As the last event of my 6 weeks of turning 40, we took an epic vacation…..
Day 1 Hanoi
We had two miracles on our flights over, one was that it was 10 hours (not 13 as I had read on the internet) and secondly, despite having a really tight connection in Paris our luggage made it to Hanoi.
Hanoi is a northern city in Vietnam, and though it is a modern city in many ways it for sure has signs of old traditions: we saw women carrying loads in the old fashioned style: a long stick over the shoulder with baskets hanging from each end (we never saw this in Saigon). Hanoi has 8 million people and I think they all have scooters. The traffic was the same as I have seen in central america: barely contained chaos but few accidents. The scooters are pretty ubiquitous and over the course of our time in Vietnam we kept a list of all the crazy cargo loads we saw. For example: a 4 foot tall model of the Eiffel tower, a very large basket of piglets, a wooden door, and a kitchen sink, not to mention families of 4 or 5 to give just a few examples.
The rest of the group was not arriving until later that night, so Chris and I has a day to ourselves. We began with a walk to Hoan Kiem lake. This large lake is in the center of the old part of the city and has a legend attached to it: the local dragon god gave the king a magical sword in anticipation of a Chinese invasion. After the battle was finished and invaders repelled, the king went boating in the lake. A giant turtle surfaced and asked the king to give the turtle his magical sword, so that he could return it to the dragon god. The lake has a shrine to turtles in the middle, and is rumored to have soft shell turtles in it, though we didn’t see any.
We walked around the old part of Hanoi and it was a little overwhelming: so different than anywhere I have been. SO much going on, so much bustle, so many people everywhere! Narrow streets packed with scooters and also people: you cannot walk on the sidewalks as those are the domain of shops and cafes. You may have a group of folks sitting on low stools around a tea stall, or shelves where wares or sold, and if there is an open patch of sidewalk there is a scooter parked there. The streets in the old town are mostly divided by what they sell, so one street may sell only wooden carvings, and a different street sells red lanterns and shrine decorations. After a long wander around, Chris and I ate the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, for dinner at a teeny cafe we found.
The next morning over breakfast we caught up with our group who had arrived REALLY late the night before. It was fantastic to see some pals we had not seen in a long time, as well as good friends Jenny and Watson who we travel with annually. Dave, the trip leader and organizer, is a a good pal of ours and former coworker from the NC museum. He started Ecoquest Travel after doing educational trips for NCSM, and has spent lots of time in Southeast Asia. He did his PhD research in Laos (has lots of insane stories about backwoods Laos in the 1980s). Dave and our local guide, Wen, have been leading trips for Appalachian State University students to Vietnam every other year for about 10 years.
For this first full day we had a tour of the city, of some of the highlights such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and grounds, the Temple of Literature (a university built 1000 years ago, and is a temple now dedicated to scholars) and the 1400 year old Trấn Quốc Pagoda. At the Temple of Literature we saw happy graduates in cap and gown having their photos taken, which is traditional. We also got a peek at a white throated fantail, a spiffy black and white bird. Everyone was a bit jet lagged, so we had an easy day.
We left Hanoi for Ha Long Bay. Driving around rural Vietnam the first thing that really hits you (and this was a recurring theme, sadly) is that there is NO wildlife. Once you get out of the city, there are no birds. No herons in the rice paddies, nothing sitting on the telephone wires, NOTHING. Everything has been eaten. If not by the Vietnamese, then hunted by them to send to the Chinese. We finally saw a few birds about 2 hours into the drive, but the birds really were few and far between until we got to the bay. It is really sad. Even in the bay, a national park, there are few gulls and no cormorants. They have never recovered from being eaten for so many years.
The second thing I noticed was the architecture. Land is really expensive so the houses are tall and narrow and mostly made of concrete. On the ground floor is a shop or cafe. Then the second, third and fourth floors. The ground floor frequently looks not so nice (dirty, trash in front), but the upper floors are beautiful! Most of them have balconies and are filled with carved wooden supports, artistic carvings into the cement, and lovely shutters and windows. The upper floors are painted some bright color, like blue or pink. However, they are not painted along the long side of the building, which is a little odd looking when you have a house alone, but most seemed to be attached to the neighboring house. Or perhaps the owners expect to be attached to a second house at some point.
