Tam Dao Hill Station

by Robert Strauss, Oct 1, 1996 | Destinations: Vietnam / Tam Dao

Our guidebook said the Vietnamese regard Tam Dao Hill Station, eighty-five kilometers northwest of Hanoi, as "the Dalat of the North." That was enough to get us on a motorcycle headed for the hills. The chance to escape the summer heat of Hanoi for a beautiful mountain setting sounded just about perfect.

Our 1993 guidebook went on: "Today, the grand colonial villas are a bit run-down, but Tam Dao retains its refreshing weather, beautiful hiking areas and superb views." It did sound like Dalat, the Central Highlands getaway for southern Vietnam, with its lakes and waterfalls, its villas, some run-down, some newly restored. I imagined that our excursion to Tam Dao would combine the sophistication and romance of Vietnam's colonial past with the electricity of today.

Once beyond the cluttered, narrow streets of Hanoi, the outline of the Tam Dao mountains is clearly visible. Much like the front range of the Rocky Mountains, the Tam Dao chain juts up out of a flat plain, rising to 1,400 meters. There is an ominous quality about them, almost daring the visitor to try and climb them. As the kilometer markers continued to click past, I wondered when the road would begin to climb. Two hours out of Hanoi we reached a small gate. There was an equally small police station. A few buses were waiting for passengers. The police waved us through and immediately we began to climb.

The temperature began falling just as quickly. The single lane road rose out of the rice fields and we were soon in the cool shade of a pine forest. At every turn there was a stunning view of the valley below. Local people trudged uphill pulling empty carts. Others headed downhill, fighting to hold back heavy loads of freshly cut firewood.

High above us we could see the road winding back and forth. A few buildings were visible, clinging to the steep mountain slopes. I thought those would be the "grand colonial villas" noted in the guidebook.

On a Sunday afternoon there was almost no traffic headed up the mountain, but there was a continuous convoy of tour buses coming down. At bend after bend, we had to pull off the road and wait as they squeezed by with just millimeters to spare on the single lane road. To the other side, the land fell away, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet. From far below, we could hear the distant sound of a mountain stream.

We rode through a thin layer of clouds and left the pine forest behind for the thick, dripping vegetation of a rain forest. Here and there farmers had hacked out small fields. Looking back down the mountain I saw the quilted patchwork of mountain agriculture. The view was not so different from views in the foothills of Nepal, Bali and Northern Thailand.

A few days earlier, at the Library of Social Sciences in Hanoi, I had looked through the Guide Touristique General de l'Indochine, a French guidebook from 1937. It described Tam Dao in glowing terms and detailed the four different hiking itineraries one could take from the village. Reading about the place in the musty halls of the library made me even more excited to see this secluded, colonial getaway that was half hidden in the clouds. The 1937 guidebook spoke of the wonderful climate, the swimming pool, the cinema and the tennis courts. With only a kilometer left to reach town, the road became steeper still and divided into two, one-way lanes.

The valley below now seemed to be incredibly distant. It seemed impossible that we had climbed so high so quickly. Even as thick clouds rolled over the densely forested ridges above us, most of the clouds were far below. The road was lined with moss-covered stone walls, constructed with attention to detail workmanship well suited to a lost village in the hills. Here and there new building was underway, often cantilevered out over nothing but air, the owners trying to take still further advantage of their already spectacular perches.

Just before town there were several very sharp bends in the road. We rounded the last one, came into Tam Dao and found ' nothing. Well, almost nothing. The "Dalat of the North" turned out to be a small cul-de-sac hemmed in by mountains. From the descriptions in the guidebooks, new and old, I half expected to find women in white lace carrying parasols while on their way from one afternoon tea to the next. What greeted us instead were half a dozen roughly hewn wooden stalls where insistent hawkers sold stuffed long-tailed rodents.

"This is Tam Dao?" my wife said from the back of our overheated motorcycle. Three horseshoe-shaped, concentric roads comprised the streets of the town. As we rode along each, a series of young men kick started their Minsk motorcycles and sputtered up beside us. "I have bedroom. Come see," they each offered. For the moment, we ignored them, still searching for the colonial villas we imagined were just around the next bend; charming, romantic, vacant, waiting just for us. But there were no "grand colonial villas." The 1993 guidebook said they were a "bit run down." "More like torn down," Nina said. There was nothing that could be called a villa. Tam Dao could hardly be called a village.

The western side of the town was hardly more than a few concrete hotels and guest houses with all the panache of a public housing project. Perhaps they were once featured in the East German edition of Architectural Digest. Although we had come to Tam Dao to escape the noise of Hanoi, every building, every house, seemed to have a karaoke machine going full blast. All seemed to have tone deaf customers.

