Bạch Mã – White Horse Mountains
West of the imperial city Huế in Vietnam, a range of mountains separates the comparatively narrow coastline of Vietnam and the hinterlands of Laos. This mountain range is called “White Horse”, or Bạch Mã in Vietnamese. Bạch being the Vietnamese word for white, while Mã, deriving from Chinese 馬 and means horse.
The Bạch Mã National Park, in Vietnamese “Vườn quốc gia Bạch Mã”, is a protected area in central Vietnam that covers around 220 square kilometres. In the year 2004, the government considered an expansion of the national park to connect it from the East Sea to the Laotic borderlands. The park reaches it’s highest peak at 1450m above sea level about 18 km from the coast as the raven flies.
Bạch Mã Geology and Biodiversity
Bạch Mã National Park belongs to the Annamite mountains and is generally considered one of the wettest places in Vietnam. The mountains are generally very steep and covered in a blanket of green. Geologically, the mountain range of the White Horse is composed of granite, that in certain occasions shimmers through the lush vegetation.
Since Bạch Mã is rich in different habitats from high mountains to coastal areas, next to the largest brackwater lagoon of Southeast Asia, the biodiversity in the national park is extraordinarily high. The mountain range is not only next to the meteorological divide between north and south Vietnam, it is also the biogeographical border and the center of biodiversity in Vietnam.
Bạch Mã National Park is home to roughly 1400 species of plants representing a fifth of the flora of Vietnam. Some of them rare and huge ferns, as well as elsewhere unknown orchids. The primary types of vegetation are moist montane and evergreen forests. Where humans interacted with the landscape, scrub and grasslands are common.
The forest harbours a variety of 358 bird species, especially birds endemic to Vietnam. The Edwards’s pheasant for example, who had been thought extinct, as well as the crested angus and the Annam partridge. Not much is known about the mammals in the area though, but in the past important species used to live in the Bạch Mã region. The Asian elephant for example, the red-shanked douc langur and the white-cheeked gibbon. Bird-watchers have to be up quite early though, and most animals native to the jungle are nocturnal, so it’s quite hard to catch a glimpse of them.
The 132 specieses of mammals at the park are not well known, though historically it held important species such as the Asian elephant, white-cheeked gibbon and red-shanked douc langur of which a tiny population remains. Generally, there are nine species of primates present. It also protects important bird species, especially Vietnamese endemics such as the crested argus, Annam partridge and Edwards’s pheasant, which had been thought extinct.
Some rare species were just discovered in the 1990s, like the antelope-like saola, the Truong Son muntjac and the giant muntjac. The administration of the national park hopes, that some wild Asian elephants will return to the park from Laos.
There s a small exhibition area at the visitor center at the entrance of the park, where examples of the flora are presented, as well as trail books are distributed.
The history of the National Park
In the year 1932, the French engineer Girard chose the summit of Bạch Mã to become a village, harboring the colonial administration of Huế. The French built 139 villas and holiday homes, including a hospital, a post office, a market and other amenities, so people did not need to walk down the steep and narrow, 19 kilometers to the next town. Bạch Mã used to be a retreat for wealthy French in high positions and became known as “Dalat of Central Vietnam”.
In the early 1950s, the region was heavily attacked by the Viet Minh, who later dug a tunnel through the summit that had been used to store bombs during the American War.
After independence from the French, the villas of Bạch Mã were abandoned and soon forgotten. Most of them are in ruins nowadays, but restorations have begun to rebuild some of them as tourist destinations or retreats for wealthy Vietnamese. There is a guest house near the peak and many Vietnamese, as well as foreign tourists visit the area to enjoy the relatively unspoiled nature and cool climate at 1250 meters above sea level.
The protection of the national park began in 1937 as a series of protected forest reserves. Later on in 1962, the government of South Vietnam declared the entire area as a protected region. The Bạch Mã National Park as such was established in 1986. Some of the forests in the region, like Cát Tiên National Park for example, suffered heavily from Monsanto’s Agent Orange during the American War.
The National Park has actually been upgraded in 2008, now connecting the coast and the Annamite mountains at the border to Laos. The narrow road to the French style hill station has been widened to make it possible to access the station with modern vehicles in 2004.
Visiting Bạch Mã National Park
How to get there?
You follow the national highway for about 40 km from Hue, or 60 km from Da Nang, until you reach the t-junction at Cau Hai, Phu Loc village. After 4 more kilometers you reach the park entrance and the visitor’s center where you can get a small booklet, pay your entrance fee, park your vehicle and get more information about the park.
Bạch Mã is the wettest region of Vietnam, with heavy rainfalls in October and November. The rain brings out leeches that are a nuisance, but mostly harmless. Another parasite is a small worm that sticks to your skin similar to ticks, if you wade through the underbrush. Leaving the path is not recommended anyway, because there are still explosive relics from the war hidden in the forest and you really don’t want to stumble over one of those. Other than that the tours are marvelously beautiful and pretty safe if you watch your step and don’t touch unknown insects and plants on the way – something our tour guide frequently hammered into our heads.
We visited Bạch Mã National Park in November, and the weather was great, probably thanks to El Niño that periodically messes up the weather across the globe. But if there is no El Niño around, the best time to visit Bach Ma is from February to September, especially between March and June when the weather is nice and warm.
Motorbikes and unlicensed cars are not allowed in the park, so either you get a tour guide or you hike the mountain on foot. Walking takes approximately six hours from the entrance to the peak, so it’s advisable to book a room at the guesthouse near the peak and explore the forest and village early the next day with a chance to catch a glimpse of some birds.
Bạch Mã Tours & Trails
We went with a guided one day tour. The guide picked us up in a modern tour bus right at the hotel, which is very convenient if your time is limited.
There are several hiking trails around that take you to different spectacular points of interest in the forest. The most popular trails are:
- Summit Hike
The short hike from the last villa to the summit of Bạch Mã mountain leads you to a wishing bell and the hill station. From the roof of the station you have a spectacular view of the mountains, Cau Hai lagoon and the coast. If the weather is clear, that is. The rail passes an old tunnel entrance, in which the Viet Minh stored bombs. However, since venomous spiders and snakes seek shelter from predators and sunlight in caves, it is not advisable to enter the tunnel if you are not an experienced biologist or cave crawler. The Bạch Mã tunnels have been constructed by the 2nd batallion of Thừa Thiên Huế from September to December 1973. They are 140 meters long and have been used during the American war from December 1973 to April 1975.
- Five Lakes Trail
The five lakes trekking tour takes you on a trail along a stream. You can swim in one of the lakes with a beautiful waterfall. The water is not the warmest, but hey, we are hardened travelers altogether, aren’t we? (Seriously, the water is wonderfully refreshing.
- Rhododendron Trail
This beautiful trekking trail takes you through the forest from the 10 km mark and leads to a stunning waterfall. You can also climb down the 689 steps to the fall’s base.
We did a combination of these tours, which included swimming in the 2nd lake and a trip to the waterfall. You can choose between the normal and the adventurous route. We picked the adventure tour of course, which involved a little climbing and boulder-jumping. There are one day tours and two day tours available with a night in the guest house on the mountain. It is also possible to book bird-watching tours and a tour to the remnants of the village, as well as homestay and garden excursions in Bạch Mã National Park.
Tour information and booking
More impressions of Bach Ma National Park
On the way down from Bach Ma you encounter this monument of Avalokiteshvara, a helpful Bodhisattva with a thousand hands.