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Published: March 5th 2010
26/2/10 - Ba Be National Park is 240km northwest of Hanoi, it takes about 6 hours to drive there along a mixture of highway and then windy back roads. The countryside along the way is hilly and the roads were lined with a lot of school kids on bicycles. The country was dryer than that around Cuc Phuong and there had been a drought in the area over recent times.
Many of the towns we passed through were dusty, frontier places. The eatery that we stopped at for lunch had enough Vodka stockpiled in boxes to keep half of Russia happy. Some folks around towns like Bak Kan obviously had big drinking problems.
Ba Be actually means Three Lakes and is a very large area of fresh water, surrounded by limestone hills and evergreen forests. The three connected lakes are - Pe Leng, Pe Lu, and Pe Lam. There are also a number of villages within the national park which are populated by people from the Tay ethnic group. Accommodation
We stayed in a guest house in Ba Be, which was about A$6 per person per night. The guesthouse was typical of the Tay stilt houses in
the area. The family lived on the ground floor, with the guest rooms upstairs. The rooms were basic, but comfortable, similar to the accommodation offered at Cuc Phuong National Park. Food was part of the deal and there was plenty available at each meal, plus a constant flow of home made wine. A huge task for $1.20 per day
There had been an ethnic festival on the lowlands near our guest house a few days before we arrived. There had been 22,000 people at the festival so that section of the lake shore was an absolute mess. We went and took a look at the cleanup work which was being done by some local village people at the rate of 20,000VND per day for each person of the 10 member clean up crew. That is about A$1.20 per day. They were given no tools or safety equipment and were pushing most of the plastic bags under water with sticks and poking them into the mud. We spoke to some of the women on the cleanup about how they were doing the work and found that no-one had given them any means to dispose of the rubbish except to
burn it. Thankfully, this was confined to a small area of lowlands and had not yet contaminated too much of the lake area.
We all discussed this over dinner that night and what could be done to fix it. I wrote down all the ideas we came up with in my travel journal. We will discuss these in more detail once we are home again … more on this another time. An amazing day … village leaders & the head of the Women’s Union
27/2/10 - we spent a great day out on the lakes and also in the rice fields. We toured various parts of the lakes, including the Puong Cave. Mike showed us a micro hydro electric scheme which has bee set up at some of the farm houses. It consists of a small electric turbine on a water channel. The generator or turbine can generate enough power to provide electricity to run a few lights and a TV for example. It is a great advantage to the farmers and each generator is worth a few hundred US dollars.
There is lot of life on and around the lakes, fishing, grazing animals, crop farming. All
some serious drinking going on
provincial town drinking supplies
traffic travels by boat, including livestock, horses, motorcycles, school children, etc. Each family owns a boat, the older wooden ones being replaced by larger capacity metal boats.
In one of the villages we were privileged to meet the village leader and share some of his home made ginseng wine with him. The deal in this area is simple - you cannot not in without having a few shots of wine. The host pours the glasses and then proposes a toast, and then down the hatch with the shot of wine. This gets repeated many times as the glasses het refilled, more conversation ensues then it is someone else takes a turn to propose a toast. The alcohol content is roughly 30% to 40%. The taste and effect is much like a shot of grappa or eau de vie. The herbal content makes it quite drinkable. Depending on the makers preference it can be distilled from rice or corn.
We had lunch with the leader of the Women’s Union. Her family all shared the cooking duties and they were such open and hospitable people. They were obviously very poor, but would give you the shirt off their back. For
lunch they served up mostly meat dishes because they consider vegetables to be poor people’s food and would not offer it to guests. The only exception to this rule was a delicious cabbage dish that I really enjoyed.
With no means of refrigeration storing foods can be a challenge, a lot of the meat had been hung to dry and smoke in the kitchen area. The pork had been cooked then stored in large ceramic jars filled with pig fat. The meat dishes were certainly not suitable for anyone trying to keep their fat and cholesterol intake down. But like most fatty foods it was delicious.
