|Learning from the past:The newly constructed Van Mieu Tran Bien (Tran Bien Temple of Literature), in Dong Nai's Bien Hoa city, was erected in honour of the outstanding scholars of ancient times. It is now a popular tourist destination. The architecture is similar toVan Mieu Quoc Tu Giam (Temple of Literature) in Ha Noi.
|Lakeside view: Bau Sau wetland, in Cat Tien National Park. As well as numerous species of fish, fresh water crocodiles also live in the lake's murky depths.
|Butterfly effect: Cat Tien National Park is home to rare and diverse fauna and flora. — File Photos
|Ha Long Bay relived: Buu Long tourism site has been dubbed the Ha Long Bay of Dong Nai because of its limestone karsts and caves.
Nam Cat Tien National Park is named after a fairy who supposedly visited Dong Nai to enjoy its lush greenery and cool waters. Nowadays, the park is home to Ma, Stieng and Tay ethnic groups. Ha Nguyen
Tran Van Tien and his friends from Ha Noi are the first guests to join a community tour in the southern province of Dong Nai's Cat Tien National Park.
Located in a hilly area near the new ethnic Stieng resettlement area, the Guest House, also called the Long House, was recently opened in a collaboration between the Ma, Stieng and Tay ethnic groups.
The 125 sq m Long House was built with natural materials such as bamboo, wood and rattan. "It feels great here, almost like home," says Tien, adding that they also enjoy a variety of good local dishes.
Director of Cat Tien National Park Tran Van Thanh says the construction is the result of joint efforts by these ethnic groups. "They actively helped us plan, design and build the house to be used for community tourism."
Head of the Ta Lai Village K' Yeu says the project aims to help villagers get involved in community tourism to improve their living standards while sharing the responsibility to protect the park.
He asks local tour guide K' To to act take the guests on walking, cycling and boat cruise tours down the Dong Nai River.
"As we arrive at the hiking trail we see that it is covered with several layers of leaves, and sunshine is glimmering above in the canopy. The cries of cicadas resound all over the forest, which includes diverse landscapes such as hills, alluvial grounds, large clear areas and sloppy flows," says Tien.
K' To says that during the rainy season, these good-natured streams transform into large flowing waterfalls, with dazzling-white water dropping heavily over huge stones.
During the tour he shares a local legend: In the old days, a fairy was very interested in visiting the lower world to relax and enjoy the fresh water that filled a beautiful stream. The fairy visited so often that the region was later called Nam Cat Tien. (Tien means fairy).
K' To leads the group to the Dong Nai River which is dotted with several small islands. On one island, Tien and his group see centuries-old trees such as lagerstroemia speciosia and red woods growing tall in large grass fields. It is an ideal place for them to camp and fish in Bau Sau (Crocodile) Lake.
"The lake has many sorts of fish and wildlife, including crocodiles. They're lying everywhere on the shore," says Tien.
But K' To says rare species, including some listed in the Red Book of Endangered Species, can be found nearby, such as peacocks, pheasants, bassias, anas creecas and teals.
Several types of terrain can be found within the park's borders, including evergreen forest, semi-deciduous forest, wood and bamboo forests, bamboo groves and wetlands, says K' To.
The national park was established in 1998 and in 2001 it was recognised by UNESCO as the world's 411th Biosphere Reserve, the second in Viet Nam, says K'To.
After leaving Cat Tien National Park, Tien and his group continue on to the Tri An Waterfall, about 30km north of Bien Hoa City.
Their tour guide Nguyen Van Hung says the waterfall is the last portion of the Dong Nai River before running into the low plain area.
He tells the guests that someone once described the water flow from this portion of the Dong Nai River as a spontaneous girl who arrived in the area to fill the plains with water full of rich creatures and resources.
He also tells his guests the legend of a brave man from the lower Dong Nai River basin who got lost while meandering into an upper basin village. At first the villagers arrested him because he was a stranger but when wild beasts tried to attack the village he helped push them back.
