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Published: November 12th 2012
We had similar bus/boat/bus transportation from Cat Ba to Ninh Binh that was just as simple/complicated and again took about 5 hours. As usual we were swarmed getting off the bus by men encouraging us to stay at their hotel. We had accepted the card of a guy who strategically hopped on the bus a while before it stopped at the station and headed right for Queen Mini Hotel. For $8/night we got a great spacious room with a balcony, AC, wifi and clean bathroom. It would be perfect for the one night we wanted to spend in Ninh Binh.
There isn't anything too spectacular about the city itself, but the surrounding area has some of Vietnam's top sites. We knew exactly what we wanted to see and do and immediately started asking around to compare prices. The Cuc Phuong National Park is home to a primate rehabilitation centre, a turtle rescue centre and a vast amount of land with some great trails and minority villages. You can even stay in the park overnight if you want but we could see all we wanted in one day. The only problem was transportation. The park was about an hour away from
the city and once you got to the park there was another 20km drive to the centre where the trail we planned on doing was. The lack of public buses to the park forced us to book a private car and driver for the day. It was more than we originally hoped to pay but knew we wanted to go to the park. We were able to haggle down the price a bit using tour companies against each other and ended up booking it through out hotel. After our next day was planned we set out in search of food. Half a block away from our hotel there was a row of small restaurants, as soon as we approached the area there were touts from women in every direction “you eat here” “cheap good food here” “please sit” “hello, we have best food”. Overwhelmed we sat at the first table we saw and the other lionesses slinked back into their lairs before the next potential customer came along. We ended up having a great meal of spring rolls, pho ga (Rebecca) and beef fried rice (Tyler). After filling up we headed back to our hotel room to organize our things
and get a good nights sleep.
The next morning we were up early; we ate breakfast at our hotel and they even packed a small lunch (of bread, cheese and fruit) for us to take along on our adventure. Since we were going to be taking an overnight bus when we got back from the park we had to check out before setting off for the day. We were so happy to see that the car was spacious, comfy and had AC. Off we went in “luxury” to see some wildlife.
Our drive was very scenic. We saw some more limestone karst filled scenery, this time set along a lily pad covered river rather than the green/blue ocean. Many of the valleys were still flooded from the rain/typhoon they had; we drove through some flooded sections of road as well. When we made it to the park entrance, we got a thorough explanation of all the things the park has to offer and paid for what we wanted to do (depending on which trails you do or which animal centres you visit, a guide may be required). Since a guide was required to visit the turtle and primate
centres we visited those first. The turtle rescue centre was small but informative. Each enclosure/tank was specifically made for the type of turtle kept in it. There is also an area for breeding with an incubation room and hatchery. They have a number of different species at the Turtle Conservation Centre; our favourite being the funny looking spiny soft shell turtle.
After the tour of the turtle centre we were off to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. The Centre is home to 15 different species of endangered primates most of which get confiscated from the illegal animal trade. The douc (5-coloured) langur had a light orange face like a doll, a bright white tail that looked as if it had been sewed on (or stuck their while playing “pin the tail on the monkey”) and a body that ranged in colour from red-brown to grey and every colour in between. We also saw delacour (white-hipped) langurs, golden-headed langurs (rarest primate in the world), black langurs, white-cheeked gibbons and more. They were all in cages which was kind of upsetting but that is only one stage of rehabilitation. There is also a larger area where the primates live in a
semi-wild environment before they are released back into the wild (this is the planned end result for the primates).
While the morning had been easy and educational, it was time to get further into the park. Our driver first stopped at the entrance to a cave (that we hadn't realized we could visit for free) so off we were on the first trail. The Prehistoric Man cave was about 500m uphill away from the main road. Rebecca doesn't like caves but we had come prepared with flashlights so in we went. In the cave they found remains from 24 people who lived there about 7500 years ago. The cave was a little spooky with big cavernous rooms home to bats and some weird cave bugs. When we had finished exploring it was back down to the car and on to the beginning of the trail we were so excited for. We had a little snack for fuel before starting the hike. It was categorized as a moderately easy trail. Half of it was concrete paths and stairs, the other half was natural forest floor, tree roots, fallen trees, leaves etc. It was a lovely scenic walk through the jungle.
