My first solo travel experience in Vietnam took in Cúc Phương National Park, Ninh Binh province, a haven for rare wildlife.
They say that travelling, you find out more about yourself. This is always presented as being a positive discovery, learning that you are braver and more adaptable than you knew; I’m still waiting to learn that I’m incredibly attractive on a sultry night in Sapa or Ho Chi Minh. The self-discovery that I went through in Cúc Phương National Park, however, was to learn just how scared of the dark I am.
I think of myself as someone who loves wildlife; as a kid, I wanted to be David Attenborough, Bill Oddie (seriously) or the Indian naturalist who presented Land of the Tiger (brilliant 90s documentary series that has aged very well), and many of my travel plans, actual or hypothetical, revolve around where I can see gibbons, elephants or hornbills. But walking the 300 meters from my cabin to the restaurant at the park centre to meet my guide, the forest loud and incessant around me, something rustling at foot-level as I passed, I was terrified. Forget about seeing animals; the last thing that I wanted was for my headtorch to show me a pair of eyes shining back at me. I kept myself walking down the path by telling myself that I had chosen to be here, that this was exactly how I wanted to spend my Saturday night, that I would regret it if I returned to the cabin. What was more, despite the thorough darkness, it was only half past six. What else was I going to do for the evening?
So when a pair of eyes, close together and on a vine suspending centrally over the path, above my head, shone at me, I diverted my torch from them, not wanting to now what they belonged to. Then, having seen that the creature was an owl, I shone the torch on it again. It had turned its head away, so I was faced only with its back.
It was a beautiful bird, the intricate combination of brown and grey on its back like a marbled fabric pattern. It was around the size of a barn owl; according to Wikipedia there are three barn owls and sixteen true owls in Vietnam, so I couldn’t say what species it was. I watched for a while, but it sat still, head resolutely turned away from me. After deciding not to bother the owl any longer, I walked the rest of the way to the restaurant. I passed campers, and wondered how I would pass my time until the guide arrived, if he did, as I did not know what time to expect him.
This walk made up part of my weekend in Cúc Phương, one of the major National Parks of Northern Vietnam. Though my travels were quite short, they encompassed a lot of the issues encountered by solo travellers. Here is where I went and what I did; feel free to take advice from it regarding travel in Vietnam.
Cúc Phương is one of the first places in Vietnam that I decided I wanted to visit. Full of miles of dense forest, it is the hiding place of rare, elusive animals such as the clouded leopard, langurs and birds such as hornbills and tragopans. I had spent three weekends in a row in Hanoi, which can drive you near insane if you come from just outside the Peak District like me and need to see something green more than once a month, so I was desperate to get away this weekend, even if it meant travelling on my own.
There are plenty of buses from Hanoi to Nho Quan, the town that connects Cúc Phương to the world, and mine cost only 63,000 VND, about £2.15, less than the taxi that got me from my flat in Cau Giay district to Giap Bat bus station.
During the bus journey we were entertained by a broadcast of some kind of musical (possibly a Vietnamese SNL equivalent with a male-female duet; she seemed to be rebuffing his advances in a humorous way, and it then led into a series of Vietnamese pop videos.) I tried to keep a balance between enjoying the scenery (buffaloes and egrets, and people wading in watery fields that could have been rice paddies or shrimp farms) and reading the compellingly moody His Bloody Project.
In Nho Quan, I bartered the motorbike taxi driver down from 100,000 Dong to 70,000 (still more than the bus to Nho Quan) and we set off on the near half hour journey to the Cúc Phương gate. The ride was a pleasure, past more water buffaloes and people in conical straw hats at work, taking in some of the karst scenery I’d enjoyed in Ninh Binh.
Two of the first things that I saw at the gate were an enormous bright yellow butterfly, flitting around the office, and an equally huge hawk-moth, dead. The women at the office, wearing traditional ao dais for some reason, spoke excellent English but struggled with the fact that I was making my mind up about what to do myself, and on two occasions they walked away from me to deal with other people. I had planned to stay at the park gate, as the website makes clear that this is where night walks (to spot wildlife) depart from, but the woman at the gate assured me that they started instead in the park centre, 20 kilometres up the road, deeper in the national park. I agreed to stay there instead and asked for a motorbike taxi to take me up there. She warned me that there was no electricity in the bungalow/ cabin/ lodge/ house (enormous stone building on pillars, all of the rooms on the second floors, with two terraces that had nowhere to sit on them; no particular word springs to mind to describe it), and I said that that was fine, resolving not to use Facebook until the following morning. My entrance fee and charge for the night paid, I set off on my second motorbike journey- this one more dramatic, through rapidly rising narrow hill roads with blind corners, dark green forest scenery on either side. I passed the gorgeous Mac Lake, where you can also stay, with some jealousy.
They dropped me off at the restaurant, and people there helped me to find the lodge where I was staying. After putting on suntan lotion and insect repellent and eating some snacks on the terrace, I decided to walk back to the restaurant and find out about the night walks. Incidentally, on said terrace I enjoyed observing a rather dramatic-looking round-bodied black spider, keeping what I though was a safe distance, until it crawled into position almost beneath my shorts and jumped onto me. After that, I moved to another part of the terrace.
At the restaurant, most of the staff informed me that they didn’t understand English, but with a combination of mime and the few Vietnamese words that I know, I was able to explain that I wanted to book a night-time walk to look for animals, that I hadn’t arranged it yet but wanted to do so now, and that I didn’t know where it would begin, but expected that they might. They told me that, paradoxically, it could only be booked from the Park Gate. I tried to ring to do this, as I had the number saved, but there was no signal.
