As you might have already read here and here, we loved Vietnam. The sites, the food – whoa. But when Kenny and I think back, it’s the Vietnamese people that really shined through. After a few days of hustle and bustle in Hanoi, we headed north to Ba Be National Park. It was initially hard to find much information about the park. All we knew was that it was full of stunning scenery, ethnic minority groups and peace and quiet (an elusive trait in Vietnam). Luckily, we found Mr. Linh, a twenty-something man with a sweet wife and precocious son. Mr. Linh would let us know that he is a very lucky man. One day while cleaning up along Ba Be Lake, he stumbled across some writers – for Lonely Planet. Well, the rest is history as you can imagine.
I’ll let Kenny take it from here with our trek and homestay experience:
The morning we left for our two day, one night trek into the mountains of Ba Be National Park the air was cool and misty. The views of Ba Be Lake that morning were mystical. The largest natural lake in Vietnam and located in a remote northern backwater nearly 7 hours drive from Hanoi, Ba Be Lake constantly gave me the impression that some kind of Loch Ness legend should spawn from its waters.
Ba Be means three friends in Vietnamese because of the three rivers that feed the lake. We started following one of the three river deltas uphill passed wood huts, unkempt vegetable gardens, clotheslines, and sleek wooden dugouts floating listlessly in the river. About 15 minutes in, we made our first stop for green tea. This ritual would be repeated numerous times throughout the trek, as Mr. Hom called on family friends as we walked through his mountainous neighborhood. Generally, we sat in a dark wooden traditional house on plastic chairs or stools with an old man who poured water from a large plastic thermos into a small ceramic tea pot containing the day’s dose of green tea leaves. The old man doled out the cups of tea as needed and he and Mr. Hom talked in a local dialect about the weather, a sick neighbor or the upcoming Tet New Year holiday – I can only assume.
The Ba Be region features an interspersed ethnic mixture of Red and Black Thai and the famed Hmong people. We first met Hmong children sitting and occupying time with a slightly inflated soccer ball in a clod-filled rice paddie at the bottom of their village. After kicking the ball around and distributing some treats, we came up to the village proper and its clapboard houses with open fires burning inside. We ate lunch inside the house of one family, while a group of women and girls sat around the fire talking and laughing at us. The Hmong women wear brilliant traditional clothing, while the men wear typical Western garb, a common phenomenon among traditional peoples from Vietnam to Guatemala. It began to rain a bit as we walked out of the Hmong village and up further into the twisting and turning ridges of northwestern Vietnam.We walked for many hours more. We stopped for many more green tea breaks. As the afternoon rolled on, rice and corn alcohol shots were added to our liquid road diet. In the ethnic hills of Vietnam, all the men make hooch out of rice or corn. It is distilled to perfection so that the imbiber feels no ill-affects the next morning, the only problem being the taste, at least at first. Although, it definitely grew on Alison and me.
In fact, by the time we found ourselves at a main junction of many dirt motorbike roads where there is a pool hall of sorts that draws young men of the area to hang out, chain smoke cigarettes, wager and drink, we were beginning to enjoy the grainy taste of the cheap moonshine. I played a three player pool game, lost 10,000 vinh, almost got peed on by a bottomless baby, took a series of shots, slung my dusty pack back on and got back on the trail with Mr. Hom leading the way. We were only an hour or so from Mr. Hom’s house with the late afternoon light beginning to soften and all three of us were feeling warm in our bellies!Mr. Hom’s family is Red Thai and fairly well-to-do in those parts. They have enough terraced rice paddies to supply the family for a year. In addition, they have land for a corn milpa, which they dry in the thatched, sooty ceiling above their indoor cook fire. They use a hot mixture of corn and chopped banana tree trunk to feed their many pigs, one of which was to be slaughtered the day after we left in preparation for the Tet holiday. They had a tidy vegetable garden, many banana trees, free-range chickens, and a large fish pond at the bottom of the rice paddies. As we approached Mr. Hom’s house we met his sister-in-law on the trail who was cutting sections of raw sugar cane with a machete. We were handed a fresh cane and chewed it as we walked up the path to Mr. Hom’s house.
The house was built by Mr. Hom’s grandfather many decades previous in the Red Thai tradition, with a roof that curved upwards at the corners creating a porch around the entire perimeter. We were invited to sit on sections of log next to a big stone table and drink coffee and rest and watch the day turn to night over this little corner of the world. We were joined by Mr. Hom’s 5-year-old daughter, Ha, who immediately charmed us. We taught her a bit of English and she taught us a bit of Vietnamese, she shared candy with us, we shared our water from our alien-looking water bottle. Ha was asked by her mother and grandmother, who were busy preparing dinner, to prepare tea for us. So we played actual ‘tea’ with a little Red Thai girl and then started a singing competition. Ha won of course.
While we waited for dinner, Mr. Hom invited us to take a traditional steam bath, which consisted of a large cast iron pot of boiling water infused with lemongrass leaves, two chairs and a blanket. Alison and I sat around the pot on the two chairs, they put the blanket over us, and the most delicious steam washed over us. We stirred the pot occasionally to conjure more and hotter lemongrass steam, which left us feeling quite refreshed.
The dinner, not surprisingly, was one of the best of our lives and a locavore’s delight. I knew the dinner was going to be something special when I saw Mr. Hom’s mother laboriously picking peanuts from their shells, still attached to the branch they came from. Mr. Hom’s wife fresh roasted them in oil and salt using a wok over one of two open cook fires in their kitchen. The warm, salty peanuts and rice combination was my favorite. But the dinner also featured one of Mr. Hom’s pigs, boiled mustard greens, banana flower salad, and of course, shots of Mr. Hom’s special corn spirit.
And so we concluded our first day of the trek with stomachs full, Alison donning the traditional Red Thai garb hand made by Mr. Hom’s mother, while Ha was bathed in the kitchen by her mother and tea was drunk for the last time that day. Alison and I slept soundly knowing that we were very fortunate to have a peek into this remote world of this kind family.