Built on layers and layers of inside and outside influences, Hanoi has risen to become one of the most important cities in Asia, while still managing to retain a deep attachment to its humble roots. The influences of Hanoi’s many invaders over its long history have added to its tapestry of Vietnamese culture that stretches back thousands of years. Yet, as mesmerising as Hanoi is, occasionally the modern issues of smog and traffic can get a bit much and the yearning for humble villages and verdant nature kicks in.
Hanoi is located at the heart of the Red River Delta, home to many villages strung along the banks and vital life source for residents since ancient times. Along with these villages that specialise in artisan crafts, there are numerous national parks and pagodas in the vicinity of Hanoi that offer peaceful breaks from the chaos of the capital. This is Incredible Asia Journey’s comprehensive guide to the top day trips from Hanoi.
The sight of trees that aren’t surrounded by pavement is a curious novelty for most residents of Hanoi. Getting out of the city and into nature is the best cure for the pollution, and there are a few places to do that within a couple of hours drive from Hanoi.
Distance from Hanoi - 60km (1.5 hours)
The 1200m Emperor Peak of Ba Vi crowns the top of its steeply ascending access road. The views on the way up give you a bit of appreciation for the nature that remains in Hanoi Province, as well at the other adjacent provinces of Hoa Binh and Phu Tho. At the top there are two trekking options, one up a very haphazard staircase of 1300 steps to Bac Ho Temple, providing fantastic views of the valley below, or a more mild version that ascends about 600 steps to Den Thuong Temple.
Visits to Ba Vi National Park should really be on a motorbike to allow for full freedom of exploration. For a full day trip from Hanoi, bikes can be rented for as little as $5 and can be taken around all of the side attractions of Ba Vi. There are numerous lakes, mountains and temples to visit along with old abandoned churches and other buildings left behind from when Ba Vi was a French hill station.
Distance from Hanoi – 130km (3.5 hours)
Seeing as Ho Chi Minh cut the ribbon to open Cuc Phuong National Park in 1952, it is only fitting that the most beautiful highway in the country, the Ho Chi Minh Highway, leads all the way here from Hanoi. What Cuc Phuong might lack in activities, it makes up for in undisturbed beauty. The one road that cuts through Cuc Phuong is easily traversable by motorbike and features many branches to stops like caves and lakes, making it hard to get lost. There is a short 2-hour trek to a thousand year-old tree along with two longer treks to remote Muong hill tribe villages.
Distance from Hanoi – 150km (4 hours)
Mai Chau’s scenery has been a popular attraction for Vietnamese people for decades, but improved road connections with Hanoi have put the gorgeous area on the tourist map as well. You will need to set out early if you want to make the most of Mai Chau in one day, but the stunning scenery on the way there will comprise a lot of the enjoyment for the day. Mai Chau’s Lush rice paddies and pointed mountain peaks are the homes of the White Thai hill tribe, who offer cheap homestays in the region where you can sleep in a traditional wooden stilt house.
The Thac Pung and Go Lao waterfalls near to the main village are the perfect places to grab some pictures or relax after the long drive. There are also many villages strewn throughout the rural roads where you can see villagers going about their humble businesses in the farms or in their homes.
Distance from Hanoi – 180km (4 hours)
No visit to Vietnam is complete without a trip to Halong Bay, conveniently located within close reach of the capital and the site of many day trips from Hanoi for people who do not have time to stay overnight. The various jutting limestone peaks that make up the ethereal Halong Bay have become the quintessential image of Vietnam both inside and outside of the country.
There are beaches and caves strewn throughout the UNESCO World Heritage site, with kayaking and swimming activities adding to the long list of things to do in Halong Bay. Day trips from Hanoi usually consist of at least one of each activity along with a tasty lunch and a visit to the locals of the region who live in its floating fishing villages.
