Stu picked us up at around 9am, then we took a two-hour drive out of Ho Chi Minh City following highway 1A, to Bien Hoa, before turning left onto TL768 to Vinh Cuu District. Then we took the Hieu Liem ferry to Tri An lake.
Our first stop was at a homestay called Viet Kingfisher. There we had a lovely, simple rustic lunch under the owner Hieu’s DIY bamboo house, surrounded by puppies, kittens, chickens, and a home garden. Everything here is homemade and homegrown.
The lunch was cooked by Hieu’s mom, known as Ba Dat. All of us and the entire family joined in to help, and we naturally called Ba Dat ‘grandma’. It proved to be a lovely, family-like meal with everyone sharing and comfortably stuffing down as much food as they possibly could. Everything was delicious, even down to the plain white rice and stir-fried potatoes; the phrase ‘made with love’ never sounded more appropriate.
After lunch and a long nap we moved into the jungle for a two-hour walk to the lake. Unlike in the Mekong Delta, where everything natural seems to bite or poison you, the jungle and the bugs here were nice to us. It wasn’t too hot and the light was beautiful — we were in the shade of trees 90 percent of the time, surrounded by butterflies casually fluttering their wings and or flying around.
Reaching the lake we took a boat to Cao Minh Island. The self-named landmass is owned by Cao Minh, a Vietnamese singer famous during the era of nhac tien chien, the propaganda-infused music of the era pre Doi Moi. He also owns another piece of land in the Tri An lake area. Run as an eco-travel resort, it has bungalows, a wine cellar and travel services typical of such destinations.
But Cao Minh island is the complete opposite. Although there are western toilets and running water, the place is untouched, with no creature comforts and no power. All we had was food, water, some beer, torches, and a shelter to sleep under. Mr. Xung, our boat man, and also the island supervisor, told us that Cao Minh did have plans to invest in the island and make it a travel destination at one stage, but for some reason he has never gotten around to it.
Settled on the island we went for a swim, the setting sun and rising moon in opposition in the sky. There were not enough torches to light all of our faces, so we sat in the dim light eating the BBQ set up on the beach, drinking, and enjoying the sound of the water lapping up on the island shore.
Of course we came with fully charged phones and computers, but they soon ran out of battery life. So, we put down our phones, our lifelines to the world, and began to talk. We chatted for ages, conversation after conversation, without getting tired or bored.
If conversation isn’t your thing, there are many other things to do, like swim in the clear waters of the lake — perfect on the Sunday morning — walk along the shore, read the book that you’ve been trying to finish for a while, write your novel, do some bird watching (like Stu), take photos (like me), or listen to cai luong music (like Mr. Xung). Or, just enjoy the luxury of doing nothing.
The digital revolution has made us so connected to each other that we often forget the other key connector to our lives — nature. For me, getting back to the real world was a pleasure.
Back to Nature
The area around Tri An lake has remarkable biodiversity; Stu, who set up these tours, has logged over 130 species of birds here in the four years he has been visiting. There is also a diverse array of mammals, although these may be harder to spot. Included are the black-shanked douc langur, the Cambodian striped squirrel, the variable squirrel, the Eurasian wild pig and the common palm civet. There are also elephants, though these live much deeper in the jungle.
The bird species include the Siamese fireback, the White-winged Tern, Emerald Doves, the Greater Coucal, the Green-billed Malkoha, the White-throated Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, the Oriental Pied Hornbill, the Golden-bellied gerygone and the Ashy Drongo, to name just a few.
Photos by Francis Xavier