Katie Jacobs takes to the jungle for some time out to escape from Hanoi. Photos by Darko Petrovic.
The evening light was fading on the steep limestone hills and flickering candles had been lit around the edge of the large pool. Relaxed after a long lazy swim, we sat, encased in resort bathrobes, as the waiter delivered our second round of fresh passion fruit daiquiris. Keen to show our visiting friends a little of the Vietnamese countryside, my husband and I headed three hours south of Hanoi to enjoy a relaxing weekend at Emeralda resort near the town of Ninh Binh. Arriving by train that morning, we were quickly impressed with Emeralda’s bungalows, swimming pools, and pristine gardens; a haven of tranquility far from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
After settling in to our luxurious rooms, tucked discreetly among the resort’s extensive gardens, we embarked on a bike ride through the surrounding area. Cycling leisurely along narrow paths, we glided gingerly through rich wetlands and rice fields; stopping only to photograph the stunning limestone hills and buffalo bathing in reedy shallow waters.
Returning to Emeralda late in the afternoon, there was nothing to do but slip into the resort’s large heated pool, while enjoying the postcard perfect panoramic views. Later that evening, following a lovely outdoor dinner, I sank into the soft white bed, the usual honking horns and city noises replaced by the calming nighttime sounds of singing frogs and chirping crickets.
Cuc Phuong National Park
After reluctantly checking out the following morning, we set off for Vietnam’s oldest National Park, Cuc Phuong. Spread out over a 200-square-kilometre expanse of lush tropical forest, steep karsts (limestone mountains), and ancient grottos, Cuc Phuong is famous for its human habitation dating back over 7,000 years. We were greeted at the park entrance by a cluster of colourful butterflies, their erratic movements pausing just long enough for us to glimpse the purple hues and intricate patterns on their wings. The guidebook informed us that April was butterfly season and we came across several clouds of these graceful insects on our journey through the park. The area, which is rich in biodiversity, attracts a steady stream of tourists who hike and bike along the trails in hope of catching a glimpse of the many species of insects, birds and mammals throughout the park.
A light drizzle was falling as our car meandered along the narrow road, the clean scent of forest filling the car through the open windows. Covered in dense jungle, steep hillsides rose on either side, their pointy peaks shrouded in mist. We erupted in delighted cries as a furry animal, that I like to think was an endangered clouded leopard but was more likely a small civet, ran across the road. After 20km, the road petered out into a small muddy trail. Parking by a grassy overgrown lawn, we went in search of the seven kilometre loop that, according to the brochure, promised to reveal the wonders of the jungle.
A thousand shades of green
A well-marked intersection confirmed we were in the right place and we left the well-trodden path for a smaller obscure trail that disappeared steeply into the thick forest. It is impossible to explain how many varieties of green exist in a rainforest. Leaves of all shades pushed in on us, punctured by the bright relief of giant orange-hued blossoms on the flowering trees. We came across an excited group of teenagers and posed for the requisite photos in front a hand-painted sign instructing visitors to “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs”.
Three kilometres and two leech encounters later, we reached the halfway point of the loop, marked by a tree that had been standing in that very spot for the past thousand years. Thick trunks, slick with bright green moss, towered above us, each grounded in the common stump from which they all grew. High in the canopy, ferns sprouted from the upper branches. Standing before such an ancient giant is humbling and I was reminded of a birthday card I once saw: “forty’s not old if you’re a tree”. I wondered what the area had been like when the tree was only 40 and found it difficult to imagine the changes that had occurred as it aged slowly, cushioned from the outside world by the comfort of the dense jungle.
We continued down the trail, listening to the orchestra of sounds playing in the forest around us. A menagerie of birds and insects chirped in tune with the rustle of leaves and gentle melody of soft rain falling on the canopy high above. We arrived back at the car covered in mud, our skin damp from the persistent mist and sweaty from the heavy humidity.
Driving back to the park entrance, we were disappointed to find that we had missed the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, which closes to visitors at 4pm. The centre currently houses 15 species of primate, such as langurs and gibbons, and visitors are able to see the animals and learn about the dangers they are currently facing in their natural environment. “We will just have to return,” said my husband as we headed for home. Thinking back over our night at Emeralda and the beautiful national park, I happily agreed.
Emeralda Resort is located near the town of Ninh Binh, approximately 2.5 hours south-east of Hanoi. The resort can be reached either by hired car or train. Cuc Phuong National Park is one hour from Ninh Binh and three hours from Hanoi. A car and driver can be arranged in Hanoi or booked through the resort. For more information visit: Emeraldaresort.com. Cucphuongtourism.com.