A dam good holiday

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Cruising down the Da River in tranquility

Once upon a time, there was a verdant valley that teemed with wildlife in the north-west region of Vietnam. Deer was an especially common sight.

Well, it was not so long ago, but it is gone forever, so it seems like a long time.

The forests and paddy fields are now submerged under several meters of water, creating a reservoir for a hydroelectric plant.

In that cruel irony of fate that befalls many places of natural splendor, the deer is still around in name.

Today, the Thung Nai (Deer Valley) attracts a very different kind of species tourists seeking a weekend escape from the city. The valley is only about 100 kilometers to the north-west of Hanoi.

Once you reach Hoa Binh Town, there are two options: continue driving through the peaceful villages of the Muong ethnic group or stop at the Binh Thanh Harbor at Cham Mat T-junction and take a 15-minute boat trip on the Da River well, Da reservoir.

We booked a room at the Coi Xay Gio (Windmill) Hotel, a new but well-known facility which offers visitors top quality service compared to others in Thung Nai. The hotel was built on an islet called Hoa Binh, which is a 15- minute trip from Binh Thanh Harbor. It is a landmark in the area because of the small windmill outside.

For a weekend trip, there are plenty of activities to choose from. For the adventurous at heart, forest trails lead to the Mu Village of the Muong people where delicate looking stilt houses stand in the shade of tall trees and undergrowth. We opted for a boat trip to admire the breathtaking scenery of the river and many islets that were once mountains before the valley was flooded.

It took us around 15 minutes to reach the Ba Chua Thac Bo Temple, one of the star attractions at Thung Nai. Although the temple is small, the backdrop of mirror-still water and sky give it a grandiose touch. The temple festival, which runs from the 7th day of the first lunar month till the end of the third lunar month, is attracting larger numbers of the pious and curious every year.

After about 10 minutes we could stretch our legs once again as we came upon the Bo Cave. We got off the boat and climbed inside to explore its nooks and crannies. That was just a pit stop in our journey, which landed us at Ngoi Hoa Village on one of the islets after about an hour.

Although the Muong people living here are only 20km from the Da River Hydroelectric Plant, the community can only be reached by boat. Locals here have offered home-stays for several years. This offers the chance to learn about local life first-hand, not to mention partaking in some Muong specialties like baked pig, Da River fish, or steamed chicken. However, the highlight of any meal here is the corn wine - a good gift to take home to those who missed out on the trip.

We left the village when it was getting dark. The spring breeze glancing off the Da River was really cold. When we returned to our hotel, a feast of local dishes was being prepared for us.

The long day trip and the corn wine drove us to bed early. By the crack of dawn next morning we were ready to tackle the Bo floating market, held every Sunday.

There's more elbow room here than at the Cai Rang Floating Market in southern Can Tho City, but a healthy buzz of life prevails nevertheless as the Kinh and Muong people bargain and barter their goods. Some treasures to take home are bamboo shoots, bananas and of medical herbs, all at really cheap prices.

Well, a typical weekend away? Yes and No. Try it out yourself.

To book a stay at Coi Xay Gio Hotel, contact Ms. Nhi at 091 341 4530 or Mr. Duy at (018) 389 1537.

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