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.
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.
“I have a special drink for you! A private, special toast between the two of us!”
I had made it to the inner circle.
As I sat in the dimly-lit room, perched on my small plastic stool as the other guests talked around me, I saw our host returning through the darkness with a large plastic jar, filled with some liquid.
“More rice wine?” I asked, wondering what I was letting myself in for.
“No, better my friend! This will make you stronger!” Our enthused host returned.
I was passed the point of no return now, after the amount of rice wine I’d had, one more wouldn’t matter right?
On closer inspection of the jar, it was a light brown/orange colour, filled with various pieces of what I assumed to be bark or root from plants. I wasn’t sure, and despite by questions, our host was being very coy on the contents.
Either way, I wanted to try this new concoction, after all, when else would I get a chance? It was these moments that you travel half way round the world for. To sit on a small plastic stool in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside, sweating through my t shirt, with a local farmer drinking his home made alcohol.
A small shot glass was handed to me, and we knocked back our private friendship drink.
Gone was the clear flavour and clarity of the rice wine. Instead this was a cacophony of alcohol, plant and roots, and who knows what else. There might have even been a dead snake or scorpion in there.
After this shot I called it a night, our host happy to stop there as well. I went to bed happy I’d experienced an authentic evening of rice wine drinking with a local farmer, and stood up to the test. Yes I could have been sensible, but after traveling halfway across the world, driving 8 hours and trekking for a day, it seems silly to give up on an experience like this. I will never forget my night or rice wine with new friends in Ba Be national park.
The next morning I awoke, groggy but no sore head. Perhaps our host was telling the truth when he promised no hangover!
We ate a basic breakfast of fried bananas and coffee, and bid farewell to our new traveller friends who were heading in the opposite direction.
Side story: Sometimes travelling provides strange coincidences. A few days later, as we walked down an alleyway in Ho Chi Minh City in the very south of Vietnam (hundreds of miles away) we bumped right into this very same group. The chances are mind boggling.
Our first stop this day was a visit to the local school where the wife of our host taught, followed by a 2 hour trek down the hill to the river where we would take a private boat for the remainder of the trek.
We stopped for lunch on the river, and we were treated to an incredible feast of Vietnamese food! Roast pork, fresh fish, omelette, spring rolls, green beans and of course some chips! This was welcomed after our long day of trekking, and finally cured my rice wine inspired groggy head!
After an incredible lunch, we clambered aboard our boat and sunk into our bench. Our trekking for the day was done, and we could sit back and enjoy the journey. The engine roared into action, and we headed off along the river, gliding passed locals washing their clothes in the river, water buffalos being bathed and cooled down, and all the interesting things that happen on the rivers of Vietnam.
After an hour, we arrived at Dong Puong cave, a magnificent, cavernous opening in one of the limestone cliffs. We wandered around, and listened as the thousands of bats above us squeaked and wined in the darkness. The cave was magnificent, towering above us as we wandered through it towards the opening in the other side. Aside from a group of young local boys hanging out in the cave, we had the place to ourselves.Leaving here, we took the relaxing 2 hour boat journey back to Mr Linhs homestay, the place we stayed on the first night. It was during this journey that we witnessed some of the most incredible scenery of our time in Ba Be national park.As the river flowed left and right, winding its way through the park, we glided passed the towering limestone cliffs, rich in vegetation. We were one of the only boats there, the water calm and still as a result. It’s safe to say this was our favourite part of our 3 day experience in Ba Be national park.We arrived back at our homestay, tired but content with all that we had experienced in Ba Be national park. On our final morning before heading back to Hanoi, we visited the Hua Ma cave, and again we were the only people there. Hua Ma cave is a vast and cavernous caving system, and it was magnificent.From the locals we met and the rice wine we drank, to the stunning vistas afforded to us, our trek around Ba Be national park had been a success. It’s far from a difficult trek, we found it easy but very enjoyable, and it allowed us to appreciate the views and scenery around us.
For a national park to still be as undeveloped as Ba Be is a unique situation, and this will inevitably change in the future. But for now, if you want an authentic experience of local life and trekking in Vietnam, Ba Be national park could be your place.
– If you have the choice, choose to do the boat journey at the end of your trek. You’ll appreciate it more after a few days of trekking!
– If you don’t want to drink rice wine, just say! The locals are keen for you to try it but not pushy in our experience.
– We took a tour with Mr Linh’s Adventures, and we highly recommend the service and trek with them!
– Take some good walking shoes as the trek does get steep and slippy in places.
– Leave bags at your first homestay if you can, as you don’t want to be carrying everything with you for 3 days!
Disclaimer: We received a discount from Mr Linh’s Adventures, however as usual all opinions are our own!