Editor’s note: This post contains a disturbing image of animal carcasses (including dogs) hung onto hooks, and of a porcupine in a cage, waiting to be killed and eaten. The photo is at the end of the post, with plenty of warning if you’d rather not see it.
I am not quite sure who started it first, whether it was the locals or Lonely Planet. Whatever the case is, it is now very easy to go to a travel agency in Hanoi or to approach the receptionist at your hotel and get yourself booked onto a day trip to the Perfume pagoda. Touted as a leisurely boat ride amongst some admittedly stunning karst formations, your journey continues with a hike up a mountain to reach the Perfume pagoda, which is situated in a cave.
The thing is, I don’t think travellers should be there at all. So you’re asking yourself, why did I go? Because, like many other people, I had no idea.
If you research the Perfume pagoda as a tourist destination on websites like trip advisor, you’ll generally come across a longish list of grumpy travellers who complain that this is not really a tourist attraction, and I completely agree, hence why I find it ridiculous that it keeps being marketed as such. End of February plus March and April roughly coincides with a religious festival which draws people from all over Vietnam to visit the pagoda and leave offerings. During this time, hundreds of thousands of locals visit the pagoda, and it’s practically madness to try and go yourself (yep, I was mad). The thing is that while Lonely Planet (I know, I know I should have researched more), tells you that the festival starts late February/beginning of March, the truth is that large crowds start coming as of January. While hiking up the mountain was not a problem, Boyfriend and I got stuck in a bottle-neck area right before the entrance to the pagoda for around 45 minutes. The crowd was impatient, and people didn’t really seem to understand that in such a situation, it is not pleasant for the person in front of you to have your arm horizontally pressing against the small of his/her back. Boyfriend, who is blond and six feet tall, was also not pleased by the fact that he was groped by several women while we were stuck in said crowd.
During the rest of the year, the place can be a bit more quiet, which is also why the cable car to the top is not always in operation. If you’re mildly fit, as I am, it is possible to hike up to the pagoda, though if the ground is wet it can be a very slippery walk back down. Having said that, the only reason to hike up is to see the pagoda at the top, as there are no views to be seen on your way up because they are all blocked by shops and their tents.
While the pretty brochures you’ll be handed by your agent stress the beauty of the boat ride (and I agree), they do not show you the lines and lines of eateries just before you start hiking up the mountain which are filled with carcasses hanging off hooks dripping blood (let me stress that I wasn’t disturbed by this, as I understand that we in the west have a very detached relationship with our meat sources), something I don’t see as being very appealing to the average foreign tourist.
In this part of Vietnam, animals like deer, dogs, porcupines and wild pigs are commonly consumed. The animals are killed and their fur is removed, then their carcasses are hung from hooks for costumers to see. While I am not that squeamish, I must admit that the smell of this meat (and I am a carnivore) wasn’t appetising at all. Added to this, porcupines in cages, bleeding from the spikes which had already been pulled off their backs, are a common site.
To conclude, I am not saying that foreigners should not visit. I am saying that travellers only looking for some pretty views and beautiful pagodas, and with limited tolerance to other cultures’ eating habits shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that this is a regular tourist attraction. One should, in fact, only visit if he or she is completely open to this cultural experience, and if he or she understands that it’s nothing which will blow your socks off.
If you want to experience drifting on the water surrounded by karst formations jutting out into the sky, either head to Halong bay or, for the land version of it, to Tam Coc.
I believe, after all, that sometimes some places are much more significant to the locals than they will ever be to us travellers, and should be left alone by the marketing vultures.
Have you ever visited a place marketed as a tourist attraction, but which you believe should be left to the locals because it only appeals to few travellers?
*Disturbing image alert*
-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @www.theartofslowtravel.com