Blessed as it is by such a favourable proximity to both mountains, national parks and sea, Ha Noi is rich in options for when city life gets a bit overwhelming and a retreat to nature is required. You could recharge your batteries in Sa Pa, although that would mean contending with gap year students out in droves trying to get a selfie with someone looking a bit “tribal”. You could unwind in Ha Long Bay, if you can overcome the peeling white paint jobs burdening all the ships and increasingly worrying safety record. Or you could take a trip up Viet Nam’s answer to the allegorical Stairway to Heaven…
|Silver Waterfall: The shard of water is quite a sight. — Photos Edward Dalton (VNS)|
A mere 85km north of Ha Noi lies Tam Dao, accessible only by a single road, the National Road 2B, a ribbon of automotive perfection which snakes and climbs around acres of lush green valleys. One of the best parts of visiting Tam Dao is the journey itself. The initial part takes you through quaint villages, where the children riding their bicycles to school (usually with two on each bike) point and shout “hello!” at the rare sight of a foreign face. Linking the towns are vast stretches of almost unused highway, where it’s not uncommon to be the only person around. On more than one occasion I stopped my motorbike to take a few photographs, and didn’t see anyone going past in either direction for five or ten minutes.
The second part of the journey is the reason you need to bring a good camera. Not long after turning off of the TL302, the road up to Tam Dao Town starts to climb. The higher you go, the better the views, and as you edge around various corners of the delicious mountain road, a whole new view reveals itself, calling out to be thrust into the spotlight of your Instagram account. Approaching the town, the road is swallowed up by forest and rows of tall trees create a canopy covering large swaths of the tarmac.
The town itself was established in 1907, and contains various relics left behind by French colonists. One of the most beautiful is the church, built by the French in 1937. Most of the surrounding buildings have long succumbed to their war-inflicted wounds, but the surviving church with its impressive stone tower is worth a visit and provides a calming view of the town below. Dotted around the town are various villas, some painted in bizarre colours that enhance the character of this peaceful mountain retreat. Many of the houses are adjacent to small plots of land, where locals grow vegetables.
Visiting the town also gives rise to the opportunity to try some of the local specialities. I was more than happy to take advantage of the freshness of the chayote here, or su su as it is locally known. The greens are best stir-fried with garlic, and make a perfect side dish to any meal. The locals are equally proud of the freshness of the meat, as most of the animals are free to roam – the “mountain chickens” are particularly fat, and a far cry from the caged battery farmed birds served up in most Ha Noi restaurants.
Also located close to the centre of town is Thac Bac, or the Silver Waterfall. Found at the bottom of a steep stone stairway, the waterfall emerges from the thick vegetation and looks like a shard of silver, plunging into the rocky pool below. Due to the far thinner flow of tourists in the area, there’s a good chance you will have the waterfall to yourself, allowing for a peaceful moment in which you can sit and zone out, taking in the crisp air.
Also, thanks to the high elevation of the town, it’s fairly uncommon for a dense mist to obscure the views. Of course, this may inhibit your ability to see far into the distance. Personally, my best memory of Tam Dao Town is the mysterious atmosphere created by the dense fog. Certain parts of the town, such as some of the oldest villas and the church, can be appreciated on an even deeper level when set against a backdrop of the unknown.
For those whose blood pressure and stress levels need more than a day or two away from Ha Noi to recover, Tam Dao is a great base from which to enjoy some hiking or camping. The Tam Dao National Park covers an area of nearly 370sq.km 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 per cent of the region, which is home to more than 800 species of animal.
The journey home from Ha Noi is made better if you have time for a small diversion, as the Tay Thien site encompasses the Quoc Mau Tay Thien Temple, one of the prominent centres of Vietnamese Buddhism. After two or three days of crisp mountain air, picturesque elevated roads and fresh vegetables, an hour spent reflecting in a beautiful mountain temple will be the perfect end to your trip.
|Room with a view: Most of the hotels and villas offer breathtaking views.
Meditate in the mist: The nearby temple is peace incarnate.
Foggy farming: Locals growing fresh vegetables.
Are we there yet: It’s easy to find.
The only way is up: Taking a break from the mountain road.