Adventure Log

Monkeys, Boats and Snakes: My Favorite Parts of Vietnam

For my fourth post about Vietnam, I put together this 15-minute video. I highly recommend you watch it with the sound on and up, so you get the full effect. It’s relaxing in many parts with quiet bird song and water, it’s also beautiful. I plan on doing other write ups about Buddhism, the Vietnam/American war, and the culture. I’m sticking to boats and nature in this one, which were my favorite parts. We spent a lot of time on boats, as this country is surrounded by and woven through with water. I loved it. The first part was in Con Son, in the Con Dao Islands. I swam in the South China Sea and clumsily body surfed waves. Andrew joined in and we screeched with laughter as we bounced in the water and scraped our knees on sand being pulled to the shore wave after wave. Boats were beached waiting for the tide to float and cows strolled along the shore. We saw little coracles, or thung chai along the beach. They are little round tubs with an interesting history. When the French colonized Vietnam, they taxed things left and right, including boats. The local fisherman made these little vessels to use so the French couldn’t tax it. The locals would say, “This isn’t a boat, it’s a tub!” The people here are resourceful AF and have a long history of fighting back people trying to take over from the Chinese, to the French, to the USA.

On Con Dao, I got sick, so Andrew and Sarah went to the national reserve. They saw monkeys! Rhesus Macaque Fescic monkeys. Here is what you should do when around monkeys: Don’t smile at monkeys, don’t act afraid, don’t carry food or dangle shiny objects. Sarah and Andrew went with a larger group and apparently one monkey got mad that they were too close to its baby. Apparently, all monkey etiquette went out the door as people started smiling and laughing and getting out cameras. Those fuckers will take your stuff and bite you!! Luckily all went well and after some posturing the monkeys went into the jungle.

I spoke with Eric later and he told me the nerdiest shit about these monkeys. I learned in the 1990’s he worked in labs with them and was once in charge of 18 of them. They share 93% of our DNA, so are often used for research. Their numbers were even decimated at one point because of this. So, in Indonesia they started a huge colony on an island to recuperate their numbers. They do some great research on behavior in the wild now because of it. I have always had a hard time with animal research. I personally couldn’t do it and think there should be HUGE ethics and guidelines behind it. I also see why it’s needed and respect scientists like my boyfriend who have done AIDS, MS, ALS and all kinds of research to help so many. I love my nerdy microbiologist, virologist, geneticist guy. You all just know him as my boat bitch.

Next, we went to the Con Ton in the Mekong Delta. We started the day on a boat to the local market. The floating markets as they once were are gone. But boats do have a stick up top with items tied to it to tell you what they sell. Some had fruit, some fish, some baskets, and more. We got a fresh coconut to drink from one. The boats here are amazing, the engines and outboards all run off bio diesel. Many locals make their own out of pig shit or rice. The market was like nothing I have ever seen. Frogs, dog meat, all kinds of fish and eel, birds, eggs and chicks, people walking around with live geese in a bag, so many fruits and vegetables that I had no idea what they were. It was smelly, colorful, vibrant and absolutely enchanting. I imagined the people out foraging for these goods, catching frogs in the bog. This was followed by a canoe ride down the canals where we saw people washing their clothes, building embankments and cultivating all sorts of fruit and food. They tend to the mangrove trees there for the food but also to keep the soil in place. The Mekong is a tidal delta and it can go up and down up to 3 meters a day. When it floods it can be even more. The mangroves are essential to this area. They are planted to help keep the soil from eroding. It’s also used for food, cork, firewood, and building gates.

My favorite was our next journey to Cat Tien National Park in southcentral Vietnam. We got to our jungle huts and they had cute frogs and geckos in them from huge gaps in the boards. Andrew was already getting nervous about snakes. I kept teasing him, I would roll my eyes and say, “we won’t see any snakes Andrew.” We rode bicycles to the park and took a boat tour with a man named Long. We saw a Toucan. It came over and shit fruit loops in our boat and we ate them. Just kidding, we didn’t eat them, we collected them for breakfast later. Just kidding, we just watched him eat fruit in a tree. I like fruit loops. We saw all kinds of birds and finally I saw some long-tailed macaques. In fact, we saw a whole family of them. As we meandered the river, we saw a snake with a bright red head swimming past. The guide stopped and we watched mesmerized as he said, “No good if he bite! You dead!” Andrew is terrified of snakes so this was obviously his favorite part of the day. He told me he will kill me if he got bit by a snake. I assured him that snakes are more afraid of us and that seeing this one is rare. I assured him we wouldn’t see more.

