Fall under the spell in the Central Vietnam highlands, a hill station once frequented by the French.
Words & Photography: Abby Yao
Almost a hundred years ago, French colonists in Vietnam were ferried by sedan chair to these thickly forested hills, which were considerably cooler than the lowlands, to escape the punishing heat of the tropics. In time, the villas they frequented were left in ruins, until the whole area was rebuilt as a hill resort.
When I first arrived at Ba Na Hills from the city of Da Nang on a September morning, I thought I was lost. The reception desk was empty, the cable car station was out of service, and there was nobody in sight. But after a short golf cart ride to the main entrance, I was soon in a different cable car cabin floating over an ancient rainforest, hovering over boulders and waterfalls.
It turns out that the mountain resort was not as sleepy as I thought. The Toc Tien Waterfall-L’Indochine route, the stationary cable car line that I had seen earlier, only runs in the afternoon. It is worth mentioning that it is twice a Guinness Book record holder: first for the highest non-stop single track cable car with a height of 1,368 metres and again for the longest non-stop single track cable car at 5,801 metres in length.
So instead, I ascended on two other cable car lines, lovely rides that culminated above the clouds. I could make out the spires of a French chateau above. It was a theme park after all, and I braced myself for a cacophonous arrival.
Boy was I wrong. What I found at the terminus made me smile: a village square with a fountain, surrounded by a lookalike of the Notre Dame in Paris, and cobblestone streets leading to what appeared to be shops with apartments above. Mardi Gras dancers posing for photos. A mime. A classic car. I was ecstatic. It took me back 10 years ago when I wandered on my own in the city of Dijon in France’s Burgundy region. How I wanted to just walk around, soak in the atmosphere and relive that experience!
But first, I needed lunch. After checking into the 4-star Mercure Ba Na Hills French Village Hotel where my companions and I were to stay for the night, I sampled Vietnamese specialties at L’Etable, where Asian cuisine is served in an equine-themed setting.
Hunger satiated, it was time to explore.
There’s never a dull moment in Ba Na Hills. Aside from daily activities such as street music and a carnival parade, a bevy of costumed performers including living statues and magicians are happy to pose for photos.
I’ve never seen so many wedding photo shoots in one place. In less than 24 hours, I counted at least a dozen couples having their pre-nuptial photographs taken in and around the church.
Romance may be in the air, but there’s room for fun as well. The massive chateau houses Vietnam’s first and only Wax Museum, as well as the Fantasy Park, Vietnam’s largest indoor amusement centre.
For a change of pace, a spiritual experience is steps away on Chua mountain, 1487 metres above sea level, where Buddhist temples, a 9-storey pagoda, a 4-ton bronze bell, and a teahouse await pilgrims.
In the evening, as the park closed, the shops shut their doors, the performers disappeared and a fog crept over everything in sight, lending a mysterious, dream-like air. I felt as if I had the place to myself. The illusion of being in France again was surreal.
The following morning was perfect, with the sun rising over the distant sea. After breakfast, all I wanted to do was to admire the clear blue sky.
Before descending to the lowlands, my companions and I had one last wish: to ride the Alpine Coaster, which we had wanted to do since we saw it from the cable car the previous day. We trooped to the picturesque course and spiralling downhill one or two at a time at speeds up to 40 kph. It was cool ending to our visit, a taste of French springtime in Asia.
SHOULD YOU STAY OVERNIGHT? While it is possible to enjoy Ba Na Hills in one day, a one-night stay is recommended. With 1.5 million visitors making the journey up these highlands every year, peace and quiet are worth paying the premium for a night here. Make the most of your time in the gaps between the park closing and nightfall, and after sunrise and park opening.
GETTING THERE Ba Na Hills is accessible from Da Nang. AirAsia flies to Da Nang 4x weekly from Kuala Lumpur. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.