Insider’s story: Filling a pandemic emptiness in Ba Vi

Forgive the lack of human subject in my photos. Things have changed, thus the empty feeling of this place situated around a calm lake. The construction of this massive mountain resort seem to have been halted. But it still invites visitors, like me, who can make it here.

I am not sure if this account of my brief weekend visit in the countryside of Hanoi will entice you to visit in the future. However, I have to make it clear that I did not mean for this text to lure you.

I live in Hanoi and mostly we have been functioning like normal. We had a brief 3-week lockdown last April and that’s all we needed to keep the virus in control. We had a second surge of cases last July, and the third just last month. Thus, weekend resorts and tourist areas get deserted every now and then.

I took a bus from My Dinh that cost me only VND 9,000 and travelled for two hours, to get to the side of the city that used to be the Hill Station of the French Colonialists. Ba Vi is a National Park. The diverse ecosystem would not make you believe it lies just 50 kilometers away from the busy capital city. Most visitors come here for a hike or trek, mountain cycling, temple visit, or just a dip in a lake or a pool. If you are lucky, you can find the hot spring. It is the perfect weekend getaway for Hanoi’s city dwellers.

“You are our only guest today,” said the receptionist of the homestay. She told me that they used to be fully-booked during weekends. I am a walk-in guest, so she had to tell me about booking online next time – when things are normal again – to be sure that I get a room. “These times, we only get around 3-4 rooms occupied on weekdays,” she added.

I rented a bicycle from my homestay and followed random roads that lead me to this resort whose charm is its emptiness. I paid VND 30,000 at the gate and my wheels rolled down the slope and around the lake. The road is paved and there are some structures around – function halls, rooms meant to be rented out, swimming pool not filled with water, water slides… There are cartoon character rides for kids, there are a number of bicycles lined-up and locked together succumbing to dust in one of the hallways.

Besides the guy who took my fee at the entrance, there is no other person in this vast resort except me. It is probably everybody’s wish to be here, alone, and enjoying the serene environment undisturbed have it not been for the things happening around the world. I am grateful for this rare moment I am spending here – having the space to myself, shouting my emotions out if I want to…. but it is also very lonely. I remember the movie Into the Wild, it’s message – “True happiness is shared”. I sent one photo of my bicycle beside the lake to my friends in the Philippines in our group chat and captioned, “wish you were here…”

After four laps of cycling around the lake and few minutes of rumination under an ancient tree, I left the resort. I could see rice fields from a distance and that’s where my wheels proceeded. Here is a lighter version of my visit. Except for the empty homestays and resorts, daily life here seems unchanged. Unlike in central Hanoi, people here are more carefree. There is less risk of the virus so the locals are not wearing masks.  

I see familiar everyday life that I miss. I have been in Vietnam for 17 months now and I am longing for home. The smell of rice stalks that met me and the sight of buffaloes, of farmers harvesting, as well as the boys gathering rice paddy-snails gave me relief. In the city, diversity is celebrated – but it could also be suffocating. I am glad I stepped out for a little while to marvel at familiar scents and sights – here is one Southeast Asian shared experience.

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It is difficult to assume when you could come and visit. Next year? The following year? Nobody knows, but this village – a getaway from the busy city of Hanoi will change once airports are open again. You may not get to experience this vacant atmosphere but maybe when you read this you will also get your bicycle and look at some nook and crannies near your city. There may be spaces charmed with emptiness waiting for your energy to fill their welcome.

By Dumay Solinggay, an expat in Vietnam

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