Besides Sa Pa in Lao Cai and Tam Dao in Vinh Phuc, Cao Son area in Thanh Hoa (also known as Son Ba Muoi), located inside the natural reserve Pu Luong, will steal the heart of any tourist with its unique and challenging terrain.
Towards Thanh Hoa Province, having driven 160km away from the urban centre, through Xuan Mai, Ho Chi Minh Road, and 217 provincial roads, we spent the night in Canh Nang Town before starting off on our adventure.
From the town, we are still 40kms away from Cao Son. We are reminded by locals to check our vehicles carefully for oil change, chain and brakes, etc. to be ready for the journey ahead.
It is said that the pathway towards Cao Son from the Lung Cao Village area includes a 10km slope, which is really challenging and dangerous for auto-transmission motorcycles and even small cars.
Above all, the allure of the Pa He Peak, 1,200m above from the ocean level, enchants every tourist despite the challenges ahead. As expected, just the 10km pathway to Cao Son is enough of a challenge for both vehicle and driver.
“To shorten the route, many mountains were cut into for road construction, and the steep level is still much higher than many other highland meanders. We all shifted the gear back to 2, then 1 [we were riding automated motorcycles] and still struggled to get over each slope. It took us two hours to reach Son village, the first location of Cao Son area, after much effort,” Christian Peyton, an American tourist said.
Many people admit that the area is a much more challenging location to get to than Ma Pi Leng and, Khau Pha passes.
Halfway through the mountain pass, the awe-inspiring scenery with the soft touch of sunlight opens up before the eyes of the tourists. They are fascinated by the Pho Doan and Co Lung valleys surrounded by clouds. Small peaceful villages are located on the foothills.
Around this time of the day, the temperature can reach 33oC to 35oC in the urban areas while it stays cool in Son village. Clear blue skies and cool fresh air with lots of sunshine relieve the travelers’ stress and bring excitement. Here, the summer’s hottest day is only around 20oC and in the winter it goes down to -1oC or -2oC.
Beyond the praise, the beauty of Son Village is unforgettable. The pristine land is a gem. Given its natural beauty, it has still been kept away from urbanisation and the hustle and bustle of other common tourist spots.
Past Son Village, the journey gets easier with straight roads and slight slopes. Along the way, the travelers’ senses are indulged by the soft breeze and a view of the corn and bitter gourd fields of the Thai people. Stilt houses with the aged chrysotile cement roofs emerge from among the rice and corn fields and bitter gourd vines.
Cao Son area includes the villages of Son, Muoi and Ba.
Pu Luong, the highest peak in Cao Son, which is also the core of the natural reserve, is 1,500m above sea level.
An old couple, Ngan Van May and Vi Thi Len, is living happily in a hut, literally. They have been living at Son Village their entire lives and represent the simple lives of locals. Surprised by the visit of travelers from the capital, they welcome everyone hospitably.
The old couple is living proof of the land and the local people. They tell us that most Thai people in Son, Ba, and Muoi villages cultivate glutinous rice and some families eat the rice throughout the year. Bitter gourd is grown for local consumption and a small part is sold.
In Cao Son, only about 30 per cent of the inhabitants have access to electricity. Small hydro-powered turbines are set up at some regional streams to produce electricity.
Because of the lack of basic necessities like electricity and clean water, along with the trouble in transportation, only male teachers come to schools in Cao Son. The locals say that female teachers would find it difficult to get married or visit their home once they came to work here.
For the same reasons, the beautiful and wild view of nature in Cao Son attracts only a small number of tourists.
Despite the hardships, there are close ties between the villagers here. Even though legally separated, Cao Son’s three villages are united as one community.
Whenever travelers come to the villages, everyone, young or old, always gathers around to welcome and greet them. Small children love having their pictures taken by tourists while adults invite the travellers to visit their homes.
“I know Vietnamese people are very hospitable, and yet I am surprised by the locals in Cao Son. They live with kind hearts and optimism,” John Stephen, 29, a Canadian tourist said.
A lunch at the home of a Muoi villager is simple yet delicious with the local goodness such as glutinous rice, free-range chicken, bitter gourd soup, and spicy pickled bamboo shoots, topped with some locally made wine.
Nothing is better than getting through an arduous journey to enjoy this fulfilling meal in a stilt house surrounded by the beauty of nature.