Tourists often overlook the beautiful scenery in the Northern provinces, that lie between Sapa to the west, and China to the north and west.
Vietnam, though comparable in size to Finland, Norway or Germany, may feel like a huge country with a multitude of tourist destinations known as thousands of miles of coastline, mountains, river deltas and the obvious icons such as Ha Long Bay, Sapa, Hoi An and the vast ruins of My Son.
However, Tuyen Quang province is one of these overlooked gems. Why so? Well, why not. If you are in Vietnam and have a few days to spare between visiting Ha Long Bay and Sapa and are happy to travel as the locals do, then head north, by bus. In a few hours you can be in towns and villages that are not accustomed to tourists, making the welcome you receive all the more genuine.
I had never heard of Tuyen Quang until March of 2011. Travelling north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue on the lovely named, reunification express, I spent 20 hours sitting in a berth with 3 locals. Their curiosity with me was matched by my own in them. None of them spoke English and I spoke no Vietnamese but in the space of 20 hours, with the help of my phrase book, note pad and a few photographs on phones we had exchanged email addresses, phone numbers and invites.
I was invited to Tuyen Quang Province by a local shopkeeper and his family and made a promise that on my return to Vietnam, it would be the first voyage I would make from Hanoi and I kept that promise.
I had to look hard in guide books. The province is not mentioned in Lonely Planet or Rough Guide yet it has amazing scenery, mountains, waterfalls, lakes and enough tourist infrastructure such as hotels, cafes and the ubiquitous foot massage parlours to make it worth a visit without being overwhelmed. With Tam Dao mountain in the south of the province only a few hours from Hanoi, Tuyen Quang province is not that far yet easily overlooked by foreign visitors.
I took a xe-om to My Dinh bus station and within 30 minutes we were heading north through Hanoi’s suburbs and traffic, all for 75000 dong. A bus journey was something of an adventure, especially when the 20 seater bus had managed to accommodate 30 of us thanks to little chairs on the aisle and people had to squeeze up close, with no complaints.
In total I spent 3 days in Tuyen Quang Town after reaching the last bus stop. My contacts had family here who run a lovely little shoe and handbag shop. I was their guest for dinner and tea. I stayed in a hotel in the centre of town though I could have stayed with the family but my lack of Vietnamese and their lack of English could have caused us all problems so I chose a standard 3 star hotel in the centre of town.
My first impressions were a town with little or no tourist industry and that comes as relief after the non-stop tourism of other places. There are no hawkers, no shoe-shiners and very few xe-ôm drivers, just quiet commercial town serving the surrounding districts. The lack of tourist industry did make me work harder to find food and drink and I ate with the locals but having to try harder can make the reward even greater.
I found a small street restaurant (Com) near my hotel and had a brief conversation in French with a local man who had lost his left arm in the war with the Americans. He chatted with me and translated my order for Pho Bo and a beer. And though I was alone, you are never alone long in places such as this. No sooner had I tucked into my meal than the hostess who made my meal came to sit with me, using my phrase book, she asked me was the food good and where was I from. Not a deep conversation but enough to relax a solitary tourist and put a smile on my face.
I had arrived in the town the night of the Mid Autumn Festival when it was alive with floats, music, people (mainly local school children) in costumes and vendors selling sweets and moon-cake and other snacks. I joined the crowd and watched the floats, all very impressive, mostly created by local schools or clubs. I think I said hello a thousand times that evening and never grew tired of it. And though this trip was about seeing another town in Vietnam and meeting people the scenery was still impressive. The town is surrounded by misty mountains covered in trees which are incredibly inviting.
My 3 days in Tuyen Quang town were just a taster and I will soon be back, heading further north to the small villages near Na Hang and Ba Be lakes and I can’t wait.
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