Thursday, January 29, 2009

When I was in 'Nam Take 1: Cat Tien National Park

Winter break in Japan is one week where there is no school and families get together to celebrate the New Year with activities like pounding and eating mochi, sitting under a kotatsu together to stay out of the blithering cold while watching TV, cleaning the house, going broke from the huge money donation given to children in the family, reading New Year's cards that are delivered specifically on the first and going to shrines and temples. Basically, everything shuts down and it's family time in Japan. Sans blood relatives in Japan, my adoptive family (Kristine and Brooke) and I went to Vietnam!

The nearly two week trip was a brain child of ours born almost a year ago. I went to Thailand during last year's winter vacation and while I had a good time with great friends, saw some truly amazing sights and had memorable experiences, I ultimately left a little disappointed. I was saddened by how overwhelming prevalent tourism was and disgusted by the degradation it had created. I had a lot of fun with the 'activities' I did, but didn't feel like I had experienced "the real" Thailand.

SO, I had it in my mind from the onset that I wanted to volunteer and hopefully do some sort of home stay throughout to really make some connections with Vietnamese that were not in the tourism industry. I researched, researched, and researched some more, and couldn't find any reputable, worthy volunteer opportunities for our time frame that were under $1000. Yes, it costs $1000 to volunteer in a third world country. That's in addition to the $1000 flight ticket it costs to get there from Japan. We make a good salary in the JET Programme, but not that good. I felt deflated but didn't want to let my vision go.

Long story short, a friend of a friend of a friend had a connection with a priest in Ho Chi Minh City. We got the communication ball rolling and had the opportunity to partner with a great church and amazing people in Ho Chi Minh for a few days. This was one of the highlights of the trip, which I'll talk about later.

What's important is that that connection kept us centered around Ho Chi Minh, so although we had 12 days abroad we had an epicentre that made the travel distance minimal. Vietnam is a pretty long country geographically, so we never made it to the Central Highlands, East coast beaches, or it's capital city Hanoi.

That being said, what we did see and do was pretty spectacular. SO, if you're up for it, relive my time in Vietnam (and Cambodia) with me.

On December 20th, Kristine, Brooke, and I jetsat (what's the past tense of jetset?) from Tokyo, Japan to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
We got in late that night, found our hostel, and immediately hit the streets for some grub and to stare mindlessly at the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. We got about 3 hours of sleep before waking up the next morning to head out on our tour of Cat Tien National Park. My experiences with national parks have always been good and Lonely Planet heralded this one as,

"One of the outstanding gems of the region.. [which] comprises an amazingly biodiverse region of lowland tropical rain forest. The hiking, mountain biking and bird-watching are easily the best in Southern Vietnam" (393).

So, being the only real 'activity' we booked in advance, we were off on our excited way. It takes about 3 hours to get from Ho Chi Minh to Cat Tien, apparently without traffic. Peak travel season = lots of traffic = lots of time. Our tour guide, Ninh, was awesome though and pulled off for little educational breaks every now and then. He was so knowledgeable and willing to share his experiences. We stopped off at a bridge over a big river near a war monument and he shared with us a snippet of his experience during the war. After two days with him, I learned more about the Vietnam War than I'd learned in all my history classes combined. He was completely optimistic and smiling the whole time though, which was a little surprising. Some pretty jacked up stuff happened to him during the war, but his positive outlook on life not only got him through it but makes him the successful individual he is today.

Anywho, this was a stop at a rubber plantation.
Pretty 'rudimentary' collection techniques, but it works!
After finding out what these were by doing a taste test, Ninh taught us about pepper cultivation.

A local tobacco 'industry'... fun for the whole family!
These are the freshly picked leaves...
These are all dried out.

After crossing a little river and making it to park quarters, we unloaded into our little huts, had our first real Vietnamese food (mmm), and got ready for what was advertised as a "trek".

Kristine and I didn't really care if these things on our legs and the gel spread all over shoes protected us from leeches or not - the important thing is that we looked, HOT!

We started out the "trek" by viewing caged bears. Not what I was expecting. This was by far the largest, most were in cages the size of their bodies. Apparently the bears had been rescued and were being treated and cared for now. I was saddened. Also, this was the only good look we got at animals we saw in a park that is said to house the Javan Rhinoceros, crocodiles, Asian elephants, gaurs, banteng, wild water buffalo, tigers, leopards, dholes, gibbons, languors, macaques, loris, and civets. We did hear a bunch of birds though. Too bad I'm not a birdie (?).

Ninh spotted this exoskeleton of some nasty bug which was kinda cool.

The "trek" was not so much of a trek, but much more of a nature walk. We also had a park ranger with us then, although I don't think he said anything to us the entire time. It was pretty, and peaceful, but for an avid trekker like myself, didn't quiiiiite cut it.

This was a nice river we had a few minutes to chill nearby.

We went on a little night jungle safari that night and saw some deer and I think this is a treeshrew or a civet up in the tree. It was vague.

We had what I thought was a delicious dinner that night with what was quite possibly the best seasoned lemongrass chicken I've ever had. Also tried the local drink specialty of banana rice wine. One of those two elements at dinner left Kristine basically incapacitated for the following few days. Being our representative foodie, this was probably the saddest realization of the trip. A slow but sure remedy of pho, soup broth, and western medication brought Kristine back to life and we had her cured in time to roll in the New Year.

Nature hike day two: parasitic trees on age old trees look awesome but probably don't feel that great for the oldies.

Brooke and I playing with the biggest tree in Vietnam.

The view of Crocodile Lake (sans crocodiles).

I think they were calling this Chinese Checkers... but it was way more chess-esque in my book.

Tease... it was all a tease. But, it did make it much more relaxing in the gorgeous weather.

Waiting for some other "hikers" to return (it was so NOT hiking), we got to see these park employees rigging up this bike like thing which can carry more than an elephant apparently. Ninh told us about how it was invented during the war to transport ammo through the jungles. Crazy.

The sunset on the way back from the park that night was spectacular.

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