North Central Vietnam

Thai Binh - Ninh Binh - Around Ninh Binh - Phat Dien - Cuc Phuong National Park Vinh - Around Vinh - Phong Nha Cave - Dong Hoi


IDD Code: (+84) 30
Established in 1962, Cuc Phuong National Park (admission adult/ child 40,000/20,000d) is one of Vietnam's most important protected areas. Ho Chi Minh personally took time off from the war in 1963 to declare this Vietnam's first national park,saving: 'Forest is gold. It we know how to conserve it well, it will be very precious. Destruc-tion of the forest will lead to serious effects on both life and productivity. This national park is 70km from the coast and covers an area about 25km long and 11km wide, spanning the provinces of Ninh Binh, Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa. Its highest peak is Dinh May Bac (Silver Cloud Peak) at 656m. The park is home to the excellent Endangered Primate Rescue Center (see opposite). The centre is located about 500m before the national park reception centre. You can't wan-der around the centre alone, so if you're travelling independently you need first to go to the national park reception area and arrange a guide. Entry is free, but you might consider purchasing some postcards or a poster, or making a donation. Though wildlife has suffered a precipitous decline in Vietnam in recent decades, the park's 222 sq km of primary tropical forest remains home to an amazing variety of ammal and plant life. There are 320 species of bird, 97 species of mammal including bats, and 36 species of reptile identified so far. Of the 2000 plant species, 433 have medicinal properties and 299 are food sources. The park is home to a species of tree called Cay Kim Gao (Podocarpus fleuryi hickel). In ancient times. kings and mandarins would only eat with chopsticks made from this lumber - it was said that anything poisonous it touches turns the light-coloured wood to black. Poaching and habitat destruction are a con stant headache for the park rangers. Many native species, such as the Asiatic black bear. Siamese crocodile, wild dog and tiger, have vanished from the area as a result of human impact. Episodes of violence have erupted between the Muong and park rangers who have tried to stop logging in the park. The government has responded by relocating the villagers further from the park's boundary. Some ecotourism ventures such as village homestays provide income to the local people, thereby giving conservation a direct economic benefit to them. Improved roads have led to increased illegal logging, which in turn is having a huge impact on the growth, movement and conservation of plants and animals. The best time of year to visit the park is in the dry months from November to February. From April to June it becomes increasingly hot, wet and muddy, and from July to October the rains arrive, bringing lots of leeches. Visitors in April and May should be lucky enough to see some of the literally millions of butterflies that breed here. There is a low-key, informative visitor centre a few hundred metres before the park entrance.
Excellent hiking opportunities abound in the park and you could spend several days trekking through the forest here. Short walks include a large, enclosed botanic garden near the park headquarters where some native animals - deer, civets, gibbons and langurs - have been released. Another short trail leads to a steep stairway up to the Cave of Prehistoric Man, where in 1966 human graves and tools were found dating back 7500 years, making it one of the oldest sites of human habitation in Vietnam. Popular day-trails include an 8km-return walk to the massive, 1000-year-old Big Tree (Tetrameles nudiflora); and a longer hike to Silver Cloud Peak. There's also a strenuous five hour hike to Kanh, a Muong village. You can overnight here with local families and also raft on the Buoi River. Park staff can provide you with basic maps to find the well-marked trail heads, but a guide is recommended for day trips and is mandatory for longer treks. A guide will cost a minimum of US$5 per day for up to five people, plus US$1 for each extra person
Sleeping & Eating
There are two accommodation areas in the park, with a complicated range of prices and options. The centre of the park, 58km from the gate, is the best place to be for an early morning walk or bird-watching. Here there are basic rooms in a pillar house (per person US$6), or a couple of self-contained bungalows (s/d US$15/25). There's also an enormous river fed swimming pool. At park headquarters there are self-contained bungalows & guesthouse rooms (s/d US$15/20), as well as rooms in a pillar house (per person US$5). The smartest rooms are those constructed around an artificial lake just inside the park boundary. You can camp (per person US$2) at either location, but need to bring your own gear. Meals (10,000-25,000d) are available from reception, including a vegetarian option. If you're looking for an unforgettable experience of tribal life, you might consider the hike to Kanh village, where it's possible to stay with local families. The dwellings are predictably basic - don't expect anything resembling a toilet as we know it. You'll need to pay US$20 for a guide to lead you and stay overnight, but the accommodation only costs US$5. It can get very busy here at weekends and during Vietnamese school holidays. Reservations can be made by contacting the national park office.
