After a few days dealing with Hanoi’s heavy traffic and hustlers trying to get their hands on your holiday cash, joining a day trip out of town can be a refreshing experience. In the capable hands of a tour company, you can sit back and watch the countryside flash by as you head for one of the region’s temples, historical sights, or areas of natural beauty. One of these regions, the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, actually tops Hanoi on many visitors’ list of must-see places in Vietnam.
Almost as famous as nearby Guilin in China, the thousands of karst islands that rise sheer from the tranquil waters of Halong Bay make for one of the most memorable sights on this planet.
Though it’s technically possible to see Halong Bay on a day trip from Hanoi, there are several reasons why this is not the best option. Firstly, it’s located around 100km west of the capital, so takes several hours to get there and back, which leaves little time to cruise around the water.
Second, the bay is at its most atmospheric at dawn and dusk, which cannot be appreciated on a day trip. Thirdly, the souvenir sellers seem to make a bee-line for short-stay visitors, knowing they’ll have little time to shop for gifts.
So give yourself a treat and go for an overnight cruise in the bay, allowing time to marvel at the ever-changing view.
Tam Coc and Hoa Lu
Both located around 60km south of Hanoi near the town of Ninh Binh, these two small places are quite near to each other and make for a good day out, combining natural beauty with a hefty slice of Vietnamese history. The attraction at Ho Coc are caves beneath the limestone hills that can be visited by rowing boats, many of which are propelled by the feet rather than hands – a quirky aspect of Vietnamese culture.
Tam Coc is often referred to as ‘Halong Bay on land’. Hoa Lu was once capital of the country even before Hanoi, and though little remains of the original site, a couple of temples are worth peeking into for their hushed aura, and sometimes visitors might coincide with festive parades when locals dress up in bright outfits. A newly-built temple here, Bai Dinh Pagoda, features the largest Buddha image in the country.
By far the most popular destination for a day trip from Hanoi, Chua Huong, or the Perfume Pagoda, is also Vietnam’s most famous pilgrimage site. It is tucked away in the folds of steep hills about 60km southwest of Hanoi, and is approached by a boat ride and then a steep trek (or a ride on a cable car if you’re feeling lazy). The pagoda is located in a grotto on a hillside and acquired its name from the local blossoms that give off a sweet scent in spring. For more about the Perfume Pagoda.
Thay Pagoda and Tay Phuong Pagoda
Few tour companies offer day trips to these pagodas located around 30kms east of the city centre, but this outing is worth considering if you can find it as the pagodas are steeped in legend and surrounded by attractive countryside.
Thay Pagoda, or ‘the Master’s Pagoda’, is named after Tu Dao Hanh, the temple’s head monk in the 12th century and a gifted exponent of water puppetry. There are hundreds of statues in the prayer halls, as well as a stage over a pond for water puppet performances, which are held to coincide with festivals.
Just six kilometers west of Thay Pagoda, the Tay Phuong Pagoda, or ‘Pagoda of the West’, merits a visit to see its gracefully curved, double-tiered roofs and some delightful jackfruit wood statues.
Traditionally, all the villages around Hanoi in the Red River Delta specialised in a particular product for which, over time, they acquired a reputation for good craftsmanship. These days a few such villages remain an d can be included on a day trip out of Hanoi.
Bat Trang, just 15km south of Hanoi, has been a centre of ceramics production for at least five centuries. These days it attracts both tourists who go for the delicate, glazed bowls and Hanoians eager to decorate their house with a set of trendy new floor tiles.
For silk products, the village of Van Phuc has established a solid reputation as a producer of top-quality work. You can watch the silk being woven at noisy, electric looms and browse the showrooms for that special souvenir.
Finally, the best place to buy a conical hat in Vietnam is at the village of Chuong, located on the way to the Perfume Pagoda. Though most of these hats nowadays follow a standard design, they were once made differently depending on whether they were for use in heavy work or for social occasions such as weddings.