Matt stops and looks up. He’s heard a rustling in the trees. I look up too and 25m above a face appears, staring back. It’s a douc langur, a relative of the monkey, but with two stomachs and a magical human-like visage that makes it look like a mythical character out of a low budget Chinese movie.
“Glen,” I whisper to our photographer. “Up there. It’s a langur.”
He looks up, pulls out his telephoto lens and tries to pinpoint the animal. Quickly Matt and I realise there are three of them and we turn our gaze to another tree. More rustling. Once again we see another face, but through the dense leaves and wood of the jungle Glen is unsighted. So he shoots aimlessly with his camera, hoping to catch one. Later when he looks he realises he’s got a shot of a langur — a black-shanked douc langur — but it’s out of focus.
“Sorry, man,” he says to me. But what’s there to be sorry about? Spotting a douc langur in the wild, an animal in danger of extinction, is a rarity. Getting a photo is an unexpected bonus. As it is we’ve been lucky. Very lucky.
It’s midway through the first day of our three-night, two-day trip to Nam Cat Tien, one of the largest national parks in Vietnam and probably the country’s biggest remaining area of lowland rainforest. Despite being just 150km from Saigon and halfway between the southern commercial hub and Dalat, it is strangely missing from the majority of tourist itineraries. Even Saigonese are acutely unaware of what this place has to offer.
One reason is transportation. Except for a twice-daily bus service by minibus to the park entrance, travellers need to take the Bao Loc or Dalat bus, descend on Highway 20 and transfer to xe om or taxi for the rest of the route.
But more importantly is the quality of the facilities. While five years ago the run-down park HQ area, the limited accommodation options and the lack of activities may have been a valid reason for avoiding Nam Cat Tien, so much has changed. In fact, with Saigon in such close proximity, a trip to Nam Cat Tien is the perfect break from the city. Cycling, hiking, kayaking, boating, visiting Dao Tien, otherwise known as ‘Gibbon Island’, and a bear sanctuary, we certainly found it was. Equally enticing was where we stayed — Ta Lai Longhouse — our three hosts and the ethnic minority villages in the vicinity.
The sighting of the douc langurs is not the first bit of luck we’ve had today. In the morning when we cycle the bumpy off-road 12km from Ta Lai Longhouse to the park headquarters, a pheasant flies across our path and unwittingly I run over a small orange snake — Matt, cycling behind me, manages to swerve out of its way.
Then later as we head to Cay Tung, the site of a tree that size-wise is on par with California’s redwoods, we see hordes of butterflies along the road and settled on bicycle handles at the start of a trail. And when we trek from Cay Tung to Crocodile Lake or Bau Sau, we surprise a lizard resting on a log. It takes off and flies three metres to the nearest tree. It’s a flying lizard. None of us have ever seen one before.
It goes on. We catch sight of a squirrel, another lizard on a log and finally the langurs — our viewing of the primates only to be disturbed by three members of a German family running through the jungle, shouting.
Despite the frustration, we’re stoked. And as we stand on the back of a jeep caught in the middle of a mid-afternoon downpour, we recount all the wildlife we’ve seen in just one day. It’s uncanny.
At sunset our luck continues. We’re taking a jeep back to the longhouse and with the help of the driver, Hoang, we spot five muntjacs — a relative of the deer — and a family of peacocks.
Our hosts for the trip are George, Matt and Ha from Ta Lai Longhouse. There’s a strange history to this journey. George and I come from the same area of London — our respective families live only two roads away. It’s even more incestuous. Matt’s older brother is best friends with George — thus the volunteer gig that Matt’s got in Vietnam. Matt also comes from the same area of London. As for Ha, well any more coincidences would be taking it too far.
But what they do well is to run a property, a bamboo-built property that is the antithesis of everything in Saigon. Owned by the three ethnic minorities in the vicinity — the Ma, S’Tieng and Tay — here you sleep in a communal longhouse with a mosquito net for protection. Eating is also communal, on the same table both at breakfast and at dinner. Coming from cities, they knew what we wanted to escape from.
It’s Saturday morning and we’re up early to head to Gibbon Island, or Dao Tien, a primate sanctuary close to Park HQ. Opened in 2008 and run by the charity, EAST, the purpose of the island is to support the local authorities in protecting primates and endangered species such as pangolins. As with the handful of other rescue centres operating in Vietnam, all the animals have been taken from captivity. The goal is to rehabilitate them and, where possible, release them into the wild.
