by Do Truong
|Heavenly: One of the largest irrigation reservoirs in Viet Nam, Phu Ninh Lake is becoming a popular tourist destination. — VNA/VNSPhotos Hong Ky
|Guess what's for dinner: A tourist poses with a large fish he has just caught. Phu Ninh is home to numerous freshwater fish species. Usually small creatures found in the sea, in the lake, the wonderfully tasting fish can reach enormous sizes. — VNA/VNS Photo Xuan Quang
|Breeding grounds:Visitors can rent a fishing rod for just VND10.000 and go out to catch dinner, if they're lucky. The gobies in the lake are the biggest recorded in Viet Nam. — VNA/VNSPhoto Xuan Quang
The freshwater lake at Phu Ninh in the South Central coastal prov-ince of Quang Nam is often referred to as Ha Long Bay in miniature because of its islands and rich biodiversity.
What seems even more remarkable, as one looks out over the vast expanse of water, which is encircled by lush forest and dotted with tree-covered islands, is that the lake didn't exist before 1986.
Phu Ninh, a miracle of man and nature, is fast-becoming a popular tourist destination.
The lake was completed in 1986 after 10 years in the making. According to the locals, Phu Ninh was named after the village that was submerged when the valley was flooded.
The lake is one of the largest irrigation works in the country. It has a surface area of 3,433ha and is surrounded by 16,000ha of protected forest, mostly pine.
It holds 344 million cubic metres of water, which is used to irrigate about 23,000 ha of paddy fields in the districts of Phu Ninh, Nui Thanh, Thang Binh, Que Son, Duy Xuyen and Tam Ky city, which lies 7km to the west. The lake's main wharf is reached via a narrow, winding mountain road, from which visitors get a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. App-roaching the lake by car or coach, is almost like landing on a plane.
"It's a great feeling standing up on high, looking down on the vast lake, with its islets and the endless green of the forests stretching away into the distance," says Do Thu Hang, 26, from neighbouring Da Nang City.
Hang says that it is her first visit to the area. She takes a deep breath of cool, pure air and smiles.
She says Phu Ninh reminds her of the Central Highlands' City of Da Lat, which is also famed for its fresh air, cool climate and rich verdant pine forests.
The lake itself is best explored by motorboat. Hang and a group of friends took a boat ride to an artificially constructed water channel in the lake, which is fed by hot spring water from a plastic pipe. About 100 cubic metres of hot water are channelled into the lake through the pipe daily.
Tour guide Nguyen Thi Bich Thuong, 30, says that the hot spring water can reach a temperature of 90oC, and that it is possible to hard-boil an egg in it. Furthermore, the spring water has therapeutic benefits and a swim in the clear warm water is ideal for treating muscle and joint problems and skin ailments.
"Because of its medicinal benefits, locals consider it to be a sacred spring, and many people come here just for the water's health benefits," Thuong says.
Thuong later took us to nearby Su island, which she tells us is named after the many cao su (rubber) trees that grow on its gently sloping sides.
"The French planted these trees but when they were defeated and had to withdraw from Viet Nam, the trees thrived. The result is the forest you can now see," she says.
Gently bobbing up and down on the boat as it negotiates the islands and islets is like being in an enchanted limestone labyrinth.
Thuong says that just a few of the many islands and islets have names. Among the largest is Monkey Island, because of the hundreds of monkeys that have made it their home.
They are elusive animals, having learned to be wary of poachers, warns Thuong as we approach closer. "It is rare to see them. They are very shy around strangers." But Thuong says locals are trying to train them to be more visitor-friendly.
The lush area around Phu Ninh Lake is rich in flora and fauna. About 142 plant and tree species have been recorded, many of them rare, while 148 animal species identified, 14 of which are listed in the Vietnamese Red Book of endangered species.
While out on a boat, Hang says she was thrilled to see wild ducks flying low over the water and several different birds on Monkey Island itself, though she didn't spot any of the elusive primates.
"It was really wonderful to see wild water birds for the first time and certainly I didn't forget to take loads of photos," Hang says happily.
Tran Thanh Binh, 32, who was in Hang's group, is knowledgeable about trees. "Except on Monkey Island, most of the trees are Caribbean pines and eucalypts. I was reminded of Norway, which I visited 10 years ago."
Phu Ninh is also home to numerous freshwater fish species, among which the best known is the goby, a small creature usually found in the sea. It is characterised by a disc-shaped sucker formed from its pelvic fins.
Visitors can rent a fishing rod for just VND10,000 and go out on a boat to catch dinner, if they're lucky, Thuong says.
"The gobies in the lake are often longer and bigger than elsewhere in Viet Nam, or indeed the world, and they are delicious to eat," Thuong adds.
"While whiling the time away on a small boat watching the sunset and breathing in the lovely pine-scented mountain air, I felt the stress of daily life pour out of me," Binh says, adding that in the evening, the group tucked into braised gobi fish, which they had caught earlier. It had been cooked in an earthenware pot by the chefs at the restaurant they had visited.
Pham Thi My Trinh, the manager of Phu Ninh Lake tourism zone, says the authority plans to build 10 villas here for tourists and to offer them more services "so we can turn the lake into an attractive destination for those visiting from nearby Tam Ky City".
As far as I'm concerned, the lake is already perfect, and I'm content just to bob around on a boat and laze on the lake. But that's me. — VNS