Sailing down the Da river in Hoa Binh province is a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a couple of days, says Duc Hanh.
On a Sunday morning my friend and I drive towards Hoa Binh on a surprisingly quiet highway. We head straight for the Hoa Binh Hydroelectric Plant and Reservoir, a massive project built from 1988 to 1994, where we plan to hire a boat and float around for the day.
The enormous dam is built on Song Da (Da river), one of the chief tributaries running off the mighty Red River, which flows for 910km from Yunnan in south-western China into Vietnam through Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Son La, Hoa Binh and Phu Tho provinces.
The river’s valleys are invariably rich in minerals and possess specific ecosystems with a wealth of flora, fauna and wildlife. The reservoir led to a transformation of the local landscape as the rising waters turned hilltops into islands.
The reservoir has a “tourist wharf” called Bich Ha though I’m advised head for Bai San Pier instead. There’s no obvious jetty here but you can hire small boats which double as trading boats. The owners will also cook for you on board for a reasonable price.
Once we find a willing guide, we set off down the river to Than Nhan village in Da Bac district of Hoa Binh province, where a small community of Dzao people live. The boat leaves us at a pier from where it’s a steep 4km uphill walk to the village.
We have the option of staying overnight in the village or on the boat. We decide on the latter and set off with our small backpacks. The hill tribe still maintains its traditional customs and clothing and the villagers are very hospitable and friendly.
We find a house to stay and we are immediately invited to eat some salted pork and drink some herbal liquor (ruou). The meat is rather tough but the ruou is excellent!
The locals have clearly learned to cater for tourists. We’re offered fried eggs and French fries. The houses are well kept and a dream for fussy travelers. The mattresses and sheets are clean and we’re supplied with mosquito nets.
There’s also a reliable flow electricity – I guess we’re in the right part of the country. There’s even a Western-style toilet.
We sleep well and rise early in the morning to check out the market by the riverside – only after buying a couple of beautiful Dzao-style brocades, which are rather expensive but wonderfully embroidered.
Down by our boat people are busy trading. Chickens and pigs are being counted and lined up. Nearby someone is ominously boiling water. Traders holler prices and haggle. On land, there are food stalls selling pho and ice cream.
Scores of H’mong people arrive from villages up the mountainside. It’s the first time I see members of the Mong Lenh hill tribe with their wonderful yellow embroidered dresses and long hair which they roll up over their head.
The Mong Lenh are here to sell corn, manioc, chicken and tiny black pigs, and buy colour thread, fabrics, dresses, household appliances and tools.
We head on to Chieng Hoa district of Son La province, where there are some Thai villages connected by several suspension bridges. Where the river is narrow and calm, Thai women come down to bathe in the late afternoon.
We anchor at Chieng Hoa pier and set foot on land again. We can hear birds and monkeys in the distance. With our stomachs rumbling we are handed a bamboo fishing-rod. We have to fish for our supper.
Over the course of an hour, we reel in a bunch of fish, which we wrap in banana leaf and grill over an open fire. With a bottle of ruou from the Dzao village, we enjoy a delicious dinner under the moonlight.
With grottoes, caves and forests to explore, and clean springs for swimming, there is a lot do around Song Da. For now, we’re happy sitting in the moonlight.