If Hanoi is the head of Vietnam, Soc Son is its timbered crown. Located directly north of the capital city, this charming district harbors several lakes and mountains, blanketed by deep forests. Unlike more tropical regions of Vietnam, Soc Son offers a more temperate climate, with the landscape resembling the pine-scented serenity of the American Adirondacks, all within the charms of northern Vietnam.
Part of the appeal of the area is its closeness to Hanoi’s expat enclave of Tay Ho. On a clear day, Vietnamese and expats take to their motorbikes, zooming together in eager convoys. While there are several local buses running throughout the day, it is best to travel by motorbike. The short distance and easy roads make for a delightful, peaceful ride.
The drive to Soc Son begins with an epic rush across the massive Nhat Tan Bridge, a thrilling start to a woodsy getaway. The journey continues past Noi Bai Airport. Arriving and departing airplanes soar parallel to the highway, making tiny motorbike engines sound like jet engines. After a 40 minute drive, the sprawling cityscape of Hanoi is a distant memory. Now it’s time to get lost in the woods.
A day in Soc Son can consist of many things. For art lovers, seek out Thanh Chuong’s Viet Palace. For 200,000 VND, patrons have access to a special collection of Vietnamese art. The titular Thanh Chuong is an artist, hellbent on preserving generations of his nation’s art against decades of war and government censorship. Sprawling over 2.5 acres, the museum features a vast collection of ornamental Buddhas, stone sculptures, cracked vases, and other ancient pieces. Unlike a regular art museum, Thanh Chuong’s collection is settled throughout an idyllic garden, showcasing Vietnam’s artistic and natural beauty.
“Life has become a lot more complicated in the modern world, so nowadays many people want to go back in time and do things in a simple, natural way. I built this place to preserve that old way of living and the beautiful spirit of Vietnamese culture,” Thanh Chuong told CNN.
The multiple lakes scattered throughout Soc Son provides scenic spots for picnicking. Dai Lai Lake has a quiet southern shore where local women sell coconuts, beer and other treats. Swan boats are available to rent, allowing for the more adventurous day drinkers to paddle across the gentle waves. A ferry connects sightseers to a small island featuring a Buddhist temple and an outdoor cafe.
Additionally, Ham Lon Lake is ideal for camping enthusiasts. A nearby campsite is nestled in a shady forest, in view of the glassy lake. Campers recline in their hammocks as the sun slowly disappears over the mountains. By sundown, roaring campfires crackle as someone strums a guitar.
“I should come out every weekend,” Chào once overheard from a fellow camper. “I hear honking motorbikes more often than chirping birds. That bothers me.”
To truly take in the spectacular nature of Soc Son, grab a walking stick and head to Ham Lon Peak. The out and back hike is only five kilometers. However, at some parts the trail becomes a bit steep. While more experienced hikers will consider it only moderately difficult, city-bound Hanoians should be prepared to sweat! Nevertheless, the peak’s stunning panoramic view is worth all the aches.
Expat Alex Pike has become quite familiar with Soc Son’s many trails. Pike, an avid hiker, has spent many weekends in forests and mountaintops, with his dog obediently in tow.
“I’ve been a nature lover for years,” says Pike. “I came to Hanoi five years ago and did many road trips throughout the country but I knew there was more to explore closer to home.”
Pike recommends several trails, with varying difficulty. “Ham Lon is my first love. It is gorgeous but almost entirely uphill. The Fire Road is an easier hike. Dong Do Lake is my new favorite place. You can have a beautiful stroll around the lake and the water is clean enough to swim in.”
For those who wish to enjoy nature but would rather not break a sweat, Gisy Lake House is the perfect destination. Sitting next to Dong Do Lake, Gisy is a collaboration between a lovely Vietnamese-Dutch couple who caters to two distinct crowds. On any given day, muddy hikers and posh social media influencers can be found chilling on Gisy’s sunny veranda, enjoying coffee and sandwiches. Also, fashionistas can check out the boutique shop if they fancy stylish sundresses or handbags.
Return to Hanoi refreshed by visiting the Amaya Home Lodge & Spa. With outdoor bathtubs, hospitable masseuses, and an invigorating sauna, guests of Amaya find themselves bewitched by the Swiss ski lodge-inspired atmosphere transplanted in the Vietnamese forests. (Chào Hanoi readers can get a 10% discount on all Amaya’s rooms using code #CHAO10 on Amaya’s social media pages before March 31).
Before leaving Soc Son on a summer day, Chào could not resist the opportunity to cool off in one of the district’s many lakes. The north end of Dong Do has a small bridge, several meters above the still lake. We climb over the stone barriers and prepare to jump. Before we crash into the water, we stare, transfixed, at Soc Son’s unspoilt, mountainous horizon under a clear, blue sky. As we submerge into Dong Do’s cool waters, our eyes adjust to a surreal underwater world. This magical region just a short drive from downtown Hanoi makes for a weekend away that is truly hard to beat.