Posted by: sharemore1 | December 7, 2010

Escape to the Jungle

The noise in Hanoi was getting to me.  The motorbikes provided a constant background noise–not the throaty rumble of a Harley, more like thousands of lawnmowers run amok.  The incessant honking of horns, from a polite beep-beep to a boisterous blast, added to the din.

My husband Moshe and I decided to escape from the city for a long weekend.  Having helped Hanoi celebrate its 1,000 birthday as Viet Nam’s capital, we took a bus to Hoa Lu, an even more ancient seat of government.  The 10th century kingdom had been tiny, less than 800 acres, and well protected by tall limestone hills.  It looked like Halong Bay without the water.

As we toured the remains of the ancient capital, we tried to respect the posted rules:  “wearing clothes neatly, elegantly in the praying place” and “not riding on buffalo and cattle for taking pictures.”  I’m not sure that black yoga pants, with blue shirttails hanging out, could be called elegant, but I did resist the urge to climb on a water buffalo.

Buffalo in Field

We were in the Viet Nam of picture books:  women in conical hats working the rice paddies, water buffalo submerged up to their noses in the river and red-roofed pagodas contrasting with the lush green foliage.

We hired a boat, even noisier than a motorbike, to take us to Kenh Ga, the Chicken Canal floating village.  As we neared a metal bridge on pontoons, our driver honked and someone pulled on a rope to open one section so we could motor through.

Green, yellow, orange and blue houseboats were anchored along the canal, while other houses were built at the water’s edge.  The river was the focus of the village.  It was their highway, kitchen, laundry room and bathroom.  As we chugged past we watched a woman lug heavy buckets of water from the river to her house, while others were washing clothes by the river and another was washing her hair.

Houseboat on Kenh Ga

We spent the night at the friendly Ngoc Anh Hotel in the town of Ninh Binh, where the owner David and his sister made us feel welcome.  There was a comfortable bed, a computer and a good shower in the room.  But the town was still too noisy for me and I longed for the quiet of nature.  So David arranged for a car, driver and English speaking guide to take us to Cuc Phuong National Park.

Bungalow in Cuc Phuong Park

This was more like it, I thought.  We had a bungalow in the middle of the park and a guide eager to show us the wildlife.  We felt like voyeurs as we watched a green grasshopper  mount his mate while she clung to a slender stalk.  Butterflies of all colors, orange and black and yellow and gray, quietly dipped and fluttered their wings.  Coral and white and purple orchids competed with them for color.

The trees reached high into the sky, forming the upper level of the canopy.  One ancient tree was nearly 150 feet tall and five feet in diameter.  Many were draped in vines that made you want to imitate Tarzan and swoop through the jungle.  One tree, Cay Kim Gao, was used to make chopsticks for kings and mandarins, who believed that anything poisonous would turn the light-colored wood to black.

Sharon and Moshe at a Giant Tree

Tropical rainforests used to cover seventy-five percent of Viet Nam in 1943, according to our guide Tien.  Today they cover less than a third, and only ten percent of that is wild.  Ho Chi Minh had the foresight to establish Cuc Phoung as Viet Nam’s first national park in 1962, even as the U.S. Air Force was defoliating similar forests to track the Viet Cong.

As we walked under the broad leaves of the banana trees, we found ourselves going back even further in time.  We climbed up to a spacious cave where prehistoric humans lived more than 7,500 years ago.  As we entered the cave we walked carefully around three graves and examined a large, many-layered shell midden.  As many as 30 people might have found shelter there among the stalactites and stalagmites, protected from the weather and in a good place to defend themselves.

Inside the Prehistoric Cave

After dinner Tien led us on a night walk of the jungle.  With flashlights in hand, we walked quietly through the woods, looking for nocturnal animals.  Moshe wanted to see a king cobra or a leopard, still sometimes found in the park.  Instead we saw a rare Blue-rumped Pitta sleeping in a tree.  Shy birds, they are usually hard to find.  This one must have known we were shining a flashlight at it, but it didn’t budge.  Maybe it thought it was invisible as long as it kept its head tucked under its wing.

During our stealthy walk I became aware of all the sounds in the park.  Here the steady chirp of crickets was overpowered by the rapid metallic clicks of the cicadas, so loud that repeated exposure at close range could deafen you.  The frogs seemed to be keeping up a steady beat with castanets.  Bats whirred by and millions of tiny insects added to the buzz.  We were far from the motorbikes and honking horns of Hanoi, yet my fantasy of a quiet retreat in the jungle was not to be.  It was every bit as noisy as the city in its own way.


  1. You might expect some ear plugs from Santa this year. Love this entry…I felt like I was there with you. This was a nice way to start my day.

  2. Loved your description. Wish we could have seen it together.

  3. Sounds fascinating. Was it hot? Were there insects?

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