TAM DAO HILL STATION
Tel 0211 • elevation 930m
Tam Dao Hill Station was founded by the French in 1907. It was a popular place of escape from the heat of the Red River Delta, and became known to them as the Cascade d’ Argent (Silver Waterfall, or Thac Bac). Most of the grand old colonial villas were destroyed during the war in the 1950s and the ruins have since been replaced by Soviet-inspired, concrete-box to restore some of the colonial villas is now under way.
Hanoi residents sometimes call Tam Dao ‘the Dalat of the north’. This has more to do with its high elevation and cool climate than nay resemblance to Dalat. If you’re living in Hanoi and would like to find a summer weekend retreat, it’s worth heading up for the cool weather and a change of pace. However, unless you plan to do some serious hiking or bird-watching, there really isn’t that much to see and do here. Expect, that is, to spend hours listening to loud karaoke ricochet around the valley from the bars. If you are planning to visit the mountain elsewhere in Vietnam, you won’t miss much by passing up Tam Dao.
Tam Dao National Park was designed in 1996 and covers much of the area. Tam Dao means ‘Three Islands’, and the three summits of Tam Dao Mountain, all about 1400m in height, are sometimes visible to the northeast of the hill station, floating like islands in the mist, The relative dampness and altitude makes the area particularly rich in rainforest and associated animals. There are at least 64 mammal species – including langurs – and 239 bird species in the park, but you’ll need a good local guide, and be prepared to do some hiking to look for them. Illgal hunting remains a big problem. Many of the bars in Tam Dao offer rice wines with variously, whole birds, reptiles or small mammals from the park pickled in it; it’s not uncommon for tourists to be offered live wildlife for sale. Logging, both legal and otherwise, has also had a serious impact on the environment. Some hill-tribe people live in the Tam Dao region, though the communities are less prominent than they used to be.
Remember that it is cool up in Tam Dao and that this part of Vietnam has a distinct winter.
Don’t be caught unprepared. Hikes vary from half an hour return to the waterfall, to eight hours into primary rainforest. A guide is essential for the longer treks and can be hired for about 50,000d; inquire about these at the Mela Hotel. Generally the best time to visit is between late. April and mid-October, when the mist sometimes lifts and the weather can be fine. As with other popular sites in Vietnam, weekends can be packes with Vietnamese tour groups, so try to make your visit during the week if possible.
Places to Stay & Eat
There are many hotels and guesthouses in Tam Dao, charging anything from 80,000d to US$65. You can walk around the town in less than ten minutes, so look around, negotiate, and watch out for neighbouring karaoke bars.
Mela Hotel (fax 82352; rooms US$45-65) is as stylish and elegant as the price suggests, and is a favoured haunt for Hanoi expats. In fact it’s the only stylish and elegant place in town.
Anh Dao Hotel (tell: 824309; rooms 120,000-150,000d) is tatty but fine for the price. The rooms are good-sized and some have balconies.
Nha Nghi Suoi Bac (tell: 824275; rooms 80,000-100,000) is a tiny, basic, three-room guesthouse next to a small spring. It’s included here as one of the few lodgings that, at time of writing, doesn’t have a karaoke machine
Thre are hotel restaurant and com pho places in town. Try to avoid eating the local wildlife if you can.
Getting There & Away
Tam Dao National Park is 85km northwest of Hanoi in Vinh Phuc province. Buses run from Kim Ma bus station in Hanoi to Vinh Yen (one hour). From there you can hire a motorbike (about 30,000d) to travel the 24km single-lane road that leads to the national park.
Hiring a car and driver for the day from Hanoi will cost about US$40. If you rent a motorbike in Hanoi, the journey time is about two hours.
· Cruise the emerald waters of Halong By and explore some of the 3000-plus islets and grottoes of this magnificent Unesco World Heritage site
· Relax on the beaches of Cat Ba island, or trek through its scenic and untames national park.
· Discover the lakes, revers, waterfalls ans caves in Ba Be National Park from the comfort of a boat.
· Explore the beautiful, remote and little-visited waterfalls, caves and historical sites around Cao Bang on the Chinese border.
Dominated by the Red River basin and the sea, the fertile northeast is the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. Much if Vietnamese history, not all of it happy, was made here. In particular, Vietnam had less than cordial relations with the Chinese, who invaded in the 2nd century BC and stayed for about 1000 years. Indeed, the last invasion took place as recently as 1979 (see the boxed text ‘Playing for High Stakes’ in this chapter).
On a more positive not this part of Vietnam is showing real economic potential. Much investor interest centers on Haiphong, Vietnam’s largest seaport. However, it’s the scenery, not the history, politics or economics, that is the major tourist draw-card here. In particular, the spectacular coastline of Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and Cat Ba Island offer some of nature’s more bizarre and beautiful geologic displays. Add to that the Ba Be Lakes, the mountains around Cao Bang, the region’s Montagnard inhabitants and its accessibility to China, and it’s not hard to see why Vietnam’s northeast is a major magnet for visitors.