For me, the most striking thing about Vietnam is the magnificent natural scenery. It is a majestically beautiful country. With this in mind, we opted to skip some of the smaller pagodas and other tourist activities in the closer Ninh Binh area and go instead on a day trip to Cuc Phuong National Park. The oldest national park in Vietnam, Cuc Phuong boasts really old trees, high levels of plant and animal biodiversity, and several endangered mammal species. We arranged a driver for the day through our home stay, and it took about 90 minutes from our lodging to the park entrance. This drive was through rural villages, farm fields, and beautiful limestone mountains. At the park entrance, we paid the entry fee (40,000 VND) and our driver waited at the entrance while we walked about half a mile down a road to visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Center and Turtle Conservation Center.
There seem to be options to take a full day, or multi-day tour of the park, and stay in several different housing arrangements within the park as well. We saw other small and large groups at lunch with tour guides. We just used our driver to drive us through the park, and explored on our own. All of the tour options included hikes that we thought might be too strenuous for our boys after our long, hot day touring around Ninh Binh the day prior. So, I think with an organized tour there is a golf cart that drives people to the conservation centers and back. But, we walked. For awhile, it seemed like we were just walking into the jungle!
At the Turtle Conservation center, I think we were supposed to wait for an employee to take us around, but there was no one at the front entrance and so we started reading signs and exploring the small indoor section of the center. Vietnam has a major problem with smugglers and poachers taking turtles out of the country to sell in China for medicine, and overseas as pets. The center takes those turtles that are confiscated from smugglers and rehabilitates them before releasing them back in the wild. They also breed some endangered species of turtle. They had a few indoor exhibits with smaller tanks, and then the rest of the center was a series of small ponds and other natural environments with all different kinds of turtles and tortoises. Owen was enthralled watching all of the turtles, and we quickly discovered that his favorite animal is a turtle! He can even say “turtle” perfectly.
The indoor exhibit had some interesting signs and explanations on different native species of turtles, and the environmental impact of humans on their habitats. After walking around the grounds trying to find turtles in the ponds, Landon and I learned about the Hoan Kiem turtle, a species of giant soft shell turtle. It is sad, but this species is now believed to be extinct after the last one was found dead on the shore of Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi in 2016. It was a REALLY huge turtle and I’m sure that the polluted water and conditions in the city did not contribute to the health of this animal.
Owen was so enthralled with the turtles I thought for sure he would freak out when he saw the primates at the endangered primate rescue center. Although he was excited, he preferred the turtles. Access to the endangered primate rescue center is only by guided tour. Thankfully, a guide was ready for us when we walked up, right before they closed for lunch. There are several species of langurs that only live in Cuc Phuong National Park. The langur is a long-tailed primate that does not use its tail for holding onto branches, but just for balance. There are several different types of langurs with different colored fur. They mostly eat leaves instead of fruit. Much like the turtle center, these primates were confiscated from smugglers and brought to the center for rehab. They are then either kept for breeding and helping increase the langur population, or gradually reintroduced to the wild through the center’s semi-wild jungle environment in the back. It was interesting to watch the langurs walk around with their long tails and see the bunches of leaves set out for food instead of fruit. They are so cute! I had never seen a langur before, nor heard of them. I think it’s because they are endangered and live only in Asia.
Most of the enclosures were used for langur families, but we did also see some long-armed gibbons. It was amazing to see them swinging around their cages. We could tell the gibbons from the langurs because gibbons don’t have tails. There are also lorises, another adorable primate, in the rescue center. On the last stop on our short tour, we met a tiny baby primate crying for its mother, clinging onto the fence. The mother was eating nearby and came over and grabbed her baby. Then, the mama went back to eating with the baby clinging securely to its mama’s belly. It was so sweet to see their interaction, and the baby was one of the cutest tiny things ever!
Trip Advisor reviews mentioned that the tour of the primate center seemed short and abrupt. I would agree, but with their many duties in taking care of these animals, I can see why the tours are short. The end goal is to release the primates into the wild, so too much human exposure would be counter productive. It was so neat to see these primates, and the center’s efforts to save them.
Our morning with the animals was awesome, and we walked back ready to explore the rest of the park. We met up with our driver back at the entrance and he took us another 45 minutes to an hour into the heart of the park. The jungle was thick and butterflies flew all around along the road. We told him we wanted to stop for lunch, and he took us to the lunch spot/trail head for one of the most popular hikes, an 8 km hike through the jungle to an ancient tree. It was pretty hot and we did not want to miss our bus back to Nghi Son, so we ate lunch and took pictures of the jungle from the trail head, but did not hike the trail. Our lunch was pretty cheap, and there was a small convenience store with water and some snacks as well. Our boys became a tourist attraction in themselves for a school group on a field trip in the park!
The thing I will remember most about the restaurant in the jungle are the noises. There were bird calls and the sounds of insects, and putting it all together it was quite loud and made a unique background sound track for our lunch. Our last stop of the day was at the Cave of Prehistoric Man. The website said that the hike was only .3 km, and I knew I could get my boys to do that! So, after driving back toward the entrance, we set out. For the first 150 m, the trail was a flat walkway, and I thought that it was going to be a super easy hike through the jungle. All of a sudden, the cement trail ended and was replaced by steep, slippery stone stairs. Not to be deterred, we started climbing up. Owen needed some help, but Landon was a champion hiker and I’m not exactly sure how he scrambled up some of the stair sections.
The jungle vegetation was something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. The ferns and trees and vines were covering the ground and ginormous. The biggest I’ve ever seen! After about 150 m of climbing straight up the mountain, we made it to the cave. It was a much larger cave than I expected- we had to use our phones as flashlights to explore some of the rooms!
When we were hiking, we did not see many other people, but we found some other families inside the cave taking a break from the heat. There were a few neat formations near the entrance, and then caverns that expanded back much further than we were willing to explore with a phone flashlight. We also saw and heard bats further back in the cave, and did not want to disturb or get bit by them, so we stayed closer to the front. I can see how a whole village off prehistoric people could live or take shelter in the cave. Shell fragments, tools and skeletons of ancient people were found here. I think at the time, the cave was much closer to water level because of small shell fragments mixed in with the sandy floor. I’m not sure why, but my kids are really brave and excited to explore dark caves instead of being scared. It definitely cooled us off after the short, hot hike up to it!
After checking out the cave, we carefully made our way back down the mountain. The twisted roots and vines running down the limestone and granite cliffs were just incredible to look at. It certainly did not seem like a real place!
Back at the park entrance, we took a small break from the car to explore the visitor’s center. Even though the exhibits were a little worn/broken and could use updating, we learned a few things and admired the murals depicting all the different animals that lived in the park. There were no employees there to show us around or explain anything, though. Then we took one last look at the amazingly thick jungle of the national park.
Cuc Phuong National Park was a great day trip for our nature loving kids and adults alike. The Primate Rescue center and Turtle conservation center were both informative and fun to see animals native to Vietnam. We did not have a chance to visit the carnivore center with endangered pangolins because we were there right at lunch, but I think that would be a good itinerary addition. The drive into the jungle was a real-life Indiana Jones ride, and the butterflies deep in the jungle were so pretty. The hike to the Cave of the Ancient Man was short, strenuous for a stretch, but completely doable for most hikers. Make sure to pack in enough water and snacks for the kids as food options are few and far between, and bring a baby carrier for babies and toddlers. Slather on the sunscreen and most importantly, bug repellent with DEET. The mosquito-borne diseases here in Vietnam are no joke, and nobody wants to end up with dengue fever. Our day trip was just right for us, but I can see others wanting to stay overnight and take two days to fully explore this park.