If you’re looking to experience the beautiful natural landscape of Vietnam without the swarms of tourists, overpriced food and local scammers which are almost guaranteed at every well-known check-in spot across the country, Cấm Sơn lake might be for you.
A four hour bus ride east of Hanoi to Lục Ngạn (which will set you back a shocking 75,000VND, or just £2.20), followed by a further forty-five minutes or so by motorbike and you will arrive on the shores of the lake.
I had the privilege of being accompanied on my visit by my host family, and I would strongly advise befriending some locals, as there are no services listed online. Besides, organising a boat trip on the lake will prove difficult without insider knowledge.
Upon arrival at the lake, we were met on the road by two men who ushered us into their courtyard, where we left our bikes before following them down to the water’s edge. There, we saw a row of long rusty boats with flat bottoms lined up on the shore. As we climbed aboard, one of our guides disappeared into a corrugated iron shack to retrieve a Hyundai bus steering wheel, which turned out to be the same wheel we would use to steer our vessel.
As we set off onto the lake, the industrial drone of the boat’s engine reverberating in our ears, I began to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings.
Known as one of the gems of the Bắc Giang region, the lake spans about 2600 hectares, and supports hundreds of families who live on its edges. An abundance of fish dwell in the depths of the lake, hiding beneath the green waters. Most of the people living on the lake must travel by boat to get anywhere, as the surroundings are so rural.
The edges of the lake are dotted with houses, some pretty and painted, some displaying the tell-tale signs of poverty through their brutal corrugated iron and concrete construction. Water buffalo can be seen tethered at the water’s edge, graceful giants wading slowly up to their chins in the fresh water. And forming the backdrop to this panoramic scene are the blue mountains of Bắc Giang, an impressive outline silhouetted against the hazy sky.
We passed several small boats occupied by fishermen who peered at us silently from beneath wide-brimmed hats. I imagined what their lives must be like, living and working here on the lake. With the odd tour boat being the only exception, all the fishermen use oars, leaving the lake glassy and tranquil. While their lives held hard work and little luxury, there was also an undeniable beauty to their occupation.
The lake is a large network of islands, promontories, and channels, and it would be impossible to explore it all in a single day.
We stopped for lunch at a small peninsula where there was some form of basic outdoor restaurant. We feasted on barbecue chicken, bread, cucumber, and oranges. Despite the horrific sight of the whole chicken rotating on a spit, beak slightly open in a silent cry, it was nevertheless a pleasant meal. Here in the middle of a lake in the Vietnamese countryside, I surrendered my morals and immersed myself in the local experience.
Before we set off homeward, I changed quickly and climbed onto the roof of the boat before plunging into the perfectly still green water, which was beautifully warm even in February.
Cấm Sơn lake is a true treasure of Bắc Giang. I feel privileged not only to have seen the beauty of its nature, but also the incredible way the locals live here.