The eastern slope of town was even more peculiar than the karaoke-infested western slope. Although we could see roads and utility poles winding through the hillside, there were no houses. There were distinct plots carved from the encroaching forest. "It looks like the Oakland fire," I said to my wife. The 1991 fire that devastated the hills of Oakland, California, left nothing behind but foundations, sidewalks, and charred automobiles. Half of Tam Dao had the same, eerie, scorched look

Winding our way along Tam Dao's narrow streets, we passed the town square which was blocked off to traffic. The 1937 guidebook spoke of an English garden. Where perhaps once there were beautiful hedges and topiary, there were huge concrete benches and large concrete columns topped with enormous concrete spheres. Everything was painted in pastel. "It's like a huge mini-golf course," Nina said. In each quadrant of the square there were cylindrical animal cages. But the cages were open. There were no animals. "Where do you think they are?" I asked Nina. She jerked her head toward the stuffed animal sellers who continued to beckon us from across the park. "Where do you think?" she said.

The remnants of Tam Dao's colonial past were few. A stone church, now turned assembly hall, disco and karaoke club sits alone, surrounded by the concrete hotels and guest houses we had seen from far below. Opposite the square is a lovely, outdoor swimming pool, its shape a peculiar inverted hourglass with the middle wider than the ends. Next to the pool is a small gazebo atop a knoll'the town barber shop. Across the road is an oval pool, just two feet deep. "It must have been the kiddie pool," I said to Nina. It was filled with debris from the construction of a nearby guest house.

When we approached the eastern slope of Tam Dao Town, the hill station's grand past became much more apparent. Beautifully joined stone gates stood before empty lots where "grand villas" once must have been. Ornate, winding staircases rose from the streets and arrived at doorsteps that led to nothing. Jungle growth crawled over empty foundations.

Clouds crept across Tam Dao in the late afternoon. We left the motorcycle and walked, noting each banister, each bridge of rusting wrought iron, each stairway that ended in an overgrown field. There were vestiges of elegance all around us but the only beauty that remained was that of the clouds and the thick green slopes they blanketed.

Tam Dao is a wet place. Even before the rains began, the town was damp through and through. Water runs everywhere. The rooms, the cafes, the restaurants and the karaoke joints all felt heavy with moisture. The forest, laden with rain and dew, looms over the town more than surrounds it. But unlike the flood plains below, the air is cool. The water is cool.

Most likely, had we arrived earlier, we would have left Tam Dao the same day we arrived. But it was already late. We spent the night in one of the town's many new guest houses. Outside, lightning flashed continuously. In the room next to ours, several babies were crying as three or four teenagers hollered the words of "I Will Always Love You" to the beat of a portable karaoke machine. Heavy rains trapped us in the mountains for a second day and night.

And it was probably a good thing. Otherwise we might not have walked down the 300 stone steps to the bottom of the waterfall the French called the "Cascade d'Argent" (Waterfall of Silver). Once there was an "Hotel d'Argent" as well. Now there is a only a foundation. Had we not given Tam Dao another chance we might never have seen how the local taxidermists patch up disintegrating, mangy stuffed animals by ripping the fur from even worse specimens and gluing it in place on the ones they are touching up. We would not have walked, in the rain, to the charming little pagoda at the base of the peak the French called the "Col de Thai-Nguyen." Nor would we have trekked to the top of the 1,050 meter peak where we tried, in vain, to see through the clouds and admire the view said to be magnificent by the 1937 guide.

We wouldn't have heard the noise of the forest drown out the noise of Tam Dao's karaoke joints. We wouldn't have spent two days wondering what Tam Dao was once like and what it could once again become. And we wouldn't have wondered who told the authors of the 1993 guidebook about the "run down" villas that hadn't been standing for forty years. It was only when we returned to Hanoi that we learned Tam Dao had been destroyed in the 1950s by the Viet Minh in their war against the French. And it was in Hanoi that we learned of a joint-venture project that plans to restore Tam Dao to its former glory.

But, for now, it's hard to say if Tam Dao is worth the trip. The accommodations are uniformly shabby and musty. "Gouging" does not begin to describe the pricing policy of the village restaurants where one can choose among boar, grouse, pigeon, deer, turkey, fox and a number of other wild animals suitable for eating (and stuffing).

From Tam Dao, on a clear day, one can almost see forever. But the view may be better if you close your eyes. Then you can almost see a time when the ladies did walk with their parasols from one "grand colonial villa" to another. Or when they cooled their toes in the fresh mountain water of the swimming pool. Or maybe it's best to stop just short of town, just before that last bend in the road. There one can admire the view, imagine what once was, and what might soon be again.

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Fact File:

Other Hill Stations in Asia




Cameron Highlands
Fraser's Hill
Penang Hill
Maxwell's Hill

The Galis


Sri Lanka:
Nuwara Eliya

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