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12km From Huế, a Hidden Lake Welcomes You to a Night of Stargazing

If you’ve been meaning to embark on a trip to escape from the chaos of daily life but aren’t quite keen to plunge straight into the wilderness, Huế might be the perfect next destination. The city center embodies calm, quietude and a sense of poetic beauty — these are all great qualities that have long drawn visitors to it, but not many are aware that there’s an entirely different side of Huế if one just takes a short ride away from the urban heartland alongside the Perfume River.

Sơn Thọ Lake in Hương Trà Township was one rare gem that a friend from Huế introduced me to on my trip last March. The location wasn’t on my original itinerary, but it didn’t take much persuasion for me to immediately agree to check it out once I heard of the “verdant lake in the middle of a forest.”

The lake lies amid thick patches of vegetation in suburban Huế. On the drive in, past trees, vines and bushes, I tried to look for a sign or significant landmark for future visits, but I eventually gave up.

From central Huế, drive around 12 kilometers in the southwestern direction to get to Sơn Thọ. It wasn’t a trip for the faint-hearted, including stretches on dirt paths and sections in the middle of the jungle. If traveling without a well-versed local, you can follow Google Maps’ instructions to the Tomb of Emperor Gia Long, then ask around for directions to Hương Trà.

A scene of pastoral charm on the way to the lake.

The closer you get to the lake, the less inhabited the scenery will be, but in exchange, you can marvel at endless fields and a picturesque natural landscape. A crystal-clear sky, a golden sheen of sunlight coating the foliage, layers and layers of trees fade in and out at the horizon — everything blends together like an ancient ink-wash painting, wild and free of human touch. Every time my travel companion reminded me to get my phone ready, I knew that we were about to careen past a spectacular vista that would be impossible to describe with mere words

Sơn Thọ Lake is a natural water body, with clear and fresh water. It’s surrounded by mountains and hills.

Unlike Huế’s well-known tombs, the lake is not a popular tourist destination, and could probably remain that way due to its isolated location. A few cottages of local residents dot the lakeside, but none is engaged in the tourism industry. They welcomed us with lovely smiles and playful banter and agreed to ferry us across the lake with a pay-what-you-want fee.

A visit to Sơn Thọ in the summer will reveal a lake bottom carpeted with clumps of moss after the water recedes. It’s easy to set up a campsite here as the lake is part of public land, not under any restrictions. Some local households have started stocking basic camping necessities to supply to camping groups should they forget anything.

The beginning of summer brought to the lakeside a few friend groups who also sought out the area’s pristine scenery to set up their tents. Camping here would undoubtedly be a fantastic experience, but to me, just merely lying on the bed of soft grass to admire the fluffs of clouds in the sky and listen to the rustles of the forest is already enough without requiring any complicated setup.

Had we ended our adventure at Sơn Thọ Lake there, I would have been eternally grateful to my impromptu “tour guide,” but the magical factor of our stay was kicked up a notch when dusk fell: it was the perfect time for stargazing. Sequestered from urban quarters and their resulting light pollution, the vicinity of the lake proved to be the perfect vantage point to behold the astronomical beauty of the galaxy above.

The night sky at Sơn Thọ.

Still, not everyone who comes here wishing to chase the stars will succeed. My friend explained that, to have a fruitful night-gazing trip at Sơn Thọ, seek out moonless, cloudless nights towards the end of summer. To capture the galaxy in all of its glory, one needs to stay up until (or wake up at) 2–3am and set up a camera capable of manual settings. A touch of patience, a bit of technical know-how, a tent, some snacks, and a small fire — these are the bare minimum in the production of spectacular night shots.

As I made my way back to Saigon, the land of clamorous urban noises, I found myself missing Huế and Sơn Thọ Lake a lot. Huế has always been a land of fascinating history and mythology that never fails to amaze visitors. If you have already experienced the contemplative side of the city’s temples and mausoleums, why not try out a different kind of serenity at Sơn Thọ Lake?

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