Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 11: Our Visit to the Perfume Pagoda

Blogs - Vietnam: May 23, 2014

KathleenKathleen Brown, her husband John and their two adopted children, Peter Quang and Claire Xuan, are touring around Vietnam during their Christmas holiday. Kathleen is a long-time television producer and /media consultant for humanitarian agencies and her husband, John, a professional photographer. Every couple of days, they will post a story along with photos on their travels and adventures.

Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 11: A Boat Ride, Gondola Glide and Heavenly Slide - Our Visit to the Perfume Pagoda

On December 31, the last day of the year, our visit to the Perfume Pagoda, Buddhist Vietnam's holiest of sites, is on the calendar. It proves to be a serene and beautifully appropriate way to wrap up one year and head bravely into the next.

Perfume PagodaSo many expectations, losses, unfulfilled moments can be offered up, pondered over and then, like the smoke that rises from the incense ash, ascend to heaven.  Best yet, there are altars at the highest Pagoda of Heavenly Traces to pray for longevity, prosperity and good health. Just to be sure, we make offerings at all three!

The guide books don't seem to really capture the immense beauty, mystery and remarkable majesty of this ancient place. Most of the emphasis seems to be on the Pagoda of Heavenly Traces -- but it is the entire approach which makes the journey a pilgrimage: by boat paddled by young women through a valley of green lowlands punctuated by rugged outcrops of mountains.

Then on foot through a midway of restaurants, shops and stalls to visit the Pagoda of Heaven's Kitchen, the middle pagoda, then coming to the gondola station, and finally boarding a tram car which hoists you up over the canopy far below you delivering you to your final ascent and then descent into the mountain cave to be swallowed by the Pagoda of Heavenly Traces.  It mirrors the journeys of our lives -- our lowlands, ascents, descents and finally our mountain top epiphanies.

Buddha StatueOnce inside the Pagoda of Heavenly Traces our guide helps to explain the many altars, deities, formations to touch for certain blessings, where to light our incense and how many to place -- never twos or fours, one, three or five sticks only.  He reveals two altars -- the boy altar far more laden with offerings than the girl altar, not surprising, where I offer prayers of thanksgiving to heap on the girls altar.

As far as I can see -- it's the women who are the engine of growth and productivity in this Confucian nation, so I'm "leaning in" to pray for their societal value and cultural worthiness.  Hey, it wasn't the men who rowed us here!

The visit to this holy place is a venture into a grotto where time stands still.  The deep gash in the Huong Tich Mountain is said to be millions of years old: a place where chanting and offerings have been made for generations upon generations.  

In their lifetimes, most all of Vietnam's Buddhist devotees will make a visit to this beautiful place to offer their gratitude, thanksgiving and fervent prayers for those things we all desire in our lives -- good health, longevity and prosperity!

monkAs our guide explains Buddhists see life as a circle where they continuously work out their destinies through right living and acts of mercy and compassion. But good Catholic that I am -- I really connect with the story he relays where pilgrims at the Pagoda of Heaven's Kitchen, during a certain festival, can climb to the top of a pagoda and by ringing a bell earn a shortcut to nirvana.

We, Catholics, have something similar -- they were called indulgences which we could buy or earn through prayer -- to escape the fires of purgatory to go straight to heaven. The lesson here:  no matter what our religion, it's human nature to seek a shortcut.

The lesson about this pilgrimage: there are no shortcuts.  It's a long and beautiful journey to be sure. Enjoy it, be present to it and live it!  Happy New Year

Other articles written by Kathleen:

Family trip in Vietnam - 1st episode: Enter the Dragon
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 2: Cai Rang Water Opera
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 3: Hoi An ancient town
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 4: Hoi An Countryside
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 5: the LifeStart Foundation
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 6: Hoi An Cooking Class
Family trip in Vietnam - episode 7: Project Runway in Hoi An
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 8: Water Puppets - Vietnam's Original Muppets
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 9: Time to Cha Cha with the Chả Cá
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 10: A Visit to the Hung Kings Citadel and Au Co Ancestral Site
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 12: Can Gio Reserve
Family trip in Vietnam - Episode 13: Saigon Street Eats
Family trip in Vietnam - Final Episode: An Afternoon in Cholon
Tribute Episode to our Guide Stars
Club Opera Novel – A Diva of a Restaurant, Yet Without Pretense
A little gem on a search of something else: Finding Ganesh!