Bach Ma National Park is an old French Hill station stretching out over some 40,000 unspoilt hectares and offering great hiking trails, waterfalls, slightly odd and very basic lodgings, a camp site and plenty of wildlife (keep that tent zipped up). It’s home to one of the most stunning stretches of jungle walk and mountain ranges we’ve explored in central Vietnam and it’s easily accessible, being midway between Da Nang and Hue and well serviced by cheap tourist buses.
The park is home to two types of forest: sub-tropical evergreen monsoon forest above 900 metres, and tropical evergreen monsoon forest below that mark. It’s known for its beautiful waterfalls, hiking trails and decaying French villas dotting the landscape. The native wildlife includes rarities such as the douc langur, Asiatic black bear, leopard and stump-tailed macaques, as well as wild pigs and deer. A lot of these critters are more active at night, so it takes some patience and persistence to spot them during the day. There’s excellent bird-watching here as well, but of course, to get a peek at the birds you’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn. About 65,000 tribal minorities live within the national park ‘buffer zone’, including a settlement called the Khe Su hamlet, which can be visited while you’re in the park.
With so much to do here we’d allow two days for a trip; better still, use it as a stopover if you are travelling between Hue and Hoi An or Da Nang. By motorbike or car, the coastal route from Hue takes just over an hour, from Hoi An just under two – unless you take the more scenic Hai Van Pass route, which adds an extra hour to the journey, allowing for stops. Local buses — costing 60,000 VND from Hue or 80,000 VND from Da Nang — will drop you off at Cau Hai village three kilometres from the park entrance. Motorbike taxis can be hired at the bus station for 20,000 VND if you don’t fancy starting your hike early. Far more comfortable are slightly more expensive tourist buses (Sinh or Hanh Cafe being the most reliable) that ply the route, dropping you off directly outside the park gates.
Entrance to the park is 40,000 VND; then it’s a 15 kilometre hike uphill from here to the start of the action — your only other option is a 900,000 VND (same-day return) or 1,300,000 VND (next-day return) six-seater minibus. However that’s the total cost when full and you don’t usually have to wait too long for other passengers to arrive. Bikes are not permitted to venture any further into the park, but there is a safe place to leave them by the visitor centre.
Before you bundle into the minibus, grab a map and sit down with Mr Cam, aka ‘the one who talks with nature’, an English-speaking park superintendent who’s served more than 30 years here and knows the park and its wildlife like the proverbial back of his hand. He’s also available to hire for 300,000 VND per tour.
If you intend to stay the night, book your accommodation and food at this point too. Many of the villas were closed during our visit but they are all remarkably similar (we were told Do Quyen Villa was good but it was closed). Mr Cam will organise everything from the visitor centre and send your bags up on the next bus.
Back to the minibus! It drops you off at Kilometre 18. The best waterfall in the park is Do Quyen and the most direct path leads off from Kilometre 16; it’s part of the five-lake trail, but it’s a long hike from all the others so is best to do separately unless you are all fired up on drip coffee.
Leave unnecessary bags to be dropped off by the driver at either the chicken restaurant or your accommodation and follow the path – you can swim at the waterfall, but it’s cold! On the way back, take the same route until you come to the yellow trail (signposted), you can choose to stop at Ngu Ho to see a pool, waterfall and temple, or continue directly to the campsite at Kilometer 17.5 or the chicken restaurant (and other villas) at Kilometre 18, where you can refuel on overpriced instant noodles (unless of course you were clever enough to mention to Mr Cam that you planned on dining, in which case he’d have sent someone off to the market to restock the restaurant).
From the restaurants it’s just two kilometres to the top of the mountain, an ear-popping 1,450 metres high. The summit of Bach Ma was used as a helicopter landing base by the American army during the war in Vietnam, and the area was heavily defoliated during the fighting, but has had about 40 years to bounce back. While the growth isn’t quite as lush as it might have been otherwise, it’s still uniformly green.
On a clear day the views are amazing, and on most days the sunset is even better. It’s worth aiming to get up there around 17:00 to get a good mix of both, ring the bell and try to workout what form of hallucinogenics the architect who designed the pagoda up top was smoking when he came up with the plans.
Beers are cold and cheap at the restaurant, but you’ll need to stock up if you plan on staying up later than 20:00. It also gets chilly at night at that altitude, so take a jumper and remember, early nights are often rewarded with early rises and you’ll want plenty of time the next day for more Bear Gryll-style action: swinging from ropes, clinging on to ladders while navigating your way around the four remaining lakes and the rhododendron trail – you might even find time to squeeze in a canopy walk.
You could of course do most of these hikes on a day visit. If you do, don’t do a tour (unless it’s with Mr Cam) and get a private car for the day from your start point. From Hue you’ll pay around $40, while from Hoi An prices start at $60 (or more if you do the Hai Van Pass on the way). Cars are allowed into the park, so you’ll instantly save on the minibus and you can get your driver to drop you off and wait at each trail you want to explore. You’ll also be able to go prepared with a picnic that you don’t have to lug around –another money saving tip.
The park is such a welcome and very different break from touristy Hue and Hoi An that you’ll most likely kick yourself for not allowing more time here. We ended up spending two extra unplanned nights, and although that’s probably too long for most, we loved every minute of it and can’t wait to go back.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 10th November, 2014.