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Ba Be Lake - Where heaven and water meet
It took only 40 minutes to escape the early morning traffic mayhem of
to arrive amongst corn stalks and recently harvested rice fields. As we ventured farther north, the produce become readily visible with corn cabs and threshed rice drying on the roadside. Our tour guide, Ms. Thao, screwed up her nose when asked what the corn tastes like. The orange corn that is visible in November is grown to feed animals, especially pigs. Corn for human consumption is light yellow and usually picked earlier in the year.
The hills through Thai Nguyen Province are dotted with plantations of the famous local tea, the dark green providing a contrast to the rice. There were also more animals as we headed into the mountains. How do you fit ten pigs onto a motorbike? Easily! And four dogs playing outside the Thit Cho restaurant were oblivious to what was happening behind closed doors.
Ba Be was declared a 5,000 hectare National Park
in 1992. The hunting of animals and the cutting of trees is strictly forbidden. Developing tourism in the area is seen as an opportunity to enhance the income of local people, many of whom come from the ethnic minority groups of Nung, Tay, Dzao and H'mong.
Located in Bac Kan Province, 240km northeast of Hanoi, the Park's most famous attraction is Lake Ba Be, which is actually three smaller lakes joined together. Almost 8km long, the tranquil waters of the lake provide a romantic spot to relax. Visitors will also observe a number of local people engaging in their traditional fishing routines. Small pieces of bamboo floating on the water indicate someone's shrimp net, while plastic bottles mark a fish trap.
Nestled amongst the unpicked corn not far outside the Park entrance is the boat station for river and lake cruise. Mr. Chin welcomed us abroad his tour boat, complete with sun roof and life buoys. With a crank of the engine and a cloud of smoke, we were off. Well, almost, but the second attempt was successful, and we settled in for a delightful afternoon meander down the Nang River under a clear blue sky.
Not far into the journey, we entered Puong Cave, which cuts right through the limestone mountain. With caverns 30-40 meters high, it is home to thousands of small bats screeching and whistling to the passing boat traffic, much of which is narrow wooden punts propelled by a simple oar at the stern.
Exiting the cave, there is a noticeable change in the intensity of the scenery. Stark white limestone faces provide a stunning backdrop to the lush tropical vegetation including large tree ferns and several varieties of precious wood. If you're lucky, you may encounter some of the 30 or so animal species including wild pigs, bears, panthers, monkeys and birds that inhabit the area. Bright blue kingfishers and about 300 species of butterflies are among the fauna living here.
Ba Be National Park is home to around 25,000 people living in 90 villages. Mr. Chin nosed his boat into the river bank so we could visit Cam Village (60 households) and help them stack their freshly harvested rice. The residents were delighted to have a few spare hands. Even though they were initially shy and don't host many visitors, they welcomed us into their village. Lots of laughter greeted our attempts to stack the stalks properly. Squeals from some of the visitors heralded the discovery of small ladybirds, stink bugs and vivid green grasshoppers hiding in the rice.
Village house are a combination of traditional stilt (nha san), which the family living above animals and machinery stored at ground level, and houses built on a cutting in the side of the hill. Wood, bamboo and banana fronds are the main building materials. Without insulation, it is easy to imagine that the houses experience the extremes of weather in summer and winter. Each house has central fire for cooking and heating with a couple of small rooms for sleeping. The mountains form a splendid backdrop to the houses, with the river providing a view from the front doors.
A vital lubricant for many households is the strong tasting, home brewed corn wine. After chewing on raw sugarcane washed down with a couple of thimblefuls of wine proffered by an insistent band of brothers at the end of a hard day in the field, the walk back to the boat was a welcome opportunity to clear the head!
Near the boat landing, the local primary school teacher was escorting some of her youngest students home. Cam Village is fortunate to have an elementary school, but students have to relocate many kilometers for secondary schooling. Ms Dung has been in the village for only 3 months, so her housing was still very rudimentary with a dirt floor and thin bamboo wall struts.
A sharp left-hand turn took us on to Lake Ba Be. The sill water was only disturbed by tiny fish jumping near the boat and the reflections of the jagged coastline on either side of this narrow lake. The mountains look like a giant hand has pushed them to one side. Islands in the Lake are home to birds and monkeys, but no carnivorous quadrupeds.
Widow's Island is a tiny islet in the middle of the lakes. According to local legend, a river ghost created Ba Be lakes by flooding the surrounding farmlands in retribution for local villagers unwilling to aid and old beggar woman who was actually a ghost in disguise. He spared the life and home of a lonely widow because she was the only one to provide the ghost with food and shelter. Rice husks and ash sprinkled around the widow's house alerted th ghost to which land to preserve.
Close to Widow's Island, the ethnic minority village of Pac Ngoi provides home-stay accommodation for visitors. The villagers and Park Tour Guides are also able to offer information about treks in the area.
As the sun set on a picturesque lake, we left our boat for the short walk back to the park's hotel. Breathing in the crisp mountain air, we took in the sounds of small animals settling down for the night aand stars appearing in the clear sky.