Ha Giang Adventure Tours

Na Hang reservoir

Hidden amid jungle is Na Hang, forever shrouded in mist, and home to temples and palaces and wood nymphs. Ngoc Le reports.
It has been said that fairies live on a far, faraway mountain called Bong Lai (Elysium) in the middle of the sea. The mountain is blanketed in snowy clouds and dotted with splendid palaces. I used to believe that such a place only existed in my imagination, but that was before I visited Na Hang.

In fact, the land is not far, faraway, but hidden amidst mountains and jungle as if it was meant to keep mortals away so the fairies are not disturbed. Turquoise waters lap at the feet of mountains that are enveloped by clouds, curling wraith like between the treetops and temple turrets. Na Hang is a real elysium on earth, but it was not until several years ago that this elysium was conjured up. Na Hang, which means "the last paddy field" in the ethnic Tay language, is the uppermost district of north-eastern Tuyen Quang Province, which is around six hours drive from Ha Noi. The road to the district does much to discourage explorers. It zigzags dizzily through mountains with successive U-curves, hemmed in by steep cliffs on one side and an emerald river on the other. The few houses that line the road together with little traffic make you feel like you're travelling in the middle of nowhere. Na Hang Town, the district capital, appears quiet and peaceful, nestled between cloud-covered mountains with small houses scattered here and there. Air rising from the mountain and forest is so refreshingly pure that visitors just want to inhale as much as possible.

Na Hang's beauty is largely unknown to the outside world. The crowds one would usually find at other tourist attractions are non-existent. The town is located at the confluence of the Nang and Gam rivers, and it is here that heavenly beauty was created just a couple of years ago. Dams were built in 2002 to divert the rivers and five years later, water began to accumulate in a newly formed reservoir. The dams and the reservoir are part of the Tuyen Quang Hydroelectric Plant, one of the biggest of its kind in the country with a capacity of more than 1.3 billion kWh. Five communes with more than 4,000 households were evacuated from an area of almost 8,000ha to give way for the reservoir, according to the plant managers. Now they are all submerged underwater. Three turbines were completed and the plant began to generate electricity last January. Developers of the hydroelectric project could not have imagined what a magnificent sight they would be creating in the middle of the mountains. Na Hang Hydro-electric Reservoir is dubbed "Ha Long Bay in the jungle", and it really deserves the reputation. A five-kilometre road leads from the town to a pier where cruises depart. A world of sky, water, mountains, clouds and pristine forest comes into view and extends far beyond the eye can see. From the pier, boats can follow either the Nang or Gam rivers to Ba Be Lake, another scenic attraction in Bac Kan Province, or to Ha Giang Province's Bac Me District, according to Nguyen Thi Chung, an official from the district's Department of Ecotourism.

It takes almost a full day to take a trip from Na Hang to Ba Be and Bac Me, given they are 35 and 65km, or three to six hours away respectively, she said. There are no motorboats on the lake for guests to use except the ones owned by forest rangers.  "The lake is 100m deep," said Chung, "But during the rainy season, water levels can reach up to 120m." Just a couple of minutes after the boat sets off in the direction of Bac Me, you will be totally lost in exquisite nature. The lake embraces many mountains covered in endless primeval forests that are pristine untouched. Outstretching trees rise up for space amidst thick canopies inspiring an awe of nature. It is said that the forest has trees of more than 1,000 years old, whose giant trunks are so large that 10 people could not join hands around them. Greenish sea-like water enclosed by mountains is complemented by the green forest and blue sky, while snowy clouds caress the mountains and mix with the canopies. Nature can be enjoyed in its purest form. Tranquillity reigns with no sign of humans except a couple of floating houses that accommodate the park rangers. Several red-roofed temples and Buddhist pagodas are perched on the mountain slopes, which can only be accessed by boat. "They are uninhabited, and pilgrims just open doors to pray to genies, then close doors and leave," Chung said, noting that the temples are dedicated to heaven and female genies.

