The fertile alluvial soils of the Red River Delta nurture a rich rice crop, and many of the communities surrounding Hanoi are still engaged in agriculture. The contrast between modern Hanoi and the rural villages is stark. Many tour operators in Hanoi offer cycling tours to villages near Hanoi – a great way to discover a different world. Lotussia specialises in cycling tours from Hanoi, some taking in the Thay and Tay Phuong pagodas and nearby handicraft villages. These tours also avoid having to strggle through Hanoi’s ferocious traffic, as a minibus takes the strain through the suburbs.
Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum
The Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum is dedicated to the famous supply route from the Communist north to the occupied south of Vietnam. The displays, including an abundance of American ammunition and weaponry as well as some powerful photography, document all too clearly the extreme effort and organisation needed to keep the show on the road, and the death and destruction involved. Quite simply, defeat was not an option for the VC, whatever the odds. There’s a model of the trail, which shows the nightmarish terrain through which it passed. It’s located about 13km southwest of Hanoi and can be combined with Van Phuc handicraft village or the Perfume Pagoda.
North Vietnam’s very own Marble Mountains, the Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong; admission incl return boat trip 90,000d) is a striking complex of pagodas and Buddhist shrines built into the karst cliffs of Huong Tich Mountain (Mountain of the Fragrant Traces). Among the better-known sites here are Thien Chu (Pagoda Leading to Heaven); Giai Oan Chu (Purgatorial Pagoda), where the faithful believe deities purify souls, cure sufferings and grant offspring to childless families; and Huong Tich Chu (Pagoda of the Perfumed Vestige). It’s very popular with Vietnamese domestic tourists.
Great numbers of Buddhist pilgrims come here during a festival that begins in the middle of the second lunar month and lasts until the last week of the third lunar month (usually corresponding to March and April). It’s very busy during this period, especially on the even dates of the lunar month; you’ll have a much easier time if you establish the lunar date and plan to visit on an odd date. Weekends tend to draw crowds year-round, with pilgrims and other visitors spending their time boating, hiking and exploring the caves. Litter and hawkers are part and parcel of the visit, and some hawkers are persistent enough to hassle visitors all the way to the top.
The Perfume Pagoda is about 60km southwest of Hanoi by road. Getting there requires a journey first by road, then by river, then on foot or by cable car.
Travel from Hanoi by car for two hours to My Duc, then take a small boat, usually rowed by women, for one hour to the foot of the mountain. This entertaining boat trip travels along scenic waterways between limestone cliffs. Allow a couple more hours to climb to the top and return. The path to the summit is teep in places and if it’s raining the ground can get very slippery. There’s alslo a cable car to th summit (one-way/return 80,000/120,000d) ,and a smart combination is to catch the cable car up and then walk down.
Most tour opeartors and some traveller cafes in Hanoi offer inexpensive tours to the pagoda for around US$20 (inclusive of transport, guide and lunch). Small-group tours cost around US$30. This is one of those places where it is easier to take a tour, as it’s a pain by public transport.
Numerous villages surrounding Hanoi specialise in cottage industries. Visiting these settlements can make a rewarding day trip, though having a good guide helps make the journey really worthwhile. Most Hanoi tour operators offer departures to these villages.
Bat Trang is known as the ‘ceramic village’. Here, artisnas mass-produce ceramic vases and other pieces in their kilns. It’s hot, sweaty work, but the results are superb and very reasonably priced compared with the boutiques in town. There are masses of ceramic shops, but poke around down the lanes and behind the shops to find the kilns. Bat Trang is 13km southeast of Hanoi. Public bus 47 runs here from Long Bien bus station.
Van Phuc specialises in silk. Silk cloth is produced here on looms and lots of visitors like to buy or order tailor-made clothes. Many of the fine silk items you see on sale in Hanoi’s P Hang Gai are made in Van Phuc. There’s also a pretty village pagoda with a lily pond. Van Phuc is 8km southwest of Hanoi; take city bus 1 from Long Bien bus station.
