Tam Dao: where heaven meets Earth

A two-hour ride from bustling Hanoi offers a sea of clouds, merry meals and a maze of hidden spots.

Take a jaunt to the northwest of Tam Dao and after twenty minutes and a few turns, you will find a sign that reads: "Tam Dao - A bridge between heaven and Earth". Tilt your head left and it’s almost sunset.

Park rangers in their green and white striped socks pulled up to their knees stroll around leisurely during rainy season, stopping curious motorbike riders entering the national park. “It’s dangerous. Landslides,” one said.

If you are lucky, they might offer you a beer while you pull up one of their plastic chairs closer to the balcony and watch the sun fade away.

Sunset viewed from Tam Dao Heaven’s Gate

Tam Dao has been almost a cliché in the capital's guidebooks for weekend escapes ever since the French discovered the area in late 19th century. Hanoians, after tireless weekends in town, have begun to make the move.

Nguyen Qui Duc, former Vietnamese American NPR broadcaster, author, translator of various Vietnamese-related works, now over 70 years old, sat at his dim, artistic Tadioto bar in Hanoi, daydreaming about his retirement house in Tam Dao.

"I want to move there for a few months, care for my health, write a book," Duc said.

The writer owns a subtle house of three levels stretched down a hillside in Tam Dao, where floor-to-ceiling windows look out over a dangling pool set to a background of endless mountains.

Old buildings of Tam Dao

Together with Duc, Vietnamese celebrities including artists, singers and retired businessmen have found Tam Dao the perfect retreat just 70 kilometers from Hanoi.

Former bigwig Trinh Xuan Thanh, now an international criminal, used to host high profile parties at his three-storey mansion somewhere near the summit - before the government banned all land transactions to investigate his crimes.

Yet, hidden-away villas, decades-old hotels, rising four-star resorts and frequent weekend visitors failed to overrun the two-square-kilometer town busy. You find yourself standing in the center, listening to karaoke echoing down streets winds while hasty clouds sprint by.

Take a hike

Tam Dao Mountain viewed from Heaven’s Gate

Tam Dao, "three islands" in Vietnamese, is not purely a sight to view from Heaven's Gate.

The rocky mountains that soar over 1,500 meters and host a 35,000 hectare (86,500 acre) national park offer one of the most challenging yet underrated treks in the north. Local youths use the paths as a warm-up for the 3,143 meter high Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina.

Linh Trang, a 23-year-old who did a one-day trek last December, said the routes were fascinating with rugged cliffs, muddy paths and endless bamboo forests.

If you don't come for karaoke, it's high time to get off the beaten track.

Try su su

A typical su su feast

Tam Dao's central market is nothing but a tiny maze that you could figure out in just ten minutes.

During that short adventure, you can find a rather strange vegetable that pops up at every stall - either lying in bunches or stuffed inside thin slices of beef.

Chayotes, su su in Vietnamese, dominates Tam Dao by crawling up every fence and spreading every slope. Try yelling su su and a motorbike rider packed with chayotes on his backseat would likely to stop and sell you a bunch at a few dollars. For souvenir, they would say.

In su su fairy land, the delicate yet crunchy leaves find their way inside thin wraps of beef, boiling hotpot or strangely enough, flavored rice cakes.

How to get the best out of a su su grill or hotpot? Order a few shots of Vietnamese rice wine and drink the spooky night away.

Find your own retreat

Golden Pagoda

Stretched chayote fields and endless mountains hide the best calming, soul-detoxing places all around Tam Dao for a price of next to nothing.

Sip a cup of coffee and feel the chilly breeze at Quan Gio, the ultimate coffee stall for a panoramic view at the very south of town.

If you are lucky, you might find the dreamy house of Nguyen Qui Duc, which once hosted the shootings of a Vietnamese Venice festival winner - for a dive in his pool.

Or an easy-enough march to Golden Pagoda, a less frequented place just a few hundred stairs up the hill, let the bell ring to clear your head.

Golden Pagoda

Take it all in before returning to the troubled, crammed capital.

Quynh Trang
Photo by Viet Dinh