COVID-19 has forced people into considering holiday options closer to home, and that’s no bad thing. It’s been 11 years since Paul and I backpacked through Vietnam and felt we’d “done” the country. Of course, we hadn’t, but holidays since have still focused on overseas destinations, with return trips to Hoi An and a few other weekend beach spots thrown in.
The ban on overseas travel – or at least the fact that we can’t get back into Vietnam if we leave – has limited holiday plans. This has given us a bit more disposable income with which to enjoy Hanoi but also the time to spend elsewhere in the country. So when a friend asked if I fancied a trip to Ba Be Lake, the answer was “why not”.
Many years ago I travelled to Bac Kan province, where Ba Be Lake is located, for a project with SNV Netherlands Development Organisation. The scope of work was to evaluate opportunities for local farmers to commercialise their production of corn, chickens, pork, ginger and bananas. It was a fascinating trip, with plenty of opportunities for sightseeing from a car window, but I didn’t make it to the lake.
It was about time for a return visit.
I usually like a self-organised holiday – I’m not one for packages or guided tours – but with only a few days and unsure what would be open due to COVID, we opted for a 3-day trip with Mr Linh’s Adventures.
Day 1 started with an early pick-up from home. As expected, we were the only two on the trip, so had the minibus and guide to ourselves. The drive to Ba Be Lake took around 4.5 hours, initially along the highway but then through smaller towns and villages, some surprisingly well manicured.
The village where Mr Linh’s Homestay is located – tours were an excellent brand extension – is a Tay village: Tay is one of the 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. We had a short walk from the minibus to the homestay, past the new – and no doubt currently unoccupied – Ba Be Bungalows, which we both glanced at wistfully. Fortunately the homestay wasn’t too much of a letdown: clean and comfortable with views over the lake.
After a very tasty family-style lunch, we were dragged back to the bus and out to a cave and waterfall. Neither are on my “like to visit” list, so it was a bit of a drag, though to be fair the cave had its merits: well, it was big with some impressive formations.
Upon return, we quickly secured a spot on sofas overlooking the lake and grabbed a couple of Saigon beers to enjoy with our Kindles. Dinner was as tasty as lunch – bamboo fish excepted – and accompanied by the obligatory rice wine shot with the man of the house: Mr Linh’s father. Thankfully just the one, or we might not have had the brains for a couple of games of Bananagrams.
Unfortunately the other guests – a group from Ho Chi Minh City – were a noisy crew with an early start, so my sleep wasn’t as long or peaceful as expected, but the shots of Vietnamese cafe sua at breakfast helped me wake up. The carb heavy pancakes maybe had the opposite effect, but provided fuel for the rest of the day.
Day 2 was trekking day. Roughly 15km, though various devices gave various measures. The wet weather made for some slippery spots and there was a fair bit of clambering up and down mountains through the jungle, but it was enjoyable in a sense of achievement way and the weather dried up sufficiently for some fantastically moody shots across incredible valley views. We walked through H’mong villages, stopping in one for a picnic lunch and photos with the locals before the final 5km, mostly flat, trek to our homestay. All the while we were accompanied by a very cute dog who seemed to be leading our guide, rather than the other way around.
Alongside the views, a highlight of the day was Louise jumping across a river into deep mud to avoid walking across a less than stable bridge. Video upon request.
Kayaking was on offer back at the homestay, but we opted for a beer and a book instead. Gotta pace yourself.
The final day started much as the first, including the inconsiderate early morning wake up call from other guests, who had arrived late and unexpectedly the night before.
After another coffee and pancake breakfast, off we set on a relaxed morning boat trip around the lake; the largest in Vietnam. The scenery of jungle clad karst rocks lining the lake was beautiful, but a bluer sky would have made for more Instagramable photos!
After a final tasty lunch at the homestay, back we drove to Hanoi, a few hairy overtaking maneuvers wrapping up our holiday.
The trip juxtaposed nicely with the few days at a beach resort in Cam Rang that I planned to enjoy at the start of my week off. From luxury beachside resort, swilling bubbles and gorging on eggs benedict and risotto, to shared bathroom homestay downing Bia Saigon and sharing platters of stir fried morsels.
Definitely a trip I’d recommend, but be prepared for noisy neighbours!