A peaceful week in Ba Be National Park

Home of Vietnam’s largest lake and blissfully remote from any major cities, it was a wonderful break from our weeks of chaotic travel.

After taking motorcycles across much of Vietnam’s northern border, Daniela and I were a bit desperate for quiet. We kept repeating the mantra: once we get to Ba Be, we can pause. On this trip we have struggled to turn our brains off. We still keep up with domestic news and politics. We respond to emails. We still do many of the things that at times overwhelmed our lives in the States. But for this week, at least, we saw a glimpse of life (mostly) away from the grid in one of the most remote places in Vietnam.

We first heard about Ba Be from our guidebook, where it commanded a scant two two pages. The description enticed us. Who wouldn’t want to see scenery that “swoops from limestone mountains…into plunging valleys wrapped in dense evergreen forests, speckled with waterfalls and caves”? The park is six hours north of Hanoi, and encompasses about 60 square miles, while providing a home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. Ba Be Lake, which actually comprises three separate but connected bodies of water, is Vietnam’s largest, and lies at the center of the park.

After a five hour motorcycle ride early in the morning from our previous stop in Cao Bang to the north, we pulled into our homestay, stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the park’s main lake, and exhaled.

Why go?

For anyone looking for a break from the intensity of Vietnam’s cities, or just the wider world, this is the place. Ba Be Park is a largely pristine, lush jungle in a country that, unfortunately, has lost a significant amount of forest cover since the 1980s, although it’s making a comeback. Based on the construction we saw on our way in, it’s becoming an increasingly common stop for westerners and Vietnamese looking for peace in a country that can, at times, feel overwhelming. For now at least, Ba Be remains an idyllic, remote oasis; an enclave within the chaos, and for us, the most peaceful place in the world. We saw barely any people, and considered ourselves blessed to be able to experience such a blissful enclave.

It can be hard to relax. We work hard. We set high (often unrealistic) expectations for ourselves. We want to see more, do more, accomplish more. See more sights. I know I struggle to make my days more efficient – sneaking 5 minutes here and there to respond to emails, or to study, or to check Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. I’m not good, as it turns out, at turning off. But for us, Ba Be National Park, where we spent almost a week, has been the closest we’ve come to shutting off our brains since we left DC.

Of course, the fact that it’s such a remote park has a downside: it’s not easy to get to. It took us 5 hours by motorbike from the north, and it’s similarly distant from Hanoi. That said, as of this writing busses run twice daily between the park and Hanoi’s main station.

The view from Ba Be Lake, by JD Travel

Where to stay in Ba Be?

In a place as remote as Ba Be, there aren’t many lodging options other than choosing from the myriad homestays that have sprung up to support the local tourist population. While there is a small town on the eastern side of the park, and a slightly larger one just outside the park itself, we were thrilled with our decision to find a homestay on a relatively quiet street outside of town directly abutting the main lake. For those who haven’t heard the term, a homestay is essentially the local equivalent of a B&B. It’s rooms let out by a home’s owner, typically including breakfast and catering to tourists coming through the town. They’re generally quite inexpensive: $15-30 for a private room, depending on amenities, time of year, and whether they have luxuries like air conditioning and windows.

We’ve stayed in a number of homestays across Northern Vietnam, and our experience in Ba Be was as good as any we’d found. The host family, like everyone we’ve met, was gracious and kind and welcoming. The food was tasty and fresh. And, blissfully, there was air conditioning. But what set our experience apart was the property’s large balcony. The homestay had a spectacular view of the lake and its surrounding limestone basin. Daniela and I spent literally hours outside each day lounging in that space, just scanning the placid waters, or watching the occasional fisherman, or a distant lightning storm. And all for about $20 a day (for both of us), including our lodging, food, drinks, and activities.

What to do in Ba Be?

Ba Be offers it’s fair share of trekking, cycling, and other activities. Having just come from a very active couple weeks, we knew we wanted a relaxing experience and didn’t want to do anything too active. We spent much of our time in the park just relaxing and enjoying our environs.

Daniela’s on a boat, by JD Travel

When we weren’t enjoying our time on our homestay’s balcony, we explored the park by water, one of the best and easiest ways to travel around the area. Every homestay in the area offers a boat tour, which takes you to some of the highlights of Ba Be lake and the surrounding area. We took a three-hour tour (insert Gilligan’s Island joke), which was plenty for us, although tours up to six hours are available. We saw waterfalls, the “Fairy Pond” (a rock basin filled with clear water which seeps through the surrounding limestone rock), and “Widow Island,” a small islet in the middle of the lake with a temple commemorating the divine legend of the lake’s creation (turns out, every culture has their own flood story!). On another day, we rented a kayak and set out on our own. Except for the occasional small fishing rowboat or tourist boat, we were alone with the birds. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling, the sensation that you’re alone in one of nature’s paradises.

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Northern Vietnam is filled with spectacular scenery, ranging from towering Mountain views near Ha Giang, to karst formations in Halong Bay, to calm, flowing rice paddies in Sapa. But being as remote as it is, Ba Be was about as idyllic, peaceful, and empty a place as we’ve been. If you can get there, there’s no better place to take a step back, relax, and take in the calm scenery.

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