A Travellerspoint blog

April 2008

Cúc Phương National Park Part 2


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I travelled to Cúc Phương on the back of a motorbike, driven safely (mirabile dictu) by Hong.


The journey was great. It’s 45 km from Ninh Binh to the boundary of Cúc Phương National Park, and the landscape – paddy fields, hills, cyclists in bonnets – is very pretty.


All the low-altitude parts of northern Vietnam look like this. Paddy-fields separated by dikes; the country is one enormous piece of hydraulic engineering. It is impossible to conceive what it looked like before wet rice cultivation.

We ride along the dikes. On one side, carpets of flowers. On the other, carpets of litter.

At the entrance you buy a ticket, surrender your passport and book your place for the night. I chose a stilt house in the middle of the park, costing $6 for the night. They warned me that there would be no electricity. Fine – I had a torch.

Just outside the entrance is the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (sic) run by biologists from Frankfurt. The primates at the centre are langurs, gibbons and lorises. Lorises are nocturnal, so I saw none. The inmates either have been bought from markets or were born there. Primates are captured and sold, usually for the purported medicinal qualities of their organs or secretions. Some are very rare: Delacour’s langur, for example, has a population of about 60 in the National Park. They are rehabilitating some langurs in a larger enclosure with the aim of releasing them back into the wild. This is Delacour's langur, with the white shorts.


I was introduced to my guide, Hương, who took me through the centre. She was in a hurry; her explanations were cursory. We started with the langurs. Langurs have very long tails, used for balance only. She showed me white-faced, black, five-coloured, Ha Thin, Delacour’s, grey, grey-shanked and red-shanked douc langurs. I’m not entirely sure which is which.

This infant, three months old, was born inside the centre.



Gibbons are the only indigenous ape in the region, other than Homo sapiens. They have no tails and comically long arms.


Some of them are rather aggressive and they have to separate the males from the females. Mature males are black, the others ginger. This is an adult female.


After visiting the centre, we entered the park. We stopped off near a cave in which stone age artefacts were discovered. 5,000 or 7,000 years old, from memory. The objects found included three ritual burials, evidence, they conclude, of ancient religious feeling. Nothing remains of these objects in the cave.

The cave turned out to be a large complex with no lighting. I walked from one chamber into another, and into a third, and before I knew it I was lost. There was no-one else around. No exit signs. No hint of light from outside. No sound but the occasional drip signifying growing stalagmites. It was extremely slippery. It is not easy to remain rational in a cave; the fear is probably deep-seated in our species. I didn’t panic – I made a short Blair Witch video instead - but I did feel thoroughly uncomfortable until I found my way out.

You have to confront your fears – a piece of wisdom that came to mind. But if so, why? Life is much easier if you don’t, although you feel good after you do.

I'm also scared of spiders. But I wasn't scared of these large skinny ones, which was fortunate because they were everywhere. Timorous beasties, they floated along like hovercraft. [Actually, they are not spiders, but harvestmen. Although arachnids, they are more closely related to scorpions.] Far worse were the small spiders with long abdomens, half-way to scorpions. They jump. They kill mosquitoes but they can also kill dragonflies, I believe.


We biked the rest of the 20 km through butterfly daisy-chains to the isolated spot where I was to spend the night. There were 15 Vietnamese and me, the only guest. The noise from cicadas and birds was almost oppressively loud, like a Hitchcock movie.


After lunch I walked. The forest is dense. For every tree growing upwards there are ten epiphytes in the crannies, some sending creepers downwards.

You hear industrial sounds all the time: powerdrillls, lawnmowers, chainsaws, electric shavers, rattles, maracas, hooters. That is just the birds. They sing constantly in the canopy, but you cannot see them.

I took photos of what I could see: arthropods. Stopping every few minutes, I made very slow progress. Even at a mile an hour, sweat dripped off my nose.


When a big leaf crashes down from the canopy it has several collisions on the way down. What with these constant noises nearby and the limited visibility, if someone were out there trying to shoot me, I would go crazy within a day. That’s what soldiers faced in the war. They took heroin to cope.

