“Who wants to help me find the abandoned church in Ba Vi?”
I sent out a mass Facebook message, and within hours I had a crew of five ready to adventure. From Hanoi, it’s just over an hour drive by motorbike; an easy excursion, and a necessary escape from the asphalt jungle. The church was part of a series of buildings constructed in the mountains by the French for their senior military officers, including a resort, a summer camp for children, a prison and a number of villas. Many of the villas have begun to crumble and succumb slowly to the vegetation, offering an eerie playground for a day of exploration.
We were advised by a local to go to the entrance of the park and ask for ‘nha tho’ (‘altar house’). “Everyone knows where it is,” he told us. Led by trusty Google Maps on a short detour through the small towns to the northwest of Hanoi, we eventually hit Highway 32 and followed it through Son Tay to the base of the mountains. The gate to Ba Vi came up fast. “Six kilometres!” the smiling park guard replied when we asked for nha tho, putting a map in our hands. We began our ascent, weaving up through a forest dotted with bright yellow flowers, the view to our right growing ever more epic as we climbed.
Selfies, Ao Dais and Mystique
The map is not the most detailed, and it took some trial and error and a few wrong turns before we found the church. First, pass through the large resort, then Ngoc Hoa stream on the right. After you pass the stream, the road will split at a sign. Turn left, then another left at a road marked on either side by two brightly coloured temple flags. Stay left again when the road splits (and don’t be distracted by that ruined villa you pass, it’s not the church). Keep climbing and the nha tho will come into view, nestled amongst the greenery.
It’s a popular spot for photographers, professional and amateur alike, and you may have to vie for space amongst the pretty girls posing in ao dais and the selfie enthusiasts.
We perched on empty window sills and cracked open our sodas, content to listen to our friend play his pan flute amid the mysterious sounds of the forest. The roof of the church has long collapsed, and trees have taken its place. Green moss grows up all the walls, etched out in places where past visitors have left their marks. If you are patient enough to wait for the other tourists to filter out, it becomes a serene, meditative space.
Give yourself enough time; there are numerous options for adventure around the nha tho. We decided to go on a hike in search of waterfalls, but as it’s the dry season, we didn’t find much. Still, my favourite part of the day was the descent down those windy mountain roads, fresh air whipping past my face, the sunset through the tree cover casting golden light on the road.
The most direct route is to take the Thang Long Highway (starts at Nguyen Chi Thanh) out of Hanoi towards Hoa Lac. At the junction with Hoa Lac go straight on and follow signs to Vuon Quoc Gia Ba Vi. The church is 6km from the park entrance.