Motorcycles, Gibbons and Langurs, Oh My!
Trip Start Sep 14, 2006
17Trip End Dec 05, 2006
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I've said before that being in east Asia is far safer than being in the West in terms of the harm that won't come one's way from other people
In the prior entry, I touched on the two-sided natures of the first world vs. the developing, both of course having their pros & cons. I mentioned that the first world sometimes seems to me to have a sterility of sorts, but I want to stress that cleanliness, order, civility and a bit of sterility are all great in many ways. I really prefer my drinking water, for example, to be as sterile as possible. (I've been brushing my teeth with bottled water since leaving Japan almost 2 months ago.) Similarly, while I often despair at the arrogance and cluelessness displayed on American roads, I believe that road safety is something we do better than most countries. This is true by a factor of approximately ten zillion when compared to Vietnam.
Slow, high-density traffic gains speed as we transition from the narrow streets of the Old Quarter onto bigger roads exiting Hanoi, and I fixate on my guide while navigating
It's not an exaggeration to say there were literally dozens of moments that would qualify as life & death terror in the first world but that are utterly normal here. Buses & cars add flashing headlights to the din of a hundred horns to warn oncoming traffic to get back in lane, and proximity to opposing traffic of a foot or less is common. I reach a point of grim combat face where I'm unable to dwell on what's just happened since there's a new slew of bullets (trucks) on the way, which are sometimes unable to return to their lane during passing and routinely force motorbikes onto the shoulder
I'd gladly take a big ol' glass of first world sterility right about now. With ice. And a helmet that costs more than ten dollars, while you're at it.
As we get into more truly rural areas, the last third of the ride becomes the great motorcycling I hoped for. Except for the awful brakes, shifter, mirror, levers, throttle, suspension, seat, and the lack of a speedometer, I'd say the Minsk was pretty good. I think the tires were quite good, actually.
We spend two nights in a homestay, a traditional house that once held a big family but now holds an older couple and the tourists whose contract tours bring them here. Ground level is open storage, with the house on stilts above, affording good views of the rice and corn fields down the valley. Bright red hummingbirds and the distant calls of bigger birds usher in the sunset, and the soundtrack turns to the humming and whirring of insects in the dark
The next day brings a puttering boat ride across the large Ba Be lake, and a turn into the river takes us past women doing laundry in the water, scimitar-horned buffalo plopped in mud bogs, and a tiny school with a dozen little brown kids yelling 'hello!' over the fence. The river flows through a tall vault of a cave inside one of the limestone crags, and thousands of bats take turns dislodging each other from their ceiling perches high overhead. Returning downstream, we stop at a local minority village (not Vietnamese, in this instance the Tay people), for a rustic lunch with the senior couple of the village. Bony horses, more grey buffalo, and variously hued chickens roam outside, while Grandma cooks in a knee-high hearth with different pots on top and logs protuding out onto the floor that get kicked further in as they burn. Tough old grandpa gives us copious amounts of clear rice wine from an old water bottle to wash down the simple meal, and after the first round or two of small glasses, my guide barks at our young boat driver to wait outside since he's driving us back.
Time on the lake at an end, the 5 hr. ride home is the reverse of the trip up, with great scenery and sweeping corners eventually turning again into industrial highways and nightmarish traffic
I thank and tip Mr. Thoi profusely once he returns me unscathed to Hanoi. The ride back is a bit less terrifying since I know what to expect, but the adrenaline and combat face must both return to duty. All I want is for the drive to be over, and to survive, but once I am sitting in my hotel room again, I feel oddly depressed and empty for the rest of the night. I recall things I've read about gender differences in the brain, and I suspect there's something to the theories that male brains are more inclined to laser-focus obsession, (think video games & motorcycle racing), versus female brains which are often superior multitaskers
Cuc Phuong NP is a few hours south of Hanoi, and my last minute arrangements mean I get a private car with driver and a guide since no other hotel guests were available to go. The driver spoke no English, and my young guide Mister Hiep was super sweet but sometimes difficult to understand, but he teaches me a lot nontheless on the drive down. The deadly Vietnam roads are much less frightening from within a car rather than a bike, and we eventually leave the highway and hit some bumpy local roads on the way to the park. 'National Park' to me of course implies a range of facilities and an official polish that we expect in the US, but here there are only a few modest buildings - a basic restaurant, a very simple museum with good but old displays, and a surprisingly pleasant hotel.
My primary reason for coming here was to see the Primate Rescue Center, home to several endangered species of langur and gibbon
Most individuals have been rescued from the pet, medicine, or meat trades and are brought here for breeding and hopeful eventual release into the wild. As is true for most endangered species around the equator, their primary threat comes in the shape of locals in poverty for whom weakly enforced laws are small deterrent to hunting and trapping. In Asia, (as in Africa), it's fashionable for wealthy urbanites to eat exotic primate meat as a way to show off status. This common human impulse manifests itself differently in different cultures, (versus a five-digit Rolex, or the size of your Hemi). This ghastly problem is compounded by the demand for rare creature bits for their supposed medicinal value. While I do believe the West could learn a great deal from traditional Chinese medicine, there's obviously so much of it that's simply made up, and the consumption of monkey paws, rhino horns, and bear gall bladder is the greatest danger these creatures face. There used to be a couple of non-Vietnamese, minority villages in the park, but the government forcibly relocated them a decade ago farther away to aid conservation efforts. Not far enough, grumble the park staff. Plans to release some of the primates (langurs are monkeys, gibbons are apes) into the wild must wait until it's safer for them, so the park has enclosed a 20 acre slice of forest behind tall chain link (to keep humans out) and lightly electrified wires (to keep the primates in, who could climb chain link with three arms tied behind their back.)
We get a brief tour inside the Rescue Center, strolling around the cage enclosures, which I find pretty good given the budget of a 3rd world national park
On both a night hike and a day hike, it's unfortunate, but not unexpected failure to see any primates in the wild, but a morning walk around the fence perimeter of the semi-wild enclosure does offer a few great minutes of gibbons leaping from great heights to fall crashing into the leaves of the adjacent tree, easily finding a suitable branch from which to hurtle onwards. It's just after dawn, and I'm already sweating in the heat, but small tears lurk in the corners of my eyes, perhaps adding another drop of moisture to a forest already damp with life as a tiny and useless offering of thanks.
Losing species for preventable reasons is stupid. Imagine no one knowing what a rose smells like in the future, or the taste of a banana. One day, bang, nobody else gets to try a banana, ever.
Primates offer beauty and brainpower second only to humans, and losing the gibbon is like burning the Louvre
We seal the Mona Lisa and the Declaration of Independence in careful containers for the future, not for ourselves. We are stewards for coming generations, and it is a sin of omission to turn away and ignore theft or decay. We comfy first-worlders really aren't the culprits in the loss of these species, but we do have the power to influence tropical governments much more powerfully if we wished.
We can demand more from our third world friends, and we can prioritize foreign investment strategies that offer alternative income for locals, rather than ones that prioritize our own trade advantages. One of the highest priorities for Cuc Phuong, and others like it around the equator is to attempt to change local attitudes about consumption and medical use of the animals. I ask about advertising, and they say they spent US$2000 on a billboard on a busy highway outside of Hanoi, but that only paid for one month of time, and burned most of their education budget for that year. They also only hire local villagers to care for the animals and to run educational sessions in the villages to slowly turn the ship of opinion. These are the trenches in a war we ought to be fighting harder.
CUC PHUONG PRIMATE CENTER WEBSITE