Guest Author - Teresa Coates
Driving uphill toward Cuc Phuong National Park, the landscape evolves from the verdant rice fields that cover much of Vietnam to a lush, overgrown tropical rainforest. Suddenly you are transported in time to a place that feels very much like the land one could imagine dinosaurs thriving in. Plants of enormous proportions shadow the road. The squeals of monkeys, birds and who-knows-what echo among the trees. It's astonishingly beautiful.
Vietnam's oldest national park is 120km south of Hanoi and tours can be easily arranged through hotels and travel agencies throughout Hanoi. The three-hour drive ends at Cuc Phuong where you can get a guided tour or strike out on your own for the day. You can also arrange a tour through a hotel in Ninh Binh, only 45km to the east and right on the train route for easy access whether you are coming from the north or south.
The two key elements of the park are the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC) and the hiking trail. The center is an active training and research center for biologists from around the world. Several species are nearly extinct, including the grey-shanked douc langur and the Cat Ba langur. All of the animals at the facility, except those born there, have been rescued from poachers and others who work the animal trade. You can take a brief tour of the center, seeing a variety of local langurs and gibbons, for only 10,000VND each.
Once you've toured the EPRC, you'll head up deeper into the forest. Nine km later, there is a parking lot, restaurant and snack bar where you will begin the trek into the rainforest. The 7 km trek is through dense brush, but a cement walk has been laid for more than half of it. Keep an eye out for spiders, lizards and other creepy-crawlies that call Cuc Phuong home. And if you're quiet, you can hear the constant din of the area's wildlife.
The greenery-shrouded limestone hills were once home to thousands of Muong people; most have been relocated, but a small village remains. The park arranges home-stays at the village, providing lodging and meals with a local family for a night.
The hike is moderately difficult, but there are plenty of stairs as you climb higher and higher into the mountains. The cement walk eases the strain on feet and shoes, but peters out about 2/3 of the way through, leaving you hiking through muddy and slippery paths. You'll find plenty of locals climbing along with flip-flop sandals or even barefoot, but I wouldn't recommend it.
If you're bringing along children, be aware the hike can be long and arduous. At any point in the trail, you can turn around and head back the way you came, though, and you'll see many people who do the same thing. (Small children might find it a bit overwhelming, though. Use caution when deciding whether or not to bring the toddler.)
Along the way, you'll pass the 1000-year-old Tree and the Big Tree (which is astoundingly tall). Vegetation abounds; some are particularly note-worthy with spikes jutting from their stems.
As you emerge from the walk you pass the bungalows that are rentable for a night or two. Facilities are limited, but the ambiance is unique. Some include bathrooms, others do not. All include the sounds of the forest at night.
For your hike into Cuc Phuong National Park, don't forget to bring:
*long-sleeve woven cotton top
*closed-toe, sturdy shoes
*water (and a snack, if you'd like)
Admission to the park is 20,000VND each and includes entry to the park and to the non-descript Cave of Prehistoric Man. Lunch is available at the main station.
For more information, check out:
Cuc Phuong National Park http://www.cucphuongtourism.org
Endangered Primate Rescue Center http://www.primatecenter.org
Vietnam With Kids: Cuc Phuong http://vietnamwithkids.com/cities/cucphuong/