Almost 250km directly north of Hanoi is Ba Be National Park, home to three lakes, breathtaking scenery and the Tay ethnic minority. Words and photos by Julie Vola
We arrive in sight of Ba Be in the early evening after a long and tiring day drive. The sun goes down fast and in minutes it is pitch dark. The road around the lake doesn’t have any public street lighting; 10km feels a lot further when driving on a narrow, dark and snaky road. Before leaving Hanoi I had checked the lodging options and Pac Ngoi seemed to have the most choice. I decided we could wing it once we arrived. I had not taken into consideration that our drive would be eventful and would stretch our time on the road.
We arrive late at a modest guesthouse that accommodates us with an enjoyable dinner despite the hour. We can’t see anything of the lake. A thunderstorm is raging behind the mountains, at each lightning strike a bit of light comes our way. It’s a game of patience to be able to make out anything of our surrounding. Ba Be is still a mystery to us as we go to bed exhausted.
Up early and feeling grumpy because of construction noise, I don’t feel like I am 250km away from Hanoi and deep in the countryside. Though once out of bed and with a strong Vietnamese coffee in hand, I can enjoy the view of the lake from the balcony, breathing deep the fresh air from the mountain. I am happy.
My travel companion hardly slept in the small heated room, so over breakfast we look at our accommodation options in search for more comfort in the form of aircon, a luxury that will prove to be worth every dong. We settle on the recommended Mr. Linh’s Adventure Travel and Homestay, in Bo Lu village. More a guesthouse than a homestay, it offers a range of different rooms, from a dormitory with fans to large family rooms with aircon.
They have a room available for us and for US$30 (VND660,000) a night, I get a comfortable bed with a thick cover which I am stoked about since I will have no choice but to sleep in an igloo for the next two nights. The first floor is an open-air dining room with an extension gazebo-like living room with a view over the lake, while bougainvillea are growing and flaunt their flowers over the second-floor deck; it’s charming and will do fine.
Ba Be National Park in Bac Kan Province was created in 1992. It protects the largest natural freshwater lake in Vietnam plus the surrounding limestone and evergreen forest. The reserve is a sanctuary for a wildlife population of 447 mammals, birds and fish species not including the 354 different butterfly species.
Obviously, lake activities are the first thing one might think of when one hears of Ba Be Lake. Since we arrive late, we check at the pier for a boat trip the next day. Negotiating with a boat captain directly offers a fairer price than an organized tour at our homestay. For VND600,000 we get a full-day boat ride for two with a visit to all the sights on the lake. We book the boat for early morning the next day.
For the rest of the day, we ride on our motorbike discovering the surroundings. The road that runs for a while along the lake is narrow and in the midst of vegetation which offers much appreciated shade. Past Pac Ngoi Village the road splits in two. To the left it keeps following the lake for a bit and to the right it goes towards a quiet pastoral valley. We follow the easy road all the way deep into the valley and make a stop to freshen up by a riverbank.
The scenery is attractive but it is spoiled when I notice some dirty diapers floating on the edge of the river, I try to ignore it as much as possible but the mood is ruined. A bunch of kids follows us, intrigued by our presence; at first they are a bit shy but I have cookies and that does the trick. The cookies disappear in seconds. The sugar rush makes them bold and they hang out around us playing ball and whatnot around us.
On the way back we turn right on a road that goes up the mountain. If we continue on it, we should be able to reach the main DT254 on its way out of the National Park, but the fatigue of past experiences on narrow dirt mountain roads makes us turn back. As the sun heads down, the air is cooler, people are out in the fields planting rice, lighting fires to burn dry grass or collecting sand from the river; picture-perfect in the golden hours at the end of the day.
There is much more to Ba Be than its lake. There are no roads that go all the way around the lake, so apart from roadtripping in the valley and the surrounding areas, the way to reach untouched areas around the lake is to hike on the numerous trails.
On day two, we are up early for a day on the boat. The previous night we befriended a solo backpacker who decided to join us. I am ready to renegotiate our rate with the captain but he doesn’t seem to care and we split the VND600,000 three ways, a much better deal.
We start the cruise crossing the lake to get to Song Nang River and go towards Puong Cave. If you have been to Halong Bay or Phong Nha Ke Bang this cave is nothing impressive and smells of bat poo; the ride to get there is the highlight.
After five minutes we turn back on the river and move towards the other attraction of the day, Dau Dang waterfall. We disembark on the small pier and walk for 15 minutes. The waterfall is no more than a succession of minor rapids, but very scenic nonetheless.
On the way back a smart little lady is selling iced tea at the end of the hill, a welcome break in the sweaty heat of midday. Following the waterfall the captain brings us to the Fairy Pond and Widow Island, but you would be well advised to avoid these places, as they are obvious tourist traps.
I am in complete awe of the landscape around me. I am dazzled by an outburst of green tropical vegetation everywhere, surrounding me, I photograph like I am seeing for the first time. In a wistful, kind of romantic way, there is a desire to be one with nature and at the same time always aware of its impossibility.
The best way to get to Ba Be is via Mr Linh’s Shuttle Bus from 83 Ma May in Hanoi. It leaves Hanoi daily at 7.30am and departs Ba Be daily at 1pm. For info call the Ba Be Tourism Centre on (0281) 389 4721 or contact Mr Linh’s Adventures (mrlinhadventure.com) on (04) 3642 5420.
The independent route is via Bac Kan City and then via xe om or taxi for the last 16km to Ba Be. To take this route get a bus from My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi. Alternatively you could always drive… It’s 250km, so not for the faint-hearted.
For further information on the national park including accommodation, click on babenationalpark.com.vn.
Photos by Julie Vola