Independent Trekking in Northern Vietnam

Right after Deepsec, I attended SEFM09 in Hanoi, Vietnam. I wanted to explore the backcountry with my girlfriend and I would like to provide some feedback to people planning something similar.

We wanted to avoid popular tourist destinations like Sapa and Halong Bay, so we decided to visit Ba Be lake. Planning the trip is not exactly simple, as information about the area is hard to find. For instance, the Lonely Planet says approximately “the lake is nice, there are some guest houses, getting there by bus sucks”. Well, we confirm all that.

Before you go

  • make sure to take enough cash with you, there are no ATMs or banks there
  • avoiding overcharging is not something easy, since prices are never written explicitly. Always try to know the “normal” price for a taxi or bus ride beforehand, and prepare this amount of money in one of your pockets (keep the rest of your money in other pockets). This is important since sometimes you can’t really expect change.
  • take some pens and paper. Most people outside touristic circuits don’t speak English, so it is quite helpful to draw sketches, write prices and the name of places (since the Vietnamese pronunciation is far from obvious)
  • learn a few Vietnamese words and how to pronounce them. We found this list useful:
    • hello: xin chao
    • thank you: cam o’n
    • goodbye: tam biet
    • beer: bia

Getting there from Hanoi

  • from the Old Quarter to Luong Yen bus station, a taxi takes 10 min and 50.000 VND, but you can go there by foot in 30 min.
  • at Luong Yen bus station, take a bus for Bac Kan/Cao Bang. It leaves theoretically at 6:15 am  but be flexible. It’s a 3-4 hours drive, 70.000 VND.
  • at Bac Kan, a bus leaves at 11:45 am for Cho Ra, 2-3 hours drive. We got ripped off at this point and had to pay 100.000 VND, the local price was 30.000 VND.
  • at Cho Ra, you’ll easily find a moto-taxi that will take you to Ba Be. Or rather, they will find you. It takes an additional 30 min and you’re almost there (50.000 VND).

Warning: the motorbikes did not exactly bring us to Ba Be, they left us in front of a dull hotel in the middle of nowhere. The manager “welcomed” us with tea and pushed his products really hard (rooms with internet, trekking and boat tours…). We were put off by his aggressive marketing, so we took our backpacks and literally fled. It took 1h30 to walk to Pac Ngoi (so we ended up there at dusk, that is to say at 5:30 pm).

For the return trip, a minibus leaves Pac Ngoi’s bridge for Bac Kan at 7:00 am, 30.000 VND. From there, getting back to Hanoi is easy but you might not end up in Luong Yen. Our bus arrived at My Dinh bus station, quite far from the old quarter… (taxi for Hoan Kiem, 150.000 VND)

Sleeping

We were suddenly not too adventurous and decided to stay in the only guesthouse that the Lonely Planet recommends, Hoa Son in Pac Ngoi. It was indeed a nice place, clean, with hot water, OK beds, and awesome meals prepared by a really friendly family. The night costs 60.000 VND per person, dinner 60.000 VND and breakfast 30.000 VND. There are some 4-5 other guest houses in Pac Ngoi, and a bunch of others in the next village. The village (I think its name is Bo Lu) does not appear on Google Maps, but it is roughly located here.

You’re in Ba Be now

Ok, now the interesting part. The two main activities in Ba Be are the boat tour around the lake, and trekking.

The boat tour is nice and relaxing after a full day in local buses. You can easily find a boat in Bo Lu that will take you around for 4-5 hours, 450.000 VND. There is the bat-filled Puong cave here, and the Dau Dang waterfalls here (don’t expect something amazing). You can have an excellent meal next to Dau Dang in a very simple but cool setting.

Trekking

Trekking in the area is not easy but possible. Some random tips:

  • I took a gas and an alcohol stove, but we were unable to find any fuel in the appropriate format in Hanoi. They looked really puzzled by my gas stove. It is a standard hiking stove, but it is clearly not that standard in Vietnam. Trekking without being able to boil water or cook food is a problem.
  • we could not find a good map of the region. That makes trekking without a guide difficult. Our solution was to print Google Maps topographic pages on A3 plastified paper and “guessing” potential trails. Warning: at the time of writing, some roads, trails, villages and rivers around Ba Be do not appear on Google Maps. We also had a hiking GPS, but with virtually no background maps.
  • don’t go south of Pac Ngoi, except if you like dull roads and filthy villages. The Ban Duong waterfall is not worth it, and Cho Leng is an awful town.

So we faced a lot of problems, but still had an amazing trekking day. I won’t give the detailed itinerary to avoid spoiling the region, but there are some trails and a really nice areas west of the lake (according to this guy, the area north of the Nang river is also worth a look).

We headed to Bo Lu and tried to head north, crossing several small villages on the way. We followed a trail for a while, and after crossing a (small) river, a guy told us “H’mong” and invited us to follow him. So we did. He led us to a mountaineous area where the landscape was amazing, revealing a maze of trails, rice fields and H’mong houses. Our improvised guide was named Vao, and after 3h30 of hiking he invited us to drink the tea with his family. Before leaving him, he proudly showed us the new house he was building. The GPS turned out to be useful, as we had to walk in the jungle to reach Dau Dang before the night. We ended the trek by hiring a boat to take us back to Pac Ngoi under the moonlight.

All in all, an incredible trip.