Hanoi

Perfume Pagoda: The Legendary Guan Yin Cave

Perfume Pagoda (Vietnamese spelling: Chùa Hương – 香寺 ) is the common name for one of the most popular Buddhist gathering grounds in Vietnam. To be precise, it’s a religious complex of 4000 hectares called Huong Son (Hương Sơn) or Perfume Mountain with structures from the 18th century.

It’s in Mỹ Đức District about 63 km by road from the center of Hanoi plus a boat trip. In 2017, the Huong Son Complex of Natural Beauty and Historical Monuments became a Special National Heritage Site and is currently on the list to become a World Heritage Site.

The History of the Perfume Pagoda

The Grand Gate to the Perfume Pagoda in 1927
The Grand Gate to the Perfume Pagoda in 1927
[ by manhhai from Flickr ]

The name Perfume Pagoda is also used for the most popular pagoda inside Huong Tich Cave in the center of Huong Son Complex. The correct name is Inner Pagoda (chùa Trong) and it’s the first structure in the complex dating back to the 18th century.

The original pagoda was destroyed in 1947 during the war against French colonialists. It was rebuilt into what it is today in 1988 by the Monk Thích Viên Thành.

Things to See in the Perfume Pagoda

Things to See in the Perfume Pagoda
Things to See in the Perfume Pagoda
[ image from Facebook ]

Visitors usually get around the complex by boat along the Yen River (sông Yến)— well-liked for its tranquil atmosphere. However, you can also walk to all the destinations in the complex if you travel independently.

The complex combines different aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism which are especially displayed at the Perfume Pagoda Festival. An English speaking guide is very helpful in explaining the stories behind the caves and pagodas.

There is one main route and two additional sub routes which all depart from Duc Wharf (bến Đục). The main Huong Tich Route connects pretty much all the highlights in the complex including the Trinh Temple, Thien Tru Pagoda, Tien Son Cave, Giai Oan Cave, Tran Song Temple, Huong Tich Cave, and Hinh Bong Pagoda.

Other interesting destinations are Thanh Son and Long Van Pagodas on the Long Van Route from Trinh Temple. Tuyet Son Route with Tuyet Son Pagoda is a separate ticket that also begins at Duc Wharf but doesn’t include the Thien Tru Pagoda and Huong Tich Cave.

View all locations mentioned in this article

Trinh Temple

Trinh Temple (Đền Trình) is the first structure at the bottom of Ngu Nhac Mountain (núi Ngũ Nhạc) only 500 m from the departing wharf. It worships the Hung Kings of Ancient Van Lang— the first legendary Vietnamese kingdom.

Thien Tru or Outer Pagoda

Thien Tru or Outer Pagoda
Thien Tru or Outer Pagoda
[ image from Facebook ]

At the end of the boat ride is Thien Tru Pagoda (chùa Thiên Trù) which is commonly called the Outer Pagoda (chùa Ngoài). Actually, during the French War, everything was basically destroyed. The reconstruction and renovation spanned from 1951 to 1994 and is recorded in the stelae house.

Besides the halls with Buddhist figures, you will also see the Vien Cong Stupa (Viên Công bảo tháp) with the preserved cremated ash of the Monk Thích Viên Thành. Nearby is the Thien Thuy Stupa (tháp Thiên Thuỷ) meaning ‘heaven’s water’. The name stems from its origin being a rock eroded by rains.

Giai Oan Pagoda

From Thien Tru to Huong Tich Cave (động Hương Tích), you can take a 400 m cable car which stops in front of the Giai Oan Pagoda (chùa Giải Oan). The pagoda’s where people come to pray for unjust accusations to be removed.

In the yard is Long Tuyen Well (giếng Long Tuyền) where supposedly the Buddha cleansed himself. Nearby, there’s also Tuyet Kinh Cave (động Tuyết Kinh) with Phat Tich Shrine (am Phật Tích) and a rock said to have the footprint of Guan Yin on it.

Huong Tich Cave and Inner Pagoda

The entrance of Huong Tich Cave
The entrance of Huong Tich Cave
[ by Richard Mortel from Flickr ]

Huong Tich Cave is only 650 m away from the cable stop plus 120 easy steps down. It houses the Inner Pagoda (chùa Trong) which is also the famous Perfume Pagoda (chùa Hương).

The cave itself was given the title, ‘The foremost cave under the southern heavens’ (Nam Thiên đệ nhất động). Lord Trịnh Sâm carved the sentence in Chinese一 南天第-峝一 into its wall in 1770 during the Later Le Dynasty.

