Vietnam’s Wildlife Heros

We had so much fun on the scooter, we decided we needed to get away on it for longer trip. We had been hitting city after city, and nature was beginning to call to us. So we extended our stay in “lovely” Ninh Binh, took the scooter, and went for a two-day ride out to Vietnams oldest National Park, Cuc Phuong National Park.

The ride out to the park was pretty industrial for the first hour, with huge trucks loaded up driving down very dusty roads. All the buildings are coated in dust, giving them a grimy feeling. We passed some massive factories, spewing all kinds of lovely gases. After an hour the scenery became more pastoral, with people working the rice paddies, herding their cows and goats amidst the towering karsts. We stopped to get gas at a local shop. There is a metal barrel of gas that has a glass tube sitting on top of it with different levels marked on it. You pump the gas into the tube for a measurement, then you pump it into the bike.
We arrived early afternoon, but by the time we made our housing arrangements it was too late to go to the center of the park. We really wanted to stay in the center, but there was no electricity there. They built the visitors center and everything in the sixties, and have not really been doing much at all to keep it up. We rented a dingy cottage on the man-made lake in the park. There was a broken TV, cold tile floors, and two mattresses that had seen better days. But I was thrilled to be in the park anyway.

Being too late for a long hike there were still some fun options of things to do right around the entrance. There was an Endangered Primate Rescue Center, which housed numerous endangered primates, and the Turtle Conservation Center. We had to hire a guide to take us to these two locations, even though it was only a short walk down the road.

The Primate Sanctuary consists of twenty or so enclosures, holding three to eight monkeys in each. Our guide walked us through and had a basic amount of knowledge on the monkeys, but when I asked for more in-depth questions I often got a blank stare. She was also on her phone quiet a lot, making it really difficult to fully experience the center. I was totally stoked about seeing so many rare primates, many which are only found in Vietnam, and wanted to learn as much as possible, but she seemed to be in a major rush. So we asked if it would be possible to take pictures and stay, as she had a new group ready to go. She told us it was cool as long as we stayed where she had taken us.

I don’t want to take away from the importance of this center, it’s essential for the survival of numerous species of primates. They have over 150 primates at the center, some were like none I had ever seen before. We saw Cat Ba Languars, Gray Shanked Douc Langurs, White Cheeked Gibbons, and the Loris. The Cat Ba Languar has only 70 left in the world, living on Cat Ba Island. The White Cheeked Gibbon babies are born blond, than the males turn black as they reach maturity, while the females stay blond. There were animals that were just gorgeous to look at, colors and fur like I’ve never seen before. The program here has been very successful at breeding very rare animals.

We were taking our time enjoying the beautiful primates. Workers were busy around us rebuilding one of the enclosures. There was a large bearded white guy, partially balding, overseeing the construction. So I headed over and asked him a few questions about the cage design. He got a weird look on his face, and demanded to know where our guide was. I told him she had left, and we were staying for some photos. Well, he dropped all his tools and stomped out of his cage, saying we were in an unauthorized area, and that we must leave immediately. He was all brash and angry, spouting off about how dare we do this and that in a heavy German accent. I personally wanted to get as much info out of him as possible, which he grudgingly gave as I peppered him with numerous questions about funding, breeding, how many releases they do, and anything I could think of before the door hit me in the ass. I also asked about volunteering but he stated they had no need for that at the moment. We were escorted out after that, without even getting a photo. You could see he was all bent out of shape, and I suppose you can’t blame him. There are problems with people stealing the monkeys because they are so valuable. I could have spent the rest of the day there watching the primates.
Primate Center

We went across the street to the turtle sanctuary but the gate was locked. We rang the bell a few times and an older guy came to the door with a dog that was barking at us. He let us in then disappeared. Well, I guess we don’t need a tour guide here. The building was very clean, with great signage all over the place, explaining the plight of turtles in Vietnam, poaching, over hunting, loss of habitat, among many others. I found the amount of information to be great, all nicely illustrated. There was so much information in fact that we ended up spending about a half hour reading up about the turtles before we even got to the live turtle exhibits.

Well we walked out of the main building into the yard, which had numerous ponds and fountains. But alas we were not able to see any turtles, no matter how hard we looked. For most people this can be very disappointing, but I like it when you have to work hard to see the animals. There was a commotion at the front of the building, and in walked our original guide with a large group of English tourists. They breezed past all the beautiful signs, climbed on a stone statue of a turtle, took some quick pictures, and then zoomed out just as quickly. To escape them we wandered on the Turtle trail, an enclosure that was designed to give the turtles space to wander through the woods and be in a natural setting. Plants were well marked, and it was relaxing to stroll through. Still no turtles though, and I left no leaf unturned. With Brits gone peace and quiet ruled over the sanctuary. I was so pleased with the sanctuary that I thought a t-shirt was in order. I got one of the guys working on the gate to go find someone to buy a t-shirt from, because the shop was closed.

A woman walked out of the back offices with curly blond hair, beige khaki’s, a sun hat, and a huge smile on her face followed by a pint-sized dog. She said they did not have too many sizes, but I was welcome to look through them. As I was looking through the various soccer jerseys with turtles on them, I started to ask her some random questions about the sanctuary. Unlike our other German friend, she jumped right into explaining everything from how many turtles they have successfully bred there to how she used the shy dog circling behind her to hunt turtles. The other dog was a guard dog, which he did quiet well seeing how he growled at me any chance he got. The guard dog was necessary because turtles were huge business, and many a poor farmer would break in to steal the turtles to sell to China.

