Our first day of our northern Vietnam road trip ends up being a 12 hour, 150 mile journey off the tourist trail traveling from Hanoi to Ba Be Lake over what seem like terrible roads. (Spoiler alert: there are worse roads yet to come.) But the scenery along the way is nice and we make stops to visit the Thai Nguyen Museum of Ethnology, an ethnic Tay family, a small market, and beautiful Ba Be Lake before settling in for the night at a very basic guesthouse along the lakeshore.
Northern Vietnam day 1: Hanoi to Ba Be Lake
We begin our Vietnam road trip in Hanoi, a city that I feel I have had too little time to explore, but that our northern-based driver and guide are clearly eager to escape.
Thai Nguyen Museum of Ethnology
Our first stop is a few hours north of Hanoi at the Thai Nguyen Museum of Ethnology.
We are here to get an introduction to some of the ethnic groups we will meet over the next few days. The Thai Nguyen Museum is a huge facility that has lots and lots of information on Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, including life-size models of homes, fully dressed mannequins, cultural objects, and many documents.
We’ve already visited a couple of ethnology museums (unlike the rest of the region, the Vietnamese government generally seems to see its ethnic minorities as an asset, so is eager to tell tourists about them), but it is still a very interesting museum and we make plenty of new discoveries in the short time we are here.
It’s the kind of place I usually can get lost in, although right now I am antsy to be on the road and actually see real people, homes, and villages!
Surrounded by rice in northern Vietnam
As we continue north on our Vietnam road trip, we pass rural farmsteads, small villages, and the occasional town.
Mostly we pass rice.
We see rice being harvested in a few fields. However, we mostly see rice (and some corn) drying in the fields; drying in the entryway to homes, shops, and temples; drying along the edge of the roadway; drying anywhere a reasonably flat surface can be found.
Visiting a Tay family
We make few stops on today’s portion of our northern Vietnam road trip. However, we do stop and walk to a village (with a village being simply a few homes scattered mostly within sight of each other amid the rice fields) where we visit a Tay family in their home.
Inside they share fresh cold water (a precious commodity here) and tell us (through our guide) about their lives.
They are kind and funny, laughing and posing for pictures while we poke around their home asking what must seem like dumb questions. But when I ask about the year’s harvest, the worry in the father’s face speaks clearly. I don’t need an interpreter to know that it has not been a good year and that a difficult winter lies ahead.
I know I will think of this family long after we have returned to our comfortable home in Minnesota. I will hope that they are warm and safe and have plenty to eat.
In search of oranges
Our guide is on a mission to find a specific type of orange (we will discover this is one of a number of commodities he has on his list for this road trip), so we make a second stop at a small market to scope out (and buy) a few oranges.
The oranges are sweet and delicious.
Racing to (and around) Ba Be Lake
The destination for today’s portion of our northern Vietnam road trip is Ba Be Lake, where we are scheduled to take a boat tour.
At no point during the day do I have any sense of where we are in relation to the lake, but I take the increasing ruggedness of the countryside as a sign that perhaps we are near.
However, as the sun drops lower and lower in the sky, the road continues on and on endlessly. It is increasingly a more narrow, twisting, and rutted trail the farther we drive.
Once we reach the mountains, we travel at a top speed of maybe 30 or 40 miles per hour, but even that feels too fast as we lurch around switchbacks and over ruts and rocks. It’s as unpleasant and perhaps as dangerous a ride as I’ve experienced anywhere, and I’m torn between asking the driver to slow down and wanting to get it over with as fast as possible. As I’d really like to get to the lake before dark, I stay quiet and simply hope we don’t die.
(As the trip goes on I will realize how skilled our driver is, how hard he worked to get us to the lake in time for our tour, and how miserable that drive was for him too; but today it is all new and I have nothing to measure against.)
We arrive at Ba Be Lake just before sunset and are quickly herded onto a waiting boat for a fast (literally) tour of this magical, sprawling body of water as the sun slips behind the mountains.
It’s a disappointing tour of a stunningly beautiful place.
Later, as we settle into our rather primitive lodgings (think indoor camping) at a guest house in Pac Ngoi, our genial host brags about his skill in fighting the Americans, but he is clearly delighted to welcome guests from all over the world – including Americans. It’s how Vietnam is – the past isn’t forgotten, but it is past. It’s today and tomorrow that matter.
After dinner we are entertained (or irritated) by party music emanating from a guesthouse somewhere down the road, but I fall asleep dreaming of the peaceful lake anyway.
Off the tourist trail in northern Vietnam