20th March - 26th March, Mai Chau
20.03.2009 - 26.03.2009 28 °C
Laden up with day packs, baguettes and water, we take a motorbike and head off for a few days exploring. First destination being Cuc Phuong National Park est. in 1962 as Vietnam's first National Park (~45km away). To keep our spirits up while it rains we sing snippets of old kiwi faves, feeling invigorated as we approach the misty mountains. Once checked in with Park HQ, we warm up with sweet coffees and baguettes before a guide escorts us to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre.
The center was started by Germans and locals back in 1993 and now houses well over 150 primates that have either been bred locally or rescued from pet hood or illegal traders (esp. to China to become medicinal ingredients). Here the primates are cared for, studied, and bred, before being released into the "semi wild" enclosures that surround the park grounds. The larger aim being to reintroduce these primates into their natural habitat. But for now that remains a tune for the future as hunting pressures are still too high. The black and yellow gibbons swing avidly and gracefully from their branches (14 species of gibbon), and the red-shanked Langurs look like they're wearing red shorts - their Vietnamese name translating to "monkey wearing shorts". How original! The grey-shanked Douc Langur was also bred in captivity just here. A world first!
The observation lookout, just within the park gates is a short and steep climb up to the tower. We're surrounded by a panorama of misty forested hills and silence except for the chorus of nature. Butterflies flutter around us and we relish in our new found isolation and tranquility.
It's still a 20km drive into the heart of the park where we'll be staying so we proceed through the dense jungle along a narrow road. Along the way we see a sign which we think is for a 300m walk to the "Cave of the Prehistoric Man". Turns out we misread the decrepit old sign and walk for an hour through jungle and karst with an absence of light, compliments to the dense jungle canopy. Turns out we were in the "Forest Loop Trail"- an adventurous deep trail which they strongly advise you take a guide for. Fair enough, the sign was rather overgrown. But luckily we can retrace our steps and make it out. Only to continue on and find the real cave quite obviously sign posted nearby.
With daylight fading, the vendors are quickly packing up to escape approaching darkness but we conclude it'll be dark in the cave anyway so continue into an amazing multi-chambered monster which does exceed all our expectations immensely! Human graves and tools were found here in 1966 which date back 7,500 years, making it one of the oldest sites of human habitation in Vietnam. Being pretty late we also have the cave to ourselves. With our trusty Kathmandu head-torch we climb the 3 tiers of stairs and explore many chambers adorned with stalactites, stalagmites and crystallized salt deposits shimmering in the torch light. It wouldn't make a bad pad!
Back on the dark secluded road, in a thicket of dense forest, we inhale the clear sweet air, our minds fresh from the raw nature. Clean crisp air, peace and quiet, harmonious nature, freedom. We've had too much consuming cities, pollution, traffic, incessant chatter, begging, pleading, selling, yelling, always compelling... now we're free, back to basics. So Alana considers her birthday to be tomorrow "I will not have much, but I will have it all". The only thing she does wish for is not to travel excessively and have good food! Not too much too ask... you'd think.
Our inflections are suddenly halted as we arrive at the "Bong". A stilted house gathers mist and a lone traveler wanders around the clearing in a trance. He approaches us and confirms our suspicions that this is an eerie place. As we speak the power surges into action and we are welcomed inside by the rest of Adam's crew. A couple of Brits, a Canadian and an Aussie. We have 4 hours of power remaining to sip green tea and get acquainted before heading down the road to the monopoly resto (the only resto for miles) to enjoy a shared meal and some beers until the power sleeps, advising us to do the same.
Awake to a a beautiful birthday blue sky - first clear sky for a very long time! Butterflies flutter in their millions (this is actually no exaggeration), birds chirp, insects hum, hungry tum! Birthday brekky at the monopoly resto - a choice of either vege noodle soup or stir fried vege noodle - oh you shouldn't have! Our trail of choice for today is the thousand year old Tree Loop Trail and Palace Cave - 7km through primary rain forest. Loud local school children swarm around the cave entrance but once we enter the cave, all is quiet. Once back, we enjoy a refreshing swim in the swimming pond and dry out in the sun. Majestic butterflies perform for us - synchronized fluttering in a line, then they link up and fly in a circle. Very elegant - until the grand finale when they home in on a pile of dog poo... filthy buggers!
We go once again to the Primate Rescue Center - true enough it was pretty good first time round. A great birthday present for Alana when their 2 gibbons swing in a basket and entertain us with their antics. We decide to continue our adventure towards Pu Luong Nature Reserve, a rather obscure park 65km away. It's already 3.30pm but how long can 65km really take? According to various people - 2hrs, 6hrs... nobody seems to know for sure. Our shoddy photocopied tourist maps don't prove conclusive either, different maps tell us different things. So we get amongst it and after about 1.5hrs the signs start coming "Cuc Phuong National Park"...2km...1km...0km"? What the hell, are we traveling back in time or what?
