Hanoi Ba Vi National Park
If you're planning to visit only one national park in Vietnam, other parks, like Bach Ma near Hue, should be higher up on your list than Ba Vi. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful park and if you just want a quiet getaway for a day or so, it's a fine choice.
The main attraction at the park is the mountain itself, which rises to more than 1,200m above sea level. There's a very good road leading 12km up to the summit. You can hike or cycle it if you like, but the rest of us mere mortals should take a car or motorbike. The road is narrow and twisty, but far from the worst we've seen on that score in Vietnam. If you're doing it on a motorbike, make sure you're an expert in negotiating first gear.
The foliage, as you ascend the mountain, is green and pristine, and the atmosphere is serene. It's worth going just for that wonderful feeling of relaxation that comes over you the higher you go. Many of the trees in the park are marked according to species, but only in Vietnamese.
Once at the top, you'll have two hikes ahead of you to mountaintop temples. Den Thuong is the easier of the two, at about 600 steps to the top. The second goes to a temple honouring of Ho Chi Minh, called Bac Ho. We tackled the first on our most recent visit. The stairs get progressively trickier near the top, once you pass the first temple, to the smaller shrine above. The views from the top are excellent, or at least, they would have been had we gone on a clear day. We went in the cool season when the mountain is generally shrouded in mist, which is way cool, but we couldn't see a thing.
Food and refreshments are available at the top of the paved road. Other hikes around the slopes of the mountain are possible if you're here for more than a day or so.
Accommodation is available at the Ba Vi Guest House (T: (034) 881 197) which has 30 rooms. Fan rooms cost 150,000 dong and air-con goes for 200,000 dong.
About 4km from the base along the summit road is accommodation and half a dozen restaurants to choose from. There are also tennis courts and a huge swimming pool, though if you think of it as a small artificial lake, you're less likely to be put off by the colour of the water. It's a ghost town in low season, October through March, but otherwise fills up on weekends and holidays in fair weather.
Some lower-key attractions lie within the national park boundary surrounding the base of the mountain: several springs, a lake, and some waterfalls, all within a few kilometres and well marked. Take a look at the map at the main entrance. There's no real set-up to receive foreign visitors, so if you're thinking of exploring the park properly, be sure to look into your options with someone knowledgeable in Hanoi before you arrive.
The closest ATMs to Ba Vi are in Son Tay town, 10km from the mountain. There's internet there, and to a lesser extent as you head towards the mountain. There's a post office in Van Hoa along DT 414 (Route 32) 5 km from the park entrance. The park's main gate is open from 05:00 to 21:00. Admission is 15,000 dong, plus a small charge for your vehicle depending on size. T: (0343) 880 010. Very little English is spoken.
How to get there: Ba Vi is located 68km from the outskirts of Hanoi, and you'll have to budget a couple of hours just to get there, due to traffic. Head out of Hanoi to the southwest crossing the To Tich bridge onto Tran Duy Hung which becomes Duong Lang-Hoa Lac just outside the city limits. From there, it's 30km to where the road ends. Take a right there, on Route 21, and proceed 26km to the village of Son Tay. There you'll take a hairpin turn on the road towards Khoang Xanh and the entrance to the mountain is 10km further along. Resist taking the more northern route that leaves Hanoi on Cau Giay in Quan Cau Giay. The road is dreadful.
If you're travelling under your own steam, when you're done with the park, there is a road around the park which is reportedly quite beautiful which leads 100km to Hoa Binh. Again, take a look at the map at the entrance to the park to get a sense of it.
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