Thinking of taking a weekend holiday or day trip to beautiful Ba Vi National Park outside of Hanoi, Vietnam? Here are 10 tips for having a great trip.
1. Take the Thang Long highway to Ba Vi
The best way to get to Ba Vi is by motorbike. It’s also possible to take a taxi or a bus, but if you don’t drive a motorbike, you’ll lose a lot of freedom once you arrive in Ba Vi. Driving a motorbike inside the National Park can be tricky at times due to the very hilly terrain, but it’s by no means impossible. If you feel fairly confident driving in Hanoi, then you should be fine driving in Ba Vi.
Actually getting to Ba Vi is easy. The easiest way to get to Ba Vi from Hanoi is to take the Thang Long highway. My boyfriend and I drove about 40-50 kilometers per hour and still arrived in under two hours. You’ll know your heading down the correct road if when you’re leaving Hanoi, you see a huge Big C supermarket on your right. Just keep driving for about an hour down the highway until you start to see signs for Son Tay and Ba Vi.
2. Take a picture of the map at the entrance to Ba Vi
Once you get into the park, things are not always clearly labeled in Vietnamese, let alone English, so take a picture of the map at the entrance to the park. The first day I forgot to do this and my boyfriend and I simply hiked where we pleased. This was fun, of course; however, we did wind up on one long, winding, exhausting trail which eventually circled back around on itself. It was fun, but my sweaty red face could have been saved for more worthwhile hikes if we’d bothered to find where we were on a map.
Entrance to Ba Vi cost me and my boyfriend about 80,000 dong for the two of us plus our motorbike.
3. Tips for visiting the French ruins in Ba Vi
During the French colonization of Vietnam, Ba Vi was used as a sort of holiday resort and the ruins of these resorts are still scattered throughout the forests of the mountain.These ruins provide some nice photo ops and are great for exploring on a nice misty-mountain, atmospheric day.
If you are driving up the mountain inside the park, then the first set of ruins you’ll see is the French summer camp. This area is clearly marked and there is plenty of space to park your bike and go for a hike.
The second area of French ruins is the famous church. The church is further up the mountain and is after the French summer camp, but it is not marked very well. You’ll know you’re at the church when you see a big, cement parking area on the right side of the road and a very steep, paved hill on the left side. I recommend parking your bike and walking up the hill. It’s a very steep drive, and my boyfriend and I didn’t feel comfortable riding up the hill to the church, so make use of the parking space if you are uncomfortable. The hike is tiring, but not overly long. There are several ruined buildings on your left before you actually get to the top of the hill and the church. Don’t get confused by the first set of ruins. The church is gorgeous and distinctive and well-worth the climb.
We didn’t actually make it to the last set of French Ruins. Apparently somewhere near the top of the mountain there is an old French prison, but after hiking all day we weren’t up for exploring this last bit. If you want to go to the prison ruins, check out the map at the entrance to see how to get there.
4. Where is the water park and Thien Son Waterfall?
The big famous waterfall and water park at Ba Vi are not within the actual park itself. If you want to see the large waterfall where you can go swimming and the giant, refreshing water park, you should drive to the entrance of the park, but instead of going inside, continue driving down the road to the left of the entrance. You should be able to follow the signs from here. It costs about 150,000 dong to get into the waterfall and water park area. You can easily spend a whole day here, so it’s worth the money. Bring a picnic if you want to spend the day.
5. If you are a girl, wear a tank top and shorts to the water park.
What? Why can’t I wear a bikini?
Well, I wasn’t aware that Vietnamese women tend to swim in full clothes rather than swimsuits and bikinis. I wore a bikini to the water park underneath my jeans and t-shirt, but when I arrived found that there was not a single woman in the whole park wearing a swimsuit, let alone a bikini. Most women were wearing tank-tops and shorts, although a few were just swimming in regular clothes like jeans and button-up shirts. Needless to say I realized that I was going to draw far too much attention in a bikini and wound up only wading in the water instead of properly swimming. If I could do it over again I’d wear a t-shirt and shorts that I didn’t mind getting wet so I could enjoy the cold water the Vietnamese way.
6. Get to the temples without having a heart attack.
600+ steps to the Mountain God temple? 1000+ steps to the Ho Chi Minh temple? I can’t do that, I’ll die!
First of all, getting to the temple entrances is easy. Just drive to the top of the mountain until you can’t drive anymore. When you first enter the parking lot at the top of the mountain, Ho Chi Minh’s temple entrance will be on your left. The other temple entrance will be on your right, so you can pick which you’d like to visit. The entrances to the temples start at the bottoms of two long staircases because each temple is located at the peak of separate mountains, Tan Vien Peak (Mountain God temple) and King Peak (Ho Chi Minh temple).
Of course, only you know your own fitness level, but I’ll tell you what I thought of the climb to both temples.