Okay, so the 65km mark starts from here, the other end of the park. How incredibly useful, especially since we had to drive around, and not through, the mountain ranges of the National Park to get here (a back track of 80km's as there was no straight A to B track access from where we were, but which was perhaps 30km's from where we are standing now...2 hours later). But lo' and behold there is a shiny new highway, the Ho Chi Minh Highway, that cuts right through the heart of the National Park otherwise (?!). It's definitely not the greenest solution but hey we don't complain. The road is empty and the fresh tarmac smooths our progress considerably. Now we can actually enjoy the scenery as opposed to vigilantly watching the 1001 potholes in the road. Nevertheless it'll be a stretch, 2 hours to go with 2 hours of daylight to spare doesn't leave a lot of time for finding our way to this village which is way out in the wops. Perhaps we'll have to spend the night in a rice paddy...
Mmm, we pass a traditional village perched along the highway which would otherwise have taken a 3 day tramp from the park's interior. Conscious of the impending darkness we only take a short moment to appreciate the sunset amid the outcrops of karst before we press on. We proceed as fast as the road conditions allow and wonder why everyone drives (dangerously) with their lights off. We soon find out and are forced to do the same to avoid getting smeared with kamikaze bugs. Finally we arrive at a small town called Canh Nang which very luckily has a hotel (audible sighs of relief). Sore butts, bones, but finally it's over. We've generously violated Alana's one prerequisite for a good birthday - to avoid long travel! Settled in, we desperately scrounge the streets for a meal and are eternally grateful for the noodle & meatball dish we get served up. Not exactly háute cuisine on a birthday but at this stage we'll eat anything. We do however manage to source beers and strawberry cream birthday cakes for a toast! Not bad for 4 hours spent moped driving! But you really wouldn't want to spend more time on a bike than that.
Next day, the epic journey is set to continue after a near useless visit to the Pu Luong Nature Reserve HQ. No advice here but we do get served warm tea by the friendly chaps. We plough on ahead to see if the ferry crossing into the park really does cost the 100,000d as told by HQ... we're dubious. In fact there is no ferry...but there is a bridge and it's free. The road is atrocious at best, but the scenery initially makes up for it - giant waterwheels, terraced rice paddies, water buffaloes, and small clusters of stilt villages. The road soon devolves into a goat track of sharp rocks and steep gradient, interspersed with mud pits. That wasn't on the glossy park map!! But we persevere and after a steady climb up we soon leave the river for dust and are high up in the mountains looking down at the valleys below. According to the map, this trail should be a cruisy 2hr journey... But the brochure is way ahead of its time and is boldly advertising a road that doesn't exist yet! Same goes for the river bridge near the end which shines through absence. We wade through with our bike while locals do their washing upstream. In the end it has taken us 6 hours to cover nearly 60km! Arguably we found our off the beaten track experience and it slapped us right in the face
We arrive in Mai Chau - stunning rice paddy fields and minority villages in the heart of the valley. We opt for the home-stay option in Pom Coong which boasts rustic experiences. No sooner do we approach the village, when we're snapped up by the lady of #1 home-stay (every house here is a homestay). We naively expect an immersion into rural life but instead watch as the lady of the house promptly evacuates her entire family, the kids carry the tv and video out, and we're left to our own devices in a huge, empty traditional stilt house. Pause... We drink green tea on a mat on the bamboo slated floor and observe the Vietnamese pop-stars adorning the walls - even Britney and Justin make a guest appearance. Most of the locals in Mai Chau are ethnic White Thai, and are amazing weavers as shown by the impressive array of textiles for sale underneath each stilt house, and the ladies on their looms outside. The family water buffalo watches as we pull water up from the well. In the darkness the rice paddies light up with fireflies, one leads us home where we crash out on our mattresses on the floor, a firefly for a night light, our energy fully depleted.
We awaken to the roosters crowing, people working and chatting, men spitting. The day has begun but there are still a couple of hours before daylight. The valley is engulfed in a lingering mist. We move to the next village (Lac) where we've found the perfect stilt-house - it overlooks the stream and rice fields, hammock below, all to ourselves, secluded paradise.
As we relax in the hammocks and walk through the paddies we observe rural life all around us. People working in the fields, pottering around the house. Mostly a quiet life.
We head into town for fresh fruit and cheap meals. Even less going on here. One meal that stands out for all the wrong reasons is a mix of rice, peanuts, veges, pork and chicken and a bowl of soupy slop with a carcass floating in it. The meat is scrap - inedible for any palate really. We eat what we can and vow never to return again. Sure enough we are both violently ill later... luckily our pad has multiple door-hinged traditional windows next to our bed! Bedridden for a day and the sky cries for us, so no loss.
After a few days we head back to Ninh Binh along the mountains, looking down at the villages below. The journey home only takes around 5hrs and goes by fast (compared to the last few days at least). Our Guest House very concerned as we'd told them we'd be away only 2-4 days but here we are now, muddy and fatigued, more than a week later. So where did you go? A map quickly pops out, as they scrutinize the bike for scratches. Surely you didn't take that road, our lady exclaims when she finger points to the gravel road along the park HQ - very bad condition!
Oops! Let's not tell her we took the route where there was no road at all. Outstayed our welcome most definitely. A mad rush around town follows as all the ATM's are out of order sequentially (of course). We have to persist and eventually we get moolah out and jump on the next bus to Hanoi.