A visit to Van Long Nature Preserve

Cuc Phuong National Park, about three hours south-south-west of Hanoi, is visited primarily by birdwatchers and those wishing to see the Primate Rescue Center, where various gibbons, langours and macaques confiscated from poachers or rescued from cages are rehabilitated with the ultimate goal of reintroducing them into the wild. One of those primates, Delacour's Langour, is among the ten rarest in the world, with less than 200 remaining in their only habitat, the karst limestone jungles of northern Vietnam.

They are not doing well, and we are the principal threat to their survival. (Humans are by far  the commonest primate, with over 8 billion of us now having colonized every corner of the globe. We are the Cockroach, Norway rat and House sparrow of the primate world, able to adapt to almost any environment and thrive). Having seen some Delacour's in their cages at the Rescue Center, I decided to try and spot them in the "wild" on my way out of the park. The only place they are regularly found is at Van Long Nature Reserve, a sort of minor appendix to the National Park, some twenty kilometers outside the park entrance. This primeval lake is surrounded by mist-shrouded limestone pinnacles and inhabited by thousands of egrets and herons. It is also what is politely known as a tourist trap.

Turning off the minor highway from Ninh Binh to Nho Quan, one follows a road suitable for tour buses to the lake's edge and finds at the end of it a restaurant-resort complex with too many rooms and overpriced food, and a dozen stalls set up in the dust selling embroidered tablecloths and sun-hats embroidered with the Vietnamese communist star. The only way to visit the lake is to hire a boat. Not a problem; there are countless boats lined up along the embankment and a majordomo who assigns each group their particular vessel and boatman. The price of the boat has already been charged at the ticket desk, saving one the unpleasant task of haggling. (The price is absurdly reasonable, not to say third-world, something like three dollars for an advertised ninety minute tour).

Tourism is, of course, the new colonialism. Here I monkey around taking autoportraits of myself being ferried around Van Long by a diminutive Vietnamese boatlady while she simultaneously scans the hillside for monkeys to show me.

The lake has many boats of many different sizes, ferrying tourists of all nations out onto it, but none of them are motorized, which is blissful, and I appear to be the only one on this particular afternoon who has come to try their luck at seeing the Delacour's Langour, a handsome black monkey with a long tail and, apparently, white shorts. Sightseers are steered east along the lake, while monkey-fanciers bear left, down a spur of the lake trapped between facing walls of limestone. None of the other boats have taken this route, and within minutes of departing the dock I am all alone, surrounded by misty reedbeds and lily-pads. Well, all alone except for the tiny oarswoman valiantly rowing my considerable bulk around in her boat.

The disappointing aspect of visiting Van Long is similar to that of visiting Giverny, where Monet allegedly invented impressionism by painting the waterlilies in his garden. One realizes that, much like Monet, those Chinese painters who painted stylized mountains of dripping rocks, stunted trees and swirling clouds did not actually invent a new way of seeing; instead, they were accurate and realistic painters who sought out, or were surrounded by, incredible landscapes.

Just as soon as we have taken our own route, and the gabble of my fellow dominant primates has paddled out of earshot up the lake, we hear haunting and booming calls coming out of the mountains. They can only be simian in origin. I glance at my guide. She points up into the fog-shrouded rocks above us and whispers conspiratorially to me in Vietnamese. I shrug, uncomprehending. She points again. Does she see something, or is she just indicating the source of the sound? I scan the area of the hillside she is indicating. I see nothing but tortured streaky black and white rock, and vibrant green shrubbery. There are clefts and caves and canyons. The Delacour's could be anywhere up there.

I am certain I hear a return call, coming from the facing rocks to our left; the sound is too present to be the echoes of the first, which we also hear. I point out the other side of the boat. She shakes her head; she does not agree. We row on.  She rows on. Egrets by the hundreds flush from the marshes, fly up and around us, and then resettle a hundred meters further along, waiting for us to paddle up and flush them again. Kingfishers zoom above the reeds. I see white-browed crake, and coots, quite uncommon here in Vietnam.

As I'm watching one bird or another the boatwoman whispers again, urgently. She is now pointing to our left, and from her attitude it is clear that she sees something important. I bring up the binoculars and see them immediately, scampering about on the brutal rock face. All black-monkeys with white diapers, almost extinct, Delacour's Langour.

 Do you see those two pairs of white shorts, below, in this detail from the image above? With tails extending from them?

I'm hoping the wave goodbye means my gratuity was sufficient.


John V. Fleming said...

Excellent monkey business.

Unknown said...

Hi Richard, I like yr candid write up & intrigued about yr life & work. I do underwater cinematography & now based in Vietnam. Google "tropixblue" or "Deeps Asia" for my blogspot & trailer. Would like to keep in touch.