The brave man was then accepted by the villagers and agreed to resettle in their area where he fell in love with a girl, the daughter of the village head.
Although he was respected by the villagers and the girl loved him very much, the man still missed his homeland very much.
Unfortunately the village had a rule that no one was allowed to leave once they were accepted. The man tried to escape by fleeing across the only bridge in the area. An easy target, he was taken down by arrows from his wife's villagers.
His wife was so upset that she threw herself into the fierce waterfall. She then became a stone statue left to cry day and night because of her furious love.
A large hydro-electric power plant was built in a joint project with the former Soviet Union near Tri An Waterfall to supply power to the southern provinces. More than 40 small and big islands dot the reservoir, known as Tri An Lake.
"When visiting Tri An Lake, you should not miss the opportunity to enjoy the sunset and the natural paradise that can be found here," says Tien, adding that the romantic and tranquil landscape of the lake helps him and his group fall into a complete relaxation that they have never experienced before.
Saying good bye to Tri An Waterfall, the group heads to Nhon Trach District's Phu Hoi Commune to visit the Phu My Communal House, a historical site.
The house was built in the early 19th century. It was first used as a small temple where local people came to pray for a bumper harvest and safe life. The temple was upgraded with a special type of durable wood in 1832 and became a big communal house. The unique architecture reflects the typical style of the southern area, says 75-year old villager Pham Ngoc Huy.
He says the Phu My House worships a tutelary god who protects and supports villagers as well as other gods who devote themselves to forming and developing the village and its communes.
Huy says the house was once a secret place for revolutionaries from Phu Hoi and Phu My communes to meet and work during the resistance wars against the French and Americans.
After President Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, Phu Hoi villagers were so upset that they held a ceremony for his soul at the Phu My House. They hung a horizontal lacquered board engraved with Chinese characters to praise the president's merit.
Every year on the 15th or 16th day of the 11th lunar month, a festival is organised at the house to worship their deities and burn incense in memory of Uncle Ho.
The last leg of Tien and his group's journey is the Buu Long tourism site and Long An Lake, which are located 30km from HCM City.
"If the northern province of Quang Ninh has Ha Long Bay, we have the Buu Long Mountain and Long An Lake because their landscape and views look a lot like Ha Long Bay," says Nguyen Van Quyet, deputy director of the Dong Nai department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Tour guide Huynh Thi Lien helps Tien and his group to tour the site.
She says the Buu Long Mountain formed about 100-150 million years ago. Due to the impact of rain, wind and time, the rocks have been polished to a smooth shine, creating a charming natural scene that includes high mountains and a large lake.
A 35-m high oasis, home of rare and valuable animals, lies in the centre of the lake.
Tien and his group want to cruise around the lake on a boat but Lien convinces them to join another group that is climbing the mountain and planning to camp in a fresh garden owned by villagers. At night they dine on special dishes such as goi ca (a dish made of raw fish and vegetables) and ruou buoi (pomelo wine).
The guests then visit the Buu Phong temple which was built in 1679 during the Nguyen Dynasty.
"We have to climb 99 stairs to reach the 30-m high temple. We are happily surprised because the temple has many old statues such as a couple of gold deer, a lying Buddha and an old Buu Phong Tower," says Tien.
Lien says the temple was an ideal place for revolutionaries to work during the American War.
Quyet says the province is calling on domestic and international business people to invest in tourism development in Dong Nai, particularly at the sites mentioned in this story.
"The province will create favourable conditions for investors in the tourism sector such as land tax exemption and infrastructure such as electricity," he says.
Dong Nai is applying to UNESCO to recognise Cat Tien National Park as a natural world heritage site.
"We hope that more travellers and researchers will visit Dong Nai to discover its hidden charm and research its natural fauna and flora here once the park is recognised as a natural world heritage site," Quyet says.
Dong Nai hopes to receive one million visitors this year compared with more than 700,000 last year. — VNS