Reading with the Buffaloes

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In anticipation of a long drive, we tried to get an early start on our drive from the city of Cao Bang to the Ba Be Lakes. I was still feeling poorly, but managed to hang onto the back of the bike and make it the surprisingly short drive (about three hours) to Ba Be.  

We paid the fee at the park headquarters and then drove to the lake to wait for a boat to take us across.  While there, we met a Spanish chap with a rather Scottish accent who had been driving across the whole of Northern Vietnam.  We chatted with him for a bit and waited... and waited... and waited.  We were all getting a bit antsy when a boat finally arrived to take us and our bikes across the lake.  It was a very small boat and I was rather worried about it capsizing under the weight of our bikes, us, and the additional passengers.  Fortunately, it was a short ride and the boat made it safely to the other shore.  

Ba Be is the largest natural fresh water lake in Vietnam, as well as the highest.  It is made up of three parts, which is actually where it gets its name: "Three Lakes."  Despite being a gorgeous forested area full of waterfalls, it's not terribly touristy, probably because of the distance from Hanoi (about a six hour drive).  As a result, the accommodation is fairly basic: most people stay in long houses where the guests all sleep on the floor in the same room.  We weren't aware of that, and I wasn't overly excited about the idea, given my current state.

On the boat, we had been cornered by a woman who wanted us to stay at her guesthouse.  We decided to give it a look, but after seeing that it would be all of us in one room, we decided to look around a bit more before making a decision.  After cruising around the lake a bit, we found a place that had incredibly sparse and basic rooms, but they were private and there was a little balcony overlooking the lake: sold.   

After leaving our bags in the room, we put the bike away and started walking, intent on exploring the area with the daylight we had left.  It was a very peaceful area, incredibly quiet and it seemed like we were the only people out on the road.  Walking along, we realized the road led all the way around the lake to the spot where we'd taken the boat across.  Had we known earlier, we wouldn’t have had to wait for the boat in the first place – bear that in mind for future trips!  We cruised back to the other side of the lake and took the rest of the day easy, reading on the porch and having an early dinner at pretty much the only place we could. 

When I woke up the next day, I was feeling even more poorly.  We had been planning to do the "it" thing to do at Ba Be: renting a boat and checking out the lake and the waterfalls.  But because of the fact that I couldn’t breathe, we decided to skip it and have a relaxing day, just sitting around.  We found ourselves a nice plot of land stretching into the lake and settled down amongst the buffaloes to read for the bulk of the day.  Despite missing the boat trip, we had a fantastic day admiring the people fishing and watching the cows graze.  Ba Be proved to be a perfect place to recoup and relax – it was a shame we had to get back to work for the weekend.

 As we had to teach on Saturday, we packed up and started down the road towards the city of Thai Nguyen.  The road out of Ba Be to the main highway was quiet and scenic, but as we turned onto the highway, we could see that the next stretch was going to be hell.  The road was chock full of big trucks; in Vietnam, the right of way is always given to the bigger vehicle and big trucks trump all.  Basically, they can do whatever they want, including run you off the road.  As a result, the rest of the drive towards Thai Nguyen was incredibly tense.

To break it up and give us some relief, we decided to stop in at the Museum of Ethnology in Thai Nguyen.  We had visited the fantastic Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi before, and were told that the one in Thai Nguyen wasn’t as large, but was very informative.  It was indeed, but my enjoyment of it was cut short after I tried to pop my ears (symptom of the sickness) and ended up possibly blowing my left eardrum.  I was incredibly worried and so we decided to leave the museum and continue the drive back to Hanoi.  

After such a relaxing and beautiful holiday, it was unfortunate that we had to finish the trip on the awful road from Thai Nguyen to Hanoi.  If possible, there were even more big trucks clogging the road and pushing us to the side.  It was a harrowing three hours (I’m a terribly backseat driver) and we were relieved to find ourselves back in Hanoi at the end of it.  We dropped off the bike and curled up in our cozy little home with our patooty little Diego, bracing for a weekend of Halloween activities with the kiddies.  

Despite the sickness and some difficult driving, the trip itself had been a success and we would highly recommend it to anyone considering a jaunt out of the city.  Both places were substantially less busy than most tourist spots in Vietnam, and they provided us with not only gorgeous views, but also some relaxation and peace. 

(As a side note, I went to the doctor the next day and was given the all clear on the ears – no popped eardrums – phew!  I paid $55 for a 5 minute consult with a woman who prescribed me the exact same drugs I’d been taking all week.  Ah, healthcare.)
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