Our misadventures in the Perfume Pagoda

The Den Trinh Pagoda, one of the many religious sites inside the Perfume Pagoda complex.
The Den Trinh Pagoda, one of the many religious sites inside the Perfume Pagoda complex.

One thing I’ve learned in travelling is that every trip has its own share of misadventures. If you ask me, it’s the misadventures – the mishaps, the things you didn’t expect to happen, the sudden changes in your itinerary – that make travel so exciting.

Our recent family trip to Vietnam have had its share of misadventures. When we arrived in Hanoi, we booked tours to the Perfume Pagoda and Ha Long Bay. We scheduled it on our 3rd and 4th days, respectively, so that we had time to go around the different tourist spots in Hanoi.

After enjoying 2 days walking around the beautiful capital of Vietnam, we were all set for our adventure to one of the most iconic Buddhist temples in Vietnam. But then, our plans went crazy.

Here are the 4 mishaps that happened on our trip to the Perfume Pagoda complex:

1) Unprofessional travel agency

We booked our day tour to the pagoda through the Sinh Tourist, given that I’ve had good experiences with this travel agency in may past trips to Saigon. Our tour guide was supposed to pick us up from our hotel 8:00am. We ate our breakfasts early and were already in the lobby at 7:30am.

Our tour guide arrived at 9am. To our surprise, he said there was a change of schedule and that we would have our overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay that day instead of going to the Perfume Pagoda (Ha Long bay was scheduled the next day). I said it wasn’t possible since our hotel is scheduled until the next day and we didn’t prepare our things for the overnight trip.

A typical scene inside the Perfume Pagoda Temple complex.
A typical scene inside the Perfume Pagoda Temple complex.

The tour guide called the travel agency. They reasoned out that they moved our trip schedule since it was a Sunday and the Perfume Pagoda would be very crowded. We insisted on our schedule yet the tour operator insisted that we pack our bags and talk to our hotel about the reservation.

At the end, the tour guide left us at the hotel lobby and we got a refund from the travel agency. I’ve tried many tour agencies across Asia and never had I experienced anything like this. The tour agency was really unprofessional – moving our planned itinerary without our permission and thinking that we’d just blindly follow.

If they had given us a head’s up even the night before, it would’ve been workable. But telling tourists that you’re changing their schedule on the day itself is impossible.

2) Major delay

My family and I were shocked of what happened. We didn’t have any other plans that day and we’ve already been to all the tourist spots in Hanoi. It’s a good thing the hotel staff of Hanoi Legacy Hotel were really accommodating. They gave us an alternative we can do to still be able to go to the Perfume Pagoda.

We ended up renting a car and driver for the day. It was relatively cheap but the hotel staff said we’d have to pay for our food, boat ride, and tickets going to the temple complex. Since we all just wanted to relax after that stressful morning, we took the offer not knowing we’d have more misfortunes that day.

The On Yen river wharf. People visiting the Perfume Pagoda complex need to rent a boat here.
The On Yen river wharf. People visiting the Perfume Pagoda complex need to rent a boat here.

At 10:30am, two and a half hours after our original departure time, we were finally on our way to the Perfume Pagoda. The ride was supposed to take less than 2 hours according to the hotel staff. But because it was raining and there were traffic bottlenecks leaving Hanoi, we ended up spending 3 hours on the road.

We arrived in the On Yen river wharf at 1:3pm – hungry, and with very little time to go around the temples.

3) Scammed by locals

After having a hearty Vietnamese lunch in one of the restaurants near the banks of the river, two Vietnamese ladies approached us. They spoke English so it was a breathe of fresh air for us after having to order our food through sign language.

They offered to tour us to the pagoda. For VND 3.5 million, they said, they’ll take us to 2 temples and transport us using a motorboat. We were with my grandmother and, based on my research, I knew we had to walk up the mountain to reach the most important pagoda. We asked how much we’d have to pay if we’ll ride the cable car up the Perfume Pagoda. They said VND 4 million.

At that point, we just wanted to see the pagoda so we blindly agreed.

The long climb to the Perfume Pagoda temples.
The long climb to the Perfume Pagoda temples.

The two women were actually nice during the first part of the tour. They escorted us to our motorboat and even helped my grandmother climb up the stairs of the mountain. But then, we arrived at our first destination – the Den Trinh Pagoda.

