Looking for an easy, authentic day trip from Hanoi, Vietnam? This budget-friendly independent travel guide to Duong Lam Ancient Village shows you how to visit Hanoi’s oldest village
and surrounding attractions using public transport.
1/ Introduction to Duong Lam Ancient Village 2/ Getting to Duong Lam from Hanoi
3/ What to see & do in Duong Lam 4/ Other things to do around Son Tay
5/ Combining a visit to Moon Garden Homestay 6/ Tips for your visit
Over the past year, I’ve been on a lot of day trips from Hanoi. Most of them have fallen short of my expectations. With only a few weeks left as expats in Vietnam, we decided to squeeze in an independent day trip to Duong Lam ‘Ancient Village’—one of the oldest villages in Hanoi (actually, one of the oldest in all of the country).
Less than two hours from the Old Quarter by public bus, Duong Lam is known for its 300-year-old houses, grand communal halls and pagodas, original fishbone brick roads and ancient banyan trees. It’s advertised as a place where tourists can ‘step back in time’ and observe village life as it was before French colonisation (the phrase ‘rustic charm’ gets used a lot). By all accounts, the UNESCO-awarded village is a haven for architecture and street photography lovers like me.
Knowing better, I tempered my expectations and prepared for an onslaught of tourists, touts and trash. But I was wrong. Duong Lam is all it’s crack up to be—and more. Duong Lam is a beautiful, peaceful, clean, quiet village, with enough alleyways and detours that you can still find yourself the only tourist around (on a Wednesday morning, at least). It turned out to be my favourite day trip from Hanoi by a long shot.
This guide to Duong Lam gives a brief background of the area before showing you how to visit the village independently (without a group tour or guide) using public transport from Hanoi Old Quarter.
Welcome to Hanoi’s oldest village
Duong Lam is not actually a village—it’s a collection of 9 hamlets scattered across Duong Lam Commune (Đường Lâm) in Son Tay, about 50km northwest of downtown Hanoi. The communities are all ‘living villages’; a lot of families have lived here for generations. Duong Lam is a maze of alleyways and roads, village gates and high walls that conceal beautiful courtyards and historic homes. Some dwellings date back three centuries and a few have been restored.
Located in the heart of Northern Vietnam’s Red River Delta, Duong Lam was traditionally a centre of agriculture and industry. The area was settled as early as 1,200 years ago. Part of Duong Lam’s fame springs from its former residents: Two of Vietnam’s kings, Ngo Quyen (896-944) and Phung Hung (761-802), were from the Duong Lam area. Tombs and communal houses erected in their honour are among the 21 cultural relics scattered across Duong Lam’s pastoral landscape.
Because of its age, Duong Lam is steeped in myth and legend. It’s become a popular spot for Hanoians to visit on weekends. It’s fascinating to see how tourism has changed the face and character of the village.
Caught between conservation and progress
Tourism brochures for Duong Lam all paint similar scenes: Buffalo-drawn carts and old women in conical hats riding bicycles. As tourists, we certainly experienced this side of Duong Lam—but we also found a village in flux. A bit of background reading and a hunt through recent news reports reveals there’s a lot more to Duong Lam than meets the eye.
In 2005, the Vietnamese Government declared Duong Lam a National Monument, which ushered in an aggressive program of preservation and restoration. New restrictions on what could and couldn’t be done to buildings suddenly meant that many residents now had to obtain written permission before altering their properties. A lot of applications were knocked back out of fear that renovations would spoil the look and feel of the village, which was becoming a tourism boon. From what I know, this is quite unusual in Vietnam—just look at the hodgepodge houses in Hanoi Old Quarter. People like to make their own additions to their homes, and the industry is very unregulated. Unsurprisingly, the new rules didn’t sit well with many of Duong Lam’s residents.
Not long after the declaration was made, a group of locals signed an application to have the village’s historical status withdrawn. Yes, withdrawn. No longer able to extend their homes, large families have to live in cramped conditions. Some people who had already renovated were forced to demolish the work. Even the local kindergarten has become overcrowded. There are certainly ups and downs to living in Duong Lam, as there are with every community that has heritage status imposed on it.