After 4 hours (all the roads are under construction all the time, according to Wen. The government wants people to have jobs) of driving we started to see some of the steep karst mountains that typify Ha Long Bay and then after another hour we were at the harbor. We quickly transferred onto our boat where we would be spending the next 3 days.
Our boat would be best described as “bucket of bolts”. But, the rooms were really quite large and comfy with big windows, and the main area had a lovely wooden bar and dining tables. Upstairs on the open deck were lounge chairs. The crew was really sweet and the food, amazing. Well, for me. We ate a TON of seafood while on the boat, which Chris was less wild about. Fresh crab, mantis shrimp, clams, lots and lots of fish, it was all delicious. I had had fantasies of a hot weather cruise, where we could swim off the boat and snorkel, but alas, the temperatures were in the mid 60s the whole time. It was the dead of winter, after all!
Ha Long Bay is stunning. 2000 + small islands consisting of steep cliff sides and vegetation. Too small for habitation. There are some floating villages, where people live on houses on bamboo. The water is incredibly calm, it is hard to remember you are in the ocean and not in some really big lake! During the big typhoon earlier this year, all the boats just stayed in the bay…there are so many islands that strong winds and waves are broken up. On this first afternoon we visited a lagoon hidden within an island. We saw our first hornbills ([oriental pied] like toucans but much, much larger) and Rhesus Macaques, a type of monkey. We also visited a giant cave complex on one of the larger islands.
Day 4 New Years Eve!
Thanks to continuing jet lag, we all woke up before dawn, but made the best of it by stargazing from the boat. The visibility was amazing!! Our pal Watson has a starfinder app on his phone, so we spent some time finding all the constellations and planets.
We spent the day today looking for the rare Cat Ba Langur, a black and white leaf eating monkey only found here, and the population in believed to be about 80 individuals left. We drove around in a small wooden boat, through tiny inlets and saw many beautiful spots. Steep cliff faces, tiny secret beaches, rustic floating villages (all the houses float on bamboo platforms and are solar powered) and some very nice birds. We found more Rhesus Macaques, but no langurs, despite asking every local fisherman we came across. Finally, at the end of the day we found the floating ranger station and the ranger promised us 100% success the following morning, we just had to be there at sunrise. And pay a small bribe. This was not a problem for us, as the rangers make very small salaries. I would be content if they made every wildlife watcher pay!
That night, for the first time in more than 25 years, I went to bed well before midnight! We were all still jet lagged and knew we had to get up at 5am.
We got up at dark, went to the ranger station as the sun was just coming up, fetched the ranger, and just around the corner from his station there they were. A troop of about 16 langurs in trees and on the cliff faces. So close, they were easy to see! They have long arms, legs and tails, and are mostly black with white heads. Watching them leap is amazing, they are just so agile! They were eating leaves and just relaxing, we even saw a bright orange baby! It was a really special moment. Dave has lead this trip many times and looked intensely for the langur and never before seen it. It was a great way for all of us to start off the year!
We had a slothful morning admiring the views, and then a final lunch on the boat as we motored back to shore, and then got in the bus. Before we left the bay area, however, we visited a center where we learned all about making pearls (there are many pearl farms in the bay). It was actually quite interesting, and we got to see “oyster surgery” when they implant the base to make the pearl. Then we got to do some shopping. Thanks mom and dad for the earrings!
We had an uneventful drive back, and after a brief pause to check into our hotel, went to see a water puppetry show. Water puppetry is a traditional northern Vietnamese art form where the puppeteers stand in knee-deep water behind a screen of reeds. They operate the puppets using bamboo sticks that are under the water, and cannot be seen. There were about 15 short acts featuring Vietnamese folk tales and also stories about traditional life, backed by a 6 piece musical group playing instruments I had never seen before. The puppets were really beautiful, and I enjoyed the show quite a bit.
