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 Created: 08/11/04


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–  V I E T N A M : Part 2 – 

Summer 2004 Voyage


ALASKA: Sitka & Kodiak

RUSSIA: Petropavlovsk

KOREA: Busan
Part 2: Photo Gallery

CHINA: Shanghai

CHINA: Hong Kong
Part 2: Photo Gallery

VIETNAM 1: Ha Long Bay
VIETNAM 2: Cuc Phuong
VIETNAM 3: Hanoi

Coming Next: Taiwan

August 11, 2004 – This week's installment is a little late due to our six day tour of Japan. We are now back at sea, steaming our way to Seattle, the final port of the summer 2004 voyage of Semester at Sea. It will take 12 days to reach port. That should give me plenty of time to catch up on our travelogue.

Vietnam, Part 2
Last week I ended things just as we were heading to a large jungle area south of Hanoi. I was not feeling well, but my husband and the guide persuaded me to stick it out and continue traveling with the group instead of retreating back to the ship. (Leaving would have required a three to four hour taxi ride all by myself with an unknown driver, which was not a very attractive alternative anyway.) Our motorcoach left the hotel right after breakfast and headed out of town. From the highway we saw more evidence of monsoonal flooding. Rivers and streams were overflowing their banks and many of the rice paddies were completely underwater.

The landscape of the region changed as we made our way into Ninh Binh Province toward Cuc Phuong National Park. Karst limestone peaks rose up around us, forming impressive canyons anchored by thick vegetation and flowing streams. Along the way we stopped at Hoa Lu, the site of an ancient Vietnamese capital dating from the 10th century AD. Once a massive citadel, Hoa Lu was well protected by karstic peaks and provided a safe location for the Vietnamese emperor and his court. Today almost nothing remains of Hoa Lu's legendary structures, however, we were able to visit the still-active Dinh Temple, which was pretty neat.

Cuc Phuong National Park
Five hours after we left Hanoi we finally reached the gates of Cuc Phuong National Park, a 62,000 acre nature preserve. When it was established in 1962, Cuc Phuong became Vietnam's first national park. Despite the fact that many areas of the park remain completely inaccessible due to thick vegetation, it is a haven for biologists, botanists, and nature-lovers. Cuc Phuong's sprawling rainforest is home to almost 2000 catalogued species of plants, 500 of which are medicinal. Much of Cuc Phuong's habitat has been preserved in its primeval state. Creepers, epiphytes and parasitic species abound. The park is occupied by panthers, bears, monkeys, gibbons, boars, deer, bats, lizards, snakes (boas, pythons and kraits), 300 species of birds, 65 species of fish and over 2000 species of insects. Cuc Phuong is also occupied by the Muong people, a distinct minority ethnic group with its own ancient traditions and culture.

We passed through the gates of Cuc Phuong and drove directly to the administration building where we were joined by a ranger who would act as our escort throughout our visit. We then toured the park's Primate Rescue Center. There we observed a wide variety of primates that were housed at the center for various reasons. Many of them were endangered species that, for their own safety, could not be returned to the wild. One pair in particular stood out because they represented two of only 26 known survivors of their species.

Next we went to the "longhouse" where we would be spending the night. It was located 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the park entrance, deep in the jungle. The longhouse was rustic, but reasonably comfortable considering its location. The communal bathrooms were spartan and far from clean. The individual sleeping areas consisted of two bed frames, each equipped with a thin bare mattress, a quilt of sorts (no bed linens) and a large white mosquito net. The windows had no glass panes or screens, but they could be closed to keep out rain and insects. Electricity was supplied by generator from dinner-time to 10pm only. A single bare light bulb hung down from the ceiling in each room and there were a couple of hooks on the wall for hanging one's gear. The rooms were damp and clammy, but the interior temperature was tolerable, same as outside.

We were served an interesting meal for dinner that evening, which I won't describe. Suffice it to say, it wasn't very good, but it was edible if you were hungry enough. Later that night the ranger and our guide snuck out and brought back a couple of plucked whole chickens (with the heads still on) and some Vietnamese vodka. (Where they found THAT in Cuc Phuong National Park, we'll never know.) They built a big bonfire in front of the lodge and roasted the chickens on sticks while teaching the students Vietnamese drinking games. I turned in at 10pm while the party was still going strong.

The Jungle Trek
The next morning everyone was up by 7:30, including those students who had followed the ranger into the forest for a hike at 1:30am the previous night. After breakfast everyone left with the ranger to embark on a three hour "jungle trek" which was purported to require some strenuous climbs up and down the rocky karst landscape. I was still quite sick so I stayed behind. I found a well marked trail near the lodge and decided to do my own trek at my own pace. I had brought along my camera, but the rainforest was so dense there wasn't much to photograph along the way. Twenty-five minutes into the trail I heard a blood curdling screech from somewhere up ahead. It was very loud and sounded like a deep bark with a human quality to it. No telling how far off it was. I heard the call again and again and it gave me the shivers. Whatever creature was making that noise sounded much bigger than me, very persistant, and too close for comfort. At that point I realized just how vulnerable I was, having wandered off into a remote jungle somewhere in the north of Vietnam, all by myself. If some large beast jumped from the trees and carried me off for dinner, nobody would have a clue to my whereabouts and/or demise. Yikes!

I was not alone!
My thoughts of doom were interrupted by a soft rustle on the trail behind me. I spun around as two small green men appeared on the trail. They were Vietnamese, slight in stature and dressed in green from top to bottom – green hats, green shirts, green shorts, green socks and green boots. They looked friendly. I guessed them to be in their early twenties. Just then the animal screeched again. We all jumped.

"What's that?!" I asked, without even thinking about our language difference. One of the men hesitated and answered in heavily accented English, "I don't know." He gave a hand signal to the other, who nodded and slipped quietly into the dense green undergrowth with some sort of strange instrument in his hand. (It, too, was green.) Within seconds he had disappeared. I wasn't sure what to do next, so I waited until the other fellow started moving again. I followed at a respectful distance, thinking that if something were to attack, the green man would probably be first to go.

I am afraid the conclusion to this story will be anticlimactic, although that isn't such a bad thing when you think about it. Eventually I lost sight of the young man who was ahead of me on the trail, but by then the "howl/screech/scream" had ceased. The only sound came from birds hidden in the canopy. I continued my trek until I reckoned I had just enough time to make it back to the longhouse to rendezvous with the rest of our group. When I arrived at the lodge, everyone was hot and sweaty and raving about their hike through the jungle. My husband told me the trek was pretty difficult because they had traveled uphill at a very fast pace, climbing up and down over slippery rocks. Many of the students were busy removing small leeches from their legs and ankles. "You wouldn't have enjoyed it," he said – and I'm sure I wouldn't have. Besides, they didn't see or hear anything quite as interesting as what I saw and heard.

Neither our guide nor the ranger could tell me the probable source of the screeches. The ranger had no idea where the green men came from, or why they were there. (Maybe they were bird watchers?) Dr. Becky Houck, Semester at Sea's faculty biologist for this voyage – and one of my favorite people on the ship – speculates that I was hearing some species of large monkey or gibbon. When I get back to the States I will go online to see if I can figure out what it was. If only I'd had a tape recorder.

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