Conservation of five of Duong Lam’s brick houses earned the village an award of merit from the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2014. Conservation of built environment has its benefits—it helps to preserve an area’s heritage and culture. It’s also brought tourists to Duong Lam, which I assume (and hope) has meant new income opportunities for locals. On the other hand, heritage status has kept Duong Lam locked in a time warp. Many young people have left the village as a result.
When we visited, there was certainly a lot of new construction going on, with piles of tiles, bricks and timber around every corner. Personally, I’d much rather see a village like this growing and evolving rather than trapped in an artificial time capsule for the benefit of tourists. People still live here, remember.
Visiting Duong Lam Ancient Village as a DIY day trip from Hanoi
Now that you know a little bit about Duong Lam’s history and the state of the village today, here is my complete guide to visiting as a day trip from Hanoi. All directions and prices are based on our own experience travelling to Duong Lam in July 2018.
Getting to Duong Lam Ancient Village from Hanoi
Duong Lam is located on the bank of the Red River, 50km northwest of central Hanoi. The commune sits within Hanoi’s city limits and is very close to the historical city of Son Tay, Hanoi’s satellite city. The easiest way to get to Duong Lam from Hanoi is to travel via Son Tay.
Hanoi to Duong Lam by public bus
Getting to Duong Lam from Hanoi by bus is pretty straightforward.
First, you’ll need to get yourself from the Old Quarter (or wherever you’re staying) to My Dinh Bus Station, one of Hanoi’s biggest bus stations located on the western side of the city. Bus 34 (from Hang Bong) terminates at My Dinh and will have the name lit up on the front (see it on Google Maps here). Tickets cost 7K VND.
When you arrive at My Dinh, don’t go inside. Buses from Hanoi to Son Tay leave from out the front of My Dinh station. Just look for a city bus with BX Son Tay (BX stands for ben xe, or bus station) printed on the side. At least two different city buses do this route. We caught the 70B there, which cost us 20K VND per person. On the way back, we caught a different bus, the 20B, which cost us 9K VND. The 20B doesn’t go all the way to My Dinh but terminates in nearby Cau Giay.
The final leg of the journey is from Son Tay to Duong Lam Ancient Village. There are local buses—the number 76 and the number 92—that go to Duong Lam via Son Tay Fortress. When we pulled into Son Tay bus station, there were a few taxis and motorbike drivers waiting in the yard. For ease, we decided to jump in a car. We ended up with a lovely driver who was happy to run the metre for us. It cost us 70K VND to get to the entrance of Duong Lam from Son Tay bus station.
Hanoi to Duong Lam by car or motorcycle
It’s a fairly straightforward 1.5 hour drive from Hanoi to Duong Lam via the QL 32 highway. When we travelled by bus, the roads were in relatively good shape and traffic wasn’t too heavy on a Saturday morning. If you do have your own wheels, you could easily combine Duong Lam with a visit to Ba Vi National Park, which is just 40 minutes’ west.
Hanoi to Duong Lam by Grab or taxi
If you prefer the air-conditioned comfort of your own private vehicle (I know we do sometimes!), you could take a Grab or taxi to Duong Lam. A Grab car from central Hanoi costs approximately 420K VND, and a Grab bike costs approximately 200K VND. (If you’re travelling pillion, please take care and wear a helmet at all times!) A taxi might cost up to a third more on top of that, but you may be able to get a discount on a round-trip journey. I strongly recommend organising a taxi through your hotel or guesthouse.
Orientation & getting around Duong Lam
Once you pass through the first village gate, you’ll come to a main entrance point with a tourist house signposted on the left. Straight ahead, under the big tree, there’s a map attached to the wall with some of the main points of interest plotted out in Vietnamese and English. It’s not to scale, but it’s a good idea to snap a photo on your phone as you go by. If you continue walking, you’ll come to the main village square. There’s a large pagoda complex on the right, and a few old houses that have been converted into souvenir and snack shops. A few of them have bicycles for hire. There are general stores and little cafes scattered throughout the villages; if you want to grab an authentic snack, Duong Lam is known for its chè lam shaved ice dessert, locally made soy sauce, and sugar cane juice.
