A trip back to nature at Cat Tien National Park
Vietnam’s gotten a lot of flack in recent years, as complaints are being volleyed by disgruntled tourists. Lousy service, congested roads, botched itineraries and cut-throat vendors and scammers are just some of the reasons there’s now less than five percent visitor return rate here. However, what these folks fail to realize is Vietnam’s most valued treasures are not found in overpopulated Saigon or government-planned beach resorts, but rather lie somewhere off the beaten path – uneven, broken paths that lead to Cat Tien National Park. Made up of evergreen forest, bamboo woodland, farmland, wetlands and home to amazing indigenous wildlife, Cat Tien National Park is the largest natural rainforest in Vietnam.
So, weary and exhausted from breathing Saigon soot, we embark on a journey to Cat Tien, bound for the Ta Lai Longhouse along the newly completed Long Khanh Highway. For approximately three hours, jackfruit plantations, rubber trees and scenes from nature blur pass our car window until we reach our destination.
Ta Lai Longhouse’s on-site manager Matthew greets us at the rickety cable-stayed bridge at the end of Ta Lai road, waiting by his moped. Cars are not allowed over the bridge, Matthew informs us, for reasons that become quickly apparent as we cross over the fragile metal slats with the muddy river below peeking through the gaps. Matthew drives on ahead with our bags – all of them atop the bike. Eight months of living in Vietnam and he’s already hauling like a true local.
We pass through Ta Lai village where a rambunctious wedding is taking place and arrive at our guesthouse. Commonly known as “The Longhouse,” it took months to complete and helps ethnic people (Tay, Ma and S’tieng) living near the park earn a living and mitigate their reliance on natural resources. Located near the forest’s edge at Cat Tien National Park, the 125m2 communal house is made from environmentally-friendly materials such as bamboo, wood and palm leaves. The building itself, a traditional bamboo structure of the local Ma people, is built atop a small hill overlooking a lake that flows into and waters the rice paddies. With April being the tail end of the dry season, the lake’s waters are barely high enough for a canoe to make the crossing but when the waters are high enough, the longhouse has its own entrance where guests can cross the lake with kayaks.
“What are you doing living out here in the jungle, Matt?” I inquire after our brief tour of The Longhouse and its carefully manicured surrounds.
“Just loving life, really,” he replies.
Eager-eyed young Matthew, hailing from London, completed his Masters thesis on the black howler monkey in Belize. I would argue that his next greatest scholarly achievement is the book of animals he has lovingly compiled for the longhouse – Animals of Ta Lai – giving tidbits of information about the animals living in the park, and with a woven cover like something out of a Wes Anderson movie.
The Longhouse is the brainchild of Frenchman Francois Bovary and jointly run by a team of Europeans, Vietnamese and local minorities. Its construction involved almost everyone in the village. They hire guides from Ta Lai whenever they need the help. “We’ve got a pool of good workers we already draw from, but with the bigger groups coming in we can extend the opportunity for new hands to get on board as well. We’ll hire two who we know are good, and two who are new to give them a chance,” says Matt.
A percentage of the accommodation’s earnings goes right back into the community coffers, along with sales from the specialty coffee – another one of Francois’ side projects, of which a dollar from every bag sold is put toward community projects. “Twenty percent local,” says Matthew, the beans partly sourced from Ta Lai’s volcanic soil. They also employ local electricians and builders on any new projects, trying to get the local community involved in any way they can. “Keeps the money coming into the community coffers in a way that makes everyone feel like a winner, the environment included.” Ta Lai village was once famous for its intricate knives, an art that Francois has a dream to revive from the funds The Longhouse brings in.
It’s high noon by the time we’re settled in with the unrelenting April heat at its peak, so after a delightful lunch (the food being one of the guesthouse’s strong points) we opt for a breezy jaunt around the village with the lovely Trang, the newest addition to The Longhouse team.
We were surprised by the village’s concentration of Christian paraphernalia, with door-hung crucifixes, rosary beads, and even a station of the cross set in plaster by the village’s main church. According to Trang, in a strange twist during the colonial period, the village had a deadly reputation of resistance to outsiders and a particular taste for the blood of French missionaries, who avoided the whole area like plague. Nonetheless, by a baffling turn of events, somewhere along the way the whole village found itself converted.
