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Cuc Phuong offers change of pace

Update: October, 25/2013 - 09:12
Scenic route: Before reaching the forest, visitors drive through Ninh Binh, which offers magnificent landscapes.

by Le Huong

Cuc Phuong National Park is one of my favourite weekend destinations. The first national park in the country, it's a relaxing place to enjoy a few days exploring tropical rainforest.

Established in 1962, the 22,000ha forest stretches across three provinces: Ninh Binh, Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa. Cuc Phuong hosts more than 2,000 kinds of plants, 2,000 kinds of insects, 122 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, 65 kinds of fish and 133 kinds of animals.

Before reaching the forest, deep inside the Tam Diep mountains, the local motorway leads tourists through Ninh Binh's karst mountain ranges, where tourists can enjoy scenic lakes, caves and rice fields and glimpse the lifestyle of northern countryside farmers.

I sometimes stop at big fields to feast my eyes on immense green young rice paddy and scattered lakes where herds of ducks and buffaloes swim. The peaceful villages are bordered with ranges of karst mountains.

Green escape: The trekking routes draw many tourists who prefer dirt trails to cement paths. — VNS Photos Le Huong

Yet the most relaxing moments for me are inside the forest, whether I'm riding a bicycle along the lanes, jogging around Mac Lake near the entrance of the forest or trekking to the 1,000-year-old cho xanh (East Indian almond tree, or Terminalia Myriocarpa).

The pleasant 3km walk to the tree offers some interesting lessons on wildlife. One recent visit, equipped with trekking shoes, long-sleeved shirts, hats and water, our necks and arms soaked with mosquito repellent, my friend and I followed our guide Nguyen Duy Hien along the path.

The smell of wild grass and the moist air and absolute quiet of the old forest drew me in. It seems that time had stopped. There was no signal in our mobile phones. Deep in this forest, we were one with nature.

Lost in the green, I suddenly saw a moving green twig. I whispered to the guide in a scared voice and showed him the ghost.

He laughed and explained that it was an insect called bo que, or walking stick (carausius morosus), famous for its capability to camouflage itself in the environment.

"Such an insect can disguise itself as a green twig or a brown one depending on the tree that it lives in," Hien said.

Circle of life: A guide (left) explains that many banyan seeds are brought by birds to settle on a host tree. The seed draws nutrition from the host tree and ends up swallowing it.

He went on to tell us that there are 25 species of that insect in Viet Nam, of which 20 can be found in Cuc Phuong. An adult "walking stick" can reach 60cm in length.

His explanation calmed us and we continued through a vast land populated by wild banana, which Hien said was the most reliable source of fresh water in the forest.

"Water from wild banana trunk tastes pretty acrid but it is safer than water from streams," the guide said.

If you get lost, he explained, you can cut a wild banana trunk 20-30cm from the ground, make a horisontal hollow in the middle of the trunk and wait a few minutes. The water will soon come through the banana root to fill the hollow.

He pointed to a wooden climber running along the path, flying from tree to tree, and told us it was called day bam bam (woody liana).The longest one in the forest runs 2km long, he said.

We passed some small springs and went deeper into the dense forest. I didn't feel tired at all, even though we had walked more than one hour.

My guide stopped at a banyan tree that almost completely covered the weak tree below. He explained that many banyan seeds were brought by birds to host trees. The seed grew thanks to nutrition from the host tree, which it gradually swallowed. For this reason, banyans were sometimes called "tree killers", he said.

I realised that the environment might look friendly to us, but for animals and plants there was fierce competition to survive.

After more than one hour, we finally reached the famed thousand-year-old tree, which measures 45m in height and 5.5m in diameter.

From the wide root emerge two steady trunks, which stand firmly on the ground and grow stunningly tall.

We enjoyed the scarce rays of light leaking through dense layers of leaves as we returned to the car park.

Stepping out of the green world, I felt so much love for wildlife and felt happy that we had done exactly as the forest management reminded us: "Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs." — VNS

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