Cuc Phuong National Park

Day Walk in Cuc Phuong

We were greeted by yet another cold grey Hanoi sky when Mr Linh and the driver picked us up at 7am for the 3-hour journey south to Cuc Phuong National Park. Still tired after our late night out taking in the mayhem of combined Christmas and football victory over Thailand for the first time in 10 years celebrations in Hanoi, we dozed on and off through the quasi-urbanised flat lands surrounding the city, as the new highway passed through a strange landscape of massive billboards on metal or concrete towers advertising all manner of commerce. How bizaare to see these symbols of rampant capitalism in a communist country - since arriving, I have had much trouble equating the reality I see here with the political system. My musings ceased as we neared Ninh Binh and its naturally vertical landscape of karst towers and outcrops - much more appealing.

An hour later we arrived at the entry to Cuc Phuong, Vietnam's oldest National Park, established by Uncle Ho in 1962 as a safe haven for endangered primates. Our first stop was the Endangered Animal Rescue Centre, currently home to 15 species of langur, loris and gibbon that were rescued from poachers and traffickers and are now part of a captive breeding program aimed at reintroducing these species back into the wild. The park ranger who explained the aims of the program to us, Mr Viet, was also the local guide for our 4-hour walk in the National Park itself.


How sad that these langurs are only safe behind chain wire

The Cuc Phuong "Adventure Walk"

Into the rainforest

After lunch, we drove to the centre of the park and the fair Nello, Viet and I set off. The track started out as a relatively flat stroll along a concrete footpath, picking the odd wild raspberry to savour and passing the secondary forest of this steep-walled valley, where once stood a Muong village in pre-park days.

Setting off toward the forest

Epiphytic ferns in the forest canopy

The park protects a variety of wildlife apart from primates; deer, tortoises, wild pigs, black bear and the cloud leopard. You would need to be extremely lucky to see one, but there are some good interpretative signs about them in this early part of the route. The closest we got was to spot some leopard paw prints (verified by Viet) in a stream bed.

Spot the stick insect (15cm long)

Cloud leopard prints in the stream bed

A massive buttress-rooted rain forest tree

The track changed from concrete to cobblestone as it moved deeper into primary rain forest and eventually to a park landmark, an 800 year-old, 45m tall tree, supported by massive buttress roots on the thin forest soil. We passed many other buttress-rooted and aerial-rooted trees as well, but this one was the standout.

After passing the big tree, the route morphed into a single file dirt track winding its way beneath the dense vine-draped canopy of the rain forest, the home to epiphytic ferns and orchids, with an understorey of wild bananas, palms, tree-ferns and shiny-leafed shrubs of every form and leaf-shape.

Peering up into the canopy

Crossing a rocky knoll

In the dark world of a rain forest gully

After a while we crossed a series of limestone ridges, with short, sharp (literally) climbs over a jumble of eroded karst blocks and tree-roots, passing deep sinkholes and depressions where the rainfall disappeared to form underground watercourses; a curiously dark and silent world that would make Indiana Jones feel at home.

The track flattened out again before dropping steeply down the bed of a rainforest gully that in the wet season would be a rushing stream, before leading us out of the dense jungle vegetation and into a "clearing" - an area of low secondary forest that was once the site of another Muong village. A small stone shrine was the only reminder that humans once lived here. It was good to get our bearings after a couple of hours in the slightly claustrophobic confines of the rain forest. This walk is definitely one for forest afficianados rather than those who love panoramic landscapes.

Vine-covered rain forest tree

Bamboo pipe feeding water to a micro-turbine

Evening falls over the Vietnamese landscape

Finally we emerge into a clearing (of sorts)

Passing through a clearing near the Muong village

View across the forest-clad hills

Incongruous - below the high voltage national grid lies a Muong village
where electricity is generated by water turbines

Traversing the relict paddies, we climbed another rainforest ridge to descend a two-tiered slope that brought us out of the park and into a village of the Muong hilltribe. Looking over the village, we could see the massive pylons of the north-south high voltage powerlines, while directly in front of us a bamboo pipe fed water to a small turbine that generated electricity for the villagers. What an enigmatic country Vietnam is!

Our Muong stilt house for the night

The rice wine appears again - "Can chen"

Our home for the night was another stilt house and we were welcomed with the usual green tea and rice wine plus a meal that surpassed that of most of the restaurants we have eaten at to date. Linh had driven around with the driver as we walked and he and the two eldest daughters of our Muong hosts had prepared the dinner. Our host left early, suffering a severe hangover from a wedding in the village the previous day - hilltribe celebrations are done with much gusto!

Van Long Reflections

Sampans on Van Long Lagoon

We enjoyed the traditional breakfast of sticky rice and green tea. Our host was feeling a lot better - so much so that he brought out the rice wine for breakfast; one way to kick-start the day!

Soon we were on our way back to Hanoi again, circumnavigating the park by car to stop off at the Van Long wetlands; an area of shallow reed-filled water, butting up to and, in places, cutting into the sheer-walled karst outcrops that dominate the landscape of this area.

The surface of the lagoon was like a mirror

Here we enjoyed a peaceful paddle for 1½ hours in a small bamboo and pitch boat, rowed by a Vietnamese woman across the still clear waters and through a low cave. We passed only one other bamboo boat with two tourists in it in that time and a few local fisherman, poling their even smaller bamboo craft by to check out their fishtraps. The surface of the water was glass-like and with the surrounding steep walled and strangely sculptured karst cliffs, this became a mirror world of serene symmetry. Enjoy!!

Some of the many and varied reflections of in the mirror-like surface of Van Long Lagoon

Tourist transport at Van Long

Local fisherman

Punting along the cliff edge

Entry to the cavern

Reflections inside the cavern


Farewell to Van Long - a place of incredible symmetry and
quiet beauty (for the most part!)

Looking back at the entrance from inside the cavern

We had timed our trip well- just as we arrived back on shore at 11am, the first thump of a distant explosion disturbed the tranquility of Van Long - it was the time for the daily blasts at the quarry slowly chewing away the neigbouring mountains of limestone to produce cement. A few kilometres from the peacefulness of this setting is the biggest cement factory I have ever seen, helping to produce the megatonnes needed for the massive infrastructure construction driven by Vietnam's economic growth. Aaah, cement - the glue that holds our modern civilisation together - where would we be without it?