There are those of us who pore over maps and websites before a big trip. Then there’s SHIMAALI FERNANDO-GOMEZ, whose preparations for a family trip to Northern Vietnam were, let’s say, a little thin on the ground.
“Who put this itinerary together?” our tour guide asked us. “You or a travel agent?”
Not a good question to hear when you’re halfway through a trip! We had driven approximately six hours that day after leaving Sapa in Vietnam’s northwest early in the morning. The driver had just informed us that we had another seven hours to get to our destination in the northeast.
Our children (aged 12 and 8) were watching us intently. And everyone was tired. “The next time you guys throw out places you want to visit,” our eight-year-old said crossly, “maybe you should check on how long the drive time is.”
It was a fair point. We were out of civilisation; gone were rest stops and touristy markets. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by terraced rice fields, tea bushes, curving mountain roads, water wheels, the occasional herd of buffalo and overgrown jungle.
We could have argued that we chose to do this so our children could experience a completely different facet of life. Truth be told, had I known about the long drive, I would have brought their devices along – and reconsidered the itinerary! We were about to tackle squatty potties, roadside snacks, food huts and an entire new world of travel; I was suddenly grateful that our friends had given us the large bag of cookies and snacks that I’d deemed unnecessary a few days ago.
In my defence, a good friend of ours had invited us to visit Vietnam, and we simply shared with her and the travel agency she put us in touch with the destinations we would like to visit. I didn’t look at a map to see where any of the places were located. I was in the middle of unpacking my life after moving us all from the US to Singapore and excited to let someone else plan our first vacation in Asia. I hadn’t checked travel times, hotels or any of the finer details.
The upside of being underprepared
When we finally reached our hotel in Cao Bang, the kids and I went straight to bed. My adventurous husband found out that most of the nearby eateries didn’t have heat, which is why everyone was bundled up like Eskimos. He also discovered that coffee beans are roasted for longer in this part of Vietnam, making the coffee incredibly bitter.
The next morning, we drove two more hours to Ban Gioc National Park. Everything about this part of the trip hinged on this day. I was the one who had seen a picture. I was the one who had thrown out Ban Gioc Falls, on the border of Vietnam and China, as a destination we needed to visit.
Thankfully, the fourth largest waterfall in the world didn’t disappoint. Our first glimpse of it came from Truc Lam Pagoda. The children whooped for joy as they ran, skipped and hopped up the steep climb to the two-level pagoda. My husband and I took in the sights of ethnic women bounding up a mountain with blocks of cement slung over their shoulders as we walked alongside a family of chanting pilgrims.
The vista at the top was stunning: gradients of green and blue, lush paddy fields, jagged limestone mountains and the azure blue of the Quay Son river, dividing into two and cascading down to become the Ban Gioc Falls. The fluttering Buddhist flags on the pagoda lent an additional charm to the scene.
We walked through dry rice fields, and over wooden bridges and creeks to the base of the falls. Emerald water glistened in the sun. A bamboo raft with Chinese tourists cast a shadow as it edged closer to the falls. A lone white mare stood on a grassy bank waiting to take local children on rides. A few vendors were scattered about selling grilled meat, corn and chestnuts. We had stepped back in time. I felt as though Somerset Maugham would show up with pen and journal in hand. It was of particular amusement to my children that we were “looking at China” without any border wall or immigration officials. I was simply awed by the scenery and stunned by the absence of people.
We were in an obscure place of epic beauty just waiting to be discovered. My son and I climbed through boulders and sat by the trunk of a tree watching the cascading water and its clouds of spray. “Ya know, Mom,” said the 12-year-old. “This was worth the drive.” Relief! The eight-year-old was twirling about on the banks of the water and I could tell by the way my husband was snapping pictures and exploring the falls he was having a great time too.
Legend says that tigers once inhabited Nguom Ngao (Tiger Cave) that sits close to the waterfalls. And rumour has it that this cave extends to caverns behind the waterfalls. While tigers haven’t been spotted in this region in eons, and it’s forbidden to explore the caves further than what is permitted, Nguom Ngao holds its own spectacular beauty. Walking through the caves, I half expected an ethereal being to greet me. Stalactites, stalagmites and unique rock formations resembling cactuses, an inverse lotus and even a fairy combing her hair greeted us as we meandered through the space. The only roar we heard belonged to the water flowing at the bottom, hitting the cave walls and resonating with an echo.
We ate that day at a “café” at the side of the road. Despite the success of Ban Gioc, this trip was still stretching me. I was the one who liked the comfort of well-established restaurants and here I was eating pho in a converted (and I use the term loosely) garage. The table over from us had a bunch of men drinking moonshine and inviting my husband to join them. I kept going over my email to the agency in my head. “We like a local experience,” I had said. “The more local, the better – we love getting an insight into the people and the local food.” Well, they were delivering. In spades. And, to my family’s credit, no one was complaining. It seemed like we were all embracing this adventure.
The children’s room at the hotel that night had no heat. They went to bed in layers, after we gave up trying to communicate with the hotel staff. We could have travelled back to Cao Bang but the travel agency had booked us closer to our next destination, Ba Be Lake. While Vietnam has definitely updated its network of roads, tourism hasn’t necessarily caught up in places. I wonder if a homestay might have proven to be a better alternative.
However, the next day proved to be just as exciting and breathtakingly beautiful as the previous one. Ba Be Lake, the largest natural lake in Vietnam, was created over 200 million years ago. It’s surrounded by limestone cliffs with forests growing on them, with inlets, waterfalls, rivers, valleys, smaller lakes and caves. We travelled upstream and into the Puong Cave, where we were greeted by thousands of stalactite and stalagmite structures and the chirping of bats. Vietnam, it seems, is a land of waterways and caves. And the varieties in which they come was once again demonstrated in this tiny slice of heaven.
We continued our culinary explorations even further on this day, when our boat docked at Widows Island and we walked up the rocks to a bazaar of sorts. Ethnic Tay people were cooking local food on either side of the pathway that leads to the Fairy Pond in the middle of this island on the lake. A Tay woman invited my daughter to cook bamboo sticky rice and this would prove to be a highlight of her trip. She loved stirring and stuffing the rice mixture into the bamboo and helping the lady place it over the open hearth. Our rice was complemented by baby crabs and shrimp caught from the lake and cooked before our eyes.
Driving to Hanoi later that day, we reflected on our time in the “boondocks”. None of us could get over the pristine environment and the allure of the different landscapes we’d walked through. Strangely, no one talked about the long drives on these back roads either. But my husband turned to me and said, “I’m glad we did it this way. It was completely worth it to see these places before tourism takes over.”
Note to self: even if one doesn’t check hotels, restaurants or itineraries, things do work out in the end. Or could it just be that Ban Gioc Falls and Ba Be Lake completely and utterly captivated us?
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