Serene scenes

Nestled in pristine limestone karsts just a few hours from Hanoi is a little-known nature reserve.

By LE DIEM on August 07,2017 02:09 PM

Serene scenes

Photos: LE DIEM

Nature surrounds, but it’s ‘in the middle of nowhere’. It’s relaxing, tranquil, not touristy, and even unknown to many local people. A new weekend escape from the busy streets of Hanoi has been recently uncovered: Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Nature Reserve.

Leaving the din of the capital behind, drive southwest on National Highway No 21 to Hoa Binh province, and when mountain ranges appear behind vast green fields the nature reserve is close by. Go up to the mountains, take in the beautiful, sweeping valleys and lakes before heading down a rough road (great for motorbike fans) and you’ll reach Ngoc Son Ngo Luong after a journey of about four hours.

Serene scenes

The stilt houses of Ms Thuc in Khuong village, Tu Do commune, on the banks of Mu Stream and nearby Mu Waterfall, welcomed us, with stone stairs leading up to a lodge on the hill. Surrounded by a wooden swing shaded by trees and seats under a thatched roof next to the waterfall, the lodge is a charming, hidden place. The smell of lemongrass and the dim yellow lighting inside makes you feel like as though you’re visiting a spa. Sunbeams streak through leaves and the wooden window slats, which provide a pleasant view and a relaxing atmosphere. It’s the ideal place for a family or a group to stay, while smaller groups or budget travellers are well served by homestays in one of the stilt houses.

We began to explore the nature reserve donned in, of all things, small bamboo baskets. The foreigners in our group were clearly excited to be wearing a basket around their waist and a non la (conical hat) as they picked wild plants for dinner. Ms Thuc followed, showing us the edible plants and telling us their names, taste, and therapeutic properties.

Located in Tan Lac and Lac Son districts and between two other nature reserves, Pu Luong and Cuc Phuong National Park, Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Nature Reserve is representative of the limestone forests of northern Vietnam and is a globally important karst ecosystem. The reserve has a high level of biodiversity, with hundreds of higher vascular plant species in 140 families, with some species listed as globally rare or endangered. Some populations of the rare Nghien (Excentrodendron tonkinense) can be found on limestone ranges in Tu Do and Ngoc Son communes. While many of the species are also found in other limestone formations elsewhere in Vietnam, they are quite large and concentrated in this particular area. Evergreen forests on limestone are the largest subtype of forested areas in the reserve.

Serene scenes

After collecting enough edible plants for dinner, we headed to Mu Waterfall. We were embraced by a huge green blanket of nature as we walked, from the ranges of forested limestone covered by forests to the shaded paddy fields. Stilt houses appeared every now and then, like beautiful flowers embroidered on the blanket. ‘It’s truly another world, and just a few hours from the city. So fresh, pure and peaceful. Vietnam is so beautiful,’ said Melinda Hiemstra from the US and part of our group.

Wood and bamboo stilt houses are a typical feature of Muong ethnic minority people, one of six minority groups in Hoa Binh and accounting for 99% of residents in the reserve. To the Muong people, the first and most important part of a stilt house is its aspect. They believe that houses with the right aspect will bring luck and prosperity to its owner and is usually selected in a solemn ceremony under the control of a sorcerer, Ms Thuc told us.

Each stilt house has two staircases - one at the front door for men and guests and the other at the back and near the kitchen for women. The number of stairs must be odd, as this brings luck and assets.

In the past, houses were used as a sign of a family’s wealth and social status in the Muong community. Rich people often built many large houses. The house of an aristocrat was usually 100 metres in length while that of a normal person was only 20 metres. Each stilt house was also often divided into compartments. The more compartments a house had, the wealthier and higher level of class its owners were.

One thing that makes Muong stilt houses unique is that they have more windows than others. Windows are supernatural to the Muong people, as they are believed to be the gateway to seeing their family members off to another world.

Serene scenes

Melinda was very much interested in the stilt houses and took a video to send to her kids to show them how people raised animals like chickens underneath the house. ‘My kids would love it here for sure,’ she said. ‘I might bring them here one day.’

As we climbed a bit higher up the mountain, the sound of rushing water could be heard. Mu Waterfall was close. At an altitude of over 1,000 metres in the majestic Truong Son Mountain Range, it appeared like a sheet of white silk draped across the forest.

The sweat we worked up under the summer sun was quickly dried by the cool fresh breeze. Huge rocks block the flow of the waterfall and create different levels. The highlight of Mu Waterfall is the pool at the bottom of its 100-metre drop, with swirling, bubbling water resembling a Jacuzzi. The dry season (October to March) is the best time for a swim, according to Ms Thuc.

Leaving the waterfall, more water awaited as we reached a pond and went fishing. Though plentiful, catching one wasn’t as easy as we thought. They were smart and nimble, while we were clumsy in their watery world. Eventually we succeeded and had our protein for dinner. Ms Thuc asked us if we wanted to catch duck as well, and though it sounded like fun it also sounded like too much effort.

Back at the lodge, we excitedly prepared our dinner, under Ms Thuc’s friendly instruction. After cleaning all the plants, we put them into a pot to boil, except for the grapefruit leaves. She showed us how to roll meatballs with the grapefruit leaves and use tongs to grill them, which is called chả xương cuốn lá bưởi (grilled bone with grapefruit leaves) and a typical dish of the Muong people and a key feature of important events and the new year festival. In the past, meat was hard to come by, so local people minced bone and rolled it in the leaves, which was the best food they could offer at the altar worshiping their ancestors. Times are better today, and bone has been replaced by meat.

The flavour of the grapefruit leaves gave the dish a special taste. Other mountain tastes, such as sour bamboo with duck, snails, and the steamed fish, our trophy from the pond, were also delicious.

Not only our stomachs but also our eyes were satiated. Villagers in their traditional colourful costumes performed traditional songs and dances for us. They taught us their bamboo dance, a typical dance of the northwest highlands at special events. While four to six people hold two sticks of bamboo each and clap in a 4/4 rhythm, we tried to dance in and out of the sticks, much like skipping rope. It was a fun exercise just before going to bed.

When the roosters woke us up, we got together to give the local kids some food and books, which were greeted with happy smiles. We then headed back out into nature, where we sat on swings surrounded by mountains and forests, looking up to a clear blue sky through breaks in the canopy as the sound of water from the nearby stream filled the air. I can see myself having a house here, so I can escape from the city anytime I please.

A range of tours to Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Nature Reserve are available, staying in a lodge or a homestay, from Sens Asia Travel. For more information, see www.sensasia.com/, email info@sensasia.com, or call 0916 913 553. 

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