The frenetic hustle and bustle of Hanoi melted away as the 2-hour mini tour bus ride ushered us out into a genteel rural setting. Upon arrival at the river bank, 6 of us loaded into a small boat for a 45-minute ride up the lazy river. The little tourist boats were powered exclusively by women rowers.
The dramatic scenery was a contrast of verdant geographical features. There was a congruous transition from river to tranquil lotus ponds and rice paddies that were abruptly halted by impressive steep limestone cliffs and hills.
It was extremely hot and humid out but we had relief under the shade of our umbrella.
In the shadows at river's edge, we saw unusual small tombs. Our guide explained that Buddhists are placed in water tombs upon death and then about 3 years later, the bones are removed and cleaned then placed in aboveground tombs. Buddhists are never buried in the ground. The customs, beliefs, and practices related to afterlife of the world's motley cultures are as contrasting as the earth's geography.
Up the river, we disembarked then hiked up broad paths and a multitude of steps to the Heaven Kitchen Pagoda and the adjacent lunch stop.
1 of several
Once re-energized by lunch and refreshing frosty cold drinks under the welcomed fan breeze, we continued our climb up towards the cable car station platform. Along the way, we passed vendors of everything imaginable, even animals in tiny cages. (As a practice, sympathetic buyers could release the critters for merits relating to nature and freedom. But the sad futility of the practice was that many of the creatures were recaptured and resold.)
Next, we had the choice to continue walking all the way up to the Perfume Pagoda or take the easy way via cable car. We didn't hesitate yielding to good advice and opted for the latter.
The easy way
Once at the top, we descended the 120 stone steps into the Cave of Fragrant Traces. Named so because of all the burning incense?? Probably not, but there was a lot of it placed on the shrines!
Down we go
In the Cave, we encountered slippery, uneven steps. There were places for those who wished to worship the many idols and touching the stalagmites was believed to promote fertility. Also present was a bell over a metre tall moulded in 1655.
During an annual festival, this place is crowded with thousands of pilgrims as it is considered a spiritual and holy place. Shrines were surrounded with candles and incense as well as fruit, flowers, cookies, and yup, even Oreos. Thankfully we were here in the off season because we're not a big fan of crowds.
On our return down river, we were trailed by another rowboat with 2 jovial women constantly trying to sell us cold drinks, snacks, or souvenirs. Many Vietnamese wear long pants and long sleeves even in hot weather. Apparently they desire the white porcelain look of Chinese, not the tanned look that Westerners seek.
Happy river vendors
Back at the hotel in Hanoi, we were served a special culinary treatment by the staff who gave us a hands-on course making spring rolls that we then savoured as part of a delicious multi-course meal.
In the morning, after saying goodbye to the Rising Dragon Estate Hotel staff (aka Serenity Hotel) and gracious Anh who treated us royally during our stays in Hanoi, we flew back to Malaysia and Sea Turtle.
Till we meet again!