Into the heart of Nature

Little-known Xuan Son National Park is yet another great weekend getaway from the mayhem of Hanoi.

By JOE A on December 18,2019 02:57 PM

Into the heart of Nature

PHOTOS JOE A

City life can offer us unlimited opportunities in careers, friendships, and entertainment, but paradoxically is also the source of some of humanity’s greatest sufferings. We have always known that city life is a double-edged sword bringing great rewards as well as great despair. This is why writers in every age have criticized cities, from Thoreau and Emerson all the way back to the ancient texts of the bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Chinese philosophical school of agriculturalism. Even though this may be true, I believe city life is a benefit if we manage it with periodical returns to nature. So, as a current resident of Hanoi I am constantly scouting for the next park or reserve within a day’s motorbike ride that can get me into the heart of nature and allow me to recharge over the weekend.

When I plan a trip out of the city, I make sure to leave early enough on Saturday morning to enjoy a meal on the road and still get to my destination with a few hours of sunlight in hand. So, on my latest excursion I packed my bag on the Friday night and left at 7am on the Saturday morning for Xuan Son National Park in Phu Tho province, west-northwest of Hanoi.

The road to Xuan Son itself is a delight, because of how quickly it takes you out of the chaos of the city to a quiet but well-maintained highway. The Thang Long Highway is the first leg of the journey, and as soon as you drive beneath the last overpass of the city you’re on an isolated road walled with overhanging greenery. The immediacy of flora sets the course for an escape from the trappings of my modern dwelling. And thus the adventure begins.

Once you have a distance of 20-30 km between you and the city, other senses come alive with the transition from urban to rural. It’s always an unpleasant shock at first, but after becoming accustomed to the smell, cow manure it is an olfactory reminder of where you are. The smell itself with no reward would be off-putting indeed, but all along the valley to Ba Vi (another national park on the way to Xuan Son that merits a visit if your trip is longer than a weekend) are shops selling milk. You can get cow or goat milk, yogurt, and ice cream, which are so fresh and natural you can detect the grass the animal grazed on in each mouthful.

Just passed most of the milk shops, on Google Maps’ suggested route to Xuan Son, my travel buddy and I stopped for an early lunch. We went to one of many indistinguishable, family-style restaurants, called Nha Hang De 79, and had the perfect lunch. The menu featured many exotic options, if that’s your interest. Their conservation status unknown, we stuck to stir-fried goat and pork with a plate of greens.

Back on the road for another hour and you’ve gone from cow pastures to tea plantations. You know you’re approaching Xuan Son when the hills begin looking like mazes from the neatly trimmed tea hedges circling from the valleys to the peaks of each crest. Here is another relaxing place to stop for a beverage or rest in a hammock.

After nearly four hours on the road (though actually about three hours given our periodic stops to eat, drink tea, and crack sunflower seeds), we arrived at one of the only homestays in Xuan Son National Park - the Quynh Nga homestay. We proceeded to again eat, drink tea, and crack sunflower seeds, but this time in the shade of a mountain looking across a stream to an even larger mountain. Although not exhilarating, it was exactly what we were looking for on our short weekend excursion.

The homestay was a small stilt-house with a well-tended garden and an extension of the stream trickling through the grounds. Guests can pick their own chilis and spices from the garden to add their choice of flavor to the meal. We opted for dormitory-style sleeping, sharing a room with a Vietnamese family - another group of weekend warriors on leave from Hanoi.

Into the heart of Nature

The following morning was foggy and hazy, but the sky cleared the moment it was pierced by the rising sun. Another early departure had us out for sightseeing. Attractions in the national park are clearly advertised and sign-posted, so finding where to go isn’t difficult, “Left turn, 2 caves and a waterfall. Right turn a cave and water wheels.” The waterfall struck our fancy, so we made our way left and off we went.

The roads in the park were something of an anomaly; a combination of stunningly smooth surface interrupted by patches of gravel and debris. Monsoon rains sweep through these mountains in summer and autumn and cause massive landslides, which can block a whole road. Road management deals with this in the very convenient way of just driving around fallen trees, creating paths in the mud on the shoulder of the road.

Xuan Son is a plot of wilderness unlike many other national parks in Vietnam, because instead of showcasing humans in a state of communal farming it is too rugged for people to live in, so it remains wild and relatively untouched, and this is why the necessity of clearing the roads is not the highest priority. This was true of the road leading to the trailhead and the trail itself. We scampered over trunks and hiked over mounds of rock that last summer’s rain no doubt coerced down the slope.

The trail to the waterfall was a little precarious, not because it was undeveloped but because it was actually overdeveloped. Stones were smoothed and laid down as steps and inclines leading to the falls at the end. Going up was difficult, but coming down it was impossible not to slip, so we crab-walked our way down after catching glimpses of the waterfall from the top. The trail was dangerous but highly stimulating, in that we had to consider our every step. The dense jungle we were traversing really scratched an itch down in the primordial depths of my soul.

Into the heart of Nature

The morning of hiking left us with an appetite the homestay was happy to satiate. Our send-off lunch was a seven-course palate of color and flavor. We had green beans, bok choy, tomato stewed tofu, pork belly, pan-fried fish, salt-crusted chicken, and susu with peanuts. We couldn’t finish it all, to our everlasting shame.

We left at 2pm and even with a short break, again in the tea fields, only had to do the final leg of the drive in the dark, which was the Thang Long Highway and a very well-lit road.

I was happy to be back in the city where my life can continue, but I never take my time away for granted, since it is how I can carry on at full stride. For me, Xuan Son is not only a great memory but also somewhere I can return to at will should the spirit move me.

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