Every year around the Lunar New Year, pilgrims all over Vietnam start thinking about their religious holiday. The pilgrimage season starts in early January and runs until the end of March (according to the lunar calendar), with hundreds of festivals hosted by temples and pagodas all over the country, especially in Northern Vietnam.

It is impossible to ignore the Perfume Pagoda when one thinks of pilgrimage tourism, a complex of many caves and temples surrounded by the typical countryside of Northern Vietnam. The festival at the Perfume Pagoda, which runs throughout the pilgrimage period, is one of the biggest and longest running spiritual festivals in Vietnam.

(Photo credit: Perfume Pagoda Festival)

Another popular pilgrimage destination is the Hung Kings’ Temple in Phu Tho, which hosts the Hung Kings’ Festival, held annually in honor of the Hung Kings who founded Vietnam and became its first emperors. The main festival day – the 10th day of the 3rd lunar month – is also a national holiday. Predictably, many working Vietnamese descend on Phu Tho to pay tribute to the Kings during this day.

Although pilgrimage has been a spiritual and cultural activity in which almost every Vietnamese person participates, pilgrimage tourism is still mainly operated on an individual or familial basis. There are almost no organized tours or official tour guides.

Although pilgrimage has been a spiritual and cultural activity in which almost every Vietnamese person participates… There are almost no organized tours or official tour guides.

“Everywhere you go during these two months of pilgrimage, you will be greeted with chaos. I remember going to the Perfume Pagoda once a few years ago. It was so crowded that you couldn’t even take off your jacket on the stairs leading up to one of the temples when it got too hot. It was just too crowded,” Thuc Anh, an accountant, shares with us. “It was just madness.”

Indeed, once the Tet holiday ends and the pilgrimage season starts, when you turn on the news, there are daily horror stories of people shoving each other off the stairs at the Hung Kings’ Temple or cutting queue lines at the cable car on the way up to Yen Tu Pagoda. Amidst this chaos there are business opportunities that remain unexplored to develop the pilgrimage tourism experience in Vietnam.

Wishing

(Photo credit: Bien Nguyen)

Recognizing the need for formalized pilgrimage tours, Hung Vuong University’s Tourism Department, together with the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, founded Vin Pilgrimage, a tour provider specializing in pilgrimage tours. They have the dual advantage of their own professional tour management experience and spiritual knowledge. At every destination, the tour operator doesn’t only stop at the surface of destination’s background, but they dig deeper in order to understand more about the area’s religious and spiritual history.

However, one difficulty pilgrimage tour companies encounter is that their customers are diverse, from devout Buddhists to pilgrim newbies. Some tourists might not understand each temple or pagoda’s customs and regulations. Some require you to take off your shoes upon entering; some forbid short-sleeve shirts, skirts, and open-toe sandals; some even require tourists to wear kasaya (robes of Buddhist monks). Tour companies must be aware of all these regulations and provide customers with the correct information in advance.

Another possible problem – but also an area of opportunity – is accommodation. Most temples and pagodas in Vietnam cannot host big groups of tourists overnight as they can disturb the monks and residents. There is currently a lack of appropriate accommodation for pilgrimage travelers, such as Zen-inspired or eco-friendly lodgings nearby even the most popular temples and pagodas.

Pilgrimage is a cultural activity that offers visitors a surge of positivity, time to retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life, and to seek deeper within themselves to find inner peace. In the coming years there will be an increasing number of people willing to pay for services that ensure a less chaotic experience, and domestic tour companies should take note.

This content is also available in: Vietnamese