Whether you are exploring the delights of Vietnam’s northern capital, Hanoi, or the treasures of its southern powerhouse, Ho Chi Minh City, it is sometimes necessary to head out of the city just to capture a moment of tranquillity.
Both cities provide a convenient jumping-off point for travellers keen to delve further into Vietnam’s striking landscape, with the countryside that fans out from each location offering a taste of rural Vietnam and an enticing window into its culture. Here, I round up several of my favourite daytrip getaways for travellers in search of something a world away from the modern Vietnamese metropolis.
History buffs shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to visit Cu Chi, a town situated a mere 40 kilometres northwest of HCMC. Cu Chi’s elaborate tunnel network, which is thought to comprise 250 kilometres of underground passageways, was originally dug by local inhabitants during the French occupation of the 1940s. However, the tunnels were extended in the 1960s to facilitate Viet Cong control of the rural area near to HCMC. During the war, approximately 10,000 locals lost their lives in and around Cu Chi, and the tunnels serve as a devastating war scar burnished across Vietnam’s landscape. Visitors can visit two sections of the tunnel network to squeeze into the gloomy, cramped space that people survived in for months.
Mix It Up
The Great Temple of Cao Dai is, without doubt, one of Tay Ninh’s unmissable attractions. Tay Ninh, a smaller city located some 100 kilometres from HCMC, is an achievable day trip for travellers looking to experience some of Vietnam’s cultural heritage outside of HCMC. During the 1920s, a movement known as Cao Dai swept through Vietnam, fusing a number of beliefs into one all-encompassing system. A glorious feast of eclectic religious influences and unusual architecture, the Great Temple of Cao Dai embodies influences from Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity. The daily prayers offer an unforgettable experience to visitors intrigued by the splendid rituals of this faith.
Explore on Two Wheels
As you travel out of Hanoi, the gleaming threads of the Red River Delta dissolve into lofty rice valleys dotted by ethnic minority villages, offering visitors a looking glass into the slow-paced agrarian lifestyle that dominates the region. A number of Hanoi-based tour operators offer bicycle tours of the surrounding handicraft villages, with many tours taking in the Thay and Tay Phuong Pagodas as well. Situated 30 kilometres west of Hanoi in the former Ha Tay province, Thay Pagoda rises from the still water of a pond like one of the craggy limestone carsts of Ha Long Bay. Tay Phuong Pagoda, which dates back to the 8th century, occupies a lofty perch atop a hill that is said to resemble a buffalo. See whether you agree once you get there!
If you don’t mind an early start, consider a day trip to Tam Dao Hill Station, a former French station occupying a lofty hilltop perch some 70 kilometres from Hanoi. Originally founded by the French in 1907, the majority of the Tam Dao’s colonial architecture was wiped out during the Franco-Viet Minh War. The town, now a popular base for hikers keen to discover the soaring mountain peaks of the region, is also a favourite with Hanoians seeking a weekend getaway. As such, it’s best to visit the town on a weekday if you are in the mood for some tranquillity and a breath of fresh air.
- If you have more than a day to spare in your holiday itinerary, set aside some time to explore the peaceful water maze of the Mekong Delta south of HCMC. Travellers are free to discover the multitude of colourful floating villages and markets that punctuate the shimmering landscape of paddies.
- If you want to free up a day in your holiday itinerary by rolling the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Grand Temple of Cao Dai into one day trip, this is doable as they are fairly near one another. Don’t miss mass at Cao Dai, which is held every six hours from 6am.
- If you find yourself in northern Vietnam, don’t make the mistake of trying to squeeze Ha Long Bay into a day trip from Hanoi. Leave yourself with a few days (at least) to explore the mystical region, enjoying the craggy nooks and crannies of the seascape that swallow up the large numbers of tourists that gravitate here.
- Each year, Thay Pagoda near Hanoi hosts a festival from the fifth to seventh day of the third lunar month. The pagoda is well worth a visit if you are in Hanoi at this time, as you can enjoy a display of water puppet shows in addition to the ethereal scenery of the surroundings.
- If you fancy a weekend break from Hanoi, head up to the Ba Vi National Park, where opportunities for trekking abound. Hikers prepared to make the 30-minute climb to the peak of Ba Vi Mountain are greeted by a temple dedicated to Ho Chi Minh and views down to the Red River valley and distant Hanoi – if the weather is clear.