A regular visitor to Vietnam, Victoria Gabriel relinquishes the usual indulgences for a more authentic experience and finds luxury of a different kind
It wasn’t the afternoon snack we’d expected. After expertly snatching a large grasshopper from the rice field we’re wandering through, our guide, Mr Long, pulls out a Bic lighter and gently roasts the insect before our wide eyes. “My friends and I used to spend hours catching and eating these when I was young,” he says. When he finishes plucking off the last leg he hands it to my husband. “Here, try it.” Not one to walk away from a challenge, he tosses it in his mouth, looks Mr Long in the eyes and declares, “Yum, tastes like popcorn.” He has passed the test. Let the adventure begin.
We have visited Vietnam several times before. It’s one of our favourite destinations. Upscale resorts, friendly people, incredible food, fascinating culture and history, and very safe – Vietnam has it all. But on this occasion, there’s a distinct difference. Where we are headed, luxury resorts don’t exist.
This had me reconsidering the definition of luxury travel. Is it high thread counts and Michelin stars? Marble tubs with gold taps? Perhaps a private butler? Or is it an authentic cultural immersion with opportunities to truly engage with people, places and experiences, and maybe even step out of your comfort zone? I’m not saying I don’t love a Belgium chocolate on my pillow, carefully chosen from the pillow menu, of course. But would I forgo an amazing adventure because such luxuries were lacking? Not a chance.
We wanted to explore the remote areas of Northern Vietnam independently and didn’t want the hassle of logistics. We needed someone with in-depth knowledge of the area and culture, and we wanted the money we spent to benefit the local communities. I must also admit, I wanted a comfortable, clean place to sleep and good food.
Mr Linh’s Adventures, a local family-run tour company offering customised trips across Indochina for those seeking a genuine experience, promises to “take you to the parts others cannot reach”. And while I didn’t find any gold taps or butlers, I did get the most authentic travel experience I have ever had, and I am still smiling about it.
During our four days together, our guide, Mr Long, and driver, Bao, expertly navigated us through remote ethnic hill tribe villages in the northeastern part of Vietnam along the China border. We experienced local roadside restaurants as well as meals and lodging at homestays with village families, drank shots of home-brewed rice whisky (also known as ‘happy water’), and even participated in some arm wrestling and drinking games during a pre-wedding celebration in a Nung ethnic minority village in Cao Bang. Everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles, waves and children running up to us to say “hello”.
We spent a day at Ba Be Lake in the National Park in the northeast province of Bac Kan, an area often overlooked by tourists as it takes a bit of time and effort to get there driving along the single-lane mountain roads. Located 150 meters above sea level, Ba Be is the largest freshwater lake in Vietnam and is surrounded by evergreen forests. With new caves often being discovered, it truly feels like you’re exploring unchartered territory. After traversing Puong Cave, home to thousands of bats, on foot, we took a leisurely boat ride around the lake and spent an hour or so kayaking. Mr Long had in depth knowledge of every area we visited and knew many of the locals, who were always happy to see him.
Accommodations that night were at Mr Linh’s homestay, a comfortable house built in the traditional style on stilts. The ethnic minority communities living here still maintain a simple way of life, raising animals and fishing. Meals at the homestays were eaten together, and it was great to chat with the other travellers, most of them Vietnamese travelling from the big cities for some relaxation in the country. The food was simple and delicious, with nothing resembling what I usually order at a Vietnamese restaurant in Australia. Meals typically consisted of whole freshwater fish, local pork, pumpkin, cabbage, beans and rice accompanied by cold beer and always some ‘happy water’, much to the delight of our hosts who loved to fill everyone’s glass over and over.
One of the most spectacular sights was the Ban Gioc Waterfall, a 30-metre high, 300-metre wide, multi-level waterfall with more than a dozen spouts that straddles the China-Vietnam border. We were fortunate to arrive on the day of the waterfall festival where hundreds of villagers from all over the region come to celebrate with food, music, song, dance, and folk games. We were the only Westerners and were treated like celebrities with everyone wanting to take a photo. We even made the local news.
Our last night was spent at the home of Mr Kim and his family. When we arrived, we watched the women making incense from the leaves and bark of a local tree. First splitting pieces of bamboo into thin strips, dipping them into a water mixture and then rolling them in the ground-up leaf mixture. This was repeated about five or six times before they were left in the sun to dry.
Our sleeping area was a curtained off section containing three floor mattresses with reading lights and mosquito nets, all very clean and comfortable. There were other travellers, all Vietnamese except for a Frenchman travelling by motorcycle, in other curtained sections around us and a shower and three toilets (two Western style) off the back of the house. I make it a habit to travel with earplugs, and was happy to have them, as the Vietnamese roosters seem to wake very early.
While I’m not ready to give up my 1000-thread-count sheets for good, swapping a five-star resort for five-star local hospitality is a welcome change.