Around Hanoi

There are a number of worthwhile day and overnight trips from Hanoi: the Perfume Pagoda lies to the southwest; Tam Coc and Cuc Phuong National Park are some three hours south, while Halong Bay, best visited on an overnight trip, is three hours to the east.

Perfume Pagoda

The Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong or Chua Huong Tich) is 60 km southwest of Hanoi. A sampan takes visitors along the Yen River, a diverting 4-km ride through a flooded landscape to the Mountain of the Perfume Traces. From here it is a 3-km hike up the mountain to the cool, dark cave where the Perfume Pagoda is located. The stone statue of Quan Am in the principal pagoda was carved in 1793 after Tay Son rebels had stolen and melted down its bronze predecessor to make cannon balls. Dedicated to Quan Am, it is one of a number of shrines and towers built amongst limestone caves and is regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in Vietnam. Emperor Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497) described it as “
Nam Thien de nhat dong”
or “foremost cave under the Vietnamese sky”. It is a popular pilgrimage spot, particularly during the festival months of March and April.

Tam Coc

An area of enchanting natural beauty, Tam Coc means literally 'three caves'. Those who have seen the film
, some of which was shot here, will be familiar with the nature of the beehive-type scenery created by limestone towers, similar to those of Halong Bay. The highlight of this excursion is an enchanting boat ride up the little Ngo Dong River through the eponymous three caves. The exact form varies from wet to dry season; when flooded, the channel disappears and one or two of the caves may be drowned; in the dry season, the shallow river meanders between fields of golden rice. Women punt pitch-and-resin tubs that look like elongated coracles through the tunnels. It is a leisurely experience and a chance to observe at close quarters the extraordinary method of rowing with the feet. The villagers have a rota to decide whose turn it is to row and, to supplement their fee, will try and sell visitors embroidered tablecloths. Enterprising photographers snap you setting off from the bank and will surprise you 1 km upstream with copies of your cheesy grin already printed. On a busy day the scene from above is like a two-way, nose-to-tail procession of water boatmen, so to enjoy Tam Coc at its best, visit in the morning.

Cuc Phuong National Park

Located in an area of deeply-cut limestone and reaching elevations of up to 800 m, this park is covered by 22,000 ha of humid tropical montagne forest. It is home to an estimated 2000 species of flora, including the giant parashorea, cinamomum and sandoricum trees. Wildlife, however, has been much depleted by hunting, so that only 117 mammal, 307 bird species and 110 reptiles and amphibians are thought to remain. April and May sees fat grubs and pupae metamorphosing into swarms of beautiful butterflies that mantle the forest in fantastic shades of greens and yellows. The government has resettled a number of the park's 30,000 Muong minority people but Muong villages do still exist and can be visited. The
Endangered Primate Rescue Centre
 is a big draw in the park, with more than 30 cages, four houses and two semi-wild enclosures for the 130 animals in breeding programmes.

Halong Bay

Halong means 'descending dragon'. An enormous beast is said to have careered into the sea at this point, cutting the fantastic bay from the rocks as it thrashed its way into the depths. Vietnamese poets, including the 'Poet King' Le Thanh Tong, have traditionally extolled the beauty of this romantic area, with its rugged islands that protrude from a sea dotted with sailing junks. Artists, too, have drawn inspiration from the crooked islands, seeing the forms of monks and gods in the rock faces, and dragon's lairs and fairy lakes in the depths of the caves. Another myth says that the islands are dragons sent by the gods to impede the progress of an invasion flotilla. The area was the location of two famous sea battles in the 10th and 13th centuries and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Geologically, the tower-karst scenery of Halong Bay is the product of millions of years of chemical action and river erosion working on the limestone to produce a pitted landscape. At the end of the last ice age, when the glaciers melted, the sea level rose and inundated the area turning hills into islands. The islands of the bay are divided by a broad channel: to the east are the smaller outcrops of Bai Tu Long, while to the west are the larger islands with caves and secluded beaches. Rocks can be treacherously slippery, so sensible footwear is advised. Many of the caves are a disappointment, with harrying vendors, mounds of litter and disfiguring graffiti. Among the more spectacular, however, are
Hang Hanh
, which extends for 2 km. Tour guides will point out fantastic stalagmites and stalactites which, with imagination, become heroes, demons and animals.
Hang Luon
is another flooded cave, which leads to the hollow core of a doughnut-shaped island. It can be swum or navigated by coracle.
Hang Dau Go
is the cave in which Tran Hung Dao stored his wooden stakes prior to studding them in the bed of the Bach Dang River in 1288 to destroy the boats of invading Mongol hordes.
Hang Thien Cung
is a hanging cave, a short 50-m haul above sea level, with dripping stalactites, stumpy stalagmites and solid rock pillars.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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