The cicadas here make an eerie sound almost like a weird sci fi whistle. As we floated along, I realized they used this as background in the second Apocalypse Now movie. It really exists and makes you feel looming suspense. You get the sense that at any moment something is going to jump out of the dank green and kill you. This part of Vietnam is otherworldly. Bamboo and mimosa sway with movement and life, camouflaged and ever present. We saw a huge deer with multi points come down for a drink. We watched in awe as swarms of swallows flew above us catching bugs in the twilight. Their spit is an expensive commodity here for Chinese medicine and the locals build giant houses for the birds to live on the river in exchange for it.

Christmas day was one of the best days of my life. There are moments in this existence where you have to pinch yourself. Moments where joy is so unbearable that your body quakes. This was one of those days. It was the pure magic of aliveness on this diverse and wondrous planet. What a privilege and opportunity to be here. Words really can’t do any of it justice. Pictures and video are even inadequate, but I will try to share it with you.

Sarah was sick now, she caught my virus, so Andrew and I ate a fast breakfast and pedaled our asses off to get the 9am ferry over to the park. From there, we took a Jeep deep into the park to a trail marked for Crocodile Lake. There were about 100 butterflies dancing around the trailhead. A lush dense jungle was ahead brimming with birdsong, cicada and the rustling of life. It was also hot as fuck. Andrew grabbed a big stick to walk with and was feeling pretty nervous about snakes. He has some childhood trauma with them so it really is a sore spot. He loved the rubber snake I put in his birthday present along with travel supplies. That is a lie, he almost killed me. We may or may not be having a “hide the snake” war to this day. He may or may not have placed it in a spot that made me scream the other day. One thing is for sure, I love this man. So, leading up to the trip, he was kinda obsessed about the 43 different kinds of venomous snakes in Vietnam. I mocked his fear incessantly because I am a mean older sister. Within the first 10minutes of our Christmas day hike we spot another fucking snake. It was about 3 feet long, we think it was a Oligodon Kukuri, another venomous snake. Andrew froze in fear, eyes wide as it slithered across the trail. I laughed and delightedly snapped a picture for evidence. Yes, I’m an asshole. As the snake went into the brush my big little buddy bravely kept walking. I gave him big props for bravery and kept any snark to a minimum. Don’t think I haven’t harassed him with this photo after the fact though. This is the before and after photo of him with his big stick:

We hiked to Crocodile lake then splurged the $8 for a boat ride. The rangers do the rowing and take you around the lake. Did I mention it was like hells inferno here with the heat? The water was brown and dense with tiny fish and freshwater plants like milfoil and hyacinth. We went to a little island and saw a 12-foot crocodile sunning itself. It didn’t look real, like a fossil frozen in time. We went to a tiny beach and saw an entire family of macaques feeding. Each one seemed to have a different vibe and temperament. One was rapidly double fisting food into its mouth, cheeks puffed and moving. I thought I was going to keel over in delight, I still think of that monkey and cringe at the adorableness. Another was ovulating, with giant red bulbous skin on her rear. A male kept following her and trying to get on her back. I was getting excited to potentially see some monkey sex right in front of me. Alas, the female wasn’t having it and pushed him off. She ran into the jungle with a physical and final fuck you. We watched for about five minutes before we heard the snort of a pig and all the monkeys made noise and started to scatter. Brush was starting to move and the snort louder. We didn’t see the pig, and the monkeys were in the trees in seconds. The show was over, and we went back to dock.

The hike back was full of many critters, a Many Striped Sun Skink, Germain’s Peacock Pheasant, a Mouse Deer, and a Lesser Adjutant Stork, see pix below. On the Jeep ride back the driver slammed on his breaks as a snake at least 12 feet long and as thick as Andrew’s bicep crossed the road. The driver said, “COBRA.” The craziest part was that Andrew started to GET OUT OF THE TRUCK TO TRY TO TAKE A PICTURE. I grabbed his arm and said, “No, no, no, we don’t go after King Cobras.” It was too fast for a photo anyway. Later, when I told this story I said we were on the trail because my buddy was so puffed up. He said, “I’m now a King Cobra survivor.” This is his official claim to fame now. He asked pretty much every person we saw in Cat Tien if they saw any snakes the whole time we were there. Every single person said no, not one snake. My theory is that he manifested them so he could get over his fear. That or he is really a Slytherin and speaks parceltongue, he does have a Voldemort vibe sometimes. Oh, and we saw one more super deadly snake under a jungle hut by us. By this time Andrew just laughed in that tense, “I’m so fucking over this fucking shit.” I think he also wanted to kill me. I get it.

The next day, Lizzo’s “Like A Girl” came on at 4am, and all three of us were off. By 4:30 we had crossed the river by ferry and at 5 we were with the guide headed into the dark jungle. We brought headlamps but were only allowed to use them for a short while as we walked to a Gibbon territory crossroads deep in the jungle. Little flashing eyes were everywhere my beam hit, mostly spiders. Some as big as my hand. I tried not to think of snakes. Then we had to adjust to the darkness and wait. We watched the sky change color gradually as the canopy became an ever-clearer silhouette against grey, yellow, white and blue sky. The birds started in first, many different calls from many species. The guide knew them all and told us in a thick accent their names. Our excitement was building in anticipation. Soon, the singing we came for began. It is impossible to describe the eerie echo of the gibbon song, how it starts soft, builds and dissipates. How the females have a kind of chirp at the end. At first it was faint in the distance, then it grew, surrounding us at the dawn. We started our hunt, following the song.

