A favored summer retreat during French colonial times, Tam Dao is dubbed a mini version of Da Lat with year-round cool climate, foggy landscape and old villas.
Located 90 kilometers northeast of Hanoi, Tam Dao, or "three islands" in Vietnamese, was voted the world's leading tourist town at this year's World Travel Awards.
Two centuries after it was established by the French as a summer retreat for their officials, the town in the northern province of Vinh Phuc is achieving global fame.
Tam Dao is an ideal place to visit all year round with temperatures ranging from 18 to 25 degrees Celsius.
It is always crowded during summer with Hanoians especially flocking there since its weather is always 4-5 degrees Celsius cooler.
The winter from November to January casts a spell over Tam Dao covering everything in mist, making it a romantic and dreamy place for couples.
The name Tam Dao is derived from three mountains that stand like islands above the clouds: Thien Thi, Thach Ban and Phu Nghia. All are more than 1,000 meters above sea level, making it a no-brainer for the French colonialists to turn Tam Dao into a summer retreat.
Trekking through the dense forest inside Tam Dao National Park to conquer the summits is a favorite travel experience for most foreign tourists.
Unlike other national parks and conservation areas in Vietnam, Tam Dao has not been touched by agriculture. Instead of rice paddies and tea plantations, those who venture deep into the park can see diverse flora and rare species of fauna such as white-cheeked black monkey and snake-head fish.
Hiking tours are the best way to explore Tam Dao National Park and local guides can be hired at hotels in town.
Some travel agencies offer two-day trekking tours for less experienced trekkers at VND1-1.5 million per person, including a night's stay.
The tour can be done all year round, but the best time is from January through April when it is dry and flowers bloom.
Visitors can sometimes see moon bears that were rescued from the bile harvesting industry and released into the wild by the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center, which is in the park.
French architecture is a highlight of Tam Dao. Though the old buildings there are mostly ruined, the stone church in the downtown area retains its original structure despite the ravages of time.
The church was built in 1906 as a modest stilt house and rebuilt in 1937 with stone in Gothic style, making it one of the four most famous stone churches in Vietnam with the others being in Ninh Binh (Phat Diem), Sa Pa and Nha Trang.
The chancel inside is simply furnished. It has a number of arched windows that are decorated with glass mosaics with the images of Jesus.
Near the door is a stone bell tower 18m in height.
There is a large yard outside surrounded by arched walls. From here, one can see the whole town with its villas, hotels, guesthouses, markets, and chayote gardens swirling in the mist.
Deep inside a forest is the beautiful Silver Waterfall. The waters from small streams fall over 50m and the surrounding landscape remains pristine due to its low profile.
The road from Tam Dao Town to the waterfall is quite steep and slippery, and so you should wear decent shoes. Shoes are also available for rent on the way down the waterfall for VND20,000 a pair.
A 94-meter television tower is situated on top of Thien Nhi Mountain at a height of 1,375 meters above sea level. To get to the tower, you have to climb 1,394 steps amid flowers and green trees on both sides.
Not far from the tower is Princess Thuong Ngan Temple. It was built in the 20th century to worship the princess as part of the Mother Goddess worship tradition that is prevalent in Vietnam.
In addition to the French-built stone church, which has become quite popular with Instagrammers, Cau May photo studio is also a favorite photoshooting place in Tam Dao thanks to its unique mountain views.
The studio is near Tam Dao Belvedere Resort and entry tickets cost VND30,000. It takes at least half an hour to visit all the spots inside.
A night market in the heart of the town that opens from 6 p.m. has dozens of stalls selling handmade clothes, scarves, handbags, and silver and ivory bracelets made by local ethnic people.
Visitors can also try unique local dishes such as ga nuong com lam (grilled chicken cooked in bamboo tubes), grilled skewers, grilled chicken in clay, and grilled sweet potato.
Finding a cafe with mountain views is not a bad idea.
Rock Cafe opposite the stone church has become a popular rendezvous for foreign tourists. It has western-style dishes such as BBQ ribs, pasta and pizza and drinks that cost VND30,000 - 300,000.
Quan Gio Café offers a panoramic view of the town and its drinks start at VND40,000.
Most homestays in Tam Dao are quite far from the downtown area, which makes them inconvenient for visiting tourist attractions. But some good places with mountain views are 90s Homestay, Cuden, Levent, and Kumo Chan. Rooms start at VND450,000 a night.
The downtown area is dotted with luxury hotels and French-built villas with room costing VND1-2 million a night. Tam Dao Belvedere, Venus, Bach Xanh, and May Villa are popular places.
Chayote, or su in Vietnamese, is a specialty in Tam Dao as it can be cooked in various ways including boiling and frying with beef or garlic.
In restaurants, it is stuffed inside thin slices of beef. You can find chayote on the mountainsides and even the sides of downtown streets. Chayote is on every restaurant's menu or you can buy it right in a garden.
Grilled chicken is also a signature dish in Tam Dao. These chickens are not kept in cages but run freely in the mountains to feed, which makes their meat thick, tough and tasty.
In Tam Dao, chicken is wrapped in clay and grilled on charcoal until it turns golden brown.
You can try the dish at Khong Gian (Space) Restaurant.
Grilled red beef is a unique dish in Tam Dao that is hardly found anywhere else. Meat from a slaughtered calf is hung in a tree near an anthill for the ants to bite the meat.
The meat is then washed and grilled on charcoal until red.
You can try the dish at Thien Cam Restaurant and Pho Nui Restaurant.
Due to the chill weather, grilled skewers, roasted chestnuts and bamboo-tube rice are favorite dishes at the night market.
Since Tam Dao is just 70 kilometers from Hanoi, riding a motorbike is the easiest way to get here.
But the ride up can be somewhat challenging since there are some steep slopes and multiple bends, but you should be fine as long as you maintain a moderate speed.
You can rent a motorbike in Hanoi for VND120,000-VND150,000 ($5.18-6.48) a day.
From Hanoi, you can also reach Tam Dao by bus, limousine or taxis with a round-trip costing VND200,000-300,000 per person.
In Tam Dao Town, visitors should rent a motorbike for VND150,000 - 250,000 a day.
Story by Trung Nghia, Hoang Phong