Beyond the city limits, Hanoi’s suburbs and surrounding countryside offer a few easygoing day trips. At the heart of the Red River Delta, a pair of booming traditional handicraft villages complement the urban chaos, while a serene pagoda complex southwest of the city affords an altogether different view of northern Vietnam. Jaunts to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh’s main attractions, are possible with plenty of tour providers offering day trips to the area.
If a vendor invites you to try out the pottery wheel or help you make something, there will almost always be an expectation that you buy something in return.One of over 30 pagodas dotting the mountains of Ha Tay province, the beautifully austere Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong) (tel. 04/3384-9849, 8am-5pm daily, VND50,000 plus boat fare) is Hanoi’s most popular day trip destination. Perfume Pagoda, named for the clouds of incense permeating the cave’s interior, is located inside a cave at the top of a mountain. Forty miles west of the capital, the pagoda complex sprawls across a series of hills overlooking the Yen River and is considered northern Vietnam’s most important Buddhist center of worship. Though it’s become increasingly more commercial, with the usual roving vendors and boat drivers, the scenery and famous incense-filled grotto are worth a visit for those looking to escape the city.
Most trips to Perfume Pagoda are done via all-inclusive tour. Tour outfitters transport passengers to Yen Vy, a boat station in the town of Huong Son. From here, travelers board a small wooden rowboat (VND40,000/person). The boat glides on a small river past craggy limestone mountains and dense forest, taking about an hour from end to end. When your vessel reaches the pagoda complex, venture through the impressive three-door gate, a stark, towering structure whose black Chinese characters stand out against a bright white background. Past the gates, the temple Chua Thien Tru, also known as Heaven’s Kitchen, houses a statue of Quan Am. It’s one of the more atmospheric pagodas in the north.
The highlight of the pagoda complex is Huong Tich Cave, which is 164 feet above the water’s edge atop a mountain. Though you have the option of reaching Huong Tich on foot, following a winding path up the mountain, most visitors prefer to jump in a bright yellow cable car (VND90,000 one-way, VND140,000 round-trip) to the mouth of the cave, where a set of stone steps descends into the darkened grotto. The cave interior is filled with small altars, obscured by an incense haze, and lacquer effigies. Once you’ve wandered through, walk back down toward the river. The steps become treacherous in foul weather; you can also hop on the cable car for the return trip. Respectful dress is a must at the complex.
While it’s possible to reach the complex on your own via motorbike, the hassle of urban traffic is not really worth the few dollars you might save. Moreover, the journey to Perfume Pagoda is not nearly as picturesque as the sight itself. Dozens of tour companies in Hanoi offer full-day excursions that include transportation, entry fees, lunch, and a guide for as little as VND530,000.
Across Vietnam, dozens of villages lay claim to culinary specialties or unique traditional crafts. These small, tight-knit communities have produced marble statues, fine silk, traditional Vietnamese lacquerware, or handmade pottery for centuries. Just outside of Hanoi, Bat Trang to the south and Van Phuc to the west each boast a long tradition of producing top-quality items and are known throughout Vietnam for their skilled craftspeople.
Ten miles south and across the Red River, the small village of Bat Trang has been making high-quality ceramics since the 15th century and is a popular stop for shoppers in search of ceramics. Today, its pottery is nationally famous and exported around the world, with modern-day potters crafting both the traditional blue-and-white ceramics of the past as well as more colorful contemporary designs. Price tags in some of the larger outlets tend not to vary much from those in the city, but you’ll find that there is more room for bargaining here and seemingly endless variety.
Most shops (which are also people’s houses) are open around 7am-5pm or 6pm daily, and vendors sell similar objects. Visiting Bat Trang is like perusing a large pottery market.
Often, shops will have someone working on pottery, giving a glimpse of the pottery-making process. Ask permission before taking photos, though most shops will likely give permission. If a vendor invites you to try out the pottery wheel or help you make something, there will almost always be an expectation that you buy something in return.
Travelers can reach Bat Trang independently by taxi, bus, or hired vehicle. Bus 47 departs every half-hour from the large bus stop near Long Bien Bridge just north of the Old Quarter off Hang Dau street. Cyclists and motorbikes can reach the area by way of Provincial Road 195 on the eastern bank of the river. When crossing, cyclists should use Long Bien Bridge, while other vehicles should use Chuong Duong Bridge directly south.
West out of town en route to Perfume Pagoda, the whirring looms of Van Phuc silk village draw droves of curious shoppers exploring the countryside for the day. As early as the 9th century, local residents raised mulberry trees and silkworms here, spinning their fragile cocoons into fabric for sale both in the village and across the country. During the days of the Nguyen dynasty, Van Phuc was required to produce bolts of silk to clothe the royal family. Today, the village houses over a thousand looms and its goods are often exported beyond Vietnam’s borders. While shoppers will find the cost of raw material about the same as in the city, ready-made items like scarves, ties, and shirts are notably less expensive here.
Shops generally open at 8am or 9am and close at 5pm daily. Most of the shops in Van Phuc are also workshops. The silk is made there, so you can watch as local proprietors weave different fabrics with a loom. Shop owners are often happy to let you try out the loom, but you will be strongly encouraged to buy something in return.
While most visitors to Van Phuc get here by way of a day tour to Perfume Pagoda, it is also possible to reach Van Phuc independently. Buses 1 and 2 travel out to the village by way of Highway 6, departing from the French Quarter and the lower part of Hoan Kiem district near the train station. Drivers can access Van Phuc via the same route.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Vietnam.