Hanoi is rich in options for when city life gets overwhelming and a retreat into nature is required. Hanoians are blessed by a close proximity to mountains, national parks and sea.
You could recharge your batteries in Sapa, although that would mean contending with construction traffic and gap year students fighting for selfies with someone looking a bit “tribal”. You could unwind in Hạlong Bay, if you can overlook the skyrocketing levels of pollution and congestion.
Or you could take a trip up Vietnam’s answer to the allegorical Stairway to Heaven…
Located in Vinh Phuc Province around 70km northwest of Hanoi, Tam Dao Town is a quaint mountain gem. Only accessible by a single road, the town sits at the end of a ribbon of automotive perfection which snakes and climbs around acres of lush green valleys.
The journey is half the reason to make the trip, so expect the 90-minute travel time by motorbike to be increased by frequent stops to take clichéd photos of your vehicle with a dramatic background.
The initial section of the journey just outside Hanoi features a series of small villages, where the children riding their bicycles to school, point and shout greetings at the rare sight of a two-wheeled Tay.
Linking these villages together are vast stretches of almost unused highway, where it’s not uncommon to be the only person around. Depending on when you go, you may not see another vehicle for 10 minutes or more.
The second part of the journey is the reason you need to bring a good camera. Once you clear Tam Dao Golf Course, the road leading towards the town starts to climb. As you edge around each new corner of that delicious mountain road, a whole new view unpacks itself, with Mother Nature adamant on filling up your Instagram account.
Eventually, the forest begins to swallow up the road, and rows of tall trees create a canopy, which covers large swathes of the tarmac. The effect is both dramatic and serene.
Tam Dao Town was established in 1907, and contains various relics and buildings left behind by French colonialists.
One of the most beautiful is the old church, built by the French in 1937. Most of the surrounding buildings have long succumbed to their war wounds, but the surviving church, with its impressive stone tower, is worth a visit and provides a clear view of the town below.
Dotted around the town are various villas, some painted in bizarre colours, which helps to enhance the unique character of this peaceful mountainous retreat. Many of the houses are adjacent to small plots of land, where local people grow their own food in those pristine mountain conditions.
Aside from visiting the cultural sites, Tam Dao is also home to a number of regional specialities. The freshness of the chayote here, or su su, is unlike anything served in Hanoi. Usually stir-fried with garlic, it’s perfect on the side of some plump mountain chicken.
Most of the meat in Tam Dao is free-range and organic; if boiled chicken isn’t your cup of tea, you can find restaurants serving a whole lon man (wild pig), with an 8kg pig setting you back around VND2.5 million.
Located close to the centre of the town is Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall). Found at the bottom of a steep stone stairway, the waterfall emerges from the thick vegetation and resembles a shard of glistening silver, thrust into the rocky pool below.
Tam Dao is more popular with domestic tourists, who are inclined to visit on weekends or during spring and summer. Visiting outside of these times almost guarantees you will have the waterfall to yourself, allowing for a peaceful moment in which you can sit and zone out for a while, taking in the crisp fresh air.
Into the Mist
With an elevation of around 1,000m above sea level, it’s fairly common for a dense mist to descend over the town and surrounding area.
This Stephen King-like filter may inhibit your ability to enjoy the distant views, but it also lends the area a mysterious atmosphere. Some of the crumbling buildings become even more beguiling when set against a backdrop of the unknown.
If a single day trip is insufficient to bring your blood pressure down to safe levels, there are a few decent hotels throughout the town for overnight trips. However, there is only one pharmacy and no real petrol station, so plan accordingly.
The town also serves as a great base from which to enjoy some hiking or camping. The Tam Dao National Park covers an area of nearly 370sqkm and includes more than 20 peaks boasting altitudes of over 1,000m.
Large expanses of tropical evergreen along with many other types of forest fill more than 70% of the region, which is home to more than 800 species of animal.
If there’s time, the return journey to Hanoi is best enjoyed by visiting the Vietnam Bear Sanctuary at the foot of the mountain. Run by Animals Asia, the rescue centre houses moon bears and sun bears saved from captivity. Prior to their rescue, many of the animals are farmed for their bile and are housed in tiny cages that prevent them being able to move.
With a small diversion you can also head to Tay Thien, a nearby Buddhist site, which includes the Quoc Mau Tay Thien Temple. After a day or two of crisp mountain air, picturesque roads and fresh food, an hour of reflection in a beautiful mountain temple will be the perfect end to the trip.
Head north out of Hanoi on the AH14 towards Noi Bai International Airport. Turn off and head west along the CT05 in the direction of Vinh Yen City.
Just past Vinh Yen City, turn off north once again and follow the QL2B all the way to Tam Dao.
Photos by Sasha Arefieva