We were really happy that we remembered the our insect repellent! Vietnam has a much larger mosquito population than China did and they sure love Rebecca's legs. She had about ten bug bites on each leg within the first 15 minutes and that was with bug spray on.
We had walked for just over an hour when we came to a path that lead to yet another cave (Vietnam is full of them). This one is called the Palace Cave. Again Rebecca braved the dark corners of this huge cave. We went in as far as we felt comfortable with which meant we climbed a bit, crawled a bit and got to see some huge open caverns. It was fairly slippery which made our exit kind of treacherous and upon leaving the cave Rebecca requested “no more caves please”.
After the cave we knew we would soon approach the piece de la resistance
of this 7km trail and the whole reason for working so hard to get there (other than the cute monkeys). We heard a crowd of people ahead and crossed our fingers that they weren't hanging around the main event. They were, but it turned out
okay. We came up to the thousand-year-old tree and were not fully prepared for just how huge it would be. It takes 20 people to hug the entire base of this huge ancient tree. We walked around and around its trunk in awe of its size. It was magnificent.
We gave the Vietnamese family some space and pulled out our lunches in a different area. It didn't take long, however, for one of them to come over and invite us to join them. A couple of the men spoke really good English and had a lot of questions for us when we started talking about our trip. “What about your jobs?” We quit. “Who is paying for your trip?” We saved our money. “What happens when you go home?” We will be broke and homeless but our families will help and hopefully life will fall back into place. They were very impressed with our sense of adventure. The whole group was from Hanoi and hadn't travelled much further than Vietnam. Amongst all of our chit-chat they continued to insist we try everything they brought; there were two different types of meat – beef cold cuts and pork cold cuts,
pickles – that were soft not crunchy, rice and corn - that had been steamed in banana leaves before the trip, chopped cucumbers, baguettes and beer. This family had come well prepared and it made for a much heartier lunch than we had planned for.
When we had all finished eating Tyler and I snapped a few pictures of the huge tree before thanking them again for their generosity and heading on our merry way. Up until the tree, the trail had been rather tame; there were a couple of ups and downs but nothing too difficult. Apparently the most difficult section was saved for the final couple of kilometers. We left the tree behind (it quickly disappeared into the jungle) and we had rounded maybe two corners before coming to a set of stairs that never seemed to end. There was even a tree that had fallen in the pathway that we had to climb over (as the song goes “can't crawl under it, can't go around it, gotta climb over it” or something like that). This tree was covered in ants which was of course a bit of a road block for our ant-phobic friend Rebecca. She
conquered this fear by meticulously stepping in sections with less of the 6-legged freaks and up the uneven slippery steps we continued. Up and up and up until finally the madness ceased.
The stairs down were much better on our cardiovascular system until we came to another upward climb. We figured the trail followed a ravine until the thousand-year-old tree where the path was forced to make a turn and head back to the road; this explained the extreme change from leisure hike to adventure trek. The trail continued up and down through some spectacular lush-green jungle, some paved some muddy until we came to the end. The end of the trail was not where we had started so we followed the road to where we hoped our driver would be. Luckily we have a fantastic sense of direction and less than a kilometer away we found our quiet driver sleeping in the passenger seat with talk radio playing in the background. He woke right away and off we went back to our hotel. We both had a cat nap on the hour and a half long journey back to Ninh Binh.
It was a really great day
that went exactly as we had hoped. Not only did organizing the driver work out perfectly, we got to see extremely rare primates, a tree that's been around since the dark ages, met a really nice Vietnamese family and saw a little bit more of their beautiful country.
We got back to Ninh Binh a little earlier than planned. We thought we would return around 5 but were back at the hotel by 3. Turns out we are super speedy hikers and having a private car certainly sped things up. Since we had so much time to spare (and had our laundry done while we were at the park) we both organized our bags a little better and prepared ourselves for our first overnight bus ride. For dinner we entered the lions den again. This time we decided to spread the love and go to a different restaurant (despite sad faces from the place we had ate at the day before). The portions were just as hearty and the food was just as delicious.
At 8:30 we were crammed into the back corner of the sleeper bus and on our way to Hue.
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