While not a must-visit destination, if you’re not in a rush and are keen to explore less touristy spots in Vietnam, Tam Dao hill station is worth an overnight from Hanoi, especially to escape the capital’s summer heat. Here’s some advice on how to spend your time there.
Leave Hanoi after breakfast — by bus, bike or car — to get to Tam Dao in time for lunch. Places to eat and drink line the streets, so if you’re a fan of Vietnamese food you’ll be spoiled for choice. If you’re not a fan, simply grilled yet tasty meat is easy to find and the town is famous for its su su — a leafy green vegetable served boiled (luoc) or fried (xao) with garlic. Other specialties include deer, squirrel, porcupine and boar.
Check into your hotel and change into walking shoes — it’s all about walking in Tam Dao. Head along the main road up the hill until you reach a gate, where you’ll need to pay the guard 25,000 VND admission to continue; it’s a bit of a walk to get there, or on a motorbike it takes around 10 minutes. Once past the gate, you’ll begin about a two-hour walk through bamboo forest with the occasional 180-degree view of the forest below. The path can get muddy, but is well-signposted and you’re unlikely to come across anyone else, making it a peaceful and interesting walk.
For a shorter walk, visit the waterfall, near the Mela Hotel, or, in summer, spend the afternoon at the public swimming pool in the centre of town.
Tam Dao is not a place to go looking for a party – unless you’re a fan of Vietnamese karaoke, which seems to be very popular – but street food stalls selling delights including kebabs, baked eggs, chicken feet and corn run alongside the river, near the market, and are a good place to start, and maybe end, the night.
As the food on offer at the stalls is unlikely to satiate a hearty appetite, head to one of the many restaurants for some more meat and su su and, if you’re brave enough, some rice wine. Check out the rice wine variants at Kim Lien restaurant, near Gia Le Hotel – the grilled pork is highly recommended but the snake rice wine is not.
Next day, after breakfast at your hotel or a local restaurant, wander down to the market square to see vendors selling both to locals – meat and eggs – and tourists – rugs, scarves and the like. Enjoy a Vietnamese coffee at one of the cafes at the northern end of the public pool; expect to pay 10,000 VND for a strong cafe sua (coffee with milk).
Explore the rest of the town. Despite recent development, many interesting buildings remain. They may be rundown and shabby, but that somehow adds to their appeal.
Consider a stop at Tay Thien Pagoda, sometimes called the birth place of Vietnamese Buddhism, and home to some wonderful mountain pagodas, on the way back to Hanoi if you have time.
As for when to go, at 920 metres above sea level, the weather in Tam Dao is far cooler than in Hanoi, so it’s a pleasant respite from the heat in the summer but in the winter you’ll need to wrap up, particularly in the evenings. On the positive side, despite the cold, the weather in winter is lovely, with blue skies and low humidity.
At 80 kilometres northwest of Hanoi, you can reach Tam Dao by bus, motorbike, taxi or private car; here's a little about how to do each.
Usually the cheapest option for getting to Tam Dao is to go by public bus, from Gia Lam bus station, but they only run as far as Vinh Yen, from where you'll need to take a taxi or motorbike taxi the last 24-kilometre stretch.
If you want total flexibility, at relatively low cost, then go by motorbike (but remember you need a license to be legal and insured). Unfortunately, as is always the way when getting out of Hanoi, you have to battle through the pollution and crazy traffic before you reach any notable scenery or signs of serenity, but once you get off the highway it's an enjoyable enough ride. Expect to be on the road for around three hours.
First head out of town on the dyke road — this is the main road that runs to the east of Old Quarter and keeps on going… Eventually you will reach the Thanh Long Bridge, which traverses the Red River. The route to get onto the bridge is a bit convoluted but follow motorbike (xe may) signs and you'll be fine.
From the other side of the bridge, the most direct, but less pretty, route takes you almost all the way to Noi Bai International Airport on the main highway, then turns left onto another large road towards Vinh Yen. Turn right at the big roundabout as you enter Vinh Yen then continue onto the next large roundabout where you turn right again onto a peaceful yet wide road called Duong Tam Dao. From there you can see Tam Dao hill station and it's an easy, signposted route.
For a more scenic ride, and if you're feeling brave or have GPS, take the first turning that's signposted Phuc Yen, shortly after Thang Long Bridge. From there, explore the back roads to make your way to Tam Dao. The last 10 kilometres or so of the journey is particularly scenic, although steep. If you're heading up with a passenger, make sure your bike's got a decent engine — or take good walking shoes. And expect it to take a while as you'll want to stop for photos.
If motorbikes aren't your thing, how about cycling? A good degree of fitness is essential, particularly for the last climb, but you'll certainly deserve the cold beer at the end.
Given the distance from Hanoi, it's also feasible to take a taxi without breaking the bank. A small Mai Linh will cost around 800,000 VND (US$40) each way — it's not bad if there are a few of you, although a bigger taxi will hike the price up to over 1 million VND. If you've been practising your Vietnamese you might even be able to negotiate a stop off en route for a coffee or lunch.
If you want more flexibility and have a bigger budget, then consider hiring a car. A day trip will run to around US$60 and overnight US$80. Or organise a tour through an agent. Group tours aren't common so you'll need to arrange a private tour, but it's a hassle-free alternative. Most travel agents and hotels will be able to help, although True Colour Tour comes recommended and I've successfully organised car hire with Golden Package Tour (email@example.com).
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 25th February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.