Saturday, January 11, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 4 – Cuc Phuong National Park

I have spent a delightful day at Cuc Phuong National Park, a small mountain massif of limestone that has been uplifted to create a ghostly karstic landscape, not unlike that seen near Guilin in China (but without a river running through it). It was a pleasant combination of motocross riding, zooming through narrow asphalted paths, and quite a bit of walking.

The park is as good an example of an equatorial jungle as anyone can hope for, with gigantic ferns, massive trees, monkeys, and a host of other birds and animals I couldn’t see through the mist. I took a long walk down the valley, but, alas, couldn’t see much because of the dense foliage.

I did get to explore a cave, with the help of a tiny flashlight I had procured earlier in the day. It is called the Cave of the Prehistoric Man, on account of many artifacts and three burials excavated a few years ago. The human occupation dates back to 5,500 BC, so it is easy to be transported in imagination to The Clan of the Cave Bear, and imagine that some of the deep galleries may have been places of magic, whereas the atrium might had been the abode of several families of Paleolithic people.

I came back to the hotel and found my host busy shoveling dirt inside the foundation for the new two rooms. It turns out that he is doing all the work by himself! To judge by the quality of the foundation walls, and the quality of my own room, he is clearly a good mason and handyman. After I told him how my day had gone (his English is very good, by the way, even though he tells me he learned it at school many years ago) he offered to take me to a big cave nearby, an offer I gladly accepted.

We ended riding about 15 km to another enclave of ghostly limestone buttes, but to get there we had to cross a vast plain. Under normal conditions it would probably be a swamp in the floodplain of the nearest river, but the industrious Vietnamese have converted in a series of wetlands, separated by levees, where they cultivate rice. The levees are no mean structures, but well built embankments 10 to 20 ft high, faced with neatly laid stone slabs, and with solid steel sluice gates that control the level of water on each subsection. On top there is a well paved road that is lively with hordes of motorcycle riders engaged on transporting the oddest items (in addition to one or two passengers). Since I was a passenger myself, I felt I had now shared on the spirit of vibrant Vietnam.

Down in the wetlands there was a hum of activity. A couple of the farmers have replaced the traditional water buffalo with some type of mucking machine that allows them to turn the mud before planting, but for the two I saw of those I also saw hundreds of water buffaloes trudging happily along. I also saw large flocks of ducks, apparently domesticated enough that they just hang out on their designate fields, seeing the world go by (interestingly, the white ducks and the black ducks don’t mingle at all, instead forming different flocks).

The cave was pretty nice, and the guide did a fine job at showing us the different forms that his feverish imagination could see in the different shadows, stalactites, and stalagmites (cave guides are the same all the world over), but the real bonus of the trip was fabulous landscape that I could command from the top of the hill. Truly, there is something unique and magic about karstic landscapes.

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