Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cát Tiên National Park

"How much longer?" I asked. The conductor looked at the driver helplessly. I turned to the driver and repeated the question and he held up five fingers. "5 kms or 5 mins?". He nodded passively. I walked back in defeat. Although not too many people speak English in Vietnam this was the first time on our trip that I felt that the language barrier was going to hurt us. The concierge at the previous hotel had been kind enough to write detailed instructions on a piece of paper which indicated an obscure point on the highway where we had to get off, where a jeep from our destination hotel would pick us up and deliver us to our Cát Tiên National Park. All of the instructions were in Vietnamese, though, so i couldn't be sure what it said. If I were travelling alone I would have got a kick out of a situation like this that elevates internet-era tourism to a Marco-Polo-like adventure. But with a 2.5 yr old in tow I wasn't sure I needed this uncertainty. Fifteen mins later I asked the driver the same set of questions as before. He held up 5 fingers again and I went back to my seat to chew the rest of my nails. Finally, we stopped somewhere on the highway and the driver gestured, with a big smile, for us to get off. Our taxi driver was below smiling an even bigger smile. The biggest smile of all was on my face. We would reach Cát Tiên as planned after all.

Cát Tiên is a dense forest in the south and was, at one point, home to one of the last populations of the Javanese rhinoceros in this region. The last individual, however was found dead in 2010. The emblem of the park is a rhino and hauntingly reminds you of what's lost. Still, after wondering about the faunal silence in the rest of the country the chirps and noises here were life-affirming. The morning air was dominated by that extraordinarily loud call of the gibbon. The park is home to a wide range of birds, many of whom you would find back home in India too.

The park is flanked by a river, and our hotel, the Bamboo Lodge, was on the other bank. We spent two memorable days there, doing bird watching sorties across the river and lazing around in the lodge the rest of the time lapping up the unassuming hospitality of the owners of the property. Even from our resort we could spot the birds that were bold enough to leave the foliage.

Vietnam is the story of a third-world nation that has recently woken up and is in the midst of rapid growth. I find it particularly interesting to observe how such societies balance a high rate of development with the conservation of their natural treasures, because I anticipate my own country entering such a phase soon. So far, what I had seen in Vietnam hadn't been very encouraging. The people we had met, even those who should have known better, seemed particularly callous about their wildlife. Our guide at Bang Lang - great guy otherwise - had pointed at a Cormorant, Egret and Openbill and had called them Black, White and Grey storks respectively. From all the evidence I had seen (not ruling out my own confirmation biases here, I admit) there were simply no taboos about what not to eat, and it appeared that the country's wildlife was falling prey to the tastes of the humans. I had read about the challenges of saving the gibbon because it was considered a local delicacy.

In that backdrop, the sight of Cát Tiên was reassuring to me. Clearly, the park must have been the result of a lot of conviction from a lot of people that some things need to be preserved. Our lodge owner had even named his daughter 'Cát Tiên' after the park. It must mean something to them. It was the reassurance I needed to leave the country on a happy note.