With Mike and Hang acting as our translators we found out a lot about life in the local area. As head of the Women’s Union for the district this lovely, hard working lady was earning 700,000VND per month, part of the role required a lot of travel up and down the lakes and rivers by boat which meant she had running costs of about 500,000VND per month. That left her with 200,000VND as compensation for her time away from her family and the farmland. That is about A$12 per month left after
Ba Be National Park
Mike's project office
expenses (that is less than 50 cents a day on average). All the time she spent away from home meant time she was not able to spend helping to grow or produce food, so the position may seem like it has a prestigious title but in reality you would have to be very committed to the needs of women in the community to continue to do it.
Her duties in the role included meeting with various women in the villages and then representing their views and issues to the Communist Party leaders in the village. She also organised events for International Women’s Day and also helped to manage a micro credit lending scheme in the villages.
It was obvious to us that her whole family supported her efforts, this was obvious in that the sons and husband lent a hand with the cooking and cleaning up, which was we were told was very unusual in these ethnic groups. The men normally did all the drinking and entertaining but very little if any of the cooking or house work.
I also spent a lot of time discussing wine making with both the village leader and the husband of
Ba Be National Park
Mike's project office
the head of the Women’s Union. They both found it interesting that I also made wine and it gave us a connection and shared interest to discuss. Also, we talked about some farming topics, crops, and the recent weather and climate differences between our countries. Though we lead very different lives and come from very different cultures it is amazing how much we have in common when it boils down to the basics of life.
It was hard to leave the home of these wonderful people, the head of the women’s union wanted us to stay the night. I think she was really enjoying the company of Lorenza and Hang. They were sharing a lot of stories and laughing together. We had to decline the offer of accommodation, which was a shame but also a blessing for my back. It was such a kind offer but I could see that we would have spent the night on a cane mat on the concrete floor so my bones were spared the aches and pains. If we had been prepared with some sleeping mats I would have loved the chance to spend more time with them. Perhaps a few more bottle
Hang at the guest house, basic but comfortable rooms
of corn wine would have helped?
I am not a good enough writer to express how special today was for both Lorenz and I, we really loved meeting these people and spending some time with them, even though it was very brief. Time slowed down
We spent a very short amount of time at Ba Be, but time really did seem like it had slowed down to a pace that we have not experienced for a long time. Our “modern” life style has us rushing so much that we forget how to just exist sometimes.
No, I do not want to swap all of my comforts for the hard life farming at Ba Be, but we could learn a lot from their simple approach to life. In fact, I have been reading a Buddhist book off and on during our travels called “Why Worry” which emphasizes that a lot of our stress and worry in modern life has been created by ourselves and our endless yearning for possessions that mean very little in the long run … oh to discover the balance in life between simplicity and comfort! (I must tell my friend Yong that this
basic but comfortable rooms
book she gave me is helping my understanding a lot.) Cards, beer and the driver flirted with my wife!
Back at our guest house we spent the time after dinner playing cards and drinking some beers. We showed our driver how to play Uno and he seemed to enjoy himself. Although, he did seem to be paying a bit too much attention to Lorenza - Mmmm should I be worried? Actually he was being a perfect gentlemen and making sure that she had plenty to eat and drink. Hang joked that I was getting jealous of him. Stop teasing me - I am getting a complex about this guy!!! A few tips for simple gifts when traveling in remote areas
When travelling in remote areas where supplies are hard to come by some good gifts to bring along include colouring in pencils for children. They love these and are much longer lasting than a packet of lollies or chewing gum (which are also very bad for their teeth and there is no fluoride in the water).
For adults we took along some polo shirts with the Australian coat of arms on them. We then explained
Hang at the guest house, basic but comfortable rooms
the significance of the coat of arms and our national colours. We gave away about 6 of these at Ba Be to important people we visited like the village leader, and the family of the head of the Women’s Union, etc. You could see in their eyes that they appreciated the gift and understood how it offered a connection between us.
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