|Silver Waterfall: The shard of water is quite a sight. — VNS Photo Edward Dalton|
by Edward Dalton
Blessed as it is by such a favourable proximity to both mountains, national parks and sea, Hà Nội 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 Hạ 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 Vieät Nam’s answer to the allegorical Stairway to Heaven…
|Room with a view: Most of the hotels and villas offer breathtaking views. — VNS Photo Edward Dalton|
A mere 85km north of Hà Nội lies Tam Ðảo, 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 Ðảo 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 Ðảo 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.
|Meditate in the mist: The nearby temple is peace incarnate. — VNS Photo Edward Dalton|
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 Haø Noäi restaurants.
|Foggy farming: Locals growing fresh vegetables. — VNS Photo Edward Dalton|
Also located close to the centre of town is Thác Bạc, 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.
|Are we there yet: It’s easy to find. — VNS Photo Edward Dalton|
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 Ðảo 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 Hà Nội to recover, Tam Ðảo is a great base from which to enjoy some hiking or camping. The Tam Ðảo 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 only way is up: Taking a break from the mountain road. — VNS Photo Edward Dalton|
The journey home from Hà Nội is made better if you have time for a small diversion, as the Tây Thiên site encompasses the Quốc Mẫu Tây Thiên 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. — VNS