Hoa Lu & Something around Perfume Pagoda

It was mainly for convenience and time saving reasons that we treated ourselves to a private driver today, so that we could combine the 60+ kilometer distance from Ninh Binh to Hanoi with two sightseeing stops on the way. Hoa Lu was not that far away from the hotel. Could be done by bike, but was in the same direction. And the Perfume Pagoda is something I had left out two years ago as I was running out of time. It receives top reviews, but is a site far out of Hanoi (or any other major city, that is), so it is a day tour from anywhere anyway.

We had asked our Ninh Binh hotel to recommend us a hotel in Hanoi (as we were too lazy to search through all the options ourselves). The two choices by the manager turned out to be fully booked. Finally one of the receptionists got a bit out of her way and quickly, without the manager knowing, recommended us a hotel she had worked for earlier, before being married to a Ninh Binh husband (she didn’t look altogether happy when mentioning her marriage). So that it was. Thoughtfully, we reserved one night only.

Our driver, not the talkative or helpful kind, picked us up at our Ninh Binh hotel and drove us to Hoa Lu.

Hoa Lu

…is yet another former emporer’s site. Don’t have the details here, but it goes back many many centuries and was forgotten for quite some time thereafter. The site isn’t big. It is basically about two temples with the usual area around (main gate, pond, main and two side walks). But there was supposed to be a grave somewhere on top of a hill with splendid vistas into the limestone hill scenery.

First: The main gate to the main temple.

Second: The main altar of that main temple.

Third: The view from the top.

Getting there was the main highlight, but safety forbid taking any photos. It had rained during the night (remember the lightning we saw the night before?). And some drizzle still kept falling. Stones and steps were wet, hence extremely slippery. We found the uphill stairs fairly quickly but also realized that getting down later would be the real threat. We slowly made our way uphill anyway. Slowly soaked in the drizzly rain, it wasn’t a pleasure. But on top we did easily find that grave with some altar (of which I totally forgot to make any photos). And there was an old man sitting in the rain, cleaning something. His face brightened up when he saw the two of us. He greeted us with gouty hands and tried his few English words on us. Then he passed us three incense sticks each, lightened them and motioned us to stick them into the pot with the others. We did as he wished. Kind of unreal, given weather, location, and the fact that we were alone there. Having read in LP about free guides around that area, which shall not be forgotten to be tipped, I offered 20.000 dong to him. But he refused to take the money himself, but pointed to a donation plate as you find it on basically every altar, where there were already two other notes drenched in rain water. The good thing about Vietnamese money is: It’s basically plastic, so it withstands humidity very well. I just put the bill onto the others.

Then he pointed down a small beaten path, made a movement with his feet on the slippery stones, cautioning us on the state of the rocks, but motioned us to go there anyway. We did. But when we reached the actual rocks I asked Nina to stay behind and very very carefully stepped up the few rocks, made three pictures of the surroundings, and even more carefully climbed down again. Not the right weather for sightseeing.

Nina just reminds me to write about the hordes of killer mosquitos there. They hit her so badly that her arms and legs nearly fell off…well, ok, slightly exaggerated, but she did catch a few bites while the mosquitos spared me. (So, how can you tell, if it was exaggerated????)

Perfume Pagoda or Something of That Kind

As said, usually a popular day trip from Hanoi, organized in tour groups, Perfume Pagoda is in the middle of nowhere between Hanoi and Ninh Binh. There are many temples and pagodas with one of them standing out due to its size. All of them can only be visited by river boats rowed again by ladies.

Our driver knew the way and took some shortcuts through villages. All very romantic. But when we finally arrived there was…nobody. One lonely young man was following us, trying to draw us in his restaurant. But other than that: Nothing! No bus, no van, no people. We were lost.