I duelled with a green dragonfly, Orthetrum sabina sabina.


Dragonflies are fierce predators: they eat other invertebrates. Small ones eat midges and mosquitoes; larger ones eat butterflies and even small dragonflies. Their larvae will eat absolutely anything smaller than themselves, including fish. They hunt by eyesight.



In French they are libellules, and the name is almost identical in Italian, Spanish and German. The Linnaean family name is Libellulidae. While the French word is delightfully liquid, I chauvinistically consider the English words dragonfly and butterfly best of all possible words.


My devil’s darning needle was afraid of nothing and engaged in several warning flights before settling on the same spot each time – so I heroically stayed at that spot and took photos. Some people think that dragonflies can sting, but they can’t. They can bite, but not hard enough to break the skin.


The dragonfly photos can be seen full-size in my photo gallery, but in case you can’t be bothered to click, here is a blow-up of a wing. I hope the gold flecks in the wings are visible.


Along the route I passed my notional goal: a thousand-year-old tree, Terminalia myriocarpa, an East Indian almond. Said to be 45 metres tall, but you could not see that far up. Its roots began to buttress off a couple of metres from the ground, so it was 5 metres wide at the base.

By a large pool there were attractive magenta dragonflies: Trithemis aurora.



Among other animals, they can take water skaters on the wing. In this photo you can see predator and prey.


Flying, but never settling, were black and yellow ones looking like butterflies: Rhyothemis variegata arria.

Mosquitoes by the million. I had made the crass mistake of walking in shorts. There is no malaria here, fortunately. Do monkeys get malaria, I wondered? Yes, they do. (Not only that, but there are grounds to believe that infection with Plasmodium knowlesia is far higher in Asia than previously thought.) [Monkeys obviously get immunodeficiency virus and Ebola, both of which we got from them. They also get STDs including syphilis, anthrax, schistosomiasis, yellow fever, herpes and pinworms. The mosquito that passes on the parasite that causes elephantiasis in humans passes the same parasite to monkeys, but they do not react in the same way. Elephantiasis is an immune reaction.]

Of the few birds I could see, most were shrikes. They fly around the trees like sparrows. But I did disturb a silver bird the size and shape of a peahen: either a silver pheasant or, more probably, a grey peacock-pheasant. On the second day I twice disturbed a chestnut bird that flew away with the metallic flapping characteristic of a pheasant taking off.

I came across a well-camouflaged chameleon.


As I approached, it relied on its camouflage and stayed still. A perfect subject.


Once I got very close, it stood up, perhaps to look big, or to prepare for flight.


The paths were well marked and it was impossible to stray. But around 4 pm I began to get concerned that I didn’t know where I was. I hadn’t seen a soul. I spent the next half an hour walking sharply downhill, which made me very concerned. But I was just walking down into the same valley: I had climbed in the morning without noticing, so invertebrate-obsessed had I been.


In the evening, tired and elated, I had dinner back at the camp. Without electricity, there was no hot water; this was no hardship. There were seven Vietnamese staff around. One of them, Thảo, came to talk to me. She spoke little English, but enough to seem deeply, deeply weird. I ordered a beer from the fridge. It was very warm; the fridge had fooled me.

Accompanied by two dogs and preceded by my lunar shadow, I walked back to my concrete stilt house. The path was lit from the sides by fireflies, blinking on and off at 1-3 Hz. The effect was similar to that of standing up too quickly and seeing stars.

I had already decided that this was the perfect place to tackle the rest of The Aeneid by torchlight. The stilt house was empty. My room lay off a panelled corridor that felt like the Marie Celeste. There was no-one within 500 yards. All I could hear was the chirruping of insects and the barking of frogs. But unconsciousness struck instantly.

In the morning small pools of silver covered the grass, each a bedewed spider’s web.


I walked until three on the second day. My three sets of camera batteries were exhausted by mid-morning.

