Amidst the rice paddies at a Ba Be Lake home stay.

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Asia » Vietnam » Northeast
October 9th 2014
Published: October 21st 2014
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Hanoi is sheer chaos after the orderliness of Taiwan streets were they have road rules and follow them! The best way to cross the streets in Hanoi is to close your eyes and go... As long as you don't stop or change your pace the hundreds of motorbikes manage to manoeuvre around you. Though it is definitely much busier than it even was last year. And the touts are still annoyingly persistent. It's a hard way to make a living I guess.

Hanoi still remains one of my favourite cities though. A modicum of traditional living still thrives in the old town despite the immense change that tourism has bought. It is always fun to poke around the quieter streets which circle the core of the old town, explore the busy daily market and visit some of the temples.

The reason we came to Vietnam was to visit the remote Ha Giang region which borders China in the north west of the country. Tourism has not got a grip on the region yet - in fact you still need permits to visit parts of the area. The original plan was to make our way there by public transport and organise a driver and car once we got there. Easier planned than done we soon found out on arrival. We were told by various agencies that only a night bus goes to Ha Giang city and that transport from there was crowded and not frequent. Most tourists hire motorbikes to travel around the region which we weren't going to do.

There were no advertised tours by any of the agencies so we approached two, Handspan Travel who we had travelled with 14 years ago and Vega Travel because I had read a couple of blogs from people who had been very happy with their service. Both conveniently only a few doors down Ma May Street where we were staying at the very comfortable Hanoi Guesthouse. At US$29 a night it felt like a bargain after the $100 beds we had been sleeping in in Taipei.

We chose Vega travel who planned a six day, five night (with the option of adding an extra night if we chose at some stage of the trip) for a hefty US $740. This was for car, petrol and driver only plus two nights with all meals in Be Ba Lake staying in a homestay. An English speaking guide added to the price considerably so no guide for us. We wouldn't have guides on public transport anyway....

After two hectic days in the city we were soon on our way out of the chaos in a modern air conditioned car with Tuin driving us. It took a while to get past all the low rise urbanisation but soon we were out amidst the scenery. I've noticed her that all the girls wear special lightweight jackets with tight hoods and flaps on the end of the long sleeves to protect their skin whilst riding motorbikes. The girl at the hotel told us if they get sunburnt and their skin goes even darker it cuts their chance of marrying right down. In Taiwan it was the same, but they didn't have special bike shirts but draped themselves in all manner of clothing (eg long sleeve shirts worn open but back to front) as protection. I commented at the time that I was surprised somebody hadn't produced a more suitable garment. Most people, sensibly, also wear face masks against fumes whilst on bikes. There is a wonderful range of brightly coloured fabric ones available everywhere.

Vietnam is a really scenic country to travel in, especially now as most of the rice paddies are vibrant green. Rice harvesting is just beginning and many of the roads have rice, spread out on big tarps, drying beside them.

We saw some hand harvesting but most was being done by small machines - the fields are much bigger than the tiny ones we lived amidst in China where it would have been impossible to mechanically harvest.

Our first stop was at a museum in Thai Nguyen which represented most of Vietnam's ethnic groups in wax displays. Surprising well done though some of the exhibits could do with a dusting. I love looking at the colour and detail of the trims in ethnic costumes.

We are very lucky to have seen some really beautiful examples of these being worn over the past decade of travel as they are being worn less and less as time goes by. We are expecting to see more examples over the next few days in Ha Giang.

I had asked Tuin for a coffee stop and he did eventually stop - he had a destination in mind and wasn't stopping anywhere else. It was at his uncle's cafe, solidly locked when we arrived. After much banging the door was opened, coffee was served, lukewarm and with a layer of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass. And so black and strong the spoon virtually stood up in it by itself!

As we got further inland the scenery just got better and better. Rice paddies, water buffalo, conical hats... Vietnam is postcard scenery once you're in the countryside. Our driver understood more then we were led to believe and I suspect his basic English speaking skills are ok too. He is a nice man and Jerry and him were soon practicing each others language whilst I sat and quietly soaked up the scenery.

We were going to visit the Ba Be National Park and the Ban Gioc Waterfall which straddles the Chinese and Vietnamese border. The falls are known as the Dietian Falls in China. We had not originally planned on visiting the waterfalls this trip (though last year whilst in China we debated against a side trip to see them) but the agency we booked our driver through suggested we do it as it would fit into the itinerary well. From Ba Be Lake region we were going to travel up an mountainous area of Ha Giang for three nights.

We were passing tiny traditional villages, many still made from earth. All the roads were edged with blue tarpaulins on which the farmers had spread out their rice crops to dry. Regularly they would rake the rice grains to turn them and all the grains would be swept up at the end of the day and re spread the next day. There was also banana and corn being grown. Each little town we passed seemed to have it's own cottage industry - one all the shops were hung with wooden birdcages whilst in another everybody was carving the heavy traditional style wooden furniture. As the morning progressed though we started to pass thousands of squares of wafer thin wooden sheets balanced against fences, walls, houses etc as well as spread out all over the ground. Tuin indicated piles of logs and made a rolling movement and then showed us paper so we presume it was being dried ready for paper production. Village after village was involved and women were stacking and tying the sheets together into large piles for collection. The area was also prone to landslides and there was evidence of many recent ones as we drove along. He stopped in a tiny town which was close to Ba Be Park where we had a late lunch. It was eaten in a room in a house which doubled as the family's living area. We were surrounded by family photos and postcards from the couple's children, as well as framed certificates and various other personal items. It is very common to eat in these double use rooms in Asia in small family businesses so you get a fascinating insight into their family history and personal life. The toilets are always the family bathrooms, so the sinks are covered in toothbrushes, combs etc and it's not unusual to have bras and underpants hanging from hooks from the walls as well.

