Head Out of Hanoi and Into the Hills ... on a Scooter

Why you should care

Because a 50-mile motorbike ride is tonic for the soul.

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My life in Hanoi — Vietnam’s wonderful, intoxicating, infuriating capital — was always a sensory overload. But in the summer, the stifling 100-degree heat made the traffic and the pollution and the noise even harder to bear. And it’s become even worse, according to my buddy Zach Pinson, a teacher trainer from Oklahoma City who’s been living in the city close to a decade.

Nothing that can’t be solved with a scooter and a sense of adventure. The old French “hill station” of Tam Đảo — Silver Mountain in English — is less than 50 miles from the madness of the Old Quarter, but its cool, forested embrace makes it feel like another planet. Tam Đảo — with its heartwarming bear sanctuary, above-the-clouds hiking routes and crunchy stir-fried chayote — is a top spot, but getting there is more than half the fun.

Once you’ve made it across the bridge’s wind-buffeted 2-mile expanse, you’ll have to do some more fancy footwork.

Hop on your bike at Hoàn Kiếm Lake — the mythical, pea-green expanse that’s been Hanoi’s heartbeat for over a millennium — and follow the upmarket eastern shore of Hồ Tây. From here, most folks headed for Tam Đảo take the spiffy Nhật Tân Bridge and follow the brand-new expressway to the airport. But you’ll have much more fun crossing the Red River on its dowdy older sibling, where a designated motorbike lane hangs beneath the main structure, recommends Tuan Bendixsen, the Vietnam director of Animals Asia, the NGO behind the bear sanctuary. Once you’ve made it across the bridge’s wind-buffeted 2-mile expanse (if I can do it, so can you), you’ll have to do some more fancy footwork to find the narrow road that follows the Red River to the west.

Trust me, it’s worth it. As you ride through mile upon mile of rose and chrysanthemum farms (quite a sight when they’re in bloom), you’re more likely to be held up by a posse of fluffy yellow ducks than any human traffic. Bumble your way north until you hit the sizable town of Phúc Yên, from where, instead of joining the masses on the highway, follow Bendixsen’s advice and take a detour past Dai Lai Lake. A popular weekend escape, it’s a great place for a bite, a paddle in a “swan-dola” or even a round of golf.

Next up is the perilously steep ascent (my wife had to get off the back of the bike a few times) to Tam Đảo, which was built by the French in the 1900s and wends its way through primal forest like a contorted asphalt cobra — the area is home to a staggering 108 snake species.

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Bears search for fruit and vegetables during feeding time at the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre near Tam Dao National Park.

Source Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Halfway up, you’ll pass the entrance to the Vietnam Bear Sanctuary on your right. The 27-acre center — which provides a loving and peaceful home for 175 (and counting) rescued bears who’ve been subjected to gruesome cruelty at “bile farms” and other abuse — hosts open days on two Saturdays every month, and in special circumstances, private tours can be arranged. What struck Pinson most was the care the staff put into preparing the bears’ food (“They were almost like bear chefs,” he says).

The climb from the bear center to the town is steeper yet (“a gear bike is best,” says Bendixsen), but you can always get off and push if you have to. Once in town, find yourself a hotel with a decent pool and order a plate of su su (chayote) and a beer.

The hiking, bird-watching, waterfalls and old colonial churches can wait till tomorrow …

Go There: Two-wheeled escapes from Hanoi

(suggested by Zach Pinson)

  • Thành Cổ Loa. Barely 10 miles from the city center, this partially restored citadel dates back to 257 B.C.! In addition to the incredible history, it’s a peaceful, watery place. Map.
  • Đường Lâm. This historic village 32 miles to the northwest boasts a few older houses (open to tourists), a couple of temples and a great locally made candy. Map.
  • Chùa Thầy. Established in the 11th century, this Buddhist temple 16 miles due west of the capital, is one of Vietnam’s oldest. It sits on the shores of a serene lake. Map.

When not to go: Most of Hanoi heads for the hills on popular holidays (especially April 30 – May 1 and around Independence Day on Sept. 2) and on the weekends in summer. “Sometimes they even have to close the road up to Tam Đảo,” says Bendixsen.

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