Pilgrims and tourists flock to Huong (Perfume) Pagoda every year to attend the nation’s most elaborate festival to welcome the Lunar New Year.
Pilgrims flock to Huong Pagoda. This year the traffic on the Yen Stream leading to the main complex of pagodas will be kept in order, according to authorities.
The opening ceremony starts on the sixth day of the first lunar month (which falls tomorrow this year) with religious rites performed by monks of the pagoda and traditional songs and dances before and after the ceremony, according to the Venerable Thich Minh Hien.
The Huong Pagoda Festival then lasts over the next three months and features many performances. A special music show will be held on March 15 to remember the Bodhisattva Kwan Yin who, according to legend, reached enlightenment at Huong Pagoda.
Songs about Huong Mountain and Huong Pagoda by Pham Duy, Tran Van Khe and To Vu will be performed by My Linh, Minh Anh, Phuong Anh and saxophonist Tran Manh Tuan. A dance entitled Thien Thu Quan The Am (Goddess of Mercy) will reenact the life of the goddess.
Sightseeing trips to pagodas, temples and caves are among the other attractions of the festival, as well as ceremonies to ask favours from Buddha. After the opening ceremony, tourists and pilgrims can go on three main tours to visit the Huong Tich Cave Pagoda, Long Van Pagoda and Tuyet Son Pagoda.
Last year, the three-month festival welcomed over 1.1 million visitors. This year is expected to welcome 1.5 million travellers. The large number of visitors may cause chaos, so the festival organisers pay special attention to maintaining order and ensuring safety for visitors, said My Duc District’s People’s Committee vice chairman Nguyen Van Hau, director of the festival organising board.
The pagoda was previously situated in Ha Tay Province, but this year, with the expanded city limits, it is now under Ha Noi’s management, 60km from the city centre. In spite of this change, the cultural and spiritual tradition of the festival will be upheld, says Hau.
“Over 600 officers from Ha Noi’s Public Security force and Department and Transport and Public Works will work together to help the festival run safely and orderly,” he says.
Two agents will work regularly in Yen Stream to control traffic. There are 3,700 boats registered and approved by authorities to carry visitors to the pagoda from the Duc Khe Wharf.
The organising board trained locals to upgrade their awareness in protecting the site. More than 4,200 locals passed the course and received certificates.
Surviving the climb
During the three-month festival, the sheer numbers of pilgrims and tourists, including many foreign travellers, making their way up the Huong Son Mountain range make it almost impossible to recapture the serenity that has inspired generations of poets, including one of the Trinh warlords, to extol the area’s celestial beauty.
However, the crowds are not enough to drive away Quan Am (also known in Chinese as Kwan Yin or in Sanskrit as Avalokiteshivra), the Bodhisattva of Compassion who is believed to bless pilgrims with happiness, children and wealth in the new year. According to legend, Huong Son is home to many traces left by Quan Am during her lifetime.
The importance of the sacred site is enhanced by its unique combination of nature and culture, where rugged limestone mountains, caves and rivers meet centuries-old architecture.
A less-popular trekking option takes pilgrims through apricot groves and allows them to meet villagers picking medicinal herbs or gathering kindling at the foot of the mountain range. They also pass by the grave of early-20th century poet Tan Da.
The favoured boat trip along the scenic Yen Stream allows the pilgrims to hear first-hand accounts of the land and people of the area from those who know the best: the rowers from Yen Vi Village. They advise their passengers about whether they should ascend straight to the Huong Tich Cave, spend time at the nearby pagodas or continue along the stream to less-visited pagodas.
The rowers recount over and over how the Goddess of Compassion chose the mountain, and how the emperors themselves had picked the spots for the pagodas and temples. They slow down to point out the distant mountains shaped like a pile of rice, a turtle, a unicorn, a phoenix or bells.
When visitors arrive at Thien Tru Pagoda, the path gets steeper and narrower.
The 12km climb to the Huong Tich Cave can take several hours, as the small winding path becomes a chain of ascending pilgrims, hemmed in on both sides by makeshift stalls selling food, drink and religious memorabilia.
The sound of old women chanting the mantra of nam mo a di da phat – or in the name of the Amitabha Buddha – can sometimes be heard over the bitter complains of young couples carrying their children on their backs.
This experience is often enough to make many people swear they will never make another pilgrimage to Huong Pagoda, but the next year they find themselves making the trek all over again.
The reward comes when the pilgrims finally reach the mountain that is home to the Huong Tich Cave. The cave is likened to the open mouth of a dragon, and the stalactites and stalagmites inside lead many to believe they are in a miniature pavilion.
Above the entrance to the cave, 18th century poet and warlord Trinh Sam inscribed Nam thien de nhat dong (the most beautiful cave under the southern sky).
The large stalagmite in the middle of the cave is kept continuously wet by a trickle of water from the ceiling, and has long been thought to bring fertility to childless couples. Women rub their hands on the stalagmite in the hope of conceiving a child in the new year.