In the afternoon I am walking along a road when there is a loud disturbance in the canopy above. Grunting constantly, a colossal squirrel, a metre long, walks along the branches and jumps from tree to tree, cracking branches and dislodging leaves as it goes. It is black with a chestnut collar and face. If it is a squirrel, it weighs many times as much as a grey. And indeed it is: Ratufa bicolor, the Giant Black Squirrel. It is very rare, and, given the noise it makes, that is not too surprising.

Posted by Wardsan 18:51 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hội An

sunny 30 °C
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I’m in Hội An, a town built on trade and left untouched by mutual agreement during the American War. A lot of the buildings, therefore, are 200-year-old trading properties. This is ancient in a country in which few buildings are over 50 years old. It’s a very popular tourist town, and everyone I know who has been there loved it. I didn’t. For about 15 minutes.

One reason is that there is a little less hassle than in Huế. I was only importuned 13 times (I counted) on my way to lunch. And not one of the 13 tried to sell me women. As a man travelling on my own, I had expected to meet lots of pimps and prostitutes. But, pleasant surprise, until I went to Huế I met none. I put this down to avoiding any place that advertises karaoke or massage.

It also helps that there is electricity here.

On 30 April 1975 the armies of the north occupied Saigon, and Vietnam was reunified. Tomorrow, the 33rd anniversary, is Liberation Day, a national holiday. The day after is May Day. So the Vietnamese are on holiday and it will be hard to find a hotel room. For the same reason, there is no point in going to the Cham ruins at My Son. I’ll just hunker down, read and eat enormously.

I can read without worrying about my book stocks because there is a bookshop in Hội An. It is on the island, on the way to the Sleepy Gecko Bar. It is called Randy’s Book Exchange. The owner – you can probably guess his name - is from southern California. I woke him up. Most of his stock is from the USA. It is strong on thrillers and romance. It was impounded by VN customs for six months while, they claimed, they read every book. They refused to release 450 because they were "depraved". They were mainly romance, says Randy. On the books they released, VN customs slapped a duty of ten times what Randy had paid on each book.

The food here has been very good so far, at least as good as Huế, which is itself known for its food as a result of its imperial legacy. A speciality starter is ‘white rose’, pork and shrimp on steamed rice paper. Like dim sum. Many of the delicacies in Huế were variations on the same theme. There is a lot of seafood here, and yesterday I had 700 grammes of fat juicy barbequed clams. On top of fried vegetables, steamed rice and won ton soup it was a bit much but I packed it in.

I wear long-sleeved shirts in the evenings. Not many tourists do, and so many locals assume I work in VN. Last night I was talking to a lady called Ty, after she served me a 4,000-dong glass of cold fresh beer. She recommended that I go to a certain souvenir shop, owned by her family, called something like Souvenir 42. She said not to go to another shop of exactly the same name. There is an arms race of trade names here. As soon as a shop or hotel is successful, others crop up with the same or similar names. Eventually the original may change it name. (In Huế, for example, I ate well at a restaurant called La Carambole. It is in the guide books. Next door was a place called Le Caramel.) In the developed world this would be an infringement of property, for which a remedy would be available. There is no incentive to invest in a trade name if someone else can steal it from you.

Posted by Wardsan 18:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Cúc Phương National Park Part 1


sunny 32 °C
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Ten days ago I spent a night and two days at Cúc Phương National Park. Today, temporarily able to upload photos. I want to focus on the most striking aspect: the butterflies.

We drove 20km from the park boundary to the place where I was to spend the night. On the way we drove through countless clouds of cream-coloured butterflies. These are the most common butterflies in the park. Their numbers are incredible.


They fly in lines like kite streamers. From the moped, it seemed as if an invisible gun were firing flowers at us in spirals – psychedelic. As we drove through the clouds, we were pelted by papery bombs. It was hilarious and the urge to laugh was strong, but you had to keep your mouth shut to avoid snacking between meals, so I just giggled manically instead. I couldn’t begin to describe the sheer joy of it.



Once we stopped it became clear that the butterflies were not spiralling at all, but weaving crazily as if trying to dodge bullets.