Towering cliffs like great walls stand tall in the middle of the lake, and waterfalls dot the forests. "The cruise to Ba Be Lake is even more thrilling because tall cliffs form narrow passages just large enough for two boats to squeeze through," Chung said, noting that Na Hang is around 800m above the sea level. However, the best part of the cruise is yet to come. The cruise passes by Thuong Lam Village where peaks extend endlessly and heave up and down one after another, just like upside down basins closely packed together. It is said that there are 99 peaks altogether. You feel like the peaks extend to infinity, connecting with the sky where fairies work their magic. A couple of waterfalls sparkle under the sunlight amidst the greenery on the mountains. "There are three waterfalls in close proximity called Khuoi Nhi, Khuoi Sung and Nam Me, which mean father, mother and son," Chung said, adding that some waterfalls also cascade down into Ba Be Lake. You can have the falls to yourself given that they are situated in the middle of the lake.

It takes around one hour to climb to the top of the 70-metre tall Khuay Nhi Falls and get back down to the boat. A cool transparent plunge pool collects the water at the base of the falls, where you can swim with the fish. "During the summer, butterflies flutter above the pool," she added. It is not until the cruise reaches Coc Vai that Na Hang reveals its most splendid and charming spectacle. More than 22km from the pier, Coc Vai is not a mountain, but a huge finger pointing vertically out of the middle of the lake up to the sky. "It is 100m high," Chung explained, "But from the water surface it is just 40m." "A school and a building that houses the commune's People's Committee still stand at its foot," she added.

Coc Vai and the deep emerald waters around it evoke images of the villages, houses, roads and paddy fields that are now submerged under the depths. "Accommodation, a restaurant and a souvenir shop will be built there," said Chung, pointing to a mountain just dozens of metres across from Coc Vai.  Every single place and name in Na Hang is attached to a legend which have been passed down through generations of Tay and Dao ethnic groups. "Legend has it that Coc Vai is a pole which Tay Ngao used to tether his buffalo," Chung explained. Tay Ngao was a giant young man that descended from heaven. He was building a dam to store water during a drought when he was told that his mother had passed away. "So he tied his buffalo to the pole and made a stone coffin to take her home in. His tears flowed into the rivers," she added. "Earth and stones scattered by Tay Ngao during his dam building became the 99 peaks." The peaks are linked with another story about a king's search for an area with 100 mountains in which to base his capital. "A local governor ordered the people to build one more mountain to trick the king, but the fake mountain was struck by lightning and the greedy governor was punished," she said. Pac Ta (river mouth) Mountain, which is located right at the confluence of the two rivers, has the shape of a wine gourd and is associated with the Elephant Duke. "The elephant was so wild that the king had all the water holes in his habitat blocked and wine poured into them instead," she recounted.

The elephant was so thirsty he drank the wine and became addicted, so the king used wine to control the elephant and sent him to war. When the war was won, the king awarded the elephant with four wine gourds and made him a duke, but no sooner had the elephant emptied the third gourd, then he passed away. "The remaining gourd became Pac Ta Mountain," she added. Na Hang's tourism potential has yet to be tapped, and deputy head of the district's Department of Ecotourism Luong Minh Chinh attributes that to a lack of investment. "Tuyen Quang is still a poor province, so it's imperative for us to invest in improving people's lives first," he said. "That's why we cannot invest much in tourism infrastructure," he complained, noting that the province will be looking for private investors once detailed plans for the district are finalised. "There are plans for Na Hang to be the province's main ecotourism site," he said. Na Hang Hydroelectric Lake can be incorporated into a two day tour with other attractions in the provinces like the hot springs at My Lam, the terraced rice paddy fields at Hong Thai and the Tan Trao historic site, he said. However, the top priority for now is to construct three piers in Na Hang, Ba Be Lake and Bac Me to facilitate cruises and develop new hotels to provide more accommodation for guests. On the other hand, the district also capitalises from its ethnic and cultural diversity with homestay programmes in Tay and Dao villages which are around 30km from the town. "The villagers were trained in hygiene, room service and cooking so that they can serve guests properly," he said.

Na Hang reservoir

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