND (half of the cost of the boat itself and over double the general daily income)!  When I told her she could give me my tip back if she didn’t want it, she spat at my feet and walked away with the tip I had given her.

Cable Car

cable car perfume pagoda vietnam
View from our cable car.

              Once you have climbed the stairs from the river and through all of the souvenir shops you will come to the cable car building and will have to make the decision of taking the cable car or walking the 2 km to the top.  The ticket price for the car is 100,000 VND/4.54 USD one-way or 160,000 VND/7.27 roundtrip.  We opted to take the cable car both ways, but many people will take the car up and then walk down.  Either way you choose, I highly suggest taking the cable car at least one way.  The views of the mountains from the car are great and you will not be able to get any views from the path since it is lined with tents. 

tent covered hike perfume pagoda vietnam
The hikeable pathway to the Perfume Pagoda covered in buildings.

Thien Tru

thien tru perfume pagoda vietnam
Thien Tru Pagoda

              Thien Tru is the first pagoda you will see as you enter the complex.  It is often referred to as the ‘Pagoda leading to Heaven’ or the ‘outer pagoda,’ and is dedicated to Quan Am, the Goddess of Compassion.   It is worth taking the time to stroll through the pagodas compound if you have the time if only to see the bell tower and three leveled pagoda inside. 

Dong Tien Son

dong tien son cave perfume pagoda vietnam
Shrine inside the cave at Dong Tien Son.

              Dong Tien Son is a small pagoda located up the stairs just before you reach the cable car building.  Like the main pagoda in Huong Tich Cave, Dong Tien Son is also located in a cave as well.  Much smaller that the Perfume Pagoda, it is worth making the hike up the stairs to see this less visited pagoda. 

Huong Tich Cave (Perfume Pagoda)

huong tich cave perfume pagoda vietnam
View of the Perfume Pagoda from the staircase.

              Huong Tich Cave, more well known as the Perfume Pagoda, houses Chua Trong (‘inner temple’).  At the end of the path you will descend 120 steps into the mouth of a tall cave.  Standing at the foot of the stairs outside the cave it looks enormous and impressive, but upon entering it is not as impressive as I thought it would be.  Houng Tich Cave is fairly small on the inside and consists of a series of shrines.  That being said, witnessing the worship inside a cave is a unique experience. 

***Note that respectful attire (pants, skirts below the knee, and no sleeveless tops) should be worn for this trip; nobody will most likely say anything to you for not doing so, but you might be the subject of stares and comments.

My Overall Impression

pagoda thien tru perfume vietnam
A pagoda in the Thien Tru compound.

             My overall impression of the Perfume Pagoda as a trip worth taking is not very high.  It most definitely has its pros.  It’s a culture and religious highlight of northern Vietnam, the three pagodas listed above are interesting in their own light, and it’s an easy day trip from Hanoi.  But, in my opinion, the cons out way the pros.  My main cons are that the whole area is overly touristy and the oarswomen demanding such high tips at the end just made the trip a bit sour.  To add to this, although the temples and views were interesting, they weren’t spectacular by any means.  Especially when you can just as easily make a day trip to Ninh Binh and see the Bai Dinh temple compound and take a boat trip at Trang An. 

How to Get There

pathway perfume pagoda vietnam
Pathway leading to Dong Tien Son, but can be used to bypass all of the vendors below.

              You can make the trip to the Perfume Pagoda either through a tourist company or by making your own way.  Both of these options are good and easy depending on what you are looking for.  Where the tourist companies allow you to enjoy the river and pagoda with the ease of mind of a guided tour, doing it yourself allows you to delve deeper, learn more, and see more of the temples and culture. 

3 story thien tru perfume pagoda vietnam
3 story pagoda of Thien Tru.

              If you plan to just go through a travel company then you will easily be able to find one of the many tour companies offering this tour in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.  The Perfume Pagoda is probably the most hawked tour in Hanoi, so you most likely will be offered the tour before you even go looking for it.  The tour includes the roundtrip bus ride to the boat dock in My Duc, roundtrip boat ride to the site, ticket into the site, one-way gondola ticket to the Perfume Pagoda (then you will walk back down), and a lunch.  The cost of these varies depending on the company, if it is private/group tour, and what is included, so you will have to shop around to find what suits you best.

pond thien tru perfume pagoda vietnam
One of the many ponds in the Thien Tru compund.

             If you decide to do it yourself then catching a public bus is easy to do.  If you have taken the public bus into Hanoi from the north, then you will be at/near the My Dinh bus station (located in western Hanoi).  From here you can take Bus 103 directly to My Duc for 9,000 VND/0.40 USD and it leaves every 20 minutes.  If you are in the Old Quarter you can take either Bus 1 or Bus 2 to the Ba La bus stop in Ha Dong (about 33 minutes), then take Bus 75 to My Duc for a total cost of 32,000 VND/1.45 USD.  Once you arrive in My Duc it is just a 13-minute walk down the road to the ticket office located across the street from the river. 

Where to Stay

main walkway perfume pagoda vietnam
Main walkway to the Perfume Pagoda.

              You can easily visit the Perfume Pagoda as a day trip from Hanoi, but if you decide to stay here like we did then you will easily be able to get a hotel in town.  Although hotels aren’t really listed for My Duc online, they do exist and you will just need to look for the hotel signs.  If you visit during the off season then most likely the property owners will wave you over as you walk by. 

What to Eat

restaurants yen river perfume pagoda vietnam
Line of restaurants on the Yen River outside the Perfume Pagoda.

              If you are only going to the Perfume Pagoda for the day then I suggest eating at the boat dock at the entrance of the site itself.  There are many restaurants that line the water that have good food.  As a warning for those fainter of heart, you will see skinned cats and dogs hanging in the meat windows of many of these places.  You can, of course, order this meat if you wish, but there is no need to worry that you may get dog or cat meat instead of beef or pork.  If you decide to stay the night, there are a few restaurants near the hotels as well.   

pin point map perfume pagoda vietnam

What was your experience at the Perfume Pagoda?

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