On the walking paths, particularly in the valleys, you see these loony festoons, but you also see butterflies of many other kinds. Those I can recall were: small and cornflower blue; tortoiseshell (larger than my outstreched hand); orange and black; caramel toffee ice cream; rust-brown and cream; tobacco leaf; chocolate with white spatters. There were many other kinds too.


This may be a Sergeant, genus Athyma.



This is a Polyura species, possibly Polyura eudamippus.


They fly in different ways. Some flutter by; others glide and swoop; some fly like bats. The tobacco leaves glide. The large black ones flap like swallows. The small tortoishells are too fast to see. One black and white butterfly flaps and then just hangs in the air, outdoing Michael Jordan. The small blue ones dart like Jason Robinson.


These look like Cruisers, Vindula sp.


These may be Bluebottles, Graphium sarpedon.




Best of all, but impossible to photograph in flight, were huge butterflies nearly as big as my hand, black when they settled and folded their wings, but iridescent pale blue when flying. A glorious sight. You can only see the blue on this individual because it has lost part of its wing.


If you want to get close to butterflies just stay still; then the butterflies approach. Especially if you are near something that they want to eat, like a turd. But the mosquitoes approach sooner.

Posted by Wardsan 12:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Xe om

overcast 28 °C
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I’ve changed my mind about travelling by motorbike. I started taking xe om around Hanoi when I gave up on the taxi thieves. Two wheels - it’s the only way to travel.

Taking a xe om through the streets of a city is a nerve-wrecking and thrilling experience. Mopeds, cars, trucks and cyclists pour through the streets on independent courses. The flow is chaotic. They have to weave past pedestrians, forced on to the roads by the absence of pavements. Traffic lights – many built with money from the French government - are obeyed only at some junctions. Those who want to turn left do not wait for the opposing traffic to end; they just dive in. So the traffic flows through in four directions. To get through, drivers have to judge their own and predict others’ positions to within a couple of inches. On the whole they do, although I’m always conscious that my knees stick out at the sides of the moped more than the average passenger’s.

While the traffic is a marvel to behold, the Vietnamese drivers are not displaying wonderful skill. On the contrary: they are shit drivers. Their skills in positioning vehicles are mitigants born of the complete absence of any useful driving ability.

You see some driving that is so crazy, so apparently suicidal, that you have to laugh. Almost no-one – truck driver, biker, cyclist – looks before pulling into traffic. No-one uses the mirrors. Vehicles approaching any other vehicle from behind therefore have to hoot constantly. On a highway the average bus driver will probably give a prolonged blast once every five seconds during the day. You know when you are within 200 metres of a road in Vietnam because you hear the horns.

It is misleading to say that they drive on the right. The inner lane of a main road is, in practice, reserved for bikes and mopeds going the other way. So you have to cycle in the second lane. In order to overtake, vehicles will use any part of the road, including the part you are on. Speeding, weaving, under-age driving and drink-driving are also normal.

Most of the time they get away with it. But not always: Vietnam has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. Nearly 13,000 deaths were recorded by the government in 2006. By way of comparison, in Great Britain, the number of people killed in road accidents in the same year was 3,172 (source: DfT). So that’s a lot of dead people who shouldn’t be.

According to the World Bank, Vietnam has an official fatality rate of 8.3 persons per 10,000 registered vehicles, an injury rate of 10.7 persons per 10,000 vehicles and an accident rate of 12 cases per 10,000 registered vehicles. Only China has a worse record. In OECD countries the average is 1 to 2 fatalities per 10,000 registered vehicles. (Source: FIA Foundation press release of 2005.)

This is partly because they have more crashes, and partly because deaths per crash are higher. According to a BMJ article in 2002, the high rates in Vietnam and elsewhere are due to frequent crashes involving multi-passenger vehicles, including buses, trucks, and minibuses.

