We weren’t quite sure what to expect from our final road trip in Vietnam. Ba Be Lake was not even mentioned in our two guidebooks, but we had been happy with the itinerary up to this point, so we figured we would trust the travel agency.

The original itinerary had called for our two nights in Ba Be Lake to be a home stay with a local family. After our experience in the loft with the rice bags in Sapa we were thinking that one home stay was enough and we requested the hotel option. Ms. Trang, who was our contact person at the agency, emailed us back assuring us that a hotel stay was fine, but she asked that we visit the home first and then make the decision. We said this would be OK, but I was wondering about the propriety of visiting a home and then, in effect, saying, “No thanks, we’d rather not stay.”

Phong and Quang picked us up at 8:00 AM for what would be a long day of driving. It was a 6-hour drive to the lake, plus taking time for a lunch stop and a break to visit a museum along the way. The final leg of the trip was on a narrow, winding road up and over a high mountain then down into a fertile valley.

We arrived at the home of Col. Ngon Van Toan and his family. The Colonel had retired from the North Vietnamese army in 1994 after a 30-year military career. He did not speak English but he greeted us warmly holding his 11-month old granddaughter, who was an absolute charmer. The house was a traditional wood stilt house, but it was built on cement pylons. It had two large rooms. One was set up for the family with cooking areas and partitioned bedrooms, and the other was for guest quarters, which featured real beds separated by plywood sides and curtains. Pam gave me the OK, and we told Phong we would skip the hotel option and bunk in with the Toan family. We used what daylight was remaining to explore the neighborhood and get acquainted with the family’s farm animals.

In the evening we joined the family sitting on the floor in front of the TV and watched the four generations of ladies do the meal preparation. Col. Toan’s daughter and daughter-in-law did most of the cooking, while his wife did the prep work, and his mother kept the baby entertained. A more accurate statement is that the baby entertained all of us.

The colonel was an intriguing gentleman. He came across as a gentle and gregarious family man, educated and intelligent. One wall of the guest quarters was filled with plaques, certificates, and citations from his military career. It was one of those times I would have loved to have had one of those computers of the future, which will provide instantaneous interpretation, allowing us to carry on a detailed conversation in any language. I looked upon him as a grandfather and a contemporary of my own father, but after recording my passport information in his guest log he informed me that I was only a year younger than him. Occasionally I get reminded that I’m not really sitting still while the rest of the world is getting older.

We were served dinner in the guest quarters at a small coffee table, so we didn’t have to negotiate all the dishes on the floor like the rest of the family, but the Colonel joined us for a couple of rice wine toasts, as did his son, who arrived home mid-way through the meal. By 9:00 the temperature had dropped considerably, and we were ready to crawl under the heavy blankets and read ourselves to sleep.

We began waking up, with help from numerous roosters, starting at about 5:00, but it was 7:30 by the time we finally rolled out from under the blankets and wandered into the family area to sit around the fireplace and watch the preparation of “banana cakes.” The batter, which resembled a pancake batter, was poured into a wok containing an inch of bubbling oil (origination unknown), where it would solidify and cook for about five minutes. When Toan’s daughter-in-law placed a large plate full of these in front of us we looked at each other skeptically, but after the first bite we were banana cake fans. They were really delicious.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Ba Be Lake. Our driver, Quang, joined Phong, Pam and I as Col. Toan’s son, whose name was Sun, manned the small motorboat and we traversed the large, scenic lake. We left the lake area and continued down a shallow tributary past a small village and farming area. There were villagers all along the way going about their daily chores of fishing, doing laundry, working the fields, etc. We eventually reached our destination, which was a large cave through which the tributary ran. We docked the boat inside the cave and explored. We could hear the sounds of a large colony of bats hanging from the ceiling, resting up for their nocturnal flight.

We returned to the small village, which we had passed earlier, and disembarked for a short hike to a place along the river featuring some small waterfalls. Then we returned to one of the homes, which doubled as a small restaurant, where lunch was being prepared. Our host for lunch was a gregarious older man who insisted on numerous toasts of homemade moonshine poured from a plastic water bottle. I reasoned that since the liquid did not melt the plastic bottle it was probably OK for consumption.

One of our many lunch dishes was fried water buffalo. Pam actually braved a bite or two, but declared it a “guy dish” and returned to her rice and chicken. After a tasty and filling lunch we bid our hosts farewell, boarded our motor launch, and returned to the lake. Once we were back on the lake we met up with a young lady in a dugout canoe. Pam and I and Toan’s son shifted into the canoe, and we spent the next hour and a half traveling in the style that has probably been used for the last thousand years on scenic Ba Be Lake.

We spent the evening enjoying the hospitality of our hosts and another huge meal. While we were touring the lake a group of four French women arrived so we had a total of six tourists, two guides, and two drivers sharing the guest quarters for the evening. None of the girls spoke English so we didn’t visit much, but it was a congenial group and we didn’t really mind sharing our bedroom.

The next morning, after another round of banana cakes, we bid farewell to all the members of the Toan family and started our long drive back to Hanoi. Along the way we asked Phong if we could stop at one of the brick making operations we had seen along side the road. When we did so we attracted the attention of a group of children and eventually the owner of the factory came out to visit. When Phong explained to him that I was an American businessman who owned a factory he became very friendly and asked several questions about my company and about the places Pam and I had visited on our travels. After sharing with me that he paid his workers about $50 per month he asked about salaries in the U.S. When I told him that my employees all made over $100 per day he took a quick look over his shoulder to make sure none of his employees overheard that piece of information.

Back in Hanoi we checked back into the Majestic, took hot baths and dressed for dinner. Phong took us to the French Quarter to the upscale Tonkin Restaurant, where we enjoyed a fish dish served in a clay pot and some tasty pepper steak. After returning to the hotel we visited the night market, which was set up on the street in front of the hotel.

Our last day in Hanoi was filled up with hitting the main tourist sights. We lined up at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum to get a glimpse of old Uncle Ho lying in state. I think Pam accurately described the experience as “creepy.” We then visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the small stilt house where he lived in his last years, the famous One Pillar Pagoda, and a large museum dedicated to the Ethnic tribes of Vietnam. We also had lunch at famous restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong. It serves only one dish and has been doing so for over eighty years. It is called cha ca fish served at the table in a frying pan sitting on a charcoal brazier. After tasting it we can understand why it has been around for so long and why the recipe remains a closely held family secret.

Our last official stop of the tour was at the Hoa Lo Prison, known during the war as the Hanoi Hilton. While most of the prison was torn down to make room for a high rise hotel what remains is now a museum mainly dedicated to the Vietnamese patriots who were held and tortured there by the French authorities during the French colonial period, but there are also two small rooms that contain exhibits and photos of American pilots that were held there. The exhibits tell about how well all the prisoners were treated. Hmmm, perhaps just a bit of mismanagement of historical facts.

The following morning was spent getting the last of our foot massages and packing our bags. Phong and Quang picked us up at noon for our trip to the Hanoi airport and our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our eleven days in North Vietnam were filled with new adventures and great memories. As for the people we met, we found, as we have on all of our travels, that we are more alike than different. And, the differences are never enough to prevent us from being friends and learning from each other.


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