We are shown around by Scottish-born, Sylvia Horsburgh. And as we walk round the island, and she describes the work they’re doing and tells us the names of all the animals. Her passion for her work seeps out in every word.
A topic reemerges that we heard about the day before. A female orange-cheeked gibbon has been released into the wild. She has a baby, but because there are gibbons kept in small cages close to the park HQ, she is coming down there almost every day in search of food. The team at Dao Tien are furious. Why does park HQ need to keep gibbons in small cages? And with the wild gibbon attracted to the cages and the food, her proximity to humans means she runs the risk of being targeted by poachers.
The problem, says Sylvia, is that “she is too used to humans. She’s just not scared of them.”
We leave Dao Tien and head to the location of the caged gibbons — a bear sanctuary originally set up together with Wildlife at Risk (WAR) and US Aid. But as our guide admits, the conditions are not good. “It’s not much better than a bear farm,” he says. “But until we move, there’s not much we can do.”
Fortunately they are relocating next year, to a huge site on the trail leading towards Ta Lai. But in the meantime, the sun bears and moon bears, all rescues, don’t make for pretty viewing. Many of them are sick, deformed and malnourished from a life in captivity. And while the healthier ones, ones who’ve got used to life in the sanctuary, have a large open space in which to live, many have still not progressed beyond the small cage stage.
Eventually we move on and come to a beautiful female leopard, also a rescue. She seems to be the only mammal with space here. And almost next to her cage are the gibbons.
As we arrive, so does the wild female, her baby staring out from its clutch position on her stomach. The animals go into an uproar, howling, swinging on hands and legs around their cages, bearing their teeth, dancing, taking up war stances. It lasts for almost five minutes. The sound is both deafening and entrancing. For all the danger the female is facing, we feel the wonder of seeing our first gibbon in the wild.
Eventually she swings up into the trees, her baby switching its stare between the caged gibbons and us. The howling in unison starts again and we make to leave.
The night before, a group of 12 French expats arrived at the longhouse. We had been warned about it, and as the accommodation is semi-communal — they divide the longhouse into sections — their 1am arrival was potentially a noise issue. We were woken up but back asleep within 10 minutes. None of us seemed to mind.
The following afternoon we went kayaking and then swimming in the lake next to the longhouse. The water was fresh and clean, warm on the surface, cold just beneath. After a day of jungle it was a perfect antidote to the sweat and heat of the outdoors. Then we headed to the communal eating area for a beer.
Over dinner I struck up conversation with the group of French expats.
Earlier that day we had bought some homemade cacao wine. I offered it to a woman from the group. It was her birthday, the reason for their trip. She drank some, surprised by the sweet, honey-like taste of the alcohol, before passing it down to her friends. A barrier had been broken. They shared their bottles of spirits with us, their marshmallows, and got into conversation.
When I finally crawled into bed at around 10.30pm, drunk, happy, tired, we were friends or at least, acquaintances. Drinking together from a pot of local rice wine brewed by one of the ethnic minorities, we had chatted away through the night, enjoying each other’s company.
In Saigon this probably wouldn’t have happened. There are too many pressures and rigid social structures at work. But here in the tropical wild, language, nationality and social grouping was no longer a barrier.
To get to Nam Cat Tien, take a Phuong Trang or Thanh Buoi bus from Ho Chi Minh City towards Bao Loc and Dalat. The bus fare is around VND240,000. We stayed at Ta Lai Longhouse, so we got off outside Tan Phu Post Office on Highway 20 and took a xe om the rest of the way — the cost was VND100,000 per person plus tip. Alternatively, local buses run from Mien Dong Bus Station in Ho Chi Minh City directly to Nam Cat Tien Village, the entrance to the park. Ta Lai Longhouse can organise all parts of the route.
Ta Lai Longhouse
It’s not luxury, but it’s not meant to be. A WWF project opened in March 2012, the longhouse is built on stilts and out of bamboo, and the beds (or mattresses) are surprisingly comfortable. The cost per night is VND450,000 per person (including breakfast), VND150,000 of which goes to the ethnic minorities. The food is excellent.
For Ta Lai’s full price list — including the cost of bike rental, kayak rental and various other activities — check out their website at talai-adventure.vn.
Guesthouses and self-styled homestays are springing up right by the main entrance of Nam Cat Tien. These include Forest Floor Lodge (vietnamforesthotel.com), Green Bamboo Lodge (greenbamboolodge.com) and Cat Tien Jungle Lodge (cattienjunglelodge.com).
Dao Tien (Gibbon Island)
For more information on Dao Tien click on go-east.org. Tours of the island cost VND300,000 per person.