28 Mar Cuc Phuong and the Bike Ride from Hell
I found myself alone on the path, surrounded by trees all clamouring for the grey sky. Groaning, I felt my thighs start to burn as the road sloped upwards once more. How long had I been cycling now, three hours? I wasn’t even at the park centre yet and I still had to make it all the way back to our hut by the lake before nightfall. This wasn’t quite the relaxing break from city life I’d been expecting. Instead, our trip to Cuc Phuong National Park had turned into the never-ending bike ride from hell.
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Visiting Cuc Phuong National Park
We’d arrived the day before on a rickety local bus from Hanoi on TET eve; along the way we watched passengers armed with gifts disembark one-by-one in tiny villages where they were greeted by family members and welcomed inside for the New Year holiday. We were dropped off with our friends Jo and Bonner at the entrance to Vietnam’s oldest National Park and trekked along the forested path to our huts by the lake. Despite being tired from a jerky train journey from Sapa the night before, we were invigorated by the quiet noises of the jungle, the fresh air and the surrounding acres of greenery punctuated by huge moss-coloured limestone mounds and the silvery surface of the lake.
There was still time that afternoon to visit the park’s Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, where we saw 15 different species of primates, including the critically endangered Delacour’s langur. The animals we saw had been confiscated by poachers smuggling them to China where they’re considered a delicacy or used in traditional ‘medicines’. Cuc Phuong releases many of these animals back into semi-wild enclosures in protected parks across Vietnam and also run a successful breeding program; we saw three different baby gibbons and langurs during our visit.
As we watched the red-shanked doucs, which our guide referred to as five-coloured monkeys because of their striking maroon trousers, white snowy arms, yellow and black faces and long white tails we marvelled at the humans who destroy these animals with their ignorant beliefs. We also made a stop at the Turtle Conservation Centre and learnt about the endangered pangolins that live in the park; these shy, scaled ant-eater type creatures have also been hunted to near extinction by poachers in Vietnam.
That night, after a dinner of spring rolls, rice, vegetables and huge mugs of tea, the four of us completed a lap of the lake before collapsing into bed exhausted. Accompanied by the resident black dog, we walked gingerly through the darkness listening to the unfamiliar whine of cicadas, the soft croaking of frogs and distant hooting of an owl. We talked about the animals that lived in the surrounding forest; the endangered clouded leopards, Asian black bears and rare primates. As our eyes adjusted to the jungle darkness we came to a bridge and found the path ahead was lit with the flashing blue-white pinpricks of fireflies.
The Bike Ride from Hell
The next morning we awakened to grey skies and a fine drizzle. In honour of Andrew’s birthday we rented bikes and, accompanied by our black dog, we set out on what was supposed to be a leisurely 20km ride into the very centre of the park. At first the journey was pleasant, the breeze cooling us as we whizzed through the forest, our new friend trotting by our side.
There are three different treks you can take in Cuc Phuong without a guide; we had our sights set on exploring a cave used by prehistoric people some 7500 years ago as well as walking the 7km loop track from the park centre to see a thousand-year-old tree before cycling back to camp. We started to realise that this was an overly ambitious plan when, an hour and a half in, we consulted the map and deduced that we were only a quarter of the way to the park centre.
What’s more, the path was getting steeper and steeper to the point that we were confronted by hills around every corner and 10 percent gradient warning signs. The novelty of cycling was wearing thin for me and the joy I felt at being out in the forest was slowly being replaced by dread as my body protested at having to heave myself and my bike up yet another hill. Conversation slowed and as I lagged behind the others I began to worry that by the time we got to the park centre we’d never make it back again before dark.
Instructing Jo and Bonner to push ahead I ploughed on beside Andrew, getting more and more frustrated as the time ticked by and the path continued to stretch out, never-ending, in front of us. More and more often I found I had to get off the bike and trudge it up a steep hill; unprepared for this kind of journey I was weak with hunger and had little water. Almost three hours in, I gave way to panic and frustration and sent Andrew off ahead to tell the others we were turning back.
Then, alone on the path I had a choice: sit still and wait, turn back or carry on after Andrew. I wanted nothing more than to give up on the bike ride but my stubborn streak won out and in a fit of fury I pushed on until Andrew came back to meet me. Not long after we arrived at the park centre where Jo sat with an injured leg and Bonner with a broken bike.
After loading up on sugar, we took stock of the situation. There was no way that Jo would be able to cycle back on her injured leg so after talking to a ranger we determined that he could give Jo and I a lift in his pick-up while Andrew and Bonner cycled back. First though, the boys and I were determined to tackle the 7km trek to see the famous thousand-year-old tree we’d biked all those hours for. By the time we arrived back at our lake huts we were exhausted, dirty and starving but the hours of intense exercise and fresh air had done us good – we would return to Hanoi the next day refreshed from our jungle adventure.
Have you been to Cuc Phuong National Park?