Getting There & Away
Cuc Phuong National Park is 45km from Ninh Binh. The turn-off from Hwy 1A is north of Ninh Binh and follows the road that goes to Kenh Ga and Van Long Nature Reserve. There is no public transport all the way to the park so you're best to arrange a motorbike or car in Ninh Binh.
A highlight of a visit to Cuc Phuong is the Endangered Primate Rescue Center ( admission free; 9-11am & 1-4pm). The facility, run by a mixture of German biologists and local Vietnamese, is a laudable endeavour aiming to improve the wellbeing of Vietnam's primates. What started out as a small-scale operation in 1995 with just a handful of animals has grown into a highly productive centre, where today over 100 creatures are cared for, studied and bred. There are around 14 species of gibbon and langur on site. The langur Is a long-tailed, tree dwelling monkey; the gibbon is a lonq-armed, fruit-eating ape. There are also lorises (smaller nocturnal primates) at the centre. There are estimated to be only about 20 species of primate remaining in the wild in Vietnam, most of which are threatened by hunters and/or habitat destruction. Some people attempt to keep these animals as pets, which is almost impossible. Langurs survive exclusively on fresh-cut leaves and their digestive systems will not tolerate anything else. By feeding them incorrectly people usually discover they've killed their new pet before they can even flaunt it to their friends. All the animals in the centre were either bred here or rescued either from cages or illegal traders. who transport them mostly to China to become medicinal ingredients. Such rare animals can fetch anywhere between US$200 and US$1000 from buyers looking to cash in on their 'medicinal worth', be it for gallstone relief or as an aphrodisiac
In cooperation with the Vietnamese authorities, the centre has had some major recovery and breeding successes, including the world's first grey shanked Douc Iangur bred in captivity. The red-shanked Douc langurs are breeding fantastically and are fascinating animals that look as though they are wearing red shorts (their Vietnamese name translates as 'monkeys wearing shorts'). Some southern species of Iangur at the centre have heated steeping quarters in winter, which is more than can be said of the human residents. One of the larger aims of the centre is to reintroduce these primates into their natural habitat. Currently hunting pressures are still too high, but as a preliminary step, some gibbons and a group of Hatinh langurs have been released into a 2-hectare, semi-wild area adjacent to the centre; and a group of Douc langurs are in a second, 4-hectare, semi-wild enclosure.
All of the border crossings between north-central Vietnam and Laos have a degree of difficulty. If you've got the time, you're much better to head south and cross at Lao Bao. The crossing at Nam Xoi/Na Meo ( 7am-6pm) in Thanh Hoa province is the most remote, in a mountainous area 175km northwest of Thanh Hoa city and 70km east of Xam Nua (Laos). From the Lao side you should be able to get a saengthaew (pick-up truck) from Vieng Xai to the border (15,000k). There is not much here but across the border in Vietnam there's a small village with some incredibly basic accommodation - avoid it if you can. Once in Vietnam you're probably best to negotiate a motorbike for the lengthy, bumpy ride to Thanh Hoa. Another option is to take a motorbike to a town such as Ba Thuoc (US$10, 54km) and try to find a minibus. However, we've heard reports of drivers demanding 300,000d for the journey to Thanh Hoa - over six times the going rate. The same is true if you're travelling in the opposite direction, although you're slightly less likely to be scammed if you buy your bus ticket from the Thanh Hoa station. Be aware that Lao visas are not available at this border. A!t in all, expect a 15-hour ordeal if you take this route.