For three hours we went round and round, weaving in and out of dense brush going to the strangled fig trees, a gibbon favorite. The guide looked perplexed. He said that normally they were louder and easier to find. This day they were quiet. He said they do that if they had been scared at night by a predator like the few types of panthers and cats that live in this jungle and stalk them. Gibbons are strong families and very protective. They play it safe. The forest has three main groups, only 15 left. The babies stay clinging to their mothers for 3 years and still venture close until 5. The males are always higher up, looking out for their tribe.

Disappointment was settling in at the end of our tour. I had resolved myself to only seeing the Gibbons at the sanctuary rescue center later. When they are injured the rangers capture them, give them care, then release back to their home. Mostly it is from them falling out of trees. They live their lives in the canopy and never come down, but occasionally fall, especially when young. On our walk back, our guide, Daht, said that there is a big love story from one of the families. He told us a female was injured and at the sanctuary for a long time. Her lover was a male that would often stay outside the center and they would sing to each other every morning, crooning back and forth. One day the female showed signs of pregnancy. Somehow, they had copulated, (fancy word for fucked), or fornicated, (also fancy word for banged), or had sexual intercourse, (another fancy term for doing the nasty), through the bars. She was released and gave birth in the wild. Now, almost 5 years they still travel together with their kid. Sweet story.

As we were within 50feet of the edge of the park, we heard the trees rustling above. The guide silenced us and pointed up. High in the canopy there was an orange blur swinging branch to branch. GIBBON!!! Two more showed up, one smaller and black and one medium and gray. The guide said excitedly with a smile, “These are the love story Gibbon family!” I WAS IN JENN HEAVEN. Coming to see the Gibbons was my request on this trip and my most looked forward part. It was happening! We had to fucking RUN.

Gibbons are fast, they rush from tree to tree occasionally pausing to eat, groom or interact with one another. The male always goes ahead to check terrain, followed by baby then mama. We started to walk fast then jog through the jungle and ground brush. Branches snapped in my face, I clumsily smashed through rocks, I dove beneath a felled tree with two-foot clearance and elbowed through. Later I had scrapes and torn pants. The guide paused once and pointed to a plant with thick thorns about an inch long. He said, “How do you say?” I said, “thorn.” He announced, “Careful sharp thorn, look before step.” Ummm, okay. I was drenched in sweat, giddy and pumped with adrenaline that could give a fuck about thorns. I was obsessed: Gibbons, more GIBBONS! Every time they stopped, we stopped. They went, we went. We watched them eat, scratch, check on one another and do many acrobatics at heights that hurt my neck to follow. For about 45 minutes this went on until the guide said, “Keep follow or done?” Since we had been up since 4am and it was almost 8:30 we decided to stop. We still had the sanctuary tour to do. Seeing these creatures in the wild was breathtaking both literally and in the most awestruck of meanings. You should really check out the video, we got good footage.

The sanctuary had six gibbons and two sun bears in cages. While it is a modest and somewhat depressing enclosure and the animals were clearly anxious, they are doing good work there. I saw the Gibbons twitching and shaking as we neared. One stuck her ass right up through the cage. I think I figured out how those gibbons procreated, (my last opportunity for a fancy word for knocked up.) Those naughty gibbons had kinky sex through bars. I asked the guide about their shaking. She said that they get anxious with people seeing them. In the wild they like to remain unseen for safety. It is distressing when they are in cages. But she said that every time they release one the Gibbon will take 3-4 steps into the jungle then turn back and walk over to their caretaker and hug them. She said with a tender smile, “They know we help and say thank you.” It reminded me of the Jane Goodall videos I have seen when she does releases. These are incredibly intelligent animals.

From here we traveled via air to Ninh Binh. The north of Vietnam is so different from the south. The infrastructure there is clearly better for one thing. The scenery is much more dramatic. Pillars of limestone covered in green surround rice paddies and buildings of all shapes and colors. Shrines and temples are everywhere. We hired three drivers for the day to moto us around. Sarah clearly got the leader, Andrew the friendly funny guy, and I got the quiet weird one. No surprises here, they seemed to match our temperaments. I’ve been told you haven’t really experienced adventure travel until you have ridden a moped around a non-industrialized country. So, I suppose I have arrived. As long as you don’t pay attention to going into oncoming traffic or weaving between traffic not adhering to any lanes or order, it’s all good. Just breathe and watch the scenery. We drove through many areas with family tombs and monuments, they were lovely. One delightful part was the rice paddies and all the ducks. The drivers would quack at them as we went by. Instead of pesticides and fertilizers they raise hundreds of ducks on the paddies. They eat the bugs and poop then when they are big, they are food. Vietnam is green in many ways by default because they are poor.

