Sometimes, us travellers shouldn’t visit: Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam

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*

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-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @www.theartofslowtravel.com

 

 

17 thoughts on “Sometimes, us travellers shouldn’t visit: Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam”

  1. Hahahaha, even though I read that the perfume pagoda is in a cave, I was still reading and waiting for a description of the lovely scents I knew you’d find!

    I’m not that squeamish — seen a few cows, pigs, and lately a goat being killed — but seeing the hanging meat would probably make me so.

  2. The things that Asians manage to do with food don’t bother me anymore. Although, there was a time; shows you how long I have been in this part of the world. My time in Vietnam was too brief to take this tour. I did go to Halong Bay, and loved it.

  3. Sometimes it is hard to determine what to visit – especially since sometimes the not so typical destinations can be amazing. This doesn’t seem to be one if then. And yes, the carcasses are kind if gross :) I’ve seen similar ones before…

  4. I skipped this and glad I did. Your writing about the crowds has reminded me of a post Ive been meaning to write about Tam Coq which is just as ridiculously hyped and crowded.

    Why are the dogs yellow?

    1. Hi Bob,

      I am not sure about that, but I’m just guessing that the skin is quickly smoked or burnt to add that colour and remove the fur (though everything else is still raw).

      1. Thanks, was just curious, not squeamish (for the record :) ). Saw some cooked and boiled dogs in a market in Nanning, China, and they weren’t this shade.

  5. So you’re saying it’s not a tourist destination because there are dogs hanging. The scenic views, literally boat-loads of tourists, and the rest of the experience don’t count for anything because you saw some dead dogs.

    1. Charlie,

      I don’t mind the dead dogs. There are no scenic views, as I explained in the post, and no boat-loads of tourists. The boats are filled with locals for whom this place has a very special meaning. It belongs to them, and it should always be this way.

  6. Well true story, I must say, so sad though. If I have to opt for visiting some historical or spiritual sites, I won’t also head to something touristy like this one, or at least, I will avoid going during the peak season. In other time of the year, it may be less crowded and poluted, and still worth sightseeing. About the problem of eating and killing animals, you will be soon accustomed with these as it’s just a matter of cutural shock, I guess. Should or should not go, it also depends on many other things. :-)

    1. Hi Roland,

      Unfortunately if we decided not to visit places according to the cruelty its people did to animals and humans, we’d have very few countries left to choose from.
      Vietnam, while not perfect like all other countries, is an amazing place.

  7. Hi. Just visited Chua Huong three days ago. The amount of trash lining the paths and steps up the mountain was depressing, as were the stalls after stalls selling toy guns, hats, and ice cream. Mostly depressind due to the obscured views but also the unneeded over supply and evident result that the poor locals manning these stalls don’t have much business, what with being one of 100 that sell the exact same trinkets and sundries. I did quite enjoy the river trip and the views were lovely. The cave temple at the top was also stunning. The views from the cable car were breathtaking and i recommend it as a way to see the lush mountains without the trash and trinket stalls. The assorted temples at the base offer some interest but are nothing stunning as buddhist sites go. The walk down the mountain was treacherously steep, slick, and made quite unpleasant by factors mentioned prior. The towns surrounding offer little of interest, culture, or comfort.

  8. This was very very useful. I was confused about the day trip to Perfume Pagoda, but now I am not making this trip. Thank you.

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