We left Hanoi and went to hours south to a town called Ninh Binh. On our way, Wen bought a jackfruit for us to eat. They are these football sized spikey fruits that grow directly off the trunk of the tree. He had the seller chop it all up so it was in chunks for us to eat. The taste is rather like banana and pineapple together, and it is not juicy. It was really good!
Ninh Binh actually looks a lot like Ha Long Bay, because it is the same sort of steep karst mountains that are in the bay. Of course here they are jutting out of the ground, not the ocean. There is a public dock where you get in these teeny rowboats and they take you up the river, and in the course of this journey you go through three caves. It was really pretty, and we did a bit of birdwatching along the way. After lunch al fresco in the cute town we headed out to the Van Long Nature reserve, which is about 20 minutes drive away.
Van Long is one of the few bright spots in Vietnamese wildlife conservation. The reserve is home to another rare langur, Delacour’s Langur. The local people have learned that instead of eating the monkeys, tourists will pay to go so see them, and besides the boats you ride in a teeny market has sprung up where the buses park selling local crafts and the like. Van Long is really beautiful: it consists of a huge marsh filled with short vegetation and a few shrubs, and then behind it a giant wall of these same steep cliff faces we saw in Ninh Binh and Ha Long.
Chris and I got into a traditional rowboat made of reeds and we went with group to the far edge where the mountains meet the water and there were the langurs! Dave said we were quite lucky because the langurs were so close to the water, usually they are really high up in the cliff faces. These guys are also mostly black, but they have white fur on their butts and legs so it looks like they are wearing pantalones. Really sweet! Again we had a large troop that were eating, relaxing, and occasionally moving between trees. We watched them for quite a long time.
Also in the marsh were some amazing birds: a few different types of kingfishers, purple herons, lots of white egrets, and a bird that was near the top of my list to see: Asian open billed stork. As the sun set, the storks (about 500) and the egrets (about 700) started doing a giant murmuration (where they fly in a flock closely together). It was really an amazing, beautiful moment. The dark cliffs behind, the mirror smooth water and these large pale birds flying so closely. Right behind us was a roller rink blasting Justin Timberlake, but even that didn’t dampen the magic.
I would like to say a little bit about breakfast. Every day we had breakfast at our hotel, which was the usual hotel food (pastries, omelettes) but with some non traditional things like fried rice, noodles with sausage, and pho, the beef (or chicken) noodle soup Chris and I ate on our first day. It is the national dish, and Vietnamese tradition is to eat it out at a cafe every morning. There was always a huge fruit selection at breakfast: dragon fruit, watermelon, teeny bananas packed with flavor, it was all yummy.
Today was a travel day, and since our flight from Hanoi was delayed quite a bit we didn’t do as much of a city tour of Saigon as we had planned.
First impressions of Saigon: massive. Hot. Greener than Hanoi, more parks. More western and modern, with lots of shops we knew and english signs everywhere. Saigon has 10 million people, and 5 million of them have scooters. The traffic is unreal.
We visited the reunification palace, which was the last hold out of the Americans during the war. The war rooms were very interesting, still filled with communications equipment and cool old maps and in one room an exhibit of wartime photos. The palace also contains some lush receiving rooms and the lovely private quarters for the prime minister. After the palace, we visited the old post office, which was built in the french colonial style and quite attractive. And, it still functions as a post office!
It took us 5 hours to get to Cat Tien National Park, and I think 2 of them were just driving through Saigon! Today’s on the road fruit treat was rambutan, a fruit in the family of the lychee. The skin is thick and has red hairs on it and you peel that off to reveal a white, opaque fruit inside that you eat. Delicious.
We got to Cat Tien, got on a little ferry across the Dong Nai River, and then we were in the park. We saw more birds in the first hour than I think we had the entire trip thus far! Just in front of our room Chris and I saw a lovely blue-winged leafbird (so spectacularly colored even Chris said “wow”). After lunch we birded along the road away from headquarters, and discovered that even during the dry season, there were land leeches around.
Land leeches look like mini inchworms, and they are attracted to body heat. We could see them coming towards us en masse whenever we stood in dead leaves. However, they stayed away while we were on pavement. The next day, a few of us were bitten (including me) and discovered it is not as traumatic as expected. The leech comes (can go through pants and socks), feeds, and leaves, so you don’t even know you have been bitten until you see a spot of blood on your sock or pant leg. The main thing is not to scratch your bite or they can really bleed.