The driver dropped us off at a ticket booth. Next to it was a map of the surroundings, which at least convinced us that we were at the right place in the universe. The guards at the ticket booth offered us a ticket and showed us the value “160.000” on their calculator. Wow…horribly expensive. I must admit that in such situations I too often accept the price…I would never come back, so that’s the only chance. But Nina remembered having read something in LP about scams. We looked up the Lonely Planet and indeed there was a very explicit warning that drivers like to drop off their load right here, which actually is a 15 minute walk away from the official entrance. And that the ticket booth here would charge way too much. We closed Lonely Planet, left that booth without even looking at the guys again, and made our way alone. They didn’t even bother following us.

If you now expect a happy ending with hordes of tourists and happy ladies who would row us anywhere on the river…forget it. We walked down the promenade and did find the main entrance. But there was still nobody. Not any single tourist. The few locals poking around there ignored us. Well, guys…here we are, western white tourists, the pockets full of money, and all we want is what we expected all Vietnam tourists to want: A boat ride to that famous perfume pagoda. Nobody talked to us.

Eventually, after some looking into a temple right there, we walked down to the actual boat quai, looking so obviously helplessly around that after another three minutes two ladies did approach us. Their English was next to non-existing. But they did offer the boat ride. We asked “how much?”, but they didn’t understand. I finally took out the change I kept in my trouser’s pocket to show them the idea of money. Unfortunately, there was a 100.000 dong bill wrapped around that package. That made them point to it. We found that still too much. We were on the brink of breaking off the experience here and going back to the car. But in the end…we won’t ever come back. And 100.000 dong is only half of what the first ticket booth wanted to see. And actually only 5 EUR. Unhappily we accepted and were shown into a small boat, one lady rowing us. We never saw any official ticket.

First: The next mistake happened already 50 meters down-river: There is an obvious junction, and the main path goes straight ahead to that main pagoda. But our boat turned left. And we didn’t protest.

Second: Antoher lady following some chores on or along the river. We were sitting in pretty much the same kind of boat: Stretched very long, but also very narrow. We could barely sit next to each other.

First: We finally arrived at some place with buildings. Very obviously meant to cope with hordes of tourists, but still no soul to see. There was one lady walking around a stand with drinks, but she did not even try selling anything to us. All very very strange. We poked around, found a wet slippery stairway uphill, followed it, found a temple at its end, which was nice, but in no way fantastic, which is why I picked only this photo of a kind of unusual altar: Looks like christmas, doesn’t it?

Second: Then there was jungle around us. And we slowly and carefully turned back and downhill. The good news: Our boat was still there and waiting for us. But it seems the ladies expected us to be away longer. Anyway…we were sliently rowed back to the main quai. Except…the rowing lady received a couple of calls on her mobile all the time, which interferred with the otherwise serene silence that lay over the swamp area.

When we arrived we paid the lady 100.000 dong in her hands when she tried her last English word on us: “Tip!” We couldn’t quite believe it…Nina turned away immediately…”What for? For rowing us for an extraordinary price to the wrong place?” We left and were again not followed by anyone. Returning to the car we couldn’t find any single open restaurant, not even a local one, not even the guy who followed us upon arrival. That village was brain dead. Even the parking lot our driver had used was locked now with an iron gate. Some old lady was walking behind. We rattled at the gate, pointed to our car. The lady opened the gate, called her son…and a few minutes later our driver showed up from out of the blue, got into the car and drove us to Hanoi without any further undue delay.

The suggested hotel looked nice from the outside, location was OK, room looked clean. But it was expensive (35 USD), hot water didn’t work (oh that made somebody angry…) and the breakfast on the next morning was bad. We had already decided to look for another place for the other nights in Hanoi, and that was what we did first. We found a simple but caring hotel for 25 USD and then went for first sightseeing in Hanoi. For more on Hanoi stay tuned!

Today’s Lesson: Major tourist attraction doesn’t prevent you from being left entirely alone.

Categories: Asia, Ninh Binh

Originally Created: 08/26/2009 02:19:06 PM
Last Edited: 08/26/2009