We enjoyed chatting with Sarah Wahl so much that it was well past quitting time and she kept regaling us with stories of working in Vietnam, problems with animal species in the country, and village life. She casually mentioned how she never lets her dog out of her sight, because of fear of her disappearing. It takes a huge amount of work to train a dog to find turtles, so it would be a major setback. I asked her if she was worried the dog might run off, but that was not the problem. Though we would never guess it, there is a serious heroin problem out in rural parts of Vietnam, and people will do pretty much anything to fix their habit. I heard numbers close to 40 percent of the men use, which is huge. Addicts will drive down the road and hit dogs in the head, then sell them at market to get money. She had a friend who had lost numerous dogs because of this. He said if he ever caught the guys they would not be going to jail, they would just disappear forever. Dogs are used for work out here, not just hunting turtles, but protecting crops from thieves, guarding the house, and killing rats, but for some they are a meal. It’s absolutely horrible to think about. As far as all the missing turtles in the sanctuary, there was a very easy answer to that one, it was winter, so most of the turtles were dug down in the ground, hibernating. Damn shame there were no bars nearby, because I think we could have had a great night hearing all Sarah’s stories about living out there.
Asian Turtle Network

We headed back to our cottage for dinner. There was only one other couple in the whole place, and the food was pretty basic. It seemed like we were an inconvenience to the staff, so after some pretty blah food we headed to bed. Next day we awoke to a steady cold rain, not the best weather for riding. So we opened the door to listen to the rain on the lake, rolled over, and slept till noon. All of a sudden the cottage did not seem so dingy. Best sleep I had in ages.

The rain petered out, and we hopped on the scooter and drove to the end of the park, a few hours away. The roads were curvy and went through some seriously think jungle. It was hard not to gun it as fast as I could, but I was aware of the wet, mossy road, so I took it easy. We got to the end of the park, which had a hotel complex in it, all of it looking pretty abandoned. There was a restaurant that served some basic food, on the standard plastic tables and chairs. There was a kitten walking around wailing at the top of her lungs, creating a lovely lunch ambiance, but the Pho was still pretty tasty.

The trail left behind the building, so off we went. There was one tourist bus with a bunch of old people on it, but they walked about hundred feet into the jungle, then said screw it, and headed back for coffee. The trails were actually very well marked. I knew there was a slim chance of seeing some gibbons in this forest, so I kept my eyes peeled to the canopy. As in most forests in Vietnam, there was more silence than anything else. Most birds had been caught for pets or eaten. Sarah told us that mist nets would be stretched across the entire valley, catching all the migratory song birds that flew through.

It was not too far to a 1,000 year old tree, but it still took us about an hour and half. There were some caves along the way but we did not have a flashlight. Some Slovenians came up behind us and had a torch. The cave went back a hundred feet or so, and it was good we had light, because there was a large hole in the middle of the floor, which would have dropped us about 8 feet to another cave section. We were probably the only people on the trail, yet we were all bunched up in one group.


The thousand-year-old tree was enormous, with a diameter so big that twenty men holding hands would not reach around it. It’s pretty hard to get impressive pictures of a tree that soars hundreds of feet above your head, but we tried. The path leaving the tree was not so clear, and after going the wrong direction once, we backtracked to another path. It was a hundred yards before we knew we had chosen the right path. We went up and down a lot of forested hills, and the jungle was really beautiful. It was raining above, but the canopy kept most of the rain off us.
After an hour we finally hit a road, which brought us to the 1960’s hotel complex. First thing we saw was the Olympic sized pool, a lovely green color with thirty to forty frogs mating in it. Well, it’s good to provide a breeding spot, and I was surprised no locals made dinner of them. There was a suburban feel to the hotel, with cute little houses with neat lawns. Thing is, they all were abandoned. Then there was a huge one-story building with tennis courts, with no one there. The signs were crap, but eventually we found our scooter. It was getting late, and we were getting concerned about driving in the dark.
But there was one last stop before we left, the cave of the Primitive Man. This cave had the oldest remains of man in Vietnam dating back 7,500 years. There was a concrete bridge and staircase going up to the cave. When the park opened, Ho Chi Minh was going to visit, so they built all these really lovely walkways but he never made it. The cave was really cool, perched half way up a cliff, but with no light we only went as far as we could see.

On the way back to Ninh Binh we passed a butcher stand set up on the road, selling dog, possibly some stolen from a farmer. When I got back to town the market had a pile of butchered dogs for sale also. Being a dog lover, it’s really hard for me to see, but if it comes down to it, I would rather people eat dog than endangered species. Vietnam’s last Rhino, which was surrounded by guards, scientists, and tourists, was killed by poachers. How was it possible that poachers could sneak past them all, tranq-dart the rhino, cut its horn off, and then leave it to bleed to death with all those people around is beyond me. Vietnam really makes me realize how bad things have gotten in the world with the environment, and how things are just getting worse. That’s why it’s so important to support the National Park system, and centers like The Turtle Sanctuary and the Primate conservation center, because without them, wildlife has very little chance.

Cuc Phuong National Park
Asian Turtle Network
Primate Center

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