Dong Ky was known as the ‘firecracker village’ until 1995, when the Vietnamese government banned firecrackers. With that industry now extinguished, the village survives by producing beautiful traditional furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Dong Ky is 15km northeast of Hanoi. Buses 10 and 54 travel from Long Bien bus station passing around 2km from Dong Ky, from where you’ll need to either walk or catch a motorbike taxi to the village.
Thay & Tay Phuong Pagodas
Stunning limestone outcrops loom up from the emerald-green paddy fields, and clinging to the cliffs are these two pagodas, about 20 minutes apart from each other by road.
The pagodas are about 30km west of Hanoi in Ha Tay province. Hanoi travel agents and tour operators offer day trips that take in both pagodas, from US$45 per person. Alternatively, hire a car and driver for about US$80 and plot a rewarding day trip that combines the pagodas and Ba Vi National Park.
(Master’s Pagoda; admission 5000d) Also known as Thien Phuc (Heavenly Blessing), Thay Pagoda is dedicated to Thich Ca Buddha (Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha). To the left of the main altar is a statue of the 12th century monk Tu Dao Hanh, the master in whose honour the pagoda is named. To the right is a statue of King Ly Nhan Tong, who is believed to have been a reincarnation of Tu Dao Hanh.
In front of the pagoda is a small stage built on stilts in the middle of a pond where water-puppet shows are staged during festivals. Follow the path around the outside of the main pagoda building and take a steep 10-minute climb up to a beautiful smaller pagoda perched high on the rock. Thay Pagoda is a big and confusing comfusing complex for non-Buddhists – consider hiring a guide.
The pagoda’s annual festival is held from the fifth to the seventh days of the third lunar month (approximately March). Visitors enjoy watching water-puppet shows, hiking and exploring caves in the area.
Tay Phuong Pagoda
(Pagoda of the West; admission 5000d) Tay Phuong Pagoda, also known as Sung Phuc Pagoda, consists of three single-level structures built in descending order on a hillock that is said to resemble a buffalo. Figures representing ‘the conditions of man’ are the pagoda’s most celebrated feature – carved from jackfruit wood, many date from the 18th century. The earliest construction dates from the 8th century.
Take the steep steps up to the main pagoda building, then find a path at the back that loops down past the other two pagodas and wander through the adjacent hillside village.
Ba Vi National Park
Formerly a French hill station, the triple-peaked Ba Vi Mountain (Nui Ba Vi) has been attracting visitors for decades and remains a popular weekend escape for Hanoians. The limestone mountain is now part of the Ba Vi National Park, which has several rare and endangered plants in its protected forest, as well as mammals including two species of rare ‘flying’ squirrel and bountiful bird life.
There’s an orchid garden and a bird garden, and hiking opportunities through the forested slopes. A temple dedicated to Ho Chi Minh sits at the mountain’s summit (1276m) – it’s a difficult but beautiful 30-minute climb up 1229 steps through the trees. Fog often shrouds the peak, but despite the damp and mist it’s eerily atmospheric – visit between April and December for the best chance of clear views down to the Red River valley and Hanoi in the distance.
Sleeping & Eating
Ba Vi Guesthouse
(034-388 1197; r weekdays 180,000-240,000d, weekends 220,000-300,000d) Spreads over several blocks in the heart of the park and has a big swimming pool and a moderately priced restaurant (meals 60,000d). Go for one of the less noisy guesthouses away from the pool and restaurant area if you’ve here on a weekend. You’ll need your passport to check in.
Getting There & Away
Ba Vi National Park is about 65km west of Hanoi, and the only practical option for visiting is by hired vehicle from Hanoi. Travelling by motorbike, it is possible to visit Ba Vi before taking a beautiful riverside road down to Hoa Binh and onwards into the northwest.
There has been some confusion between attractions near Ba Vi town – which is well away from the park boundaries – and Ba Vi National Park. Make sure your driver knows you want the national park.
Co Loa Citadel
Dating from the 3rd century BC, Co Loa Citadel (Co Loa Thanh; admission per person/car 10,000/20,000d; 7.30am-5.30pm) was the first fortified citadel in Vietnamese history and became the national capital during the reign of Ngo Quyen. Only vestiges of the ancient ramparts, which enclosed an area of about 5 sq km, remain.
