It’s just before 9am and my sister and I are packed two to a seat in a dilapidated Mercedes Sprinter with no air conditioning. We only just left My Dinh Stadium, where we arrived to hoards of people rushing towards buses and minivans bound for nearby cities. We had jumped on this particular bus to Hoa Binh just in the nick of time — as we were heaving our daypacks into the open door and climbing in, the vehicle was already at a slow roll. Now, we are crammed in a claustrophobic back seat, wondering if this will be worth it.
The day beforehand, a friend had told me about Thung Nai, a mountain valley in Cao Phong District just outside of Hoa Binh City. My sister — visiting from the US — had been in Vietnam for two weeks. By now, I feel like little more than a half-baked tour guide, having spent most of the previous bit dragging her along the beaten track alongside masses of backpackers and finicky tourists. When my friend off-handedly mentioned that Thung Nai was blissfully void of international tourists, I saw my opportunity.
I gaze across the seat towards my sister, who’s hugging her backpack to her chest looking battle weary but hopeful. I feel a pang of guilt, since I haven’t yet told her that after we arrive in Hoa Binh, I’m not actually sure what to do next.
The van drops us at a derelict bus station flanked with unmarked, tarp-covered food stalls and little else. I realise quickly that the only information I have to go on was that Thung Nai was supposedly just outside of Hoa Binh, and that we could get there by taxi or motorbike.
“Where to now?” My sister has her pack slung over her shoulder and is staring at me. I try to look assured, staring around and saying something about catching a taxi. I have no idea how far we still have left to go — the Google Maps image shows Thung Nai as a blue blip along the Da River, but I don’t see any water within walking distance. Finally, I wave over a taxi from a company I’ve never heard of and say simply, “Thung Nai?”
Mountain Roads on Top of the World
The taxi rounds a corner and sets off down a highway that looks like it heads straight into a nearby mountain. Before we jumped in, the taxi driver had said 20 kilometres and another VND200,000 to get to Thung Nai.
Soon we’re hurtling along an undulating road as it winds through a canopy of green foliage, too dense on either side to see anything beyond a few feet into the surrounding forest.
The taxi driver swerves down a looping decline before throwing the car into a lower gear and rounding a tight corner. Just past the curve, the foliage on the right hand side of the road dives abruptly into the valley below in sweeping emerald cascades. As the car trudges up a steep incline, the entire valley opens up into a panorama of white clouds over endless blue water. My sister’s face is pressed up against the window in awe.
“This was so worth it,” she says.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
Traversing the Valley
By 11am we are sitting on the deck of a rusty mint-green pontoon boat, a makeshift tour vessel that sputters along the lake between massive, lush mountains rising up from the water’s quiet surface. We set off from a small, earthen dock at Ngoi Hoa Village, a tiny township perched along the water’s edge and home to the Muong ethnic minority. Their thatched roof houses line the road as it descends towards the valley, and their dock is the gateway to the water. They own the boat we are sitting on now, firing up the vessel’s aching engines when intermittent groups of tourists arrive.
Locals say that Thung Nai Valley was once home to herds of deer that roamed its formerly dry landscape. Thus the name — Vietnamese for ’Valley of the Deer’. Now the days of its wildlife are past, replaced by the roaming boats that connect the floating villages and tiny islands to the mainland.
Most visitors that come to Thung Nai jump on a boat to get to the valley’s few destinations. Along the edges of one island — and reached only by climbing a steep walkway that ascends the island’s edge at a 45-degree angle — is the windmill, a popular spot for visitors to stay overnight and take boat journeys to the floating villages 20 minutes away. Further into the valley are hidden natural wonders that most assume are reserved for Tam Coc or Halong Bay. Thac Bo grotto has the same stalactite and stalagmite formations as Halong Bay’s Surprise Cave, but on a smaller scale.
We are content to stay on the deck of the pontoon boat the entire day. Sailing through Thung Nai is a visual feast without ever having to set foot on land, and stopping off at any of the sights is just an added bonus. There’s something particularly peaceful about sailing at a crawl with nowhere to go.
The journey to Thung Nai is fairly rough, but the scenery here makes even the trip back to Hanoi seem worthwhile. A day of aimless sailing is certainly enough for both of us.
Thung Nai Valley is 20km southwest of Hoa Binh City in Cao Phong District. To get there head to Hoa Binh and take the Highway 6 bypass out of the city towards Cao Phong and Tan Lac. After 7km, turn right onto Tay Tien (Highway 435) and head towards Binh Thanh. At Binh Thanh turn left towards Cang Thung Nai, which is the main port area in Thung Nai Valley. Hoa Binh City is about 90km from central Hanoi.
Buses for Hoa Binh leave from My Dinh Bus Station in Hanoi.