It was our first weekend out of the city and we couldn’t wait to do some exploring and experience the Vietnamese countryside. We organised all of our lesson plans during the week so we could completely switch off when we were away and spend as much of Saturday and Sunday away from Hanoi as possible, before returning to the reality of teaching! We left early on Saturday morning, packing light with just a rucksack each (and all of Lawrence’s camera equipment, including a newly purchased tripod). We hopped on the mopeds, powered up Google Maps and rode out of the city and onto the open roads.
It took about 2 hours of solid driving to reach the Family Homestay we’d booked for one night. The homestay was located down a little beaten track, tucked beneath the mountains of Ba Vi and only a 20 minute drive from the national park entrance. It was a stunning location and so peaceful in comparison to what we’d gotten used to in Hanoi. The garden was bursting with colourful flowers, butterflies the size of small birds and a variety of fruit, vegetables, herbs and fresh tea that our hosts made sure we tried all of! The constantly smiling elderly couple greeted us warmly, offering us tea and lunch once we’d settled into our ‘room’ (open air shack). The couple spoke very minimal English however they had compiled a tattered looking notebook of Vietnamese – English translations they had accumulated over their years of playing host to tourists. They would point to various words and phrases to try and communicate that a) Lawrence was very handsome and b) we should eat one of the freshly picked passion fruits hanging from the vine-tangled canopy, with a sprinkling of sugar.
After filling up on a delicious feast of local food, we were met by a young Vietnamese couple, also staying at the Family Homestay for the weekend. An and Anh are 22 year old economic students living in Hanoi and seemed delighted when they heard we were living in Hanoi too. An had very good English and did most of the translation, which proved to be a massive help when it came to communicating with our hosts, but also made for a very sociable weekend.
We decided to wait until Sunday morning to climb to the highest point in the national park, as it would take the whole day to do it justice and an early start would be necessary. So we spent the afternoon exploring Thien Son by ourselves, a separate section of the park, nestled under the mountain range. We drove around the hilly roads, stopping at various viewpoints and waterfalls. A pagoda situated over one of the lakes offered a blissful spot to sit and watch the sunset. By 5pm we made our way back to the homestay where An and Anh offered us coffee, tea, and snacks they had brought with them. We chatted over another delicious meal and they shared some good street food and coffee shop recommendations with us while we tried to teach one another English and Vietnamese. Anh, like many Vietnamese people we’ve seen, is in to his photography and owns a very expensive looking camera. He was keen to take lots of pictures of us, and we gladly modeled for them late into the evening.
We planned to travel to Ba Vi together in the morning, leaving at 7am to ensure we beat the crowds and increase the chance of a better view before the inevitable clouds rolled in. But we were awake at 5:30am regardless of setting an alarm. The roosters, crickets, other visitors waking up/starting their moped engines and the need to wee was enough to rustle us from our brief sleep. After a quick breakfast and saying goodbye to our hosts, we climbed up the mountain on our mopeds.
Ba Vi National Park is located about 60 km West of Hanoi and covers just under 30,000 acres in area. This limestone mountain is home to a diverse range of tropical plants and made us feel like we were walking through a jungle. The park is situated on a mountain range with its peaks at Vua Peak (1,296m) and Tan Vien Peak (1,226m). We had to leave our mopeds in the car park before continuing up the thousands of steps to reach both of these points. Unfortunately the whole weekend was a little over cast so the views from the top were non-existent, but it seemed rare that there were ever completely clear days that high up in the clouds. Despite the damp and mist, it was eerily atmospheric.
We were surprised by how few tourists there were. It seemed a popular weekend retreat for local people, coming to pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh who requested the President’s Pagoda at the top of Ba Vi be constructed after his death. Yet no one seemed particularly prepared for the jungle-like terrain. Some were wearing stilettos and cream dresses, whereas the two of us were geared up in our hiking attire. It wasn’t too strenuous a walk up there and the paths were very well laid out, but our legs were feeling it after conquering the second peak.
The road up the mountain was driving heaven. The combinations of hairpins and the views into the distance made it exceedingly good fun. However, on the way down, the same hairpin combinations and the sheer drops off the side made the ride feel a little more treacherous. The damp, mossy and leaf covered roads made the corners feel very tight, and it was only when descending that we truly appreciated the severity of the gradients and how high up we had been. We stopped briefly at a derelict Catholic Church built during French colonial rule for some more photos. It’s a popular spot for newly weds to take some snaps, but there were so many people in their shots and zero privacy.
By 2pm we were back down at the bottom of the mountain and headed to Duong Lam Ancient Village, following An and Anh who knew the way. Here, you can explore the architecture of ancient houses while wandering along the narrow alleyways, visit temples, and discover the daily working life of the locals living in the village. The biggest ancient house dated back to 400 years ago and the village is recognised by UNESCO as a national heritage site. The highlights included another banquet for lunch and some tasty rice cake.
By 4pm we were exhausted and ready to hit the road back home. It was getting dark by the time the city was in sight. Our bums were sore and our legs were ceasing up. Hiking up a mountain and then proceeding to sit in the same position on a moped for three hours isn’t recommended. We said our goodbyes to An and Anh with the promise of meeting up again soon and fell into our beds almost as soon as we walked through the door. Thank you Ba Vi.
To see even more photos of the Ba Vi trip, as well as other snaps taken during our time in Vietnam, please follow the link to our Flickr page