4-Day Getaway Cat Tien National Park
After my initial honeymoon phase with HCMC ended–once the electricity and excitement faded a bit and the noise & light pollution, thick exhaust and chaos of the city began slowly strangling me, I became desperate to periodically get away. I’d spend free time researching and ask everyone I’d meet where I could go to breathe fresh air again, to see stars, to feel peace.
Cat Tien–a National park just 3 hours* from Ho Chi Minh City–was always right under my nose. One of my housemates is manager at The Ta Lai Longhouse, a unique, and frankly rare, sort of accommodation in a country with a devastating lack of socially and environmentally responsible tourism.
The Longhouse, is a traditional style jungle abode–a long and breezy bamboo structure built on a hillside overlooking lush vegetation and a murky yet swimmable lake. Though my housemate, an Englishman, manages the place, it’s owned and staffed by friendly people from the nearby Ta Lai Village.
The structure was originally built by the village people under the funding and guidance of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). And to this day a portion of each nights stay goes directly to a community fund. If the longhouse does well, the village receives a nice chunk of money to spend on whatever a committee of community members deem worthy of the extra cash. The hope is that the money may go towards an altruistic cause such as into improving the schools, building a new well or improving existing infrastructure. Since the longhouse has only been open about two years (and much of the money earned in the first few years was reinvested in updating the facilities and equipment) the coming months will finally see the community fund begin to grow.
To say the longhouse is a quiet place isn’t quite the truth–for there’s seldom a silent moment with the enchanting orchestra of cicadas, geckos, and tropical birds playing on loop. Early evenings typically bring a refreshing rain shower, welcome after a day spent frolicking along sweltering red dirt roads past cashew orchards and rickety farm houses; after mountain biking through the national park, hiking in the jungle, kayaking through peaceful rivers or visiting the Gibbon sanctuary.
Though I’d call the accommodations considerably comfortable, clean and relaxing, the longhouse is not for everyone. All guests sleep on comfy mosquito netted mattresses laid out along the rustic wooden floors; bamboo curtains add a touch of privacy. Bathrooms, though spotless and western, are in a separate shared building. Guests become fast friends during the communal style meals (which are homemade and delicious), or while hanging out in the beanbags and hammocks on the front porch. It is a heaven of sorts for the intrepid or ethically concerned traveller.
For me, I wouldn’t dream of trading adventure, atmosphere and the opportunity to meet like-minded travelers for any other style accommodation.
After arriving from my 4 hour journey from the city (traffic added another hour), I collapsed into a shaded hammock and read until I was lulled into a light afternoon nap by the new sensation of fresh air and lack of motorbike buzz. I awoke, with a not unpleasant layer of jungle sweat and went for a swim in the peaceful lake before bathing and joining the other guests for dinner. When 9 came around, after a bonfire and a beer, I cozied into my bed and fell asleep to the gentle patter of rain on thatch roof.
My first full day in the jungle was spent mountain biking down empty roads, seldom passing a single other human being; past flowering trees, small farm plots, and around the national park. We made stops at a few noteworthy old trees (some of which are over 700 years old) and hiked down paths, passing the mocha-latte colored river.
Though we passed few people, other than the park’s staff, at one point, along a jungle path, we did encounter a television film crew. A cameraman, along with a man I can only assume was a host and an animal handler holding a caged bamboo rat were setting up to film in a clearing. Though the men couldn’t tell us exactly which show they’d be filming, they could say it was for the Discovery Channel. We found it interesting to see they would be using caged animals.
Myself and my companion for the day, an American NGO worker stationed in Cambodia, enjoyed a relaxing lunch at the lovely Forest Floor Lodge in a breezy dining room overlooking the river. For mealtime entertainment we watched as an adolescent monkey snuck in through the windows in the bathroom, knocked over soap bottles and climbed along the rafters to snatch lemons from the bar.
After lunch, we joined a tour to a Gibbon rehabilitation center on a nearby island. As we boarded a noisy wooden motor boat and zoomed over to Gibbon Island, a passionate Scottish woman called Sylvia versed us on the sad situation in Vietnam. She told the tale of how many animals have been driven to extinction due to over-hunting, or destruction of their habitat. Four of these animals, which are currently in danger of extinction–the golden-cheeked gibbon, the pygmy loris, the black-shanked douc and the silvered langur–are at the heart of the center’s efforts. These primates are frequently hunted for their meat or caught and sold as exotic pets. The center attempts to rehabilitate captured, injured or displaced animals and ideally release them into a safe and natural habitat, while also aiming to educate the local people on the delicate situation. Sylvia has been in Vietnam for more or less the past 5 years and she showed optimism for the future of the park and it’s conservation efforts.
And after a bit more leisurely wandering, we rode home, arriving just in time for a sunset swim.
My second day was spent with two lovely and entertaining British teacher-expat women. We rode motorbikes past stunning country landscapes, rural farms, and villages; past woman in conical hats herding cows and tiny children peddling giant bicycles, finally arriving at another entrance to the park. We spent the afternoon wandering through the park. Armies of butterflies scattered like jungle confetti as we passed along empty roads. We hiked through damp and densely shaded jungle paths, past gnarly vines and exotic trees, stopping for a rest near the river bed.
Nearing sunset we attempt to quickly return to Ta Lai, and race against the impending dark storm clouds forming on the horizon. We somehow find ourselves driving for miles along lovely, though unfamiliar, rural roads. After a sudden tropical downpour sends us ducking for cover under a leaky corrugated metal roof, we finally admit we must have missed our turn. A few kilometers of backtracking leads us to the appropriate turn and we arrive at the longhouse, chilly and soaked, a half hour later than originally expected.
On my last morning, after a satisfying communal breakfast, I took a walk along the farm roads behind the longhouse. I passed orchards of cashew nut trees, banana trees and vast rice fields, a sodden quilt displaying so many shades of green. Massive, prehistoric-looking water buffalo followed me with their eyes, while white, long necked birds glided across the fields. As I entered the village nearly every resident I passed greeted me with a cheery “hello,” or a toothy smile. Children chased me, yelling “hello” and “how are you.” Only to be met with adorable giggles, when I’d answer.
It’s in these places, I realize, where one can most easily find the real beauty of Vietnam. And as the country develops in a hurry, it’s these places that Vietnam risks losing. Though Cat Tien is not exactly on the typical Southeast Asia backpacker/tourist circuit (thank God), it’s is growing in popularity. I can only hope the government continues to protect the area.
When I wasn’t hiking, biking or swimming, I was merely sitting and drinking in the fresh scents and sounds of the rain forest. Really, it’s amazing how four months in a concrete jungle can make you appreciate the real one. Living in a large, hectic city, it can be easy to forget the things which make you feel most alive…The feeling of your muscles and lungs after spending an entire day outdoors. The mysterious sounds of the wild, when nothing manmade can muffle. The smell of the forest after it rains. The thrill of standing under the dark night sky, with only the pale light of the moon and stars. A few days in the jungle can be just enough to remind you of these things.
I only hope I can return … when I inevitably feel the grip of the city tightening around my neck.
*Cat Tien can be pretty easily reached by bus (3-4 hours). Purchase FUTA tickets to Dalat from your standard Bui Vien tourist office for 210,000 Dong ($10). Be sure to request a drop off near the Cat Tien National Park entrance. From there, a D100,000 (bargain hard) motortaxi can take you on a thrilling ride through rural villages, over a rustic, rickety old river bridge and finally up a bumpy gravel road to the entrance of Ta Lai Longhouse.