It was dinner time. A group of six
bamboo tables were scattered around the two-storey stone house of Ngọc Thị
Ngọt, 30, and her husband. The food was plentiful and freshly cooked by the
family. The food was good, but the overall taste was salty.
meal: Cao Bằng locals make fresh food every day. Photo Gavino Strebel
the cook just fallen in love?” I asked, jokingly. “They got married just nine
days ago!” The mother of the groom replied matter-of-factly.
family and her neighbour, owning two old stone houses facing a large valley
of corn fields, were taking part in a project initiated by Helvetas, an
international NGO that has been operating in Việt Nam for 25 years.
2017, Helvetas has been training local hosts to open their homes to tourists.
“We train local hosts in hygiene, housekeeping, food and catering services,”
said Tạ thị Phương Thúy, programme officer for the project.
located less than 10 minutes by bicycle from Việt Nam’s magnificent Bản Giốc
Waterfalls, the homestays in Lũng Niếc Commune give you spectacular views to
complement your visit to the waterfalls and the beautiful scenery in the area.
invited a designer to help with redesigning the space in the houses and
decide on the colour palette and bedding,” she said.
Magnificent Bản Giốc Waterfalls, the pride of Cao Bằng Province. VNS Photo Mỹ
The hosts benefited from the
project, as the colours fit really well with the surroundings, and range in
hue with the signature indigo colour.
accommodation, elegant bedding and brand new toiletries are among the
amenities that the project helped with in the first phase. Brand new hotels
are also within reach in the town at the foot of the waterfalls. But make a
little effort to go further into Lũng Niếc hamlet and you’re in another world.
put together a big group from diverse backgrounds and nationalities,
including the UK, Belgium, the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Việt Nam.
six hours on the coach with a stop for breakfast in Yên Bái City, the first
activity at Phia Thắp was to meet with local people in cementing the village
water source so that children can play around it and people can fetch water
for use at home.
household sends one person, that makes 50 of us, plus the tourists,” said the
a joint effort,” Thúy said, “the tourists donate the cement and sand,
villagers and tourists do the work together.”
villagers had already started their work when we arrived after the short ride
from the paper-making village. It was quite dull and, I must say, more people
were standing than were actually doing the work.
the tourists arrived, they brought a new sense of meaning and a little
sensation to the group.
started to laugh when tourists began helping out. Positive energy spread
throughout the group – men and women became more enthusiastic and the work
tourists didn’t need much instruction; they just looked at what others were
doing and did the same.
next morning, when we left for the day’s cycling, Reece Guihot, an Australian
cyclist, who designed the tour for Helvetas picked a stick and wrote: 2018
Cao Bằng Cycle.
Old methods: The
giant water mills that use water energy to pound rice have now become
landmarks. — VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Spectacular views with
Guihot, who is a professional in providing recreation trail solutions, has
designed this tour so that the difficulty level increases each day. The total
length of over 150km is divided into four legs, with the last 40km the
the first day, the team of cyclists arrive at Phia Thắp Village, located in
the beautiful mountains of Cao Bằng. The corn planted in the valley had just
survived the hailstorm that hit the province a week earlier. The leaves were
all tattered and when we chatted about the unusual rain, a villager went back
to his fridge and brought out a bowl full of small ice cubes.
Kim’s house is a wooden stilt house that can provide single beds for about 20
people. They provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for us all. It’s all fresh
local produce and cooked everyday
Hands on: A tourist tries to make rice paper with help from the village
paper expert. Photo Gavino Strebel
Before the hosts can have any guests, they attended
workshops by Helvetas, learning about hygiene practices, as well as how to
create menus that are both nutritious and delicious.
been very enjoyable,” says David Schaub-Jones. “It’s hard at times, but the
scenery is beautiful, the food is great and it’s a nice group of people.”
and his wife spent the challenging four days away from their children. “This
tour is great in a way that you don’t have to be an expert cyclist. So if
you’re fairly new to cycling, if you have a basic level of fitness, and
you’re confident enough, then it’s a wonderful thing to do.”
wife Anne-Catherine, cannot agree more. “I’m really happy,” she said. “I’m so
lucky. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
said she took on this tour to prepare for a bigger challenge at the Ironman
event in Đà Nẵng. She had been a cyclist, but not mountain biking,
which scared her at first. “But in fact it’s really fine,” she said.
spoke in the valley as the trip was wrapping up on the last day, but still
she had the most challenging leg ahead. “Everything was very well-organised.
I’m thinking if something went wrong, no… nothing.”
actually something small did go wrong. The tour guide who was supposed to
post road signs with an arrow ahead of the tour suffered mechanical problems
with his bike. So the first group who kept pace with Reece Guihot went on to
the destination. And the slower riders, who cycled behind picked the wrong
path. I found myself in that group lagging behind with four other people
including the group’s doctor.
ended up going up and down hill four times before joining with the other
group heading for the lunch destination.
obviously took this matter seriously and had the local co-ordinator promise
that the mistake would not happen again.
Homeware: Craft villages making baskets, incense sticks and
knives add to the cultural values of the tour. Photo Gavino Strebel
Together: Joint efforts leave a new and lasting impact at
the water source for the villagers, and may be the first foundation for a
lasting friendship. VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Pedal power: The cycle routes can be muddy, steep and
rockier than this one. VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Spectacular view: The emerald green river of Quây Sơn leads
to Bản Giốc Waterfalls. VNS Photo Mỹ Hà
Bản Giốc Waterfalls
highlight of this trip was the ride to Bản Giốc Waterfalls, Việt Nam’s most
spectacular waterfall along the border with China.
we approached the falls, we travelled along the emerald green Quây Sơn River,
which was dotted with graceful bamboo bushes.
looked as if it were an ancient landscape painting coming alive.
went in the dry season, so the waterfalls did not look their best with strong
was my first trip to Bản Giốc and it was impressive for me personally.
Điệp and Khánh’s homes are located at the edge of Lũng Niếc. We were the
first to stay there. And it was such a great experience at a modest price.
brought in designers to help them restructure their homes to be able to host
guests. Their stone houses are located in front of a round field of young
corn, the region’s staple crop.
the morning, we would have breakfast on the patio overlooking the valley out
to the blue mountains.
says he’s working on a family tour, which may involve one day of biking, one
day hiking and one day of kayaking. Children for the tour need to be at least
10 and be able to cycle from seven to 10 kilometres. He hopes to launch it
some time next year.
“Our son is 6, and our daughter is
10,” said Anne-Catherine. “We may have to wait a little bit, but they would
definitely love it.”