The Ngoc Son Ngo Luong Nature Reserve in Vietnam not only offers you some of the most stunning scenery you’ll ever see but it also affords some homespun hospitality that’s second to none.
We’ve left the lively northern capital of Hanoi and are now driving through lush rice paddy fields on both sides of the road, with coolie hats bobbing up and down as the pickers reap the harvest of this prolific green crop that has now reached maturity.
As the road starts to climb into the hills we leave the sunshine below us and ominous thunder clouds build all around us. It’s not long before a torrential tropical storm turns everything to a loud grey with our visibility reduced to a few yards.
This doesn’t bode well, as we’re looking forward to staying in a countryside home-stay where refinements will be at a minimum, devoid of the pampering we’ve been used to at the more conventional hotels we’ve stayed at in Vietnam.
The views we’d anticipated as we ascend through the hills are non-existent and a grey cloud of disappointment also permeates the car.
As if by willpower alone, the rain stops and we pop out onto a plateau in relatively bright light. We’re again surrounded by an agricultural landscape that’s dominated by rice, which has acquired an even more vivid, shimmering green after the rain.
It’s not often that we’re unlucky when we travel and as if to reaffirm our good fortune the sun breaks through the bright glare of total cloud cover and blue makes a patchy appearance.
By the time we’ve reached the highest point we’re presented with a picture postcard scene in front of us with terraced paddies, palm trees and afforested hillsides that is simply beautiful. It’s as if the cloud and rain has formed a protective portal through which we’ve passed into this secret garden, hidden away from the daily chaos of the world.
This landscape is inhabited almost exclusively by the Muong tribe, a poor people with a deep rooted ethnic culture. Their isolation has contributed to the preservation of what has become a cultural and natural treasure.
Whilst mainstream tourism is in danger of turning Vietnam into a ‘join up the dots’ whistle stop between major cities, the fairy-tale landscapes of Ngoc Son Ngo Luong, with towering limestone karsts punctuating primary tropical forest, transports you into another world. Here you can experience rural Vietnam in all its beauty, simplicity and calm – a far cry from its history and clamour to ‘develop’.
No sooner have we crested the hilltop and absorbed the terraced paddies than we arrive at a substantial wooden lodge on teak stilts that is Suoi Mu Lodge and are welcomed by Mrs Thuc – who initially seems as tentatively unsure of us as we are of her.
Mrs Thuc spreads a meal before us as her family takes our luggage to our very own house on stilts.
With the help of our guide, translating for us, we begin to hear of what’s in store for us for the two days we’re staying with her.
Her lodge sits on the banks of a rushing mountain stream that cascades over rocks and creates a soothing backdrop to the other natural forest sounds of birdlife.
The lodge is a collection of four principal stilted buildings with an adjoining ground floor area for communal dining.
Our own building is a substantial wooden structure that is an open plan area with lounge area, netted beds and kitchenette.
The bathroom is in a separate ground floor building, alongside our own private outdoor dining area. We do wonder how we’ll find the bathroom in the middle of the night, should it be necessary!
We’re given no time to agonise over inconveniences as Mrs Thuc rounds us up to take us on a gentle trek into the surrounding hills.
We meander upwards through rice paddies and fruit and vegetable cultivations as Mrs Thuc stops occasionally to chat to local farmers and to introduce us.
We stop briefly at a waterfall in full flow, as water crashes into a pool below before rushing off to irrigate the surrounding fields.
The views are wonderful and both Mrs Thuc and we warm to one another as she realises that we’re as active and keen as she is and are ready and able to see everything she can show us.
After a couple of hours, with only a brief rest, we find ourselves back at Suoi Mu Lodge and Mrs Thuc leaves us to prepare dinner.
As darkness falls, she brings a wonderful spread of local food for our dinner with home-grown dishes that are a delightfully tasty mystery. Chilled beer signifies the presence of electricity and some normal ‘necessities’.
As we finish and sit back, she produces a bottle of the local hooch and pours us a shot each – followed by another and one more for good measure. If we didn’t all like one another before, we’re all now inseparable and hand signals and gestures cement our friendship.
A restful night’s sleep with cooling fans rippling the mosquito nets finds us awaking with cock-crow at daylight; thankfully without having to run the gauntlet of a midnight bathroom visit.
No sooner have we showered and dressed than a plateful of simply delicious pancakes, bananas and honey are spread before us – a most welcome nod to Western tastes that we’re sure are not local fayre.
We’re bowled over by Mrs Thuc’s hospitality and the friendliness of her family – to the extent that we all leave one another with affectionate hugs and a real regret that we’re neither able to stay longer nor share our real warmth and gratitude towards her in her own language.
This home-stay is one of a few in the area that provide a sensible income to marginalised people who otherwise are tempted into illegal logging and the poaching of animals and forest products upon which the pristine nature of the area relies.
That said, the welcome, care and genuine warmth at Suoi Mu Lodge that Mrs Thuc invests in us proves this is so much more a vocation for her than simply a source of income.
We’d love to go back again one day.
Click on the name if you’d like more information and to browse the Suoi Mu Lodge website.
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