After dark we went out with a giant spotlight looking in the trees for nocturnal animals and birds. We found a few spiders, a scorpion, and a lizard but we got really lucky and found a pygmy loris. This sweet little primate looks more like a lemur with really large eyes. He was eating fruit up in a tree when we spotted him. It was a true high note to end our first day in the park with.
We did a bird walk before breakfast and were rewarded with so many cool and colorful birds: dollar birds, every drongo you could imagine, rollers, chestnut-headed bee eaters, lineated barbets…it was just amazing. I didn’t want to come in to eat breakfast!
We did get quite lucky again with mammals: we saw a buff-cheeked gibbon! Our group had been informed that to see these gibbons would require a pre-dawn 7 km hike and a lot of luck. Not a very encouraging proposition! However, the park had a small group of these rare primates in a giant cage at headquarters. They had been rescued from the black market and were being rehabilitated for release. As we were birding nearby we saw something suspicious near but outside the cage, and sure enough, a lone wild male had been lured in by the captive animals! We all got great looks at him. These gibbons make the most amazing loud calls, and it ended up a daily occurrence that we heard the ones in the cage and the lone wild male calling back and forth. It is a unique, fantastic sound.
Today I and most of our group set out for Crocodile Lake, which is a 5km hike into the jungle. We were to spend the night at the ranger station there. Chris and Jenny opted out of this excursion and instead spent the day learning about some of the sustainable industries around the park such as silk worm farming and weaving. The rest of us left after lunch, carrying our things for the overnight and wearing anti leech socks.
It was a HOT hike, I really felt like I was back working in South Carolina. It was a mostly flat trail through dense trees and the ground was lots of volcanic stones. We saw another species of langur while on our hike, the black-shanked douc langur, and one of them leapt from tree to tree about 12 feet above my head! It was amazing. The birds weren’t too active as it was the mid afternoon, but once we got to the ranger station overlooking the lake in the late afternoon, we saw some amazing things. The green peacocks native to this area were displaying! Also we had a number of red junglefowl, which is the father of all domestic chickens everywhere, and boy, they are spectacular with red bodies and hunter green tails. We had long tailed macaques as well, playing in the distance.
The ranger station is on an elevated platform, and we sat and overlooked the lake until it got dark. We saw many siamese crocodiles. It is the only place in Vietnam where they are still found, and if not for the fact the ranger station is right there, they would all be poached. The rangers told us that every day they pull illegaanima l traps during their rounds in the woods. We ate dinner al fresco and admired a giant spider building her web, and also spotted an albino snake hanging out in the tree branches above the cooking area. After dinner we did another spotlight hike and saw a second pygmy loris and also a common palm civet, a fruit eating animal that looks a little bit like a weasel, but larger.
The accommodations at the ranger station were really quite basic, but there was good mosquito netting and really the food was fantastic.
We got up really early to watch the sun rise over the lake. There was so much going on! Lots of birds such as oriental pied hornbill, gray headed fish eagle, purple swamp hen, bronze winged jacana, and kingfishers galore. The rangers took us out two at a time into the lake where we got nice few of some of these birds, the kingfishers, and of course the crocodiles! Honestly, I was a bit more worried about getting into the boat via the three pieces of bamboo that passed for a dock than I was about getting eating by a croc. Though later in the morning we watched a croc eating some small fish which was quite impressive: those teeth!
After a late breakfast we started the hike back. This time we saw a different species of langur, the silvered langur! Sadly we did not get a species of bird I was really hoping for, the bar bellied pitta. Though we heard one calling and our guide used a song playback to try and draw him in, the bird did not come. It is a little to early for the breeding season, so he was not interested.