After the main square, you’re on your own. We were quite happy to follow our noses and just wander down random alleyways, looking out for any signposted old houses that we could go inside.
What to see & do in Duong Lam Ancient Village
The best thing to do in Duong Lam is take out your camera and go for an easy stroll. The restored communal houses are by far the village’s most impressive feature and what Duong Lam is known for. There are five communal houses of note in Duong Lam, each one dedicated to an important figure in the village’s history. People gather at the houses to pay tribute to their ancestors and the village elders.
By some counts, there are almost 1000 traditional residential houses in Duong Lam—mostly in Dong Sang and Mong Phu villages. A lot of them date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. They’re a bit difficult to locate, but most are signposted with generic ‘nhà cổ‘ (literally ‘old house’ or ‘antique house’) posters.
The vernacular style of architecture in Duong Lam uses distinctive red laterite bricks for the walls and laterite tiles for the curved roof. Another feature of the houses is a beautiful front courtyards, often used to keep huge clay pots of grain and rice wine. Aside from the handful of preserved houses, there are a lot of other houses that are 100 or 200 years old and still very much lived in. Peek inside through the wooden doors and you will see beds and framed portraits of the elders on the family shrine.
This classic village model—residences that radiate out from a communal house and fishing pond—is replicated all over Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, even in brand new housing developments. The rest of Duong Lam is a mixture of historic buildings and new renovations.
Keep an eye out for colourful doorways and windows. There’s a particular style of door in Duong Lam—a wooden bi-fold gate fasted with a small chain and with a peephole blocked off by a piece of pointed wood (you can see an example in the green door below).
Another feature to look out for are the old village roads made from the same red laterite bricks arranged in attractive fishbone patterns. Most of the main roads and pathways are now concrete, but you can see the bricks in some of the smaller alleyways. Every now and then you’ll spot a banyan tree more ancient than the village itself. According to Vietnamese tradition, ancestral spirits dwell in big trees and felling them is bad luck. That’s why you’ll often see roads and shops built to accommodate trees in villages and in the city (in Hanoi, one of our local cafes has a massive tree growing right through the middle!). Duong Lam also has a few water wells that have historical value
Tea Time at Tham hoa Giang Van Minh Worship House
As we approached our final stop, Tham hoa Giang Van Minh Worship House (Nhà thờ Thám hoa Giang Văn Minh), we noticed a man sleeping on a wooden bench inside the hall. We walked across the small brick courtyard and he sat up, beckoning us to come and sit with him. We made a bit of stilted small talk before he guided us to read some laminated information sheets on one wall of the hall. We couldn’t quite get to the bottom of who he was, but I gathered that he is the house caretaker.
Spread out on a big wooden table in the centre of the hall was a half-finished game of Chinese checkers and two pots of green tea—one tepid, one stone cold. I’m pretty sure the tea was brewed from rain water and the little porcelain cups had never been washed—but we politely accepted a cup of each anyway.
After tea, he led us into a shrine behind the main hall and invited us to light some incense. After showing us how to place the incense into the burner, bowing with hands pressed together, he motioned for us to leave a small donation on the alter. We dropped a few notes in gratitude.
With all the changes Duong Lam is facing, it begs the question: Who will care for these old houses and pagodas when this generation is gone? Visiting Duong Lam in 10 or 20 years time will be a very different experience. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if more of the locals move on and the whole place gets transformed into a tourist park.
Other things to do near Duong Lam Ancient Village
Once you’re done with the Ancient Village, you might like to take in some of the other sights around Son Tay. It’s quite spread out, so I recommend either hiring a bike or picking up a taxi.
There are a couple of important religious sites on the roads behind the village, including Mia Pagoda (Đền Phủ Thờ Bà Chúa Mía) and Mong Phu Communal House (Đình Mông Phụ). Phung Hung Temple (Đình Phùng Hưng) and Ngo Quyen Tomb (Đền Thờ Ngô Quyền) are further west in Cam Lâm village. Thăng Thắc, another small village nearby, is a nice place to cycle.
Son Tay Old Fortress (Thành cổ Sơn Tây) is located halfway between Son Tay town and Duong Lam. Built in the 1800s, it features a preserved banyan tree gate and flag tower. From the road, the fortress looks like a green utopia surrounded by a wide moat.
