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Beach Camping and Bamboo Rafting in Northern Vietnam's Largest Wetland

An overnight stay in Xuân Thủy National Park, Nam Định Province means potential bug bites, snake encounters and pungent ocean air, but also a rewarding quest into the wild wetlands of northern Vietnam’s coastline.

For three kilometers, the coast of Cồn Lu was cluttered with dead screwpines, parched swamps and decaying mangroves. We tiptoed and zigzagged our way back to the nearest boat, occasionally met by creeping snakes that quietly retreated at the sound of footsteps. The walk, which could be done in less than an hour on normal ground, took almost the whole morning.

Sunrise on the clam field.

The night before, we’d stayed on one of the park’s islands. Cồn Lu is, in fact, not a popular place to camp. At the mouth of the Red River, the coast is so rich with alluvium that the area is used solely for raising clams. The air is pungent, gritty and, at times, thick with tiny bugs that guarantee bites. It’s so unpleasant that the area's only six inhabitants — three border patrol guards and three dogs — rarely have any visitors, even their own families.

Yet, Cồn Lu is the perfect place to pitch a tent if one loves to wander through desolate lands and appreciates a crimson sunrise. Home to the Cồn Lu Border Station, this smaller islet of the main three islands in Xuân Thủy is the best spot for enjoying panoramic sea views, clean water, bonfires and, if fortunate, instant noodles.

The morning after.

Getting to Cồn Lu requires a four-hour drive from Hanoi to Giao Thủy, Nam Định before a mellow hour spent on a boat leisurely passing mangroves, a 20-minute bumpy stretch as the boat enters the Gulf of Tonkin and, at last, a transfer to bamboo rafts to reach the shore. During summer, it doesn’t take much to appreciate the beauty of the national park; the sky was radiant, the wind soft, and the water shone bright, reflecting nothing but tangled mangrove roots and tiny, colorful crabs.

In winter, shorebirds, gulls, waterfowls and other migratory birds flock to Xuân Thủy. Yet, during its off-season, one can easily enjoy the vibrant mangroves outside Cồn Lu by day and sit oneself around the bonfire, singing patriotic Vietnamese songs with hospitable border guards at night. Just be sure to bring some mosquito repellent — and possibly a sword for the snakes.

Trekking in the park.

Coming home after a morning of clam digging.

Clams sell cheaply at less than VND20,000 per kilogram.

The 12,000-hectare wetland is also home to over 500 species of shrimp, fish, crab and oysters.

A picturesque boat ride through Xuân Thủy's mangroves.

Boats tied up at Xuân Thủy's main pier.

Xuân Thủy's main observation tower.

Heading into the Gulf of Tonkin.

The last ride — taking a bamboo raft to reach the shore.

This article was first published on Urbanist Hanoi in May 2018.

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