I was reunited with Chris at lunch, who told me about his time visiting local villages the day before, and the long bike ride he and Jenny had done that morning. While we were eating lunch in the dining hall, some long tailed macaques decided to pay a visit! It was amazing to see them up close. After the heat of the day passed we went out into a different part of the forest where the trees are quite large and there we saw more of the black shanked and silvered langur species (and that was nice because Chris and Jenny had not gotten to see them before) as well as a new macaque species, the pig tailed macaque. With that primate seen we had observed every type of primate it was possible to see on this trip. Our leaders, Dave and Wen, who have lead this trip every other year for about 10 years have never had that happen before! We celebrated with beers at the park bar before dinner.
After dinner we did a game drive with a spotlight but it was pretty quiet, only two types of deer seen. Samba rdeer and Muntjac, or barking deer.
Before I go further, I want to mention the food. It was fantastic the whole trip, and particularly at the park. We ate every meal together as a group. Each lunch and dinner consisted of 5-6 different dishes, usually a soup, 3-4 meat/fish dishes( stir fry style, for example: chicken in lemongrass, or whole fish with ginger sauce, or beef in oyster sauce) a vegetable (baby bok choy in garlic sauce) and a huge bowl of white rice. Sometimes noodles too. For dessert we always had fruit, usually watermelon and pineapple. It was really good food. I loved trying different fruits, like longhans (which is another lychee type) or these tiny mandarins the size of a quarter that were beyond sweet and orangey tasting.
We started the morning with a boat trip on the Dong Nai River which borders the park. We saw every kingfisher imaginable, more long tailed macaques, and a really reclusive bird called the Asian Koel, an all-black member of the cuckoo family. We also saw boats dredging sand from the bottom of the river, and what a process that was. The boats were so heavy they looked like they were going to sink!
Dave, Watson and I went on a mini bird walk in the heat of the day, after the boat trip was done. We were rewarded with a red and black broadbill, which is a stunning combination of maroon, black, white feathers and a large sky blue bill. A really stellar bird. Also a racquet tailed treepie (pronounced tree-pie, not tree-pee). And a massive dead scorpion.
Around two we got back on the ferry and headed back to Saigon. It was nice to be staying at our deluxe hotel after a few days in the sparse guesthouses! I am happy to report that the guesthouses did have air conditioning, at least.
Today we went to the outer edges of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is an area that was extensively covered with tunnels during the war and you can go in them and learn about the war. First we watched an introductory film which was an old propaganda film, which was pretty fascinating in itself: lauding the kills of a young (12) female assassin and the like. It was really interesting to learn a bit about how the Vietnamese experienced the war.
The museum area is a large forest, and you walk on the wide dirt trails and see many different exhibits: what the entrance to a tunnel looked like (extremely small) and how hidden they were, some of the truly frightening booby traps used on GIs, an old American tank, and models of some of the underground rooms. Then there is a tunnel that has been enlarged for tourists that you can go through. It is not for the faint of heart! So narrow and dark I didn’t even last 20 meters. But Chris went the whole way. He said it got very hot. You also learn about what it was like for the Vietnamese during the war, how they lived, what they wore, etc. Everyone of all ages was involved in the war effort. It was a fascinating museum.
After a lovely al fresco lunch at a restaurant between two canals (where we had some new bird species: collared kingfisher and zebra dove) we headed over to the Wildlife at Risk (WAR) rescue center. This center is where animals that are rescued from black markets, etc, are sent and rehabilitated before being released into the National Parks. Some of the animals can never be released, sadly, so this is their permanent home. They had a number of sunbears (the smaller asian cousin to the black bear), lots of buff cheeked gibbons, and a few cobras, among others. It was interesting, and they do very good work, though a bit depressing. The poor bears in asia really do have a hard time; it is actually too brutal to describe here.
In the evening we took a walk through Saigon to a night market (kind of like a day market but open until midnight). We tried some new fruits, including mangosteen and sapodilla. Mangosteen is a dark purple fruit that looks like a plum. You tear it in half horizontally, and in the middle are small white segments that look like orange segments. You eat those and boy, it was delicious! Sapodilla is similar to a pear but tastes more like brown sugar. Both were so good! Walking through Saigon is not so relaxing, however. Crossing the street takes a lot of nerves! Also, it is very loud, and you feel so dirty from the exhaust from the traffic.
Part 2 later……