The best (and only?) reason to visit a place like Tam Đảo is the opportunity to immerse yourself in nature. Get some exercise, breathe fresh air, and shrug off the stress of the big city. To this end, we took a walk through a bamboo forest along a challenging path, and also visited the town’s main temple.
Tam Đảo is a cute little town, and friendly enough, but it’s rather hard to come by information. We asked a few people how to ascend the mountain, but received just silent smiles in response. Eventually, someone was able to tell us that the trail up the mountain begins at the hillside temple. We followed a path lined with stands selling traditional medicines, and then climbed a flight of steps through a dense forest of bamboo, until eventually arriving at the temple gate.
While we were here, we decided to check out the Chùa Vàng Tam Đảo temple before climbing the mountain. Set high above the town, this complex actually consists of two Buddhist temples, the first of which is larger and newer. A narrow flight of steps leads up to the original temple, from where there’s a nice view over town.
After visiting the temples, we returned to the gate and continued along the trail up the mountain. There are stairs the entire way, but they are no joke. This is an unrelenting climb, and by the time we reached the first lookout platform, maybe a quarter of the way up the mountain, we were ready for a long break. Shaded by the forest, the temperatures were pleasant, but the humidity was killing us.
Once rested, we continued. If the stairs up to that first platform had been difficult, the rest of the journey was diabolical. We took our time, though, and eventually made it to the summit… where we found a military base. A barking dog and “No Trespassing” signs greeted us, along with a guard who waved us away. There would be no summit views for us, today; no reward for our strenuous climb. The guard didn’t look like he could be convinced, so we didn’t even try.
We were extremely frustrated by this, and had every right to be. Complaint #1: if the summit is permanently inaccessible, why not put a sign at the beginning of the path, instead of the end?! Of course, the fact that they haven’t done so leads credence to Complaint #2: I’d bet any amount of money that the guard wasn’t turning away Vietnamese visitors. We saw four different groups along the path up to the summit, and refuse to believe they were all content to reach the military base and turn back without seeing the view. Later, at our hotel, our suspicions were confirmed; the guy at the desk said, yeah, Vietnamese people go up there all the time.
So if you want to tackle this yourself, we have to suggest that you only go with a Vietnamese person to act as intermediary. And here’s another tip: if you go behind the more ancient of the two temples, you can find a very small path up the hill, which eventually connects to the trail up the mountain. This way, you save yourself the considerable journey back down to the gate.
Overall, this was a frustrating day out, but not a total wash. The temple was fun, and the views from the first platform were worth seeing. Still. If we’d been in a “tourist group” or had hired a local guide, reaching the summit would have been no problem. But the reality is, Vietnam doesn’t cater to independent travelers, and there are some things you’re just not going to be able to do on your own.
Location: Chùa Vàng Tam Đảo Temple