The legend of the Perfume Pagoda is one of the main reasons why it’s such a famous pilgrimage site. This legend is very similar to that of Princess Maoshian in Chinese Taoism.

The Vietnamese legend goes that the Bodhisattva Guan Yin manifested as Princess Dieu Thien (công chúa Diệu Thiện) to help the unfortunate while staying in Huong Tich Cave. On her journey of salvation, people worshipped her as the Goddess Ba (bà chúa Ba) because ‘ba’ means three in Vietnamese and she was the third princess of the king.

Perfume Pagoda Festival

Perfume Pagoda Festival
Perfume Pagoda Festival
[ image from Facebook ]

The Perfume Pagoda Festival (hội chùa Hương) is a pilgrimage which lasts from the 6th of January to the 20th of March in the Lunar Calendar. Highlights are from the Full Moon of January to the 18th of February. Various celebrations honoring different religious figures, including local deities, are held across the Huong Son Complex.

Throughout the festival, there are traditional performances including kayak racing, mountain climbing competition, and live music. The activities also make it an occasion for romance amongst pilgrims.

How to Get to the Perfume Pagoda

The steps down Huong Tich Cave during the festival
The steps down Huong Tich Cave during the festival
[ image from Facebook ]

You can choose to go by tour, rent a motorbike, or book a Grab Car from Hanoi, but you’ll have to pay a small fee if you want to drive your car inside. The most convenient way is to take the local bus numbered 103 from My Dinh Station to Huong Son Station.

It’s about 65 km plus another kilometer walk to reach the entrance to the Perfume Pagoda. The bus from Hanoi departs every 20 to 30 minutes.

Check out our article ‘25 Best Things To Do in Hanoi’ for more information on transportation to Perfume Pagoda.

Traveling Tips for the Perfume Pagoda

The wharf during the festival
The wharf during the festival
[ by thanhvh from Pixabay ]

It usually takes a day to visit all the places in the Huong Son Complex so leave your luggage at the hotel. There are restaurants and hotels inside the complex if you want to spend more than a day. If you go during the festive time, it’ll be extra crowded so be careful of your belongings.

What to bring: Sportswear and shoes make it easier to walk around. Also, it’s good to bring adequate water and snacks. When going to religious sites, it’s recommended to wear clothes covering knees and shoulders.

Shopping: If you want purchase offerings to place on the altars, there are small shops selling prepared trays of fruits and incense. Also, don’t be afraid to bargain while buying souvenirs around the Perfume Pagoda.

Photoshoot: Unless you’re here for some professional photoshoot, just say no to any deals on extra boats and flowers. Even when you are, you can still bargain them down to half price.

Best Time to Visit

The way up the Bell Tower
The way up the Bell Tower
[ image by Roger Shitaki ]

1. The Perfume Pagoda is a beautiful religious site all year round. Nonetheless, rain may ruin your trip and Meteo is a good tool to check the weather here.

2. The festival is from the beginning of January to the end of March in the Lunar Calendar. In addition, the end of March is also the blooming season of red cotton trees (hoa gạo).

3. From September to December, the pagoda has less people which makes it easier for sightseeing. In November and December, from 7:30 AM to 9:30 AM is when you can take photos with blooming water lilies (hoa súng).

Ticket Prices

Thien Tru Stelae House
Thien Tru Stelae House
[ image by Roger Shitaki ]

If you decide to take a boat, it’s best to get the ticket combo which includes the entrance ticket and the two-way boat ride for one person on the main Huong Tich Route. Remember to keep your tickets until you leave the complex.

Conditions for free pagoda entrance tickets:

  • Children below 10 years old and 1.1 meters.
  • Perfume Pagoda Legacy Day on November 23th.
  • The 30th of December, 1st and 2nd of January in the Lunar Calendar.
  • The Vesak Day on the 15th of April in the Lunar Calendar.

1. Entrance ticket plus the two-way boat ride on the Huong Tich Route: 130 000 VND per person.

2. Separate ticket for Tuyen Son and Long Van Routes: 35 000 VND per person.

3. Cable car ticket: 

  • Adults two-way: 180 000 VND per person.
  • Adults one-way: 120 000 VND per person.
  • Children two-way: 120 000 VND per person.
  • Children one-way: 90 000 VND per person.

4. To drive your car inside: 40 000 VND per car.

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