Jerry and I wandered the dusty streets whilst Tuin had a longer break - driving here is very intense - but soon we were back in the car and winding around some very narrow roads. The vegetation became incredibly dense the closer we got to the lake. It was impenetrable but occasionally we got a glimpse
Tuin and Jerry enjoying lunch Tuin and Jerry enjoying lunch Tuin and Jerry enjoying lunch

Note the 'cafe' decor - family postcards and photos. The yellow plastic containers are full of homemade rice wine.
of water below the car. We were to spend the next two nights in a homestay near Ba Be Lake but didn't realise how pretty the village we were to stay in was until we drove out of the vegetation and Tuin pointed to a very traditional row of houses lining the banks on the other side of the water and said 'sleep'.

The house we stayed in had been in the family for a long time - three generations lived there - but it had been extended and turned into the family's main income a couple of years ago. The first evening we were the only overnight guests but the following evening it was full house. Our bedroom was a tiny room with mosquito net over a thin mattress on the floor, a fan (thankfully) and a very dangerous looking power point. There was no room for our suitcases and they were left on the verandah outside the room. Surprisingly there was wifi! From the wide verandah we could see the dense vegetation (the road we had travelled along was in there somewhere but even at night car lights were invisible due to the denseness of the vegetation), a small dusty soccer field on which a dozen bare footed village boys were playing, rice paddies with water buffalo grazing and a narrow river which led into Ba Be Lake. Very pretty and after a walk through the village we settled down on the verandah, with a couple of drinks, to watch the sun set.

Dinner that evening was eaten with the family. We ate sitting cross legged on the floor at low tables and the food was amazing. The meals we ate at that guesthouse were the best we had in Vietnam. It included many small glasses of rice wine, usually horrible but in this instance it was very mellow and I actually enjoyed it. It was 'cheers' scull, handshake and refill ready to start again... It was hard to watch the old lady get up and down from the floor - she had no trouble sitting cross legged but it was obviously difficult and painful for her to get down. We had organised the guesthouse owner to take us out onto the lake next day and we were really looking forward to it.

The trip lived up to our expectations - it was stunning! Ba Be (or Be Ba - it seems to be called both) is the largest freshwater lake in Vietnam and it never runs dry which is unlike many other lakes set amidst karsts. Karsts are limestone peaks which when they cover the countryside create some pretty spectacular scenery, due to their sharp angles and contours. Ba Be lake was set amidst dozens of them and their steep sides formed the lake edges.

We could see houses scattered around the shore - the same large dark wooden houses with wide verandahs and thatched roofs that were in our village. There were fishermen in tiny narrow wooden canoes fishing for tiny fish with gossamer fine nets which were laid out in long strips behind the canoes, dragged and then pulled in. We watched the men hanging their nets out in the village that evening and were totally blown away by them. They were as fine as cobwebs.

We passed a few other tourist boats on the lake but virtually had it to ourselves. We visited a massive cave system full of smelly bats - we could hear them but didn't see any thankfully. Neither of us like bats much... Puong Cave is a large cave in the north of the park through which the Nang River flows. The main cave is up to 50 meters high and about 300 meters long and is home to 18 different species of bats...Our next stop was a walk along the lake before we reached a waterfall. The Dau Dang Waterfall flows over a series of rapids for a distance of a kilometer. The footpath was wet in places and very rocky. Our lunch stop was in a tiny village where the women were selling dried fish to the Vietnamese tourists. We had an enjoyable meal chosen after I went into the kitchen and pointed at the vegetables that we wanted to eat. All followed by the obligatory rice wine, this time courtesy of the other restaurant patrons.

A pleasant though slightly noisy ride back - it would be wonderful if these boats didn't use motors - and I was in the middle of washing some of our clothes at the guesthouse when Tuin decided we had another sightseeing trip to do. Into the car and we followed a dusty track (road workers were in the process of laying bitumen in the area) to a cave system. We had no idea of actually where we were going - Tuin just pointed at some steps leading up the hill. We paid our small entrance fee and started climbing. We eventually arrived at a massive cave system and started following the narrow cement path through. The cave was actually spectacular with weird and wonderful stalactites and dim electric lighting. We had only gone a short way when we were passed by a French couple and their guide. Slowing down to allow them to get ahead we made our way through the caves.

I've idea how far we went but it was a long way. We could see the torch of the guide ahead of us when all of a sudden the lights went out! It was black beyond black..... Jerry thankfully had a tiny LED keyring torch and we first thought that the guide may have turned out the lights and thought that it wasn't a nice thing to do without warning us. However the lights had failed and when we realised this we were so pleased they were there with their big torch. We stayed very close to them on the way out. Not to sure how I would have coped if they hadn't been there.... The joys of travelling without a guide or at least a driver who can speak English.

We laughed about it that night over dinner, again with the family - the only guests to eat with the family that evening. The rest ate at their own tables on the verandah. An Aussie couple our age had arrived - they had just travelled through Ha Giang and loved it - but were exhausted. The man was suffering early stage alzeimers and though they had spent many years travelling realised this was probably going to be their final overseas trip. Another reason for us to be doing what we're doing now....

Next morning we were up early for another adventure - this time to visit the Ban Gioc – Detian Falls which straddle the Chinese and Vietnamese border. The waterfall is called Ban Gioc in Vietnam and Detian in China.

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