I had heard about the magnificent Thang Hen Lake in Cao Bang Province a long time ago but the 300km distance from Ha Noi had always deterred me from going.
HMS Rickety: A small boat takes tourists around the lake to discover caves.
Finding nemo: Fish caught from Thang Hen Lake are a speciality for tourists. — File Photos
By chance, last month I found myself in a group of five travellers going to the northern province and was able to see the famous lake, which mesmerised us with its beautiful sapphire-blue surface.
Located in Tra Linh District, just 25km from the provincial capital, Thang Hen Lake was definitely as beautiful as I had heard.
A small boat sailed my group around the lake and the deep blue water was a window into world of sea creatures. The only thing that prevented me from enjoying the beauty of the peaceful lake was the noise from the engine so I asked the navigator to stop it for a while.
When he did this, we could hear the sounds of the different creatures around the lake, small birds singing and the sound of water as we glided through the lake. We also had a chance to hear a local musician who played a song which reflected his feelings about the area.
Tran Viet Soi was born in the district more than 50 years ago and has lived in the province since then. He thinks the beauty of the lake has softened his soul allowing him to become a musician.
Soi, who belongs to Tay ethnic people, said Thang Hen Lake means "fox tail" and was named so due to the elongated, oval shape of the lake, according to the history of his ethnic group.
Thang Hen is a mountain lake comprised of 36 different lakes that stretch for 3km in length. During the rainy season, the water level of the lakes rises, linking them all together. The surrounding mountains stand up to 660m above sea level, and are covered in green foliage and tall trees, which are reflected on the water's surface.
While Soi entertained us with a sweet song played on a local music instrument that looked like a guitar, the boat glided along the lake, allowing us to catch the best views of the surrounding mountains which were mirrored by the water's surface.
The navigator again turned off the boat engine as we entered a small cave at the base of a mountain known as Thang Hen Cave. Its large opening gave way to a ceiling of stalactites, silhouetted against the lake's surface, which runs into the cave. These shapes give the dark cave a strange atmosphere, as do the plants growing on the rocks.
Fishing is popular here and fishermen can be seen on the water's edge, casually casting a line and relaxing under the shade of an umbrella.
One member of my group shouted that he felt bad for forgetting his hook at home on such an occasion. I selfishly enjoyed the feeling of doing nothing but sitting on the moving boat and watching the amazing scenery in front of me.
Around the lake, the thick, green forest is set against the blue sky. Soi told us that the surrounding forestland was full of local wildlife and many species of insects, and advised us to bring bug repellent should we venture into the forest.
Waterworld: A view of the peaceful Thang Hen Lake.
The Huong Thom restaurant and hotel are located at the Thang Hen Lake precinct and were built in the architectural style of ethnic stilt houses made of nghien hard wood which is abundant in the area.
This is the only facility providing visitors with food and accommodation close to the lake, and has been praised by local people as one of the best restaurants offering Cao Bang cuisine.
Before coming we knew the restaurant was famous for wild bamboo shoots, special sticky rice, and a special kind of leaf called mac mat – a speciality of the northern mountain area which has a strange scent.
Restaurant owner Huong Thom introduced us to one type of cuisine of which she is particularly proud: a small wooden container full of three different coloured varieties of sticky rice. The colours of the dish were all from the same plant, which was cooked with local sticky rice.
Accompanying the delicious and colourful meal was the famous maize wine that is kept in a bamboo tube and serving with two spoons, which amazed our group.
According to local tradition, each drinker must have two spoonfuls, and drink one while offering the other to someone else. This drinking ceremony signified the hospitality and strong relationship between the host and the guest and after drinking you must shake hands.
It can be a tough trip to the lake from the capital, but enjoying the natural scenery and culture around the lake makes it worthwhile. Like me, you can lie in a boat and soak up the view of the stunning chain of limestone mountains and experience a perfect meal with special way of drinking. — VNS