Road traffic injuries in developing countries mostly affect pedestrians, passengers, and cyclists. According to the BMJ article, in the US over 60% of road crash fatalities occur in drivers, whereas drivers make up less than 10% of the deaths due to road traffic injuries in the least motorised countries. In Vietnam, motorcycles account for 59% of injuries in traffic collisions, bikes 24%, pedestrians 11% and motor vehicles only 4%. (Source: WHO).

According to the WHO, there are several risk factors in the VN figures, such as non-use of helmets by two-wheeler users, speed, poor road conditions, traffic mix, alcohol and poor visibility of road users. Other risk and impact factors might also be suggested: seat belts, corruption and non-enforcement of traffic laws, absence of emergency facilities.

It is getting worse. In 1990 the VN rode bicycles. Then the country started getting rich fast. Within a decade, most people in Hanoi and HCMC were using mopeds that they didn’t know how to ride. Now there are 20 million motorbikes on the streets each day, and the number is rising fast. (Most people in the countryside still use bikes.)

So fatalities are rising. There were 4,907 in 1994; 11,900 in 2003; 13,000 in 2006.

Now Vietnam is on the threshold of an income level at which large numbers of road users switch to cars. Within the next decade income per head will have doubled, and Hanoi may look something like Bangkok does now: choked.

The cars might be safer for their drivers but they are more dangerous for everyone else. In developing countries, cars are a status symbol at least as much as a means of transport (mopeds are much more practical in cities.) SUVs are prevalent, and they are usually driven by idiots. I have been run off the road by several.

In 2000 only 3% of riders wore helmets (source here). Vietnamese motorcycle helmets were hot and heavy, and known as ‘rice cookers’. In this climate you need a helmet that doesn’t cover the face. Fashion concerns also limited usage (really). Head trauma was, therefore, very common. (Head trauma usually means comas, paralysis, vegetables.) According to Greig Kraft in the article just cited, every day in 2000, 25 riders were killed and over 50 others suffered brain damage or other permanent disabilities. Their injuries absorbed more than 75 per cent of urban hospital budgets.

An NGO called the Asia Injury Prevention Foundations, run by Kraft, stepped in to manufacture cheap, ventilated helmets called Protec and to sponsor the provision of free helmets for children, TV adverts and billboards promoting helmets.

Even so, fatalities have continued to rise as more people switch to motorised transport.

The government belatedly passed a law on 15 December 2007, and most riders now wear helmets. The fine is 150,000 dong, about $10 – enough to deter. Serious traffic injuries fell by 50% within weeks. A similar helmet law was tried in 2001, requiring helmets on highways outside cities, but protests killed it. The fine for violation was very low, and it was not enforced.

The next stated priority for the WHO is drink driving. They must also be considering a campaign for cycle helmets, not least since perhaps half of cyclists are children.

One day, perhaps, the government will set and enforce high standards for driving tests. And a couple of decades after that, the Vietnamese will be able to drive.

Posted by Wardsan 09:14 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)


semi-overcast 26 °C
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I haven't been able to access the travellerspoint website since arriving in Huế because it is too slow. Until now. So a quick update. On St George’s Day it poured down. I stayed in my room, catching the wifi from a hotel next door, finding out traffic accidents statistics and bird populations (more of which later). The day before yesterday it merely rained. I took a bike and visited the Citadel.



The innermost City lies in ruins. The battle for the Citadel in the American War was extremely intense.


You could pay to wear imperial costume and have your picture taken. I meant to on the way out, but forgot.



While I was there, my camera reset its numbering to 0001. I had taken my 10,000th photo with it. More to the point, I have taken 8,200 since the end of June 2007, and 4,000 in the last seven weeks. It is accelerating like a drug habit.


Yesterday I took an organised tour north to see the Demilitarised Zone, DMZ. There were perhaps 35 of us on the bus so it wasn’t a very individual experience. We set off at 6 and returned at 6, and we spent nearly all day on the bus. With the exception of two sites, we only stopped for 10 or 15 minutes at the sites we visited.

The first exception was Khe Sanh, which did its best to present a story of heroes and martyrs against cowards. There was little there other than the museum; the Americans blew the place up when they abandoned it, and the locals stripped the remaining concrete after the war.

