“How many ways are there to cool off in the city?” a friend asked me, which, I assumed, was a rhetorical question. Let me tell you, I have been living an urban existence for 21 years and still, I can only count the ways to blow off steam in the city on my fingers.
I have always imagined going to the Palm Islands in Dubai and just reclining on one of its electrically refrigerated beaches while sipping margaritas, but that sounds unrealistic based on my intern pay cheque, or lack thereof. So I was more than happy to find out that here, in my own country, there is actually a place, which is naturally air-conditioned. Cool air, cool new place and cheap on the pocket; I’m as good as there.
This supposedly magical (and naturally refrigerated) place is in the vicinity of Sa Pa. Ban Khoang Village, is situated in the north-western province of Lao Cai. Some of my friends and I decided that we were going to take a long and adventurous weekend there. We got on the train at around midnight and arrived in Sa Pa the next morning.
Sa Pa mornings are the epitome of freshness. The air feels lighter and sweeter, even the sunlight is different up here. “It is as clear as honey,” Khuu Tri Trung, one of my friends said. “I’ve never seen sky so blue.” We are thrilled when we got to Sa Pa, but even more excited to rent motorbikes to ride up to Ban Khoang. We were instructed by a local motorist to take Road 155 and travel north for 30km. The road, only constructed by the Lao Cai People’s Committee three years ago, was already full of bumps and dips. I felt nervous as we drove that 30km, as to one side stood sheer rock faces, while the other was a never-ending abyss, with the temperature dropping the further we went. After an hour of screaming wind in our helmets, we suddenly heard the powerful roar of a waterfall. “Finally!” we all said to ourselves. Here it was, Lanh (Cold) Waterfall, aka the mysterious “natural air-conditioner”. Water from Lanh Waterfall originates from very high up the 1,500m high Hoang Lien Mountain. Water from the fall remains icy even during the hottest days of summer. We neared the waterfall, close enough to feel the vapour and splashes; it felt like sticking our head in a freezer, cold, clean and totally blissful.
Road 155 runs right beside the waterfall, just a few metres away. The road despite its recent build is already in very bad shape since cold water from the fall pours on it all day. We have no idea why they built the road there, but we really enjoyed the view.
As we stood and stared at the waterfall for half an hour, we saw a bunch of local pupils about to cross the part of the damaged road by the waterfall. They were very nice and waved to us. “Hello!” they called to us, to our surprise in perfect American-tinged English. After they had disappeared behind the curve of the road, we decided to continue on to discover more about Ban Khoang.
As soon as we turned the corner, we saw a fish farm, with owner Phan Son, tending to his ponds. “We take advantage of the cold water to keep various kinds of temperate fish species,” Son said, “Mostly we raise salmon, they have adjusted surprisingly well here”. We looked into the pond and saw schools of salmon swimming in their especially designed ponds.
We were delighted to find that the salmon raised in Ban Khoang was extremely cheap, at just VND 80,000/kg (US$4). Compared to VND 300,000/kg ($15) in Ha Noi, it was a steal. We were about to leave when it suddenly began raining, and the already cool climate of Ban Khoang immediately turned wintry. Son invited us to stay in his canvas farm hut while he prepared the salmon we had just bought.
An hour later, Son reappeared from the kitchen with a big tray with a large pot on it. We were famished at the moment and the cold had penetrated our light summer attire. Opening the pot we were engulfed by a heavenly plume of savoury steam from the poached salmon, an exquisite dish we can normally only find in high class restaurants.
While here in Ban Khoang, we got to enjoy it for practically nothing. We all dug in. The poached salmon with steaming hot rice was perfect. Ten minutes later, when we were about to gnaw into the pot where the salmon had once been, Son returned, this time, bringing a coal-fired stove and a plate of tin foiled salmon. We roasted the treats on the coals until it smelt done, unwrapped it and gorged.
There was really not much to do in Ban Khoang but we didn’t want to leave right away, the fresh air and the cool held us back. In the afternoon, after asking Son about a way to get closer to Lanh Waterfall, we got on our bikes. 30 minutes later, after very careful driving along forest trails, we arrived at the foot of the waterfall. The scenery, sound and the air was amazing. Later in the afternoon, we returned to Sa Pa.
If you are tired of the heat and noise of the city, a visit to Ban Khoang will allow you to enjoy the pristine natural surroundings, making a jaunt to Viet Nam’s far north well worthwhile. — VNS by Nguyen Le Hung