Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea"

Greetings Everyone,
From Hoi An we rode our bikes to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of My Son.  My Son is a cluster of ancient Hindu temples built between the 4th and 14th centuries by the kings of Champa.  Sadly many were destroyed by bombs during the Vietnam War.   Fortunately some of the temples in the center of the complex have survived to this day.

My Son

We returned to Hoi An for one more night before resuming our journey north to Da Nang where we got on our bikes to climb the second "pass" of the trip, the Hai Van Pass.  At the bottom we rode past a long line of parked fuel trucks.  They weren't allowed to go through the tunnel that most vehicles use nowadays so we were hoping to get to the top before they did.  We climbed steadily on switchbacks with hazy views over the South China Sea.  Marc stopped to take photos but I peddled on not wanting to stop until I reached the top.

View of South China Sea from Hai Van Pass

As we were nearing the summit, the convoy of fuel trucks came chugging past belching out black clouds of diesel exhaust.  We arrived at the pass with a few Aussie tourists cheering us on.  It took us about an hour and 15 minutes to make the climb of 1700 feet.  On top were some old brick gates that once marked the division between the Champa and Dai Viet Kingdoms.

Gate on the top of Hai Van Pass

We cruised down the other side into northern Vietnam as the pass is also considered the boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam.  The mountains shelter the city of Da Nang to the south from the "Chinese winds" that blow in from the northwest but now we could feel the colder temperature as we descended the northern slopes.  We biked along barrier islands with lots of cemeteries before getting back into the van for the drive to Hue.  

The following morning we cycled from our hotel to the Imperial City or Citadel as it is called.  It was the imperial capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945.  It was a huge complex surrounded by a moat and a wall.  It contained a main gate through which a reenactment of marching mandarins or bureaucrats took place. 

Mandarin Reenactment at the Imperial City

We visited an assembly hall that still contained the emperor's throne.  It was here the emperor would meet his guests.  There was a library, some temples and the emperor's mother's quarters that were still intact.  

Imperial City Main Gate

Many buildings were destroyed during the war.  Some buildings were being renovated or rebuilt.  After touring the Imperial City, we drove to the Thien Mu Pagoda, a 7-story historic temple and the highest religious structure in Vietnam.

Thien Mu Pagoda

After lunch we visited the Khai Dinh Mausoleum.  It was built for the Nguyễn Emperor Khải Dinh from 1920 to 1931 taking 11 years to complete.  It was built out of concrete and on several levels.  On the mid level were statues of bodyguards and horses.  

Khai Dinh Mausoleum

His tomb was lavishly decorated with glass and porcelain.  

Khai Dinh's Tomb

Next we visited the Minh Mang Mausoleum.  Minh Mạng was the second emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from February 14, 1820 until his death, on January 20, 1841.  The actual tomb was at the end of a series of courtyards and temples in a hill.  The gate to his tomb is unlocked on the anniversary of his death.

Minh Mang Mausoleum

After dinner Truc drove us to the train station where we had to say goodbye.  He was a great driver and so willing to help us on the road.  I will miss him and our black Ford limousine van.  We'll get a new driver and van in Ninh Binh when we arrive there in the morning by overnight train.  We needed a dolly to haul our stuff to the train platform.  The train arrived at 9:10 and we rushed to board.  Fortunately not many people were boarding so we didn't have any problems.  We had upgraded to a private berth.  I couldn't imagine sharing this small space with 2 other people and all our bags. Hopefully I'll be able to get some sleep tonight.

Our Cozy Compartment

I slept reasonably well despite all the stops, Marc's 3 trips to the toilet and strangers popping their heads into our cabin despite Marc locking the door.  We arrived in Ninh Binh at 9:40 AM.  Our new driver, bikes and van were waiting for us.  We cycled on quiet roads past rice paddies and duck ponds.  Karst Limestone mountains rose out of the mist.  

Karst Limestone Mountains

We biked along a dam and the weather got worse.  Hung, our new driver, picked us up and we continued by van to Cuc Phuong National Park where we visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Center (EPRC).  It was established in 1993 and is a project of Frankfurt Zoological Society. The establishment of EPRC began with 2 individuals of Delacour's langur and Hatinh langur confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.  The Center currently houses about 160 individuals of 15 species and sub-species in which 6 species are kept nowhere else in captivity.  These include Delacour’s langur (Trachypithecus delacouri), Hatinh (Trachypithecus laotum hatinhensis), Black langur (Trachypithecus laotum ebenus), Lao langur (Trachypithecus laotum laotum), Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus), and Grey-shanked Douc langur (Pygathrix cinerea).  

