On the way from Ninh Binh to Cuc Phuong National Park the damage caused by typhoon Damrey, that raged over the country one and a half week ago, becomes apparent. A large part of the rice fields is under water, with the tops of little temples barely sticking out, as if crying for help. Even in the park some fifteen percent of the forest seems to have been destroyed by the storm.
We see people working on the land. Everywhere. Especially on the rice fields. Or they are literally hacking away whole karst mountains until they are even with the ground. The stones are being taken away, to build houses, to build roads, to build bridges? Who knows. But sure is, that the Vietnamese are always building something.
Ninh Binh too, is all activity. Once a sleepy town, now the startingpoint for trips to popular sights such as the gracious temples of Hoa Lu, the impressive caves of Tam Coc (‘Halong Bay on the land’), the floating village of Kenh Ga and Cuc Phuong National Park.
We are sharing the taxi with two other tourists that are on a daytrip. A white haze covers the landscape. Just like during the rest of our trip through the north of Vietnam, today it is once again very hazy and the famous karst mountains are barely visible. We stop alongside a pineapple field; for the first time in my life I see what this plant looks like, with long thorny leaves.
First we visit the ‘Endangered Primate Rescue Center’ where German biologists are taking care of several (most of them endangered) species of monkeys that are found in Vietnam, such as gibbons, loris and langurs. Many of these monkeys were found in the houses of people, as pets. Or they were intercepted while being illegally transported to other countries; in China they are willing to pay much money for the use of these monkeys for the production of medicins. In the center the monkeys are being taken care of and studied (f.e. there is a propagation programme) until they are ready to return to their own environment, the woods, of which is so little left in Vietnam. But if they will survive remains to be seen. Many a poacher is lying in wait for them. It goes without saying that a visit to this center has quite a sad character. Is there still hope for the monkeys? I don’t know.
“The comfortable or the uncomfortable beds?” asks the man at the reception with a serious look. We make a reservation for two nights in a bungalow some 18 kilometer further inside the park, at a place called ‘Bong’, at the end of the only road through the park. After lunch ‘at Bong’ we decide to join our fellow passengers for a walk through the jungle: the seven kilometer long ‘Thousand-Year-Old-Tree-Loop’. A wonderful path through the woods. A lot of climbing, a lot of going downhill. But even our four-year-old has no difficulties in completing the walk. In the Palace Cave it is pitch dark; unfortunately we left our torch in the backpack. And the thousand-year-old-tree turns out to be a real giant!
Then it goes downhill again, and we arrive at the little bungalows. There is a genuine swimmingpool that is being fed by riverwater. But it does not look very clean, leaves are floating everywhere and we cannot see the bottom for the murky water. And do our eyes not deceive us? Oh no. There on the fence we see a walking stick! Almost indistinguishable from a real stick.
Bong is gorgeous! And our bungalow lovely! A verandah with a view of the grassy lawn. Surrounded by jungle, jungle, and more jungle. Paradise! Our fellow travellers have returned to Ninh Binh and suddenly we are the only tourists left at Bong. The remaining three bungalows and the wooden house with a couple of basic rooms are all empty. A strange and deserted feeling comes over us, fed by the fact that there is not even a telephone. But what are we moaning about? The place looks truely fantastic, and we have this beauty all to ourselves! However… we shall have to share it with the mosquitos and other insects, they are here in abundance!
While sitting on the verandah we are enjoying the view until the sun goes down. And then all of a sudden it is pitch dark outside. The electricity starts to run and will provide us with light and warm water till ten o’clock. Soon it is getting quite cold and humid and we are not surprised to find some eight thick bedcovers in the closet. We take out the cleanest ones and prepare ourselves for a lovely night with just the sound of the crickets as background music.
For breakfast we walk the couple of hundred meters to the basic little restaurant; today’s special is noodle-soup (as any other day). There is a group of cameramen hanging about the place. They say they are focussing on a langur, but no matter how high up in the trees we look, we do not see it.
With full stomachs we leave in search of the ‘Ancient Tree’, a centuries old tree of gigantic size, at three kilometer from Bong. This is the easiest walk in the park. On both sides the path is being flanked by two parallel running karst mountains that are the backbone to the park’s landscape, and are covered in thick tropical rainforest. On the way we take breaks at narrow streams, so that the little one can enjoy himself building dams. And we see a grass-hopper, as big as we have never seen one before.
For the last time we eat at the now familiar restaurant, where people have become acquaintances and the Vietnamese cook plays a game of football with our son. Early the next morning the taxi will come to pick us up again, to bring us back to the other world known as Vietnam.
Cuc Phuong National Park was opened in 1962 as the first national park of Vietnam. The park is about 25 kilometer long and 11 kilometer wide, and is located at 45 kilometer distance from Ninh Binh. Silver Cloud Peak is with its 648 meter the highest in the park. In the rainforest an abundance of different species of trees, plants, animals and birds can be found. The many caves are inhabited by about forty different species of bats. Unfortunately the park is constantly being threatened by poachers and illegal woodcutting. The original inhabitants of the park, the Muong, have at the time of the parks opening been taken elsewhere, mainly at the edges of the forest. But still there is often trouble between the Muong and the parkrangers. Moreover, after the construction of the new Ho Chi Minh Highway just west of the parks border, woodcutting has once again increased significantly. Besides at Bong, accommodation can also be found at the entrance of the park. However, most visitors opt for a daytrip and overnight either in Ninh Binh or Hanoi. Cuc Phuong cannot be reached by local transport. Entry price to the national park: 40.000 Dong (about 2 Euro), Endangered Primate Rescue Center: 10.000 Dong (±0,50 Euro). One night in a bungalow at Bong officially costs $ 25 (prices are in US dollars). A bed in the wooden house costs $ 6.
© 2006, Monique van Gaal
The dutch version of this story has been published in Azië Magazine, no. 112 June/July 2006.