Isolated ethnic people of Ba Be Lake nurture the old way of life

by Nam Pham

Awakened by the sounds of birds and frogs in the early morning after escaping from the rapid pace of city life, I started my new day in Ba Be National Park, a massive nature reserve in the northern province of Bac Kan and home to magnificent Ba Be Lake. Located some 240km from Ha Noi, the park has been well-known for years for its unique beauty.

My three-day visit to the park exceeded my expectations and fed an intense curiosity about the area, as well as letting me enjoy fresh air which can’t be found in the city.

On the first two days, local guide Nong Van Hieu led me to discover such special landscapes in the park as Ba Be Lake, the Nang River, Puong Cave, and Dau Dang Waterfall.

“Ba Be National Park is not only famous for its scenery but also for its daily lifestyle,” Hieu said. “It’s impossible to experience all the interesting traditions and cultures here in only three days.”

What he said was true. The final day of my visit broadened my horisons and left an impression of the daily lives of the ethnic minority people who are allowed to reside in the park as unique from any others I have encountered across the country.

I was lucky to be taken to one of the villages that border the lake called Pac Ngoi. The Tay ethnic village, with about 80 households, is remarkable for its traditional stilt houses built on stable mountain cliffs.

On the way to the village, Hieu told me a great deal about Tay cultures and traditions.

“Most of clothes here are handmade,” said Hieu. “The locals continue to use looms to create fabrics. The most popular is 2m long and 80cm wide. They also plant and harvest their own cotton before dying and weaving it to create the finished fabrics.

“Tay people used to hunt and trap forest animals, but now they have moved closer to the lake to catch fish. Fishing is their daily work apart from farming and raising cattle.”

We reached the village when the sky was getting dark. I found that half of the households in Pac Ngoi offered home stays. I chose the house of Nguyen The Gia, 47, to stay the night at a cost of US$15. By 10pm, all of the people were asleep.

My deep sleep was broken at the crack of dawn by the tour guide. It was 5am, and we quickly had a breakfast of bread and fresh milk and continued our journey. Amazingly, we saw many local fishermen already out fishing along the bank of the Nang River

Their method of catching was different from any I have ever seen. They throw nets while wading in the water, which is too shallow to fish by boat. The nets are designed very uniquely and are a bit tricky to get ahold of, but the fishermen bring in a haul of various kinds.

Fisherman Tran Trong Kien, 54, satisfied my curiosity about the fishing methods by asking me to jump into the river. He guided me to use the nets, and the cool water motivated me to get familiar with the unusual way of working. I caught five small and medium fishes in my first throw. We stopped fishing at 6am with 15kg of fish.

“Usually I can sell this much fish for VND200,000 ($10),” Kien said. “It’s rainy season, so there is a lot of fish as the lake builds up in size. In the winter, when there’s less rain, there’s less fish.”

Muong fish, according to Kien, is the most delicious food in the park. The people often select muong fish, clean them, then bind them between two pieces of wood and cook them over hot coals for about 10 minutes, turning them a couple of times.

We ate our fish, which was soft and flavourful, and chased it down with maize wine. We sat around a wooden table and sang some of the songs of the ethnic group with poetic and thoughtful lyrics, leaving us with a feeling of the colourful lifestyle of the place and a sense of pride in the country’s valuable traditions and cultures. — VNS

Lost world: The picturesque magnificence of Ba Be Lake within Ba Be National Park attracts a large number of visitors every year. — VNS Photo Doan Tung

Delicacy: Charcoal-grilled muong fish is the most delicious food in the region.

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