In the centre of the citadel are temples dedicated to the rule of King An Duong Vuong (257-208 BC), who founded the legendary Thuc dynasty, and his daughter My Nuong (Mi Chau). Legend tells that My Nuong showed her father’s magic crossbow trigger (which made him invincible in battle) to her husband, the son of a Chinese general. He stole it and gave it to his father. With this not-so-secret weapon, the Chinese defeated An Duong Vuong, beginning 1000 years of Chinese occupation.
Co Loa Citadel is 16km north of central Hanoi in Dong Anh district, and can be visited as a short detour while on the way to or from Tam Dao Hill Station. Public bus 46 (5000d) runs here every 15 minutes from My Dinh bus station in Hanoi. Buses run regularly from Hanoi’s Luong Yen station to My Dinh. From the Co Loa bus station, cross the bridge, turn left and walk for around 500m.
Tam Dao Hill Station
Nestling below soaring forest-clad peaks, Tam Dao is a former French hill station in a spectacular setting northwest of Hanoi. Today it’s a popular summer resort – a favoured weekend escape for Hanoians, who come here to revel in the temperate climate and make merry in the extensive selection of restaurants and bars, Founded in 1907 by the French, most of its colonial villas were destroyed during the Franco-Viet Minh War, only to be replaced with brutalist concrete architecture. Tam Dao is a useful base for hiking, but the town itself is an unattractive sprawl of hotel blocks.
Remember that it is cool up in Tam Dao, and this part of Vietnam has a distinct winter. Don’t be caught unprepared.
The best time to visit is between late April and mid-October, when the mist sometimes lifts and the weather can be fine. Weekends can be packed but weekdays are far less busy.
Sights & Activities
Tam Dao National Park
(admission 20,000d) Tam Dao National Park was designated in 1996 and covers much of the area around the town. Tam Dao means ‘Three Islands’, and the three summits of Tam Dao Mountain, all about 1400m in height, are sometimes visible to the northeast of the hill station, floating like islands in the mist.
There are at least 64 species of mammal(includinglangurs) and 239 speciesof bird in the park, but you’ll need a good local guide and be prepared to do some hiking to find them. Illegal hunting remains a big problem.
Hikes vary from half an hour returnto the waterfall, to day treks takig in bamboo forest and primary tropical forest. A guide is essential for the longer hikes and can be hires from 400,000d; enquire at the Mela Hotel.
Sleeping & Eating
The town is easy to navigate, so look around and negotiate. There are also plenty of hotel restaurants and good com pho (rice-noodle soup) places. Try to avoid eating the local wildlife; you’ll frequently see civet, squirrel, porcupine, fox and pheasant advertised, but most of these are endangered species.
Huong Lien Hotel
(0211-382 4282; r weekday 250,000d, r weekend 350,000d) Offering decent value for the price, most of the rooms here have balconies to make the most of those misty mountain views. There’s a little restaurant as well(mains 120,000d to 200,000d).
Nha Khach Ngan Hang
(0989 152 969; r 180,000-200,000d) Opposite the Phuong Nam Quan reataurant, this spotless guesthouse sits beside a sprawling plot of xu xu, the local green vegetable. Try it with some garlic when you ask about accommodation.
(0211-382 4321; email@example.com, weekday/weekend r from 850,000/1,100,000. A modern, attractive, Europea-rooms (some include fireplaces) and most with balconies and wonderful valley views. The in-house Bamnoo restaurant (meal 60,000d to 200,000d) has an eclectic menu that feature everything from Frend food to burgers, sandwiches and spring rolls. Rack rates are a little silly, so come midweek and start negotiating.
Getting There & Away
Tam Dao is 85km northwest of Hanoi in Vinh Phuc province. Buses to the town of Vinh Yen (50,000d, frequent 6am to 4pm) leave from Hanoi’s Gia Lam bus station. From Vinh Yen hire a xe om (around 150,000d one-way) or a taxi (300,000d) to travel the 24km road up to Tam Dao.
On a motorbike from Hanoi, the journey takes around three hours, and the last part of the ride into the national park is beautiful.