Deflated, I decided that the best thing to do was hit the trail and see what wildlife I might find. I saw some quite grotesque daddy-long-legs-type creatures and heard plenty of mysterious whooping cries that could have equally been monkeys or birds, but in terms of wildlife spotting, I was reminded of Gerald Durrell’s comment in A Zoo in my Luggage; that while colonials portrayed the tropics as bursting with savage beasts lurking behind every bush, most of the time you only see butterflies.
The greenery was a welcome respite from Hanoi; though there wasn’t much in the way of bright colour, I was surrounded by immensely high trees and mysterious bright green shoots/ trunks two metres high ending in leaves the size of my torso with vinyl-groove patterns. I followed the steps put in the hillside, glad that I had a headtorch in case I didn’t finish before dark, and I was lucky enough to encounter two Hawaiian girls who had noticed me at the gate. Apparently, they were thinking about the night walk too, and as they had a motorbike, could take a message down for me. We disagreed on what time that meant awaiting the guide (they thought half six, I had heard half seven), but I agreed to wait for them at the restaurant.
The rest of the trail was a pleasant but unremarkable walk; the 1,000 year old tree was no more impressive that the other large trees, and the Palace Cave, at least what I saw of it, was pretty shabby in comparison with the cave at Ha Long Bay.
I got back to my accommodation with time to spare, and ending up going to eat with a Vietnamese couple, thought our conversation was extremely limited. I couldn’t even explain to them that their search for a switch to turn on their light was hopeless, as there was no electricity; though it appears that I was wrong, as they eventually found a working light somewhere. At quarter past six, it was time to go back to the restaurant to see whether the mysterious guide would appear, and the five minute journey that I described at the beginning felt many times that length. At the restaurant, I bought a drink and watched the dogs chase each other around.
At ten to seven he arrived, without any other visitors, and was surprised when I said I thought somebody would join us. His name was Bay, and he asked me to swap torches with him as mine was more powerful. I was happy to do anything that might help him to spot wildlife.
The first thing he showed me was an immense grasshopper (he said grasshopper, it may have been a cicada or cricket), louder than an alarm clock and longer than a Freddo but shorter than a dairy milk (but much heavier), pushing its wings together (or against something) to make its noise. There was equally impressive spider, and a yellow butterfly asleep on the underside of a leaf. Bay got out his smartphone to photograph this, and accidentally caused a weird and wonderful meeting of the virtual and real to occur when a tiny moth, attracted by the light, alighted on his phone as he was taking the photo, meaning that the real moth was momentarily sitting alongside the camera’s image of the sleeping butterfly.
After going down a few trails and turning back, I saw a pair of eyes reflect my torchlight. I whistpered to Bay, who had missed it, and I shone his torch in the right direction, and he searched after it with mine, and he was able to find a small brown mass some 20 metres ahead rushing away from us. It stopped on the path, turned to face us and show us its eyes, and for a moment I could see the outline of something small and catlike. It was a civet.
After that I was relieved, and we searched for a brown wood owl that we could hear but not see. A second, smaller owl rose up from the path in front of us, like a grouse or snipe with its loud wingbeats. It paused on a branch and I could see a grey and white heart-shaped face, before, after doing the mysterious swing that owls do, it took off to find a more secluded perch. We didn’t see anything else after that, but I was ready to sleep, feeling as though I had been up for hours. It was only nine in the evening. Bay told me that if I was up for seven, a motorbike would take me back to the gate, and I agreed.
The night and morning were uneventful, apart from the weirdness of sleeping somewhere so incredibly dark and unrelentingly loud. I woke up with mysterious bites on my ankle despite sleeping beneath a mosquito net, so perhaps I got them on the walk, and had to shower in cold water before meeting my lift. The return journey to the park gate was surprisingly cool, especially with the breeze.
At the gate, I agreed to go into the rescue centres with a guide, where they show wild animals that have been rescued from poachers (though not released). The Primate Centre had langurs with extremely long tails, some with weird, eerie faces, and the Carnivore Centre had binturongs, immensely long, smoke-grey cat-bears that I found appealing yet forbidding. The third was the Turtle Centre, where I was able to see two of the most characterful animals that I’ve ever seen; a Softshell Turtle, with a long, tapir-like snout culminating in a pig nose, and the Vietnamese Pond Turtle, whose relaxed manner (bumping into rocks and pushing away from them with a dismissive flipper), oddly-shaped black eyes and mouth that appeared to be smiling, made it look as though it was wearing sunglasses, and probably blind.
I agreed to go back to Hanoi on the 9 a.m. bus, to give myself time to recover at home. It was a less pleasant journey than the downward one; we stopped at almost every village in Ninh Binh province, and people kept handing bags to the porter/ guard/ on the bus, then not getting on. Is that a normal way to send a package in Vietnam? I doubt it, but I’ve really no idea.
My Cúc Phương experience wasn’t the most fun that I’ve had in Vietnam, but for me, it was the complete traveller experience; I had to go with the flow, had to argue, went (quite a long way) out of my comfort zone, and enjoyed the weekend for it. For anyone considering going, I would advise staying at least a night or two, in case of issues like mine, and going in summer, as that’s meant to be the easiest time to see animals. It’s also much easier to navigate if you have your own motorbike.
I visited Cúc Phương National Park on the 5th and 6th November and stayed in the Park Centre.