Often refered to as the Ba Be Lakes, Ba Be National Park (0281-389 4014; admission per person 20,000d) was established in 1992 as Vietnam’s eight national park. The scenery here is breathtaking, with towering limestone mountains peaking at 1554m, plunging valleys, dense evergreen forests, waterfalls, caves and, of course, the lakes themselves.
There are 13 tribal villages in the Ba Be region, with most belonging to the Tay minority, who live in stilt homes, plus smaller numbers of Dzao and H’mong. A village homestay program is now well established, allowing travellers to experience life in a tribal village.
Ba Be Center Tourism (0281-389 4721; www.babecentertourism.com; Bolu village) is Tay-owned and can arrange homestays, boat trips and multiday tours of Ba Be National Park, including trekking and kayaking.
The park is a rainforest area with more than 550 named plant species, and the government subsidises the villagers not to cut down the trees. The hundreds of wildlife species here include 65 (mostly rarely seen) mammals, 353 butterflies, 106 species of fish, four kinds of turtle, the highly endangered Vietnamese salamander and even the Burmese python. Ba Be birdlife is equally prolific, with 233 species recorded, including the spectacular crested serpent eagle and the oriental honey buzzard. Hunting is forbidden, but villagers are permitted to fish.
Ba Be (meaning Three Bays) is in fact three linked lakes, which have a total length of 8km and a width of about 400m. More than a hundred species of freshwater fish inhabit the lake. Two of the lakes are separated by a 100m-wide strip of water called Be Kam, sanwiched between high walls of chalk rock.
Park staff can organise tours. Costs depend on the number of people, starting at about US$35 per day for solo travellers and less if there’s a group of you. The most popular excursion is a boat trip (around 650,000d) along the Nang River and around the lake – keep an eye out for kingfishers and raptors. The boats can accommodate up to 12 people and the tour usually takes in the tunnel-like Hang Puong (Puong Cave), which is about 40m high and 300m long, and completely passes through a mountain. As many as 7000 bats (belonging to 18 species) are said to live in this cave. Further stops can be made at the pretty Tay village of Cam Ha (where every timber house has a satellite dish) and the startling, circular, jungle-rimmed lagoon of Ao Tien, before finishing at An Ma Pagoda, situated on a little island in the middle of the lake.
The Thac Dau Dang (Dau Dang or Ta Ken Waterfall), consisting of a series of spectacular cascades between sheer walls of rock, is another possible destination. Just 200m below the rapids is a small Tay village called Hua Tang.
Other options include dugout-canoe tours of combination cycling, boating and walking possibilities. Longer treks can also be arranged.
The park entrance fee is payable at a checkpoint on the road into the park, about 15km before the park headquarters, just beyond the town of Cho Ra.
Sleeping & Eating
The only hotel rooms inside the park are in a government-owned complex next to the park headquarters. The best rooms here are in attractive semidetached bungalows, each with two double beds, while the cabins are small and fairly basic. A few rooms are available too. The complex has two restaurants (meals from 50,000d), though you should place your order an hour or so before you want to eat. For a less formal setting, you’ll find a line of cook-shacks by the chalets that sell cheap meals and snacks and are run by local villagers.
It’s also possible to stay in Pac Ngoi village, where a successful homestay (per person 60,000d) program has been established so visitors can stay in a stilt house. The park office usuallu organises this, but you can jusy show up and check in too. The very well kept Hoa Son Guesthouse is one of the best, with a huge balcony and lake views, but there are at least a dozen other options, all of which have hot-water bathrooms. Meals (50,000d to 80,000d) are available, and can include fresh fish from the lake.
Another option is to use the nearby town of Cho Ra as a base. The Thuy Dung Guesthouse is a friendly, family-run spot with balconies, wooden shutters and views of the near-by rice paddies. There’s a good reataurant on site, and the staff can arrange onward transport by boat from Cho Ra (400,000d) into the heart of the national park. The journey takes you past waterfalls and minority villages.
Only cash is accepted. The nearest ATM and internet access is in Cho Ra.
Getting There & Away
Ba Be National Park is 240km from Hanoi, 61km from Bac Kan and 18km from Cho Ra.
Most people visit Ba Be as part of a tour, or by chartered vehicle from Hanoi (a 4WD is not necessary). The one-way journey from Hanoi takes about six hours.
BUS & BOAT
By public transport, the most direct route is on a daily bus at noon from the Gia Lam bus station in Hanoi to Cho Ra (180,000d, six hours). This allows travellers to overnight in Cho Ra before continuing on to Ba Be by boat the following morning. A direct bus (90,000d, five hours) also departs Cao Bang for Ba Be Lakes at noon.
BUS & MOTORBIKE
Take a bus form Hanoi to Phu Thong (180,000d, five hours) via Thai Nguyen and/or Bac Kan, and from there take another bus to Cho Ra (7000d. one hour). In Cho Ra arrange a motorbike (about 100,000d) to cover the last 18km.
If you’re heading northeast from Ba Be, it’s bast to get a local bus from Cho Ra to Na Phac and get a connection there to Cao Bang.