There are dozens of other communal houses, temples and tombs scattered around Son Tay. The quantity and quality makes it feel like a miniature version of Vietnam’s Imperial City, Hue. Anyone interested in history and architecture will have a ball exploring the countryside around Duong Lam.
Moon Garden Homestay
If you’re looking for a place to eat or overnight in the Duong Lam/Son Tay area, Moon Garden Homestay is my top pick. Located about 6km west of Duong Lam Ancient Village, you can get there by taxi for just over 100K VND. The homestay appears out of nowhere, nestled on the edge of a quiet, unassuming village called Ky Son. There are a couple of traditional houses on the property that have been refurbished to serve as accommodation, sleeping a total of 30 guests.
Everything is very tastefully designed and made to mirror the nearby ancient village and the historic nature of the area. I especially love the round ‘zen’ windows on the private houses. The homestay backs onto a large lake and another big stilted house offers dorm-style accommodation. The grounds are extremely quiet and peaceful, with overgrown gardens and frangipani trees.
Even if you’re not staying overnight, you can still drop into Moon Garden for lunch (although you’ll need to make a reservation via email or phone ahead of time). We were treated to a beautiful meal of fresh spring rolls and nem (fried rolls) inside Moon Garden’s main dining hall—which just so happens to be a renovated cathedral! The shell of the cathedral was brought to the property all the way from Thai Binh Province on Northern Vietnam’s coast. Predominantly Catholic Thai Binh is home to dozens of impressive churches and cathedrals, and this is one example of the incredible architecture the province is known for.
The owners of Moon Garden have painted the facade of the cathedral white, which makes it look even more ethereal. Inside, it’s styled like a Vietnamese step-over pagoda, with magnificent wooden pillars, beams and rafters. The decor is very tasteful and I’m assuming the same aesthetic extends to the accommodations, too. I couldn’t think of a more perfect venue for lunch after a morning exploring Duong Lam.
Tips for your visit to Duong Lam Ancient Village
When to visit | Duong Lam is a living village—it’s open 24/7. If you’re travelling in summer, I highly recommend visiting in either the early morning or late afternoon so to avoid the hottest part of the day. We visited on a weekday and only came across a handful of other tourists. I assume it’s much busier on weekends. If it’s an option, a nice time to visit would be around Tet (Vietnamese New Year, which falls annually in February) or on another Lunar holiday. There are usually lots of decorations and celebrations in villages, and I bet Duong Lam puts on quite a display.
Money matters | As we drove into Duong Lam, our taxi driver said something about bypassing a 20K VND entrance fee. I didn’t fully understand, nor can I find any solid information online—all I know is that we didn’t pay anything. Some of the better set-up houses had caretakers inside who asked us to drop some money into a donation box on our way out. I suspect this isn’t for village maintenance but rather to reimburse them for their time. The grandmas in particular can be a bit pushy. Make sure you’re carrying some small notes.
Safety | Duong Lam is a very quiet, safe area. We did, however, run into a few unfriendly dogs. It’s bound to happen when you’re wandering blindly down alleyways. At one point we found ourselves in a cul-de-sac that opened up onto someone’s property and a few unhappy dogs came out to greet us. Ross was quick thinking and stamped his feet and yelled, which sent them running in the opposite direction.
Photography & etiquette | Duong Lam may be a tourist attraction, but just remember it’s also a place where many people live. Be polite and respectful, and keep a low profile. If you run into someone, greet them. If you’re taking portraits, ask first. And be very careful not to trespass on private property.
Tour options | If money isn’t a concern, you might prefer to visit Duong Lam as part of an organised tour from Hanoi. Having a guide would certainly you a deeper insight into the village. Tours can cost up to 100 USD per person—if you’re spending that much, make sure you do your research and choose wisely.
Over to you! Have you been to Duong Lam Ancient Village? Is it the kind of place you’d be interested in visiting? What’s your favourite day trip destination?
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Transparency: We were lucky enough to receive a discounted rate at Moon Garden Home Stay, but all opinions and recommendations presented here are my own.