Living in Hanoi puts you in the heart of the action. My husband David and I spend our days here surrounded by beautiful French colonial mansions and century-old trees. The Old Quarter, close to our house, is a delight to walk through. Each street has its own specialty; on one you’ll find medicinal herbs and teas, another sells bamboo, another is alive with colourful toys and yet another rings with the clatter of tinsmiths hard at work.
It’s Hanoi’s “otherness” that attracts us. And the fact that our costs are so low helps, too. We rent a two-bedroom house in the Ba Dinh district for $840 a month. Eating out at a local restaurant rarely costs us more than $10, and if we want some fish and chips or bangers and mash, we can dine at the Real Kangaroo Cafe for a satisfying meal that costs just $15 including drinks. Experienced housekeepers charge less than $3 per hour. High-speed internet plans start at around $13 per month and a bag full of fresh vegetables from the local market is less than $3.
And when we fancy getting out of the city, Hanoi is close to many remarkable places. I can go just a couple of hours from my house in the city centre and escape a hot day on the summit of a mountain, explore verdant green and golden rice paddies, visit Buddhist temples built inside natural caves, ride a rowboat down a lazy river or visit one of many special villages where the residents make traditional crafts—silk and pottery, incense and woodcarvings, marble sculptures and rice paper—using ancient, time-honoured traditions.
Less than two hours south of Hanoi by car, the province of Ninh Binh has long been one of my favourite getaways. Ninh Binh city is a comfortable place, with decent hotel options if you want to spend a night or two. But the reason to come here is just west of town—the unique landscape along the rivers of Tam Coc and Trang An.
Many visitors rent bicycles in Ninh Binh for just $1.35 a day and cycle out of town through lush green rice fields to get a glimpse of the towering karst mountains. But an ever better way to explore is by rowboat. A trip in a flat-bottomed aluminium skiff costs about $8.90 per person. Just buy a ticket and head over to the dock—someone will lead you to your boat.
Local women ferry you along the clear, calm river, often using their feet, rather than their arms, to row the boat past dramatic vertical limestone cliffs, solitary temples and pagodas, lush jungle foliage and small fields of rice or corn tucked into hidden valleys between karst towers. Mountain goats can sometimes be spotted grazing on precarious outcroppings.
The river flows through three caves at Tam Coc and up to nine caves at Trang An, depending on the water levels. These aren’t caves that you explore on your own; instead, the river runs through them, and you’ll be sitting in the rowboat the entire time. Some of the caves are quite long and it takes several minutes to reach the other side.
My favourite of these two river journeys is Trang An. You’ll not only travel through more caves but you’ll pass by a particularly lovely Buddhist temple at the river’s edge. Best of all, Trang An receives far fewer tourists and the rowboat operators don’t pressure you to leave a large tip or buy handicraft items as you near the dock.
Cuc Phuong National Park is another “can’t miss” destination. Located about an hour’s drive west of Ninh Binh, this is the oldest national park in Vietnam, famous for its primate and pangolin rescue centres and rare turtle conservation centre. It is also the site of one of Vietnam’s largest virgin forests and a diverse botanical garden. There are several grottoes, some of which humans inhabited more than 7,000 years ago. The most accessible of these, the Cave of Prehistoric Man, is undeveloped; you’ll need a torch to light your way, which you can rent at the trailhead for 65 cents. I’d recommend planning to stay at least one or two nights, so you can experience the otherworldly calls of the gibbons from the primate centre, the serenity of the forest and the thousands of different butterflies that inhabit the park.
The park offers several lodging options and simple, wholesome Vietnamese food is available. We’ve stayed at the hotel by the main gate, which is the most comfortable accommodation in the park—and where you’ll best hear the gibbons. A room costs between $21 and $38 per night, depending on the season. If you’re more in the mood for peace and quiet, the Mac Lake bungalows are just a couple of kilometres farther away from the main gate. Rooms are basic but comfortable, and overlook the park’s lake.
If you visit during the high season, between March and November, you’ll need to make reservations but come between December and February and you’ll have the place practically to yourself.
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