I’m a fairly fit person, but on the first day, when my boyfriend and I decided to climb to the top of the Mountain God temple, I nearly died. Its 600+ steps, but they are incredibly twisty, steep, and narrow steps, making for an exhausting climb. By the end of the hike my face was tomato-colored.
Therefore, I was prepared for my own demise when we set out to hike to the top of Ho Chi Minh on our last day in Ba Vi. Thankfully I didn’t die, and, in fact, I was very surprised when we reached the top of this climb in what felt like no time at all. The way to Ho Chi Minh’s temple is much nicer than the steps to the Mountain God temple. Ho Chi Minh’s temple has flat, evenly-spaced stairs with plenty of benches and tables to stop at along the way, so even though technically there are more steps to Ho Chi Minh’s temple, it feels like much less. I got to the top of this temple with minimal sweating.
However, of the two temples, I found the Mountain God temple to be much more interesting. The hike to Ho Chi Minh’s temple was easier, but the view from the top did not seem quite as spectacular to me. Possibly I only enjoyed the view from the other temple more because I had to work so hard for it, but it’s hard to argue with photos like the one below. It was truly beautiful.
7. Where to stay?
There seem to be quite a few hotels to stay at in Son Tay, the town just outside of Ba Vi. My recommendation is Bach Duong, which has large, clean rooms and friendly English speaking staff. The amenities are basic, but the property is nice and very close to the park. I was most impressed by their staff who were able to give us directions into town and even give us change for our overly large bank notes.
The one downside to Bach Duong is that when I reserved the hotel online I was quoted about $25 USD per night, but at the end of our stay, I wound up paying closer to $35. We were only there three days, so it didn’t break the bank, but maybe it’s better to book in person or over the phone, so as to avoid any confusion.
8. What to eat?
If you plan on staying all day in Ba Vi, then I’d recommend taking a picnic. There are very few places to eat in the park or at Thien Son. You can buy picnic supplies in Son Tay where there is at least one large grocery store off the highway and loads of mom-and-pop groceries as well.
If you are hungry at lunch time, Son Tay offers the usual Vietnamese eateries, like pho and banh mi. I had a pretty decent bun cha at the place pictured below, which is very close to Ba Vi National Park. It’s not the best bun cha I’ve had in Vietnam, but it was filling and hot which is all you really need to prepare for a day of hiking.
If you’re looking for dinner, I’d recommend the following goat meat restaurant, which serves loads of other dishes like chicken and beef in addition to goat. My boyfriend and I had the de nuong (barbecued goat), which was very goaty (not my favorite meat, haha), but nice, with a delicious side of morning glory and an interesting tasting fishy rice which the waiter recommended. Nobody really speaks English, but if you’ve got a Vietnamese dictionary on hand you should be able to sort out the menu without any major problems. The staff are friendly and helpful. The restaurant is clean, reasonably-priced, and open late which is perfect for the all-day hiker..
I’d also highly recommend the milk restaurants which you’ll see scattered all around Ba Vi and Son Tay. The fresh milk tastes amazing, especially if you’ve been in Hanoi for a while and been suffering through UHT milk and condensed milk. The karamen and yogurt are also some of the best I’ve had of either, ever in my life. It was so good and so cheap, that I’d be tempted to drive back to Ba Vi just for the milk products. Delicious!
9. Avoid the Leeches
Don’t put your feet or hands in any still water. The running clear water at Thien Son waterfall is fine, but the muddy water in the park and at the small waterfall inside the Ba Vi is filled with the little buggers. My boyfriend found this out the hard way.
Here he is, blissfully unaware of the leech attack that’s happening beneath the surface. Blech, haha.
10. How long should I stay in Ba Vi?
Because Ba Vi is so close to Hanoi, it’s a great place for a day trip. You won’t be able to see all the sights at Ba Vi in a day, but you could easily enjoy the water park for an afternoon, or go for a picnic and take a hike to the French ruins.
My boyfriend and I did three days and two nights in Ba Vi, and found this to be the perfect amount of time for us. On the first day we arrived in the afternoon, checked into our hotel, and went for a hike to the top of the Mountain God temple. We also stopped along a few trails in the park, took photos, and had a picnic.
On day two we got up early and went to Thien Son waterfall and the waterpark. In the late afternoon we explored the French summer camp and French church.
Then on day three we got up early and hiked to Ho Chi Minh’s temple. Then we had a picnic in the old forested area, and after that we went home. For us, this itinerary worked perfectly, and I’d highly recommend three days to nights in Ba Vi, if you have the time. If not, a day trip is also worth the drive to beautiful Ba Vi.
Ba Vi was one of the best trips I’ve taken all year in Vietnam.
It was gorgeous, relaxing, and exactly the sort of city-escape that I needed. There is not a lot of information online about Ba Vi National Park, so hopefully these tips will help anyone trying to plan a short weekend away from Hanoi. If you decide to take a motorbike and check out the three peaks and the surrounding country-side, trust me, you won’t regret it.