Friday, July 10, 2009

- On cloud nine

If you’re desperate to escape the oppressive summer heat in Hanoi, the mountain town of Tam Dao offers a cool respite.

The journey to Tam Dao begins at the foot of the mountain road that rises up at an ever increasingly precipitous angle. I drop the motorcycle into second gear and start to grind and wind my way up the road. The higher I climb, the more the temperature drops. After a week melting in the latest Hanoi-heat wave, where temperatures were touching 40 degree Celsius, this is exactly what my body is crying out for.

Down below the heat is pounding all and sundry, but on the two-lane mountain road to Tam Dao, you are also shaded by the pine forest on either side of the road. Every so often I remind myself to pull over and savour the scenery; every turn offers a stunning view. Locals shoot past on old Minsk or Win motorcycles. Some motorcyclists have attached a big branch of a tree to the back of the bike as an extra brake.

Going up the hard way, some farmers trudge up the hill, carrying bunches of firewood on their shoulders. Tourist buses also trundle past, negotiating the tight corners on the steep country roads as best they can. Soon I notice the first thin layer of cloud. In places screeching cicadas are close to deafening. The clouds become thicker, the forest becomes denser, but eventually the road opens up into Tam Dao town.

Tam Dao is a former hill station, retreat and health spa. Founded by the French in the early 20th century, the town was once home to over 200 French villas, a collection of hotels and restaurants, a swimming pool and even a dance auditorium. No doubt 80 years ago French colonialists were also wilting in the Hanoi heat and desperate to escape for cooler climes.

Today most of the villas are gone. The town is filled with typically-Vietnamese modern buildings you would find anywhere in the country. Not quite what I was expecting from what is billed as an old colonial hill station. I stroll around and examine some of the collapsed French villas where I picture women in white lace once sat under parasols heading from one afternoon tea party to the next.

More distressingly, in the centre of town there is a host of karaoke bars, certainly not a form of entertainment I’d associate with an old colonial town either. Customers blithely unawares to the din they’re producing sing their hearts out. The town is described as “the Dalat of the North”. The two towns certainly share a refreshingly cool microclimate. But tourism is less developed here.

Visitors from Hanoi often complain about the price of food and services here. Guest house owners and hotel staff are also quite pushy, eagerly trying to persuade visitors to come and stay at their establishment. I decide to slip away, down the 300 stone steps to the bottom of the waterfall the French called “Cascade d’Argent” (Waterfall of Silver), but as this is the dry season, sadly the waterfall is lacking a vital ingredient: water.

The nearby swimming-pool is also rather shabby looking. But later on I stop at a small house that stands alone at the top of hill. The house is under a trellis covered by green chayote and overlooks the town centre. It’s a nice spot to take in the stunning views as well as avoid pushy vendors. The hostess is most hospitable and offers to prepare lunch me some lunch.

A chicken is duly picked, plucked and boiled with chayote and then stir-fried with fresh vegetables. It’s delicious and I devour two whole plates. In the late afternoon clouds creep across the skyline. The town is slowly enveloped in mist and cloud. This is also a rare moment as the karaoke singers fall silent.

The town is suddenly as quiet as you would imagine it should be. I can see Rung Rinh (Vibrate peak) jutting through the cloud and golden sunbeams shine through the pine forests. It’s picture-perfect moment. As darkness descends, the moon appears as bright as a button in the night sky. The moon seems closer than normal. The moonlight coats the town with a flattering majesty.

The town’s less attractive assets disappear while the imposing peaks stick out radiantly. Like many Vietnamese tourist towns, Tam Dao has suffered from hasty developments and a lack of tourism know-how, but with stunning mountain views and a cool, fresh climate, tourists will undoubtedly keep coming up for air.

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