Holy shrines, unholy sights

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Hundreds of thousands of people visiting one of the holiest shrines in the country are trashing the site

Restaurant owners on the way to the pagoda try to attract pilgrims with gory displays of slaughtered "wild" animals

Vu Nguyen Thin, a pilgrim from the northern province of Bac Ninh to the famous Huong (Perfume) Pagoda was distinctly annoyed.

He could not understand why other pilgrims were throwing money like trash on the ground, especially at cable stations and into the Yen River as they proceeded toward the main temple on Huong Tich Mountain.

"I cannot believe there are such ignorant people who donate or offer their money in such fashion," said Thin, sitting in a cable car to get to the religious site on January 28, the first day of the Perfume Pagoda Festival that will run until the third lunar month this year.

He doubts if God will be appeased or benefited in anyway by the practice, Thin said.

Thin is one of more than 50,000 pilgrims from across the country who visit the pagoda, a vast complex of temples and shrines built into the Huong Tich mountains in the 17th century, on the opening days of the festival.

On the fourth and fifth days (January 26-27) of the new Lunar year, the site was visited by tens of thousands of people, according to Nguyen Chi Thanh, head of Huong Son Relic Site Management Board.

To prevent money being thrown indiscriminately as has been happening in recent years, in January, the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism released the legal text which guides the local authorities to step up guiding people to donate money in the appropriate places in pagodas and temples in 2012, especially the festive season in the first four months of the year.

People's unmethodical giving of loose cash in pagodas is said to create bad impact on the solemn religious places and the value of Vietnamese monetary unit.


Thousands of pilgrims attend the Huong Pagoda Festival in the first weeks and months of the Lunar New Year. However, they also indulge in several practices that spoil the sanctity of the place and the event.

Nguyen Van Hau, vice chairman of My Duc District's People's Committee, said that this year, both boat fares and admission tickets to the Huong Pagoda have increased to VND35,000 and VND49,000 respectively for adults and VND24,000 for children.

Last year, the corresponding prices were VND25,000, VND29,500 and VND14,500.

Following the rule, this year, Huong Pagoda's management board has placed big donation trays, boxes and caskets everywhere.

However, just as it happened at the Temple of Literature in downtown of Hanoi on January 26, people prefer placing money not only on the ground and under trees, but also on the palms and feet of Buddha statues and even in the mouths of the two statues of lion, despite being reminded by pagoda staff to refrain.

"This is not piety, but waste and ignorance. Why don't they put money into donation boxes to be used by the pagoda later," asked Thin.

Thanh said that to prevent environmental pollution caused by indiscriminate littering in previous years, the district administration bought a litter incinerator at the cost of more than VND10 billion (US$480,000) from Japan to process the trash.

In addition, to prevent visitors throwing trash into the Yen River while traveling on boats, the management board has asked boatmen to place a trash can in their boats and remind the tourists not to throw anything into the river.

The district's People Committee has also announced fines for indiscriminate littering.

Accordingly, both tourists and boatmen who break the regulation for the first time will be fined VND100,000 and succeeding offences will attract fines of VND300,000.

During the festival, over 5,000 boatmen will row 4,500 boats up and down the river and 82 policemen will provide security.

"If the boatmen forget to remind their client, they will be responsible," Thanh said, adding, "we will send our men often to check and patrol to ensure the rules are followed strictly."

Thanks to the new regulation, Yen River and its surrounding areas as well as the temples are cleaner this year.

Overloaded cable system

Do Thi Bich Thuy from downtown Hanoi, 60km away from the Perfume Pagoda, as well as members of her family, looked exhausted after waiting for hours to get into a cable car at the Thien Tru Station to get to the Huong Tich Cave.

"After spending two hours in the queue we finally arrived at the cave," said Thuy, but the minute she stepped out of the car, she was shocked to find thousands of people hustling each other to get into the cave.


Another ugly sight on the way to the Huong Pagoda is the bleeding bodies of different kinds of animals that have been slaughtered and hung in front of local restaurants along the way from the Thien Tru Station.

To draw people's attention, the restaurant's owners even display the killed animals with fur on them, ignoring the holy atmosphere.

Nguyen Chi Thanh said, "Such scenes are indeed very offensive. We have checked and reminded the owners to take (the carcasses) down, though the animals are not hunted, but raised at home."

Thanh also advised visitors to think twice before purchasing the meat, saying it was not wildlife meat as touted.

"It took us hours to walk a few meters from the cable station to the cave, and we are not only tired at the thought of spending more time to get into the cave, but also scared of being trampled by the crowd," Thuy said.

 "I just wonder that with such congestion, why the police watches things from afar instead of being at the cable station to bring about some order."

Thuy also complained about the cable management board, saying, "Since the cable system is overloaded, the board should stop selling tickets, for it is understandable that it is overcrowded when thousands of people come at the same time into a small cave."

According to Bui Duc Tuan, deputy general manager of the Huong Son Transportation and Tourism Company, 45 cable cars and 100 staff members are able to transport around 1,300 people every hour. "However, on such festival days, the system can only serve 20-25 percent of the demand though we run it from 4 a.m. every day."

"During the Tet holiday, the company stopped selling tickets several times due to the rapid increase in the number of pilgrims and visitors," said Tuan, who suggested pilgrims from nearby provinces, including Ha Nam, Thai Binh and Vinh Phuc, make their journey to the site in the afternoon.

"In order to arrive in the afternoon, it is better to depart around 10 a.m., then the overloading can be reduced," he said.

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