Mac Lake at Cuc Phuong National Park

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.

MAc Lake at Cuc Phuong National Park

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.

A Red-Eared Slider Turtle at the Turtle Conservation Centre

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.

Andrew, me, Jo and Bonner at Cuc Phuong National Park

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.

The friendly local black dog

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.

Cuc Phuong National Park's Very Cloudy Silver Peak

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.

Cuc Phuong National Park Bike Ride

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.

Thousand-year-old-tree at Cuc Phuong National Park

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.

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13 Comments
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 16:55h, 28 March Reply

    Cuc Phuong looks beautiful, but after all of that wilderness exertion, I can only imagine how excited you were to return to civilization afterwards!

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:47h, 29 March Reply

      It was nice to return to Hanoi afterwards Steph, we could do with a few more trips out of the city though, it does get intense here in the capital at times 🙂

  • Jenia
    Posted at 00:45h, 01 April Reply

    Oh no! How was the food? I imagine all four of you worked up quite an appetite, I hope it was properly satisfied! 🙂

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:39h, 02 April Reply

      The food was actually pretty good Jenia, which was good because we were all starving after that bike trip!

  • Gilda Baxter
    Posted at 21:23h, 03 April Reply

    Was the famous hundred year old tree worth the bike ride from hell? Well done for not giving up Amy, you are tough and determined.

    • Amy
      Posted at 10:48h, 04 April Reply

      Thanks Gilda, I wouldn’t say the tree alone was worth the punishing bike ride but the experience as a whole was 🙂

  • Patti
    Posted at 08:32h, 09 April Reply

    Oh, Amy! You have so much strength and spirit. I love to ride bikes for fun, but it is a lot of hard work. Someone asked me recently if she could bike ride the Camino de Santiago and I said, yes, but I choose to walk it because I think riding a bike for 500 miles does not sound fun at all! Good for you for getting it done!

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:20h, 11 April Reply

      Thanks Patti, I can’t imagine how painful biking the Cammino de Santiago would be! I’d much prefer to walk like you, although I’m guessing that will be tough on your body too. Can’t wait to hear about your walk!

  • louisa klimentos
    Posted at 08:43h, 09 April Reply

    Wow what lovely greenery and the photos are so beautiful I know it was rather difficult to ride your bikes through ruggard terrain,however what a great acheivement,Aimy and Andrew.Keep up your fantastic Blogs.My sons girl friend is Vietnamese and love me and my husband to go to Vietnam.i will one day do so .If you ever come back toAustralia,i would love to meet you both,only if it is possible ofcourse.Keep on teaching those lovely school students.Iam very proud of you both,love always ,louisa

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:22h, 11 April Reply

      Hi Louisa, as always thanks for your lovely message 🙂 Make sure you come to Vietnam one day, it’s a beautiful country and when we do return to Oz we will look you up 🙂

      • louisa klimentos
        Posted at 23:19h, 12 April Reply

        Love to visit Vietnam ,hopefully one day.There are so many places i love to visit and i hope to be able to do so.You are so sweet and love to meet you when you visit Australia.I will help you plan an off road adventure,if you like and also give you an 4WD atlas,showing all our National parks etc.You can also do the same for New Zealand.Australia has a total of 685 National Parks and that does not include State Forests.State Forests and National parks are handled by different government bodies.National parks are protected from logging ,but the State Forests can be logged.When travelling the world ,try to discover areas that are not on the tourist mapp and do travel blogs on these beautiful places because then your travel blogs will be unique,different and these place are worth a visit.It is up to you and Andrew ofcourse and who am I to tell you what to do.I have two beautiful relatives comming to Australia soon from the UK and me and my husband are going to take them everywhere.Recently read a post how in Cape York Peninsula by satelite a new region was discovered..I think it is called Melville National Park .It is almost not accessable and scientist are studying it .They have discoverred new plant species which have never been documented..Eventually it will be openned to the public.Suich a remote region of Queensland I will keep tabs on it.Please send my regards to Andrew,love louisa

        • Amy
          Posted at 03:30h, 13 April Reply

          Sounds amazing Louisa, we’ll take you up on that offer one day 🙂 Have a great time with your relatives when they visit.

  • Pingback:Life in Hanoi, Vietnam | What I Will & Won't Miss About Hanoi
    Posted at 16:38h, 17 April Reply

    […] in traditional ‘medicines’. Although there are conservation efforts ongoing, as we witnessed on our visit to Cuc Phuong National Park, there are also disturbing stories like this one, about park rangers – the very people meant to […]

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