Distance from Hanoi – 70km (1.5 hours)
Another hill station used by the French during their occupation of Vietnam, Tam Dao National Park lies in Hanoi’s neighbouring province of Vin Phuc to the northwest, offering many Hanoi locals a reprieve from the smog, heat and rain of summer. Its main attractions are the three peaks by which the national park gets its name, Thien Thi, Thach Ban and Phu Nghia, all of which stand in a line. The 50m drop of the Silver Waterfall is also a big draw of Tam Dao, as is Rung Rinh Peak, a moss-covered mountain top offering views of orchid foliage below.
The truly unique attraction of the national park is the Tam Dao Bear Sanctuary, an establishment for moon bears rescued from bile farms across Asia who are now free to roam around in large enclosures. Tam Dao Bear Sanctuary is responsible for the end of cruel bear farming in many places in Northern Vietnam and tours to see the now-happy bears can be arranged by contacting the sanctuary directly.
Distance from Hanoi – 85km (1.75 hours)
While Tam Coc usually takes the plaudits for attractions in Ninh Binh Province, the Van Long Scenic Reserve is less touristic, more unspoiled and closer to Hanoi. Jumping into a tiny sampan boat and being rowed out into the middle of the Van Long marshland is still off the radar for most tourists, but it is certainly one of the best options for Hanoi day trips. The scenery looks similar to that of Tam Coc and there are plenty of caves and wide-spanning views to enjoy. A path runs adjacent to the lake for those who would prefer cycling, walking or jogging.
Vietnamese folk religion is the predominant following for the people of the Red River Delta and the many religious offerings, from tiny shrines to gigantic temples, are speckled around the region. There are also many examples of Buddhist temples around the area as well as spectacular Christian architecture to be found in Ninh Binh.
Distance from Hanoi - 25km (40 minutes)
Built by members of the Ly dynasty in the 11th century, Thay Pagoda is one of Vietnam’s most ancient religious buildings. It is a popular place to watch water puppet shows and consequently, some tour companies feature small excursions here during festival time. The pagoda was built around two caves and features bridges over Long Tri Lake as well as a 250-step stone staircase up to the ‘high pagoda’. As part of a full day trip from Hanoi, tourists can see Thay Pagoda as well as nearby Thach Xa Village and Tay Phuong Pagoda (mentioned below).
Distance from Hanoi – 100km (1.75 hours)
While the original citadel and the two kings who resided here have long gone, Hoa Lu remains a historically important as well as beautiful site for tourists to learn about Vietnam’s ancient capital. King Le and King Dinh ruled in Hoa Lu during the 44 years that it acted as capital and are now immortalised in two large temples, surrounded by green mountains and a small lake. Nearby Thien Ton Cave is a place of worship for both Buddhists and Taoists, as there is a chamber devoted to each religion.
Distance from Hanoi – 105km (1.75 hours)
Located just around the corner from Hoa Lu, Bai Dinh Pagoda is the largest religious complex in the country, comprising 700 hectares of impressive buildings that slope up from the lake on the Ba Rau Hills. Phap Chu, Tam The and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara temples are all impressive wooden buildings with bronze statues, but these were all built between 2003 and 2010. The 800 year-old pagoda is the most authentic building here and it stands at the foothills of the overall complex.
Distance from Hanoi – 117km (2.5 hours)
The mix of Vietnamese and Western styles for this Catholic cathedral in Ninh Binh is quite an extraordinary sight. The tall, square blocks of grey stone are topped with traditional Vietnamese tiled roofs donned with a crucifix on the outside, while inside it is an attractive match of conservative wooden pillars and a colourful red and gold altar. The cathedral is just south of Ninh Binh City and is worth a look to discover the various fascinating aspects of Vietnamese Catholicism for the country’s 6 million followers.
Distance from Hanoi – 65km (1.5 hours)
One of the top day trips from Hanoi, a visit to Perfume Pagoda, called Huong Pagoda in Vietnamese, is usually considered one of the essentials. After a 1.5 hour drive to the river on which the pagoda sits, visitors climb into a locally-rowed boat and head down the river to the entrance of the pagoda. A few stone steps lead to the cable car, which carries visitors above the tree line and up to the mystical Huong Tich Cave, used as the inner temple of the complex.