The second was the tunnels at Vịnh Mốc, north of the Ben Hai river. Unlike the tunnels 1,000 km south of here at Cu Chi, these tunnels were not used for fighting in. They were used for several years for living in. The villagers had to go underground because the Americans were bombing the area so much. They built a set of tunnels at three depths. Branching off the tunnels were little niches; this is where families lived. There was a maternity room. 17 babies were born in the tunnels. It was the only site really worth travelling to unless you have some emotional link with the war.


Yesterday I was monstrously hung over after drinking with some people from the tour: Magnus and Sara from Scotland, Kate from England and Robert from Amsterdam. We had half a bottle of vodka each and several beers. I think the vodka had formaldehyde in it because I felt poisoned all day.


I went round the Citadel again with Robert, from Holland.



At 7 pm I went back to the Citadel for the third time. They have a 'Royal Palace by Night’ programme that runs about twenty days a year. I wasn’t sure what it involved, but the ticket cost only 55,000 dong.


Passing through the main gate, Ngo Mon, I walked over the emperor’s bridge, passing between two goldfish ponds. Smiling, silk-clad women holding lanterns lined the bridge.


I joined some people sitting in front of the Thai Hoa palace. We watched a show of music and dancing. It was fun, although not the sort of thing I would want to see more than once.


Then I wandered along paths within the Imperial Enclosure, illuminated by paper lanterns.


The atmosphere was enchanting. I had tea at the Pleasure Pavilion in the Queen Mother’s complex. I took off my sandals and sat on a seat about six inches from the ground. Vietnamese tea, blessedly weaker than usual, was served from china cups decorated with chư nôm writing. I ate candied ginger and nougat. Tea was served formally by a young woman with a beatific smile. Her name is Dung – pronounced Zoong in Hanoi but Jung here -, she is twenty, a student in Huế, cute as a chocolate button. I had eight cups.


Then I had dinner at the Lạc Thiện restaurant. Lewis Moody and Ben Kay had eaten there too; their photos were on the walls. The food was excellent and cheap, and the meal was fun. The proprietor, who is mute and, I think, deaf, communicated more easily with me than those Vietnamese who can speak. He gave me a bottle opener: a small plank with a nail embedded. He showed me an album of photos sent by previous customers, all taken of them with a Lạc Thiện bottle opener, in places all over the world. One couple were standing in front of King’s College, Cambridge - my old college.

  • ****

Bird species

The UK is a bird-friendly place. We don’t eat a lot of game. Shooting birds – a very common activity in Italy, Spain and France – is reserved for relatively few places and few people. The UK is also a very popular destination for migratory birds. And it hosts a quarter (writing from memory) of Europe’s sea birds. So you would expect to see a lot of species in the UK. The British Ornithologists’ Union’s British List for 2006 recorded 572 species.

307 species of birds are listed in Cúc Phương National Park alone. 840 or so are listed in Vietnam, and 1,000-odd in Thailand.

  • ****

A recipe

In Ninh Bình I ate stir-fried squid. Chop squid into small pieces. Add chopped spring onion, onion and dill. Stir-fry. That’s it. Delicious.

Except it probably had MSG in it. Monosodium glutamate has had a bad press in the last ten or twenty years. It gives some people headaches. For example, at cookery class in Luang Prabang, Izzy and Marla understandably demurred for that reason. We used chicken stock instead.

MSG is described in English ingredients lists as ‘flavour enhancer’. But that is misleading. It is a flavour: umami. It is the fifth taste, the others being sweet, sour, bitter and salt. Specialised umami receptors on the tongue are stimulated by glutamates. Miso soup tastes like umami. Umami tastes succulent and savoury; indeed, umami means ‘savouriness’ in Japanese. Anchovies and marmite also have plenty of it. I adore it.

Umami was identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He also identified and isolated MSG. A genius. Since MSG doesn’t do me any harm, I’ve decided to cook with it sometimes when I get back.

Posted by Wardsan 19:24 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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