Hanoi is a good base for longer explorations of the north and northeast. Halong Bay is by far the most popular day trip, or overnight trip, for visitors to Vietnam's capital.
Cruise The Red River
Ask the friendly folks at Buffalo Tours (94 Ma May; tel. 04/3828-0702; www.buffalotours.com) about their popular Jewel of the Delta, a small but cozy river cruiser that takes you from Hanoi along the busy flood plain of this life-giving river. The Red River Delta is a very productive rice-growing region, and the riverside fields are lush with green. The day tour starts early, stopping to explore But Thap Pagoda by bicycle (double-check to make sure they have a bicycle for your height before leaving Hanoi), then on to various handicraft villages, and cycling to small off-the-beaten-path villages connected by narrow paddy dikes. On board the boat, enjoy a nice lunch and some time to rest before hitting the village of Bat Trang, an important commercial hub as early as the 15th century, and now a center for the production of fine pottery. You'll have plenty of time to rest and enjoy the sun on the boat's spacious sun deck before returning to Hanoi in the late afternoon.
Just 60km (37 miles) south of Hanoi is this stunning area of limestone peaks surrounding a lowland waterway through the rice fields. Visitors in groups of three and four board low rowboats for a short river ride to the temple area. The river trip is a highlight, a relaxing ride where you can take it all in and snap photos to your heart's content, or even get a chance to try the funky forward stroke of the typical Vietnamese small boat. The area looks a lot like the dynamic Tam Coc grottoes near Ninh Binh; if you've been there, don't bother with the Perfume Pagoda -- Tam Coc is more beautiful.
The best part about visiting the Perfume Pagoda is the hearty climb, some 30 minutes of scrambling up to the stadium-size mouth of the mountain's holy cave. The site is home to a number of important temples and shrines, and the area is worth a wander. Tours leave early in the morning for the 2-hour drive to My Duc.
Ninh Binh Area
Just a few hours south and east of Hanoi, you'll find the town of Ninh Binh -- a good home base for some interesting day trips (you might make it an overnight). But the town isn't much, and touring the sights is really best done on good organized tours based out of Hanoi.
The area is home to Cuc Phuong National Park, the nation's first park (from 1964) and a vast expanse of wilderness. The park also supports an important primate rescue and reintroduction program. Ninh Binh's popular Tam Coc (The Three Grottoes), with its towering limestone karst towers, is considered the "Halong Bay of the Rice Fields." Visitors can see the sight from small local rowboats. Hoa Lu, the ancient capital area, connects with Tam Coc via a scenic little back road; the temples themselves are 17th-century re-creations of the originals but are quite lavishly decorated. Ken Ga is another scenic area -- but for its busy riverside market that's very much unlike Tam Coc's peaceful charm. Just south of Ninh Binh Town is Phat Diem, once home to a large population of French missionaries. The town's famous cathedral is a highlight.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.