In any case, whatever hostility to the outside world that may once have existed has entirely vanished, and we encounter nothing but curious smiles, hellos, water buffalo, and the usual giggling children coming out of their houses for a look at the latest bunch of strangers in town. We pass a weaving house where local folks carry on with their traditional craft. Some teens are having something of a fashion shoot outside, flaunting the local wears. One even has flowers in his hair.
The Jungle book
Back at the guesthouse, over a dinner of pear-stuffed chicken and battered prawns (meals are VND150,000 a head, served buffet-style, every one of them blowing expectations out of the water – the kitchen staff never fail to deliver the goods), Matthew lays out our options for the next day. They have their own fleet of kayaks and mountain bikes for guests to rent, and there’s plenty to see. There’s an island sanctuary for gibbon rehabilitation (Dao Tien or Gibbon Island), a bear rescue center for the endangered sun and moon bears, and the exotic Bau Sau (Crocodile Lake) in the heart of the wilderness area, taking a solid day’s return ride to reach it and its resident crocodiles. There are also a number of smaller hikes, including the 10km Green Hill hike to the Bat Cave, a cavern atop a hill deep in the jungle swarming with horseshoe bats where a flashlight and steely nerves are recommended.
The animals themselves (many of them critically endangered) are surely the stars of the show and the park’s biggest drawcard, where one may spy such oddities as the world’s smallest deer (the mouse deer, at an abominably adorable 12 inches in height), the world’s largest bovine (the imposing minotaur-like gaur), the incredible Sunda pangolin (an armadillo-like oddity like something out of Pan’s Labyrinth), and the world’s best-named monkey, the crab-eating macaque. “They don’t only eat crabs, that’s a common misconception,” says Matthew.
Night in The Longhouse is a surprisingly comfortable and homely experience, even in the middle of April. The structure can sleep up to 30 people, with bamboo screens brought in to section off one bed from the next. Its open-ended design, with slits in the roof on both ends to let the night air ventilate through, keeps the entire room relatively cool, and ceiling fans have also been installed for added comfort. I slink under the mosquito net and onto my cushy mattress. A storm rolls over in the night, first of the season, but I’m out like a light about as soon as my head hits the pillow and don’t hear about it till the day.
Come morning we take mountain bikes, provided with a complimentary backpack of bottled water, pump, and spare inner tubes, out into the park. It’s a few kilometers ride to the park entrance by bicycle, passing through the village and the odd sight of its Christian graveyard. The track passes through the light forest and plantations bordering the park, with watchtowers having been installed every few kilometers where we caught a good view over the foliage and its hidden creatures. Park headquarters, a little further on, is where the bear rescue center is located, playing a critical role in teaching visitors about the vital role the animals play in the jungle’s ecology. The park’s moon and sun bears are to be found here, sadly no longer free to roam the park because of poaching and deforestation, and rare leopards, crocs, and golden- cheeked gibbons also. Entry fees go directly into projects to help ensure their survival.
Continuing on deeper into Cat Tien National Park, it’s not long before we find ourselves immersed within the jungle’s natural cacophony of cicadas, rustling leaves and fluttering birds. There’s a set of rapids I waste no time in getting my feet into and giving my face a good splashing with, and a massive ancient tung tree a few hundred meters off the track. As for the fauna though, our only confirmed sighting is a surprised monitor lizard scurrying out of our path. But the rest of the jungle’s inhabitants, though doing their best to keep out of sight, certainly have a way of making themselves heard.
All too quickly we find that our time in the forest has run out, and it’s farewell to The Longhouse and its endearing staff, back over the rusty suspension bridge to our waiting driver and civilization. Back to a jungle of another kind, with its own natural cacophony of car alarms, buzz saws, and shrill motorcycle horns, where the tangles of vines are replaced with telegraph wires and bright bird cries with the automated cries of bo bia ngot hawkers.
A wildlife discovery trip (three days, two nights) to Cat Tien National Park, with accommodations at Ta Lai Longhouse, can be booked through Gingko Voyage ( 3914 3344).
* Images by Neil Featherstone.