We went to Trang An, where yet another strong woman rowed us around caves and pagodas. Everywhere we went, it was mostly women doing physical labor, especially on boats. They are tiny, and strong. They threw their whole bodies into rowing three heavy Americans around. We went through a 1000-meter cave where we literally had to put our head almost between our knees to get through some spots. It was beautiful with stalactites shimmering and dripping all around. Bats chirped all around us, the water was crystal clear and shallow. It was stunning. The river was cool and covered with lilies and filled with carp. The peaks of limestone karsts rose straight up from the water’s edge, covered in various shades of green and texture. Blooms of many kinds harbored birds. Even goats balanced precariously and unbelievably on the sides of rock face. We went in and out of temples dedicated to generals and kings of the 13th century.

We also went to the Mua Caves and hiked up 500 stairs to a gorgeous view and another temple. It was quite the trek up but worth it.

Our next adventure was a cruise of Halong Bay. This is one of the seven natural wonders of the world with an area of 600 square miles and around 2,000 islets that mirror the limestone karsts of Ninh Binh and Trang An. These karsts have taken 500 million years and many conditions and environments to be what they are today, and they are stunning. We kayaked and hiked to more caves in them, we watched them pass by from the deck of the Dragon Pearl. Enchanting is the closest word I can give it, but it still doesn’t do it credit.

On the cruise, we went to a small fishing village. 150 people live there. On good days they make 260,000 dong, roughly $12. They spend their money 1/3 on water, 1/3 on diesel 1/3 on rice and any savings go to health care. For water, they take the fish they have caught and then grown in a pen to get big to the market to sell in a big plastic barrel. They then clean out the barrel and fill with fresh water. They use it for drinking and cooking and use saltwater to wash with a light freshwater rinse. They start working as fisherman at age 7-8 and then at 17-18 have an arranged marriage. By 28 they have up to 5 children. They tried to implement a school there to teach children to read and write. The locals resisted because it took them away from fishing and families lost money. Four years ago, the state mandated that children go to the city in Halong Bay 4 days a week for school then back for 3 days to be with families and work. The government convinced the people that without knowing how to read or write their kids will be at a disadvantage to make more money than they can fishing, so the people agreed. They have 7-8 people living on each small boat, around the size of my Poopsie. I look forward in my cultural write up to talk more about how this impacted me, but it was humbling.

At the end of our cruise, I was able to talk with the captain and first mate for a bit. I got some specs on our boat and details about the water and territory. The captain didn’t seem too chatty, so I kept it short. After I gave him props on seamanship, the first mate, Spiderman, was all too ready to talk. I told him I was also a boat person. He wanted to see a picture of my boat and said with disbelief, “You live there?” I nodded yes. “You no want house or apartment?” I shook my head no. “You live alone?” I acknowledged. Puzzled he asked, “You know how to sail?” Confidently with a little chest puff I said, “I’m the captain.” This is the part where I do believe I might have completely rocked his world. His eyes widened and he asked, “You fish or you sail for pleasure?” I said, “I have another job. I want to learn to fish and BBQ as good as you all did on this cruise, but mostly I sail for pleasure.” He kept shaking his head back and forth as he was digesting all this information. “Very good, veerrrrry good,” he said with admiration and astonishment and patted me on the back.

In both the US and Vietnam, it is still seen as unusual for a woman to take on the role of a boat owner and captain. In Vietnam, women do run and work boats, but they are owned by their husbands or fathers, and are only for fishing or working. They are born into this lifestyle. All their boats are about livelihood and making money. I did not see one boat in all my time in Vietnam that was for recreation. There were more far more women on the water in Vietnam than I see in the states though. It was fascinating to witness the similarities and differences. I saw a woman doing dishes on her transom and laundry drying on the rail and felt right at home. I loved the color and décor of their boats, the unique shape and functions. They were very different than the fleets I see in the states. I only saw one boat that could sail the whole time I was there.

Overall, the water and natural parts of this trip were absolutely magical and made me fall in love with this country. I had never had southeast Asia on my bucket list, but when Sarah moved there I definitely wanted to go. She did most of the planning and I am deeply grateful for such an immense experience. We were exhausted going place to place, this wasn’t your relaxing vacation, this was a tour of a country. I am glad for it because I was able to soak in things I wouldn’t have if it was all in a resort or one area. Travel changes people. It gives perspective in a way no other kind of experience can and if engaged mindfully can help you grow. I look forward to sharing more of this abundantly rich trip with you.

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