Travel Time: 2. 5 hours
Distance from Hanoi: 65km
Technically VND55,000 per person for the boat, VND50,000 for entry to the mountain path. Come as a group, though, or you will most likely be forced to hire your own private boat. The cable car costs VND70,000.
Set in the Huong Tich Mountains, Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong) is a very Vietnamese destination. Pilgrims come from across the country to worship here all year round — especially in the four months after Tet. It’s one of the most important religious sites in Vietnam.
An epic complex of shrines and temples built into limestone rock, visitors get in a rowing boat at Ben Duc, and float down Yen Stream to the base of Huong Son Mountain. From there you can walk or take a cable car up to the Inner Temple, in an enormous cave at the top of the mountain.
The Day Trip
The journey out of Hanoi is pretty gruelling, but fear not, it gets a lot prettier and calmer after Highway 13. Make sure you leave early for this trip, though — it's not a nice return drive in the dark.
I left at 7.30am and arrived at 10.30a, getting a little lost on the way and taking it easy on those roads. This gave me plenty of time for the 45-minute boat ride and a walk up Huong Son Mountain, with lots of sightseeing on the way. There is so much to take in here; from the array of stuffed animals and porcupines in cages (animal rights activists stay at home) to stall after stall of tat as you walk up the mountain — plastic toys, golden statues and fake flowers galore. If you don’t like litter, don’t look down. There are thousands of cans and packets tumbling down the mountain, all the way to the top.
The trek can take up to two hours with stops at the cave pagodas. During peak season there are so many stalls that it's a struggle to see the view most of the time — but it's all worth it when you get to the Huong Tich Pagoda at the top.
The cave is enormous, with beautiful shrines and worshippers all around — after the chaotic climb and garish souvenirs, it’s good to remember what it’s all about. Everyone also seems happy to share their traditions here. Twice I was taught how to pray, and was physically dragged to a rock to have holy water dripped on my hand. Do dress respectfully, though. Women should cover their shoulders.
The fastest way is to drive down Le Duan to join the Highway 1. This may be quick, but it’s not much fun and can be a very dangerous road. Watch a lorry overtake a lorry on a corner, and you might wish you took another route. A less death-defying (and much prettier) option is to take Highway 13 out of Hanoi for 15 km, then turn left onto the highway 21B when you reach a roundabout. From here, follow the road down, veering right after 40 km onto Highway 74. From here it’s 4km straight to Ben Duc.
Travel Time: 2 hours
Distance from Hanoi: 70km
Free to the National Park
Tam Dao National Park is a nature-lover’s paradise. Thousands of rare birds, lizards, insects and plants have been found here in the park’s altitude, sub-tropical climate. Hang out in Tam Dao Town, high up in the mountains, visit the local bear sanctuary, or swim in one of the many lakes surrounding the park. The drive here is great — especially the last 10km up to Tam Dao Town.
The Day Trip
There’s no need to leave especially early for this one, unless you have a packed schedule. I left home at 10am and arrived in Tam Dao in time for lunch. The town was originally developed as a hill station by the French, although now it’s become a tourist town, with some great old buildings and a beautiful church. There are lots of places to stay the night if you don’t want to go home just yet.
The climate is tropical here, but high up in Tam Dao town there are pleasant temperatures for most of the year. Bring warm clothes in winter, though, because it gets chilly.
Day-trippers can sunbathe by a swimming pool in the middle of Tam Dao town, or go exploring. A half-hour trek to the Silver Waterfall is worth the effort — ask in guesthouses for information. A guide is essential for longer treks and can be hired from local hotels. A word of warning — watch out for the dogs, which seem particularly feral here.
Tam Dao Moon Bear Sanctuary is a great visit. The animals — who’ve mostly been rescued from the Asian bile industry — live in dens and semi-natural enclosures. You’ll find it inside the entrance to the national park, on the way up the hill towards the town.
The great scenery is not confined to the town, or even to the National Park, and there is lots to see in the surrounding area. There are many beautiful lakes, particularly southwest of the national park, and there are some decent guided treks around.
Drive north of Hanoi towards Noi Bai Airport. Just before you reach the Airport, turn left onto the QL2A. From here, make your way onto TL310 (via Dai Lai Lake is prettiest route), turning right at the T-junction onto TL302. After 10km turn right at the sign for Tam Dao, and follow the road right up to the town.