Our boat chugged along the crystal calm waters of Ba Be national park, following the bends and turns in the river as we made our way back to our homestay for the evening.
As the sun began dropping behind the clouds, we rounded a bend to be met with layer upon layer of incredible towering limestone cliffs, stretching out into the distance. The view was epic and awe inspiring, as the day drew to a close, we sat back on our boat and reflected on the last 2 days in Ba Be national park.
Two days earlier, we’d arrived to Ba Be national park after an 8 hour journey from Hanoi, taking a detour to visit an ethnic museum en route. We’d booked a 4 day, 3 night private tour with Mr Linh’s Adventures, including trekking, homestays and a boat tour of the Ba Be lakes. We’d already completed our Sapa trekking experience, and taken on an epic volcanic Rinjani trekking adventure in Indonesia, so we ready for what Ba Be national park had in store for us!
We arrived in Ba Be national park just before sunset, and settled into our basic but clean wooden room on stilts. As the sun set, we took a walk along the track near our homestay, small fires lighting up around us in the small wooden structures along the path, as families began preparing dinner.
As darkness fell, we made our way back to our homestay, and watched as the sun set over the nearby lake, the sky turning dark as the lights flickered on in the village around us. As darkness fell across the lake and surrounding hills, and conscious we had a busy few days ahead, we ate a quick dinner, and hit the sack, ready for the day of trekking the following day. This was to be a very quiet night compared to the following night at our homestay, where a deluge of local rice wine with our host would form the basis of new friendship. And a sore head the following day!
But before that, we had some trekking to do.
As with most of our experiences of homestay and trekking, we awoke early and prepared for our trek. We left our main bags at the homestay and took a small backpack with a spare set of clothes, camera and waterproof jacket, and headed out on our first day of trekking.
After raining all night, the downpour finally relented just as we began trekking, the cool air leaving an early morning mist over the lakes and rivers around us. It was an atmospheric and moody start to our trek.
The first couple of hours of trekking were simple and easy. We left behind the small village where we had spent the previous night, and walked through lush green and yellow rice fields, across various rivers, and headed further into Ba Be national park. As with many treks in Vietnam, we met curious locals and many water buffalo along our way, a friendly “Xin Chao” (hello) as we passed by.
After a couple of hours, we snaked off the gentle, flat route we’d become accustomed to, and began trekking up a steep hill, covered in wet moss and vegetation. Whilst this wasn’t difficult, it did provide a bit more of a challenge, and you would require a basic level of fitness to scale it. An hour later we reached the top, rested and began our trek up and down the various hills towards our break for lunch, a small school house alone in the national park, where we stopped for lunch.
From our school house base to our stop for the evening was a further 2-3 hours of trekking, and this part would provide some of the most breathtaking views of the trek. Our advice? We were given a choice from our guide of whether to take the long or short route, we took the long route which involved trekking higher and longer, but it was worth it to see views like this:
As with most of our treks around the world, we were given a chance to interact with people whom we would never meet otherwise. Ba Be national park is still developing as a destination for travellers, and therefore you are still looked at with curious eyes as you walk passed.
For the most part, local children may shout “Xin Chao” or hello at you, and carry on their merry way. Sometimes the interaction can be longer, like the family we met as we neared our homestay.As we walked along a narrow dirt path, to the left just below us was an older lady beckoning us to come down the small hill and say hello. Our guide asked us if we wanted to, which of course we did, and we made our way down the hill.
As we neared, the whole family began filing out of the small wooden hut where the lady was standing, eager to welcome us to their home.As with many places in Asia, the primary family unit is far more extended than what we are accustomed to. So behind our mother, came 8 younger siblings, all eager to catch a glimpse of us.
This is one of our favourite parts of travelling. We stood outside their home, said “Xin Chao” or hello (the only Vietnamese we knew) and then we sort of just stood there for a while. We’ve grown used to people just staring at us, we don’t find it intrusive. It’s more a case of people studying our facial features, how our noses are different, our skin colour and the colour of our eyes. We smiled at them, and they looked back at us with inquisitive, sheepish eyes.
After a couple of minutes, we remembered we had some gifts for any locals we might meet along the way. As a side note this is always a good idea. For the most part, these people will grow their own food and therefore they don’t operate on much cash to buy other things. As a result, any food you can bring that is different to normal will be welcomed. Just be careful what you bring, and avoid buying sweets and high sugar content foods. We brought some savoury crackers and our guide brought some bread, which we handed to the family. They devoured it in front of us.
After 15 minutes, we decided to leave and bid farewell to our family. Although we didn’t speak with them directly, there is a certain connection you gain between people just by looking clearly into their eyes. It’s something we very rarely do in our home countries, especially with strangers. Yet as we travel it becomes the norm, a cross cultural quirk that allows both parties to intently analyse the facial features of each other without fear of reproach or misunderstanding.
As we left, the mother of the family ran into her home and brought out a huge bunch of bananas for us to take. We initially refused, not wanting to take her food, but she was insistent that we have them, and that she did not receive anything in return. We accepted graciously and waved farewell to this wonderfully kind family.
Onwards we went, wandering along narrow dirt paths that wound around the hills of Ba Be national park, passing more homes and rice fields as we made our way to our homestay.A leisurely hour or so later, we arrived at our homestay for the evening. We would be sharing a large room with 4 other trekkers for the evening, a group we bonded with as the evening progressed and the rice wine flowed.
If you’ve not tried rice wine, it’s a spirit made by farmers which varies in strength from 20% to 60%. To be honest I don’t think even the farmers know how strong it is. Typically a family will make a large batch, and then decant it into small used water bottles.
If you spend anytime in the countryside of Vietnam, or stay with a family, it will be brought out, and you’ll feel the energy and excitement levels rise in the group.
In terms of etiquette, we’ve found locals to be keen and enthusiastic for you to share a rice wine with you, but they are never pushy. If you don’t drink alcohol, or you just don’t want one, we’ve never had a problem in saying no. Although to be honest we very rarely say no!
For us, sharing some rice wine with a local is a cultural highlight. It solidifies a burgeoning, if temporary friendship, and crosses the language barrier in a way smiles and hand gestures can’t. It’s a way for a local to demonstrate their happiness of you staying in their home.
As we sat down to dinner, the rice wine appeared, our host eager to share his concoction with us. What followed was an evening of food and rice wine, as we gradually finished the bottle between us. Slowly the other guests stopped taking the rice wine, but, excitable as I get, powered on with our host and another trekker until all the wine was gone. At this point I probably had had enough, and I thought this might spell an end to the fantastic evening. How wrong I was.