My favourite kind of travel partner is one that isn’t afraid of a little uncertainty. When I told my housemate Kate that we would be looking for a mountain called Tu Tram about 20km south of Hanoi on Highway 6, with little directions otherwise, she jumped for her coat. I assumed we would know it when we saw it — it’s a mountain, after all.
After sharing a busy highway with a bunch of dusty trucks for what seemed like more than 20km, we pulled over to ask for directions. It turns out that it’s referred to as Chua Tram, and you have to turn off the highway into the little commune of Phung Chau to reach it. At the base of the mountain, half-finished stone sculptures begin to fill the roadside, surrounded by formless stone blocks, ready for carving. Past these, there is a large pagoda complex where you can park your bike (though the vendors along the road outside the pagoda will charge you much less).
Set in Stone
The complex is centred on a deceptively small cave mouth; the actual cavern is much bigger than the entrance would suggest. The main room is impressively tall. Light filters in through jagged cracks in the ceiling, and the comforting scent of incense wafts from the many altars dotted about. There are even little holes in the darkest of the cavern’s fringes, which you can crawl into to explore eerie, pitch-black corridors and abandoned rooms made of stone (we should have known this from all the vendors selling flashlights next to the incense).
We ascended from the depths and decided to keep climbing. There is a well-marked dirt path off the road, and after an easy climb, we were rewarded by an elevated valley of rock and grass surrounded by several peaks. Many more paths worn down by Vietnamese teenagers and grazing cows traverse the landscape, and it’s easy to scramble up the rocks for a wide-open view of the village below. On our way back down, we passed a group setting up a tent and building a campfire; they invited us to spend the night on the mountain with them, but we reluctantly declined. We’d gotten a tip from the only other foreigners we’d seen all day about a festival up the road, and wanted to check it out.
We drove along the main road until we saw an alley marked by a red banner. Kids ran by with balloons yelling hello, teenagers pointed and laughed, surprised to see us, parents holding babies waved happily. The crowd grew and grew the farther we went, until the stone-and-brick alleyway opened up onto a lake and a street carnival in full swing.
Just 20km south of Hanoi’s chaos, this quaint town full of friendly faces refreshed our spirits. As if this surprise wasn’t enough, we found ourselves in the middle of a vibrant parade on our way out of the village. Standing in the middle of the street, surrounded by townspeople in dragon costumes and bright traditional dress, with the sound of drumbeats filling our ears, these are the moments you can’t plan; the beautiful things you stumble into when you give up your plans to chance.
Take Tay Son south out of Hanoi (this will turn into AH13 or QL6, both the same road). After you pass under a large steel structure with a scrolling marquee, TL80 will be to your right. Take that until you can’t go any farther, and turn right towards the mountain, then right again when the road forks. The hiking trail and pagodas will be to your left.