They showed us to their shop outside the temple. It was customary for Buddhists to give offerings to pagodas, especially because it was Tet. Personally, I make it a point to give small monetary offerings whenever I go to different temples or churches. The tour guides sold us a VND450,000-offering to give to the shrine. We didn’t mind because it was a unique experience and we probably will never visit that place again.

One of the shrines inside the Den Trinh pagoda.
One of the shrines inside the Den Trinh pagoda.

We made our offering to “daddy Buddha” and checked out the other shrines. Lo and behold, our tour guides were carrying another “offering” (for the same price) for “mommy Buddha.” My mom was caught off guard so she just handed out the money and got the offering.

I was already getting pissed and I knew something was going wrong.

After riding the cable cars to the Perfume Temple, I realized that one of the guides was carrying a bag with another “offering.” Thankfully, we didn’t go inside the temple. On the way down, they were persuading us to see the other temples. We knew that they just wanted to sell us their products so we declined.

We took the motorboat back to the wharf. When it was time to pay them – to our annoyance – they were asking for VND 500,000 tips each on top of the VND 4 million. I knew our entrance and cable car tickets didn’t cost as much so they already got a lot of money from us. My grandmother already walked out on them but my mom was stuck since she was buying food from one of the stalls. At the end, they got another VND 300,000 each.

Tourists have the option to take a cable car to Perfume Temple if they want to skip the long hike up.
Tourists have the option to take a cable car to Perfume Temple if they want to skip the long hike up.

I have never been so annoyed with Vietnamese. I’ve been tricked by locals in other countries before – it’s part of the experience – but I’ve never encountered anyone as shameless as these ladies. What gets me angrier is that they used their religion to get more money from us. We were in sacred Buddhist ground yet they still scammed us.

At the end, we paid USD400 for the entire trip – a big increase from the original USD125 we paid the tour agency. I’ve always trusted in the goodness of people but because of this experience, I’ll have to think twice next time.

4) Wrong timing

Tet is the Vietnamese Chinese New Year. During this time, most locals in metropolitan areas go back to their home provinces while some go to religious sites, making offers in temples and shrines with their families.

The Perfume Pagoda, as I said, is a very important Buddhist site. Hence, there were very many pilgrims and families when we visited.

There were shops everywhere and it was difficult to climb up the stairs to the temples because of the number of people. And when there are people, there is thrash.

This was the crowd trying to get inside the Perfume Temple when we visited.
This was the crowd trying to get inside the Perfume Temple when we visited.

In the Perfume Temple (Chua Trong), the most important inside the complex, there were so many people going in that we decided to back out at the last minute. At first, my grandmother and my sister with her daughter saw that it was difficult to enter so they decided to just wait in a nearby shop. I tried going in with my mother and cousin but we, too, had a difficult time making our way through the crowd. At the end, all of us just went back to the cable cars.

Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any pickpockets and thieves (only our tour guides). But the entire trip was very physically tiring because of the large crowd. We now realized why our tour agents wanted us to change the trip date. Had they communicated it better and earlier, we would’ve agreed.

Why you should still visit Perfume Pagoda

“After your mishaps going to the Perfume Pagoda, you still want us to visit it?”

Well, yes.

You wouldn't want to miss such beautiful infrastructures, right?
You wouldn’t want to miss such beautiful infrastructures, right?

I’d like to think all these misfortunes were just a confluence of many bad factors. I don’t think it would’ve been that bad if we didn’t go there during Tet. If not for their unprofessionalism, we could’ve gone with our tour agency and our life would’ve been much easier. If we had said no to the lady scammers earlier, they couldn’t have taken USD 400 from us.

Boats make their way through the On Yen river.
Boats make their way through the On Yen river.

To be honest, I really enjoyed the boat trip along On Yen river because of the picturesque surroundings we passed by. The steps going up the mountain would’ve been lovely if there were less people. The temples were amazing – not the glittery, well-polished ones you’ll see in Bangkok or Hong Kong but their historical value makes them equally awesome.

When visiting the Perfume Pagoda complex, make sure to leave Hanoi early so you’ll have time to also visit the Huong Tich Cave and other temples. Unless you want to risk getting scammed, book a tour from Hanoi. That way, you’ll have your own driver and tour guide plus all your meals and entrance fees will be covered.

The next time we have a family trip abroad, we’ll be a lot wiser – thanks to our misadventures going to the Perfume Pagoda.

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