Usually Mr Hung is the guide, a diminutive but sparkly young man, but today Mr Linh, the Boss, decided he should remember how to be a tour guide and to be sure, he hasn't lost his touch.
We trekked out from Coc Toc village and soon began an ascent up a rocky trail. This was quite hard on the lungs and thighs but perfectly doable with stops to catch one's breath. Looking back there were beautiful views of the forest and the valleys. Later we came upon rice terraces, maybe a little dull in February, but soon they would be flooded, planted, become green, golden and finally harvested. Goat bells jangled, dogs barked but were friendly, cocks crowed, chickens clucked, pigs grunted and birds sang. How glorious - and not another tourist in sight. Beautiful valley in Ba Be National Park
We passed through a number of H'mong villages, with lovely, if slightly grubby children looking hopefully on, and they were rewarded with candy we had brought with us. We were invited inside one H'mong family's house and it was fascinating to see the extended family so happily sitting around the open fire inside the dark wooden house, or going about their chores. The children loved seeing their photos but when Tilda helped them shoot their own pictures they were really thrilled. Tilda shows a picture to children
After about 3-4 hours we arrived at a school, at this time devoid of children and this was our picnic lunch spot. Having laid the tablecloth ( banana leaves on the floor), Mr Linh produced a wonderful lunch of Trung Cake, a speciality for the Tet festival, which is a mix of rice, bean and pork fat which has been wrapped in leaves and cooked for 24 hours. This was very tasty, and made even more so by the tale of its origin. Linh told us of the first king of Vietnam, Hung Vuong who tried to find his successor from amongst his 24 sons by setting up a cooking contest.
(pause whilst Mr Linh took a call.....the suspense was killing us.....almost like a soap opera)
Son number 18 was really struggling to find anything novel or impressive to cook, but then a special recipe was revealed to him in a dream. This he cooked and when the King tried all 24 dishes, this was the winner and so the son was chosen to be his heir. (the fact that the queen and all her daughters had apparently gone south, thereby rendering any procreation to continue the line impossible seemed immaterial).
We shared a wonderful juicy water melon for dessert, but eating it elegantly proved tricky. Messy eating watermelon
The way ahead was easier, along a trail worn smooth by motorbikes, vista after vista opening up. The terrain seemed to change as the mountains appeared more temperate than jungle, and rice terraces and little villages came into view. This was a farming area, permitted in the national park for those families who were already established before it was designated a protected area.
We reached Mr Hung's house at Na Nghe village at around 4pm. This was a rather impressive wooden house built in the Dzao tradition. Mr Hung's homestay in Dzao ethnic minority village of Ba Be
There is a yard paved with flat stones, and then a huge living room inside, with a dormitory for guests to the left and a huge kitchen the other end. Two new bathrooms have been built and although wooden with concrete floors, are roomy, light and clean. The family quarters are behind, and in front there is a beautiful area (the choi) for relaxing and gazing at the view. There is even an attractive fish pond.
A speciality of the Dzao is their herbal baths and infusions, but when invited to take a sauna, we weren't quite sure what to expect. Stripped of our jackets, we 3 girls sat on low stools outside around a steaming cauldron filled with herbs and leaves, a cloth was draped over us all and then a further heavier blanket, and we did indeed experience the most wonderfully aromatic steam bath! Taking a sauna made by Hung's wife
Our pores were truly cleansed! Afterwards the hot water was used for each of us to have a shower, really welcome to ease our aching muscles.
We were invited to help prepare the meal and we made rolls of a minced pork mixture wrapped in soft pieces of bamboo shoot, and remarked that it was like asking children to help, probably more trouble than it's worth! Helping to make bamboo spring roll
Amelia and Tilda also proved a hit in doing the Macarena dance with Mr Hung's two delightful little daughters.
Dinner was served and the men of the family and the guests sat at a low round table heaped with dishes of wonderful food. Chicken, buffalo, stir fried vegetables, tofu, and several other delights, all delicious. Needless to say, toasts, both general and 'private' with the tiny but perpetually refilled glasses of rice wine added to the exuberance of the evening. Super dinner at Hung's homestay
We had a real double bed each in the dorm, and it was perfectly cosy despite the fresh temperature outside.
The next morning, woken by a rather mournful cockerel, we gathered for a wonderful breakfast of noodles and fruit, and then the chance to try on some traditional clothes which had been made and embroidered by Mr Hung's mother and grandmother. Breakfast overlooking terraced rice fields
The photoshoot over, we set off on easy trails passing through many little villages. The joy of this kind of quiet tourism is that you come across the unexpected. A group of boys were playing with wooden spinning tops, which initially seemed a charmingly innocent game until we realised that the game was to attack and indeed annihilate an opponent's top. A nearby toddler was also in danger of annihilation until we suggested moving him! A group of boys were playing with wooden spinning tops
We came to a lovely forested area and descended to the sound of rushing water and eventually reached the river, crossed it by our awaiting boat and walked to Dau Dang waterfall. Stunning view from the top of trekking trail to Dau Dang waterfall
Back at Mr Hien's restaurant, we were served a wonderful lunch. Again it's a miracle how so many dishes are cooked over an open fire in the near darkness of the smoky kitchen. Mrs Hien is a lovely lady, wonderfully gracious and elegant. Mrs Hien's restaurant with open fire kitchen
After beer and Happy Water, our legs were quite pleased at the prospect of an hour and a half in the boat chugging up the river, but admiring the dramatic towering mountains, and the new vistas at every turn of the river kept us awake, (well, some of us). The sight of a kingfisher was especially thrilling.
We reached the amazing Puong cave and walked through it amid the squeaking of bats and admiring the many stalactites from the roof. Tunnel cave - Dong Puong on Nang river
Then was the chance to kayak back along the river, and the Danish girls adopted an interesting zig zag route, but when our arms got tired we rejoined our boat and rested for the return journey to Bo Lu.
This really was the most delightful trip and felt far longer than the 2 days. It combined the beauty of the mountains, the birds, the farming, an insight into village and family life, learning about different ethnic groups, good exercise, wonderful food, and most of all easy companionship of we three Trekkers and our excellent guide, Mr Linh.