Red-shanked Douc Langurs

Gray-shanked Douc Langur

Initially the monkeys are kept in cages while they are being rehabilitated and later are kept in a 2-hectare enclosure with the intent to release them to the wild.  We walked gingerly along slippery brick paths to admire these amazing monkeys.  I had no idea that Vietnam had so many primate species and that unfortunately many are critically endangered.  We passed by the 2-hectare enclosure where animals are released with the hope that they may be able to go back into the wild.  A female White-cheeked Gibbon checked us out from a nearby tree.

Female White-cheeked Gibbon

After dinner we arranged a visit to Save Vietnam's Wildlife to see the small carnivores and pangolins.  Mr. Tran Quang Phuong, the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program (CPCP) Program Manager, took us on a tour of the facility.  He showed us the Owston's civets which are usually off limits to visitors during the breeding season.  We also got to see Chinese and  Sunda Pangolins.  They were still sleeping in their nest boxes but we got a glimpse when they poked their heads out of the hay.  There were also Leopard cats, binturong, common Palm civet and masked palm civet.  

Leopard  Cat

Masked Palm Civet

Mr. Phuong didn't do the feeding so we had to wait for another local man named Hung to show up.  He was with a young female volunteer from Australia.  The pangolins were fed a mixture of ground ants and silk worms in plastic bowls.  We followed Hung as he placed the bowls into the pangolins' enclosures but none were coming out.   It was too cold and rainy.  Finally one of the Sunda Pangolins came out to eat.  What a treat to see this critically endangered mammal!  He (or she) used his long sticky tongue to lick up the food.  He kept scraping his face with his claws.  I wondered if this was an innate reaction to eating stinging ants in the wild.  Mr. Phuong later told us it was caused by eating the frozen food.

Sunda Pangolin

The next day we drove to Haiphong, northern Vietnam's most important seaport, where we spent the night.  The following morning we took a speed boat to Cat Ba Island, the largest of the 366 islands that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the southeastern edge of Ha Long Bay in Northern Vietnam.   I was keen to see a Cat Ba langur in the wild after learning about them at the EPRC and we rented a boat to search the southern tip of the island where they have been spotted. 

Cat Ba Archipelago

I knew it was a long shot as there are only 50-60 left in the wild but we had to give it a try.  Cat Ba Langurs were once hunted extensively to supply the traditional medicine industry.  They were used to make a "monkey balm" believed to help with erectile dysfunction (buy Viagra instead!) and other health issues.  Between 1970 and 1986, an estimated 500 to 800 langurs were killed.  When we tried to enter the restricted reserve we were turned back.  It was good to see some of the conservation efforts put in place were being enforced.  We didn't see a wild Cat Ba Langur but a photo that Marc took at the EPRC will show you how beautiful this primate is!

Cat Ba Langur

The next day we drove to the northern end of Cat Ba Island where we caught a boat to Halong City.  From the harbor in Halong City we boarded a traditional Chinese junk for a 1-night cruise on Halong Bay.

Our Cruise Boat, the Victory Star

Unfortunately, the weather was still not cooperating and the karst limestone islands that Halong Bay is famous for were hidden in the dense fog.  That afternoon we visited a floating fishing village in the Bay where pearls are also cultured.

Fishing Village in Ha Long Bay

The following morning we awoke to clearing skies, yippee!  The sun was actually poking through the clouds.  

Sunrise Over Ha Long Bay

There are 1969 islands in the Bay.  Ha Long Bay literally means “where the dragon descends into the sea".  One Legend has it that a dragon created the islands when he plunged into the sea whipping his tail around to cut out the islands.  I like this theory better than the one put forth by science that this type of limestone is ideal for the formation of karst or landforms shaped when water dissolves layers of this soluble bedrock.  We visited one of the many limestone caves in Ha Long Bay before heading back to the harbor.

Limestone Cave in Halong Bay

Ngoc,our guide, and Hung, our driver, picked us up in the van for the 3-hour drive to Hanoi.  Although we didn't cycle as much as planned due to the traffic and rainy weather we still managed to log 270 miles.  More importantly, we got to see many interesting sites along the way, learn about Vietnam's culture and history and meet many friendly people so willing to help and make our visit to Vietnam enjoyable!  Stay tuned for the next leg of our journey, a cycling trip from Sapa in northern Vietnam to Laos. 
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Here is a map of our route:

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