The winding road down to the bottom is lined with small shops that open only during Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and the Huong Pagoda Festival held shortly afterwards. Reaching the bottom, visitors then head to Giai Oan and Thien Tru pagodas as well as Den Trinh Shrine, past the giant kneeling elephants.
Hanoi’s growth from tiny village to bustling capital has seen it expand ever outwards in search for space. All of the satellite districts of Hanoi were once villages and these villages did, and still do, specialise in one trade each. Their wares are sold in markets around the north of the country and specific examples of expertise even make it to international markets around Asia.
Distance from Hanoi – 13km (30 minutes)
One of Hanoi’s closest craft villages is its most well-known, and it’s most prolific. Bat Trang exports beautiful pottery, kitchenware and toys made of ceramic to the tune of $40 million per year. That is an outstanding amount for a Vietnamese village that wasn’t really on the Hanoi radar in the last century. Tourists on a Hanoi day trip can explore the various markets for absolute bargains on souvenirs, as well as seeing their creation in the family workshops around the greater area. Look out for the gigantic, sometimes human-sized flowerpots that they create for special occasions and luxury hotels.
Distance from Hanoi – 12km (30 minutes)
Van Phuc used to be a village in its own right before being swallowed up by the expanding capital and amalgamated into its Ha Dong district, with local buses leaving from the centre every 20 minutes or so. The silk products that Van Phuc produces make fantastic gifts and are very cheap for the kind of good quality they contain. You can see the whole process from creation in the workshops to sale in the outdoor stalls. Many shops sell similar items here so try to bargain to find the best priced gift for someone back home.
Distance from Hanoi – 45km (1.5 hours)
Not so much a trade village as it is an old one, Duong Lam Ancient Village has resisted the advance of time to stay firmly in the 17th century, when many of its houses were built. Local fame came to Duong Lam when it produced two great Vietnamese kings, Phung Hung (761-802 AD) and Ngo Quyen (896-944 AD), who resisted invasion from China and have thus been immortalised in two temples. The red laterite bricks that make up most of the town’s buildings are now symbolic of its heritage and resistance to modernisation, creating a beautiful traditional scene along with the greenery of its surrounds.
Distance from Hanoi – 30km (50 minutes)
Located just west of Thay Pagoda and slightly east of Tay Phuong Pagoda is Thach Xa Village, home of one of the more adorable Vietnamese crafts. The villagers here specialise in weighted bamboo dragonflies of all different sizes and colours, loved by adults and the source of much wonderment for kids when the nose of a dragonfly is balanced on the tip of a finger. Some of the dragonflies are conservative in their colours but most are garish and stylishly created, proving to be wonderful gifts back home if you can transport them safely.
As a bonus, you can head to the village’s Tay Phuong Pagoda, a masterpiece of 7th century wooden architecture.
Distance from Hanoi – 25km (1 hour)
Another village specialising in bamboo is Phu Vinh Village in the Chuong My district of Hanoi. Three quarters of the village practice bamboo and rattan weaving in their spare time after the day’s farming activities, which earns about $10,000 US dollars annually for the village. Bamboo baskets and fishing traps are universal throughout the country and Phu Vinh has become a high quality and sought-after brand for any professional bamboo produc. Villagers also craft art, shoes, bags, ornaments, bracelets and practical kitchenware from the very versatile bamboo and rattan trees of the region.
Distance from Hanoi – 45km (1.5 hours)
A drive to the Northeast with a ferry ride across the Cau River makes for a romantic day trip from Hanoi to Tho Ha, an artisan village that used to specialise in ceramic until the 1990s before they abruptly changed to rice paper production. Used for eating rather than writing, rice paper, or ‘banh da nem’ is a crucial ingredient in many northern dishes such as fried spring rolls (nem rang), pork and lemongrass rolls (nem lui) and crispy shrimp pancakes (banh xeo). Villagers work hard to produce high quality rice paper and this is reflected in the abundance of Tho Ha rice paper in inland markets as well as its export to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.