Quick escapes

Both Tam Dao and Ba Vi offer some peace and tranquility when nearby Hanoi gets a little too much

By Kevin Raison on November 05,2018 10:46 AM

Quick escapes

Photos Nguyen Xuan Chinh

Ba Vi really does hold a broad range of sites that can help a person reclaim their space in the now

"PING” goes the phone heralding a work email, barely audible through the din of honking cars indignant that all the city didn’t part way for the oh-so-important person in each vehicle. The honk does little to cut through the rumble of motorbikes, and even if it did the absolute apathy to the concerns of others that pervades Hanoi’s busy streets renders the complaint moot. Standing on the sidewalk before a “banh mi” (bread) stand I grudgingly dragged my phone out of my pocket only to suddenly experience pain in my leg and whip around, or rather get whipped around, to see my shoe on the sidewalk a good two meters away. The warmth running down my calf told me that, while I was standing completely off the road, someone had still managed to hit me with their motorbike and then simply drive off. Retrieving my shoe, I limped back to the banh mi woman who was now shouting incoherently at me. Michael Douglas’s reaction to life in the film “Falling Down”, though tempting, was off the menu of acceptable choices for the way the month had been going so I opted for the next best thing: a short holiday.

What do the creators of the Huffington Post and Dropbox along with bestselling author Tom Peters and many other industry greats have in common? When they’re feeling overwhelmed they take a walk to be able to center themselves and refresh their efficiency - and that’s exactly what I decided to do.

Tam Dao is a small town about 70 km from Hanoi. It’s reachable by car, but for a more exciting trip I went by motorbike. The roads were long and flat, but of course that wasn’t to last. With mountains emerging ahead, the temperature dropped as I rose while surrounded by more lush green flora than I’d seen all year in Hanoi. Finally, the climb slowed and leveled and I was able to look back at the land spread out under me. The air, clear and clean as one might imagine in the mountains, permitted my sight to continue untold kilometers, taking in farms and forest, villages and verdant mountainside. Around me was a quaint town where I would spend some time after the ride to prepare for the trek.

Quick escapes

Tam Dao town is exactly what you need to get away from Hanoi for a day or two. There are some cafes, a couple places to eat, and some hotels ranging from simple to more luxurious, and of course the iconic gothic style church. The small roads that wind back and forth make for a relaxing stroll around the town and the path down to the small waterfall at the edge of the town makes for a good “micro-trek” upon arriving, just as a way to stretch one’s legs after the ride before stopping in a café or restaurant to plan one’s real trek and grab a bite before getting underway.

Arriving at the park center, my first stop was at the Bear Rescue Center Vietnam. In Vietnam bear bile is used in medicine. Who was the first to think about taking the digestive juices of a predatory animal’s gallbladder as medicine I know not, but today there are a plethora of alternatives to produce the same medicinal effects the bile holds. However, the bear bile trade persists and the modern-day result is that many bears are abused and illegally traded. As saddening as humanity’s depravity might be, this sanctuary is a much warmer sight of hope. There, rescued bears are able to live out the rest of their lives under protection and it was well worth the visit to see the efforts taking place to protect these animals.

The path continued on, and I opted for a shorter route of about four hours. There are many paths at Tam Dao and one could trek from anywhere from three hours to two days, depending on the time they had. I only had a day so I kept at a fair pace, stopping often to take in the view of rich pine forests, the distant Xa Huong Lake, and of course the pure quiet only seldom punctuated by any noise. That “noise” more often than not was any of the hundreds of kinds of birds that reside within the region, making it less a noise and more part of the local soundtrack. It was very much a welcome respite from the rush, honking, and pressure of Hanoi. Though easy to reach from the capital, the scenes brought me somewhere seemingly much further away, if not in body then at least in mind. These mountain paths can hold an almost ethereal feel, especially in Tam Dao, where the climate is much cooler than in Hanoi and the foliage is likewise very different. The result is that this short trip feels as if it’s much further from Hanoi than it actually is.

Thoroughly refreshed from my short jaunt up to Tam Dao, I set my sights on a smaller, closer destination for the next month. Ba Vi is 60 km or less from Hanoi’s center and has a plethora of accommodation to make for a calm getaway from the city. There are more simple hotels for those who wish to squeeze affordable excursions into any kind of budget. However, since there were minimal transportation costs to Ba Vi, staying at the Melia Ba Vi Mountain Retreat almost seems to make five-star accommodation seem affordable for a casual trip. For a memorable anniversary weekend on the other hand, the retreat is of exceptional value for the price.

Quick escapes

Ba Vi National Park boasts an expanse of almost 11,000 ha and actually crosses over from a district of Hanoi into Hoa Binh province. The park’s main attractions are Tan Vien Peak (1,227 meters above sea level) and the slightly higher Vua (King) Peak (1,296 meters). Besides the view and the visceral response of “oh finally we made it”, summiting Tan Vien provides an extra reward. The mountain is named after one of the four immortals in Vietnamese mythology. This deity is also important in the story of the contest between the god of the mountain and the god of the water. Naturally then, there’s a temple at the top. The trip provides some unique insights into Vietnam’s history and culture and the mountains hold a special place in the hearts of many Vietnamese.

The next day was for the highest mountain: Vua Peak. Ba Vi really does hold a broad range of sites that can help a person reclaim their space in the now. The Old Church in the jungle reminds us how all things return to nature - nothing is permanent and so there is great virtue in living in the present. The magnificent views from the top of the peak further remind a city-dweller about the smallness of one’s self in life. The peak of this mountain is also home to a temple, not for a deity but to a man who put the rest of Vietnam before himself. “Khong co gi quy hon doc lap tu do” (Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom) is spelled in gold letters. Turning from the temple you can see Ba Vi spread out in clear view. In such a moment it’s easy to feel a spark of the compassion that President Ho Chi Minh, for whom the temple was constructed, felt for his country and people.

The war has long since ended. Vietnam has seen an extended period of peace, stability, and growth. However, the fight to protect Vietnam continues, and ensuring the beauty and health of this country begins with you. Please, if you bring anything into a national park, make sure it leaves with you. If you see trash along the way that’s not yours maybe even take it out to leave a trail better than you found it. This will help ensure that Tam Dao and Ba Vi remain magnificent short getaway locations for those in Hanoi. If you wish to learn more about what you can do to support the fight against bear bile farming, contact Animals Asia or Education for Nature - Vietnam for more details. And if you’re simply looking for a short escape, maybe consider these two remarkable national parks.

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