Hidden Treasures

THUNG NAI

Thung Nai impresses anyone who sees it from the very first time with the harmonious combination of mountains, lakes and charming houses nestled in between the high hills. Located in Cao Phong district, Hoa Binh province, just about 110km north-east of Hanoi center, Thung Nai is a popular destination for weekend retreat of both tourists and upper class Hanoians who can afford the time and cost. Most tourists traveling to Thung Nai choose the Windmill guesthouse, which is located on Friends Island as an ideal place for a comfortable and relaxing stay. The guesthouse area consists of a large two-storey redbrick house and a windmill offering visitors a breath-taking view of Thung Nai, a stilt house functioning as a communal dinning place, and a tennis court lying in the lush orchard. The Windmill itself is often regarded as an attraction of Thung Nai.

Staying in the Windmill, tourists will be served local specialties like grilled Muong pork, smoked or grilled Da River fish, or fish sour soup, and straw wine. After the dinner, tourists, especially the youngsters often gather for the campfire in front of the guesthouse, and watching the sparkling fishing canoe floating in the lake by night.

Waking up in the morning, tourists can refresh themselves by breathing the fresh air and enjoying the natural beauty in early morning. A boat tour to discover sites around the lake in Thung Nai like Ba Chua Thac Bo temple, Thac Bo grotto (with a lot of stalactite in various shapes), Ngoi Hoa village of Muong people is also a good option. Especially, tourists who luckily come here on Sunday morning can drop by Thac Bo floating market, just 20 minutes by boat from the Windmill, where they can buy fresh fish, shrimp caught by local people.

Thung Nai is said to be most beautiful in the autumn, when the water level reaches the highest and the valley is filled with the romantic lake water. Try visiting Thung Nai this time to best enjoy the landscape.

 

 

CHAU DOC

One of the most beautiful places in the Mekong delta area,, Chau Doc is as close as you can get to Cambodia without being in it. The Bassac River flows through the town and is a border crossing for river borne traffic. It is an attractive, busy place with good hotel options and several interesting attractions. Chau Doc became part of Vietnam in the middle of the 18th century as a gift, a reward for helping the Cambodian monarch to put down an insurrection.

Unsurprisingly, it has a high proportion of ethnic Kh’mer people among the population here, easily identifiable by their darker skins and a chequered scarf instead of Vietnam’s ubiquitous conical hat. There’s also a fair number of ethic Cham and Chinese people, and enough Christians to fill a local cathedral, making up a rare pot-pourri of cultures and religions.

There’s a large market selling local products and commodities. As might be expected, there’s also plenty of smuggled goods changing hands in both directions. Deep in the market, the Quan Cong (a Chinese character) Temple is a rewarding visit. It’s a flamboyant Taoist structure with good murals and effigies dominated by a ruddy-faced Quan Cong. Further along the riverfront there are several traditional stilt houses.

A short boat trip across the Bassac takes you to several floating fish farms and villages. Modified house-boats along, Mekong Delta a trap-door in the floor provides access to nets under the boat where the fish are grown. A little further takes you to the other bank and a Cham community. Once you’ve tip-toed across the stepping stones to avoid the mud, you walk through the stilt house village to the mosque. Also via Can Tho.

Although sharing the same linguistic and historical tradition, the Cham are divided into two quite distinct religious communities, the Hindu Chams and the Cham Bani, or Muslims. The latter live mainly in the Chau Doc region and are easily distinguished by the men’s preferred headgear – a crimson fez with a long golden tassel, or white Muslim prayer cap.

 

 

MAI CHAU

While all of the Western tourists flock to Sapa, the Vietnamese go to Mai Chau.  Just four hours from Hanoi, this foggy valley of rice paddies is the closest place from the city to find ethnic tribes.  Don’t expect elaborate costumes – most are wearing tracksuits these days.  However, several nights a week, members of the White Thai tribe perform elaborate cultural dances that end in communal drinking and a hopscotch-like game.  Go to Mai Chau to act like a Vietnamese tourist in Vietnam.

Mai Chau is a 139km trip from Hanoi, and 66km further on from Hoa Binh. Though it’s not far, the trip from Hoa Binh to here takes almost two hours by motorbike due to the mountainous terrain.

Mai Chau is in a valley just over the biggest hump, about 10km from the Song Da river and only 150 metres above sea level. The village presents an idyllic rural valley that could easily charm you into staying longer than intended. Nestled between two towering cliffs and surrounded by emerald green paddies, it is an enchanting sight as you wind down the cliff side.

In spring Mai Chau is a bright, almost parrot-green and by autumn this green transforms into golden hues as the rice approaches harvest. Taking the time to watch these transitions of colour seems like a perfectly useful way to spend your time while there.

Beware that whilst a beautiful time of year, Mai Chau can become unbearably hot in June / July with little respite from the heat as electricity doesn’t come on until the evening.

Those bemoaning the dearth of truly budget accommodation in Vietnam will be happy to learn that this is one place you can stay for a song. The star attraction here is a ‘homestay’ in a stilt house in one of the two ethnic White Thai villages, Ban Pom Coong and Ban Lac. While both are run by ethnic minority families who have lived on and worked the land for generations, this is hardly like trucking into a Karen village in northern Thailand and staying in the spare room of someone’s house.

The ‘bare bones’ accommodation is purpose-built to give tourists the ‘homestay’ experience, while the watchful eye of the government makes sure they have western toilets, ample bedding, and sometimes even satellite TVs in the common rooms.

Ban Lac is the more developed of the two villages, with more gift shops and a busier nightlife — what there is of it — but there’s little to differentiate the accommodation on offer. The lodgings are mostly traditional stilt houses with large communal rooms where you can sleep on a mat laid upon a squeaky, split bamboo floor, for just about the same cheap price everywhere. The sleeps are really a loss leader — they make the real money off the food you eat, and the curios and textiles you buy. Not to mention, the liquor you drink. A typical charge is 150,000 VND / person for dinner, breakfast, and a bed although some are a bit cheaper. You could save ‘small money’ by eating in town, but family-style Vietnamese cooking is generally far superior to restaurant fare, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on the nightly group meals.

 

 

HAI PHONG

Unlike its two neighboring sites of Halong and Cat Ba, Hai Phong attracts less tourists unless, of course, they arrive in Northern Vietnam by sea. Nonetheless, this seaport city has many charming architectural buildings which were evidently influenced by the early 20th century French colonial style. The old French regime invested a lot of money to build this seaport attraction.

There are some remarkable ancient Vietnamese architectural sites in Hai Phong. Du Hang Pagoda, the centre of Buddhism in Hai Phong, is a very pure and graceful temple that was built in 17th century with some renovations being completed afterward. The pagoda contains a lot of amazing woodworks, bronze statues and a bonsai collection right on the front grounds. An array of Buddha and Bodhisattva statues highlight a circular pond of water lilies in a flowery garden and a tranquil towered-grave yard, where the monks who had resided in the pagoda are buried.

Not far from the pagoda is Hang Kenh Pavilion, which is dedicated to the Vietnamese hero Ngo Quyen who lived in 10th century. Being a Communal House of the Kenh village in the old time, the Pavillion is famous for its wooden bas-relieves, sculptures and special boat-shaped interior. If you would prefer to stroll into the city, your visit should start at the colonial quarter around Dien Bien Phu street and Tran Hung Dao street. From there you can go to the old Opera House and then walk around Tam Bac Lake. There are 5 roofed kiosks on the Eastern side of the lake with fresh flowers sold by smiling girls. On the Southern side of the lake is the exciting Hang Kenh Tapestry which produces woolen carpets for export.