National Park gears up for tourist influx

A project set up to establish a tourism resort on 21 islands in Song Muc Lake is expected to reach completion by 2018. This unspoiled part of Thanh Hoa Province is attracting more interest among tourists. Giang Anh reports.

Leaving the centre of Thanh Hoa Province after spending a night in a city hotel, we headed for Ben En, one of the most spectacular yet little known parks of Viet Nam.

Spread over two districts, Nhu Xuan and Nhu Thanh, the park lies 45 kilometres southwest of Thanh Hoa City. Designated as National Park in 1992 for its rich biodiversity, it has been a haven for the preservation of rare and precious varieties of fauna and flora, many of which are included in the Red Data Book of Viet Nam. Ben En has always been an ideal tourist attraction, but has only recently opened its doors to visitors.

After an hour of driving, we were surrounded by chirping birds, tonnes of fresh air and mile upon mile of evergreen fields running off into the horizon. “What a place for golf!” someone uttered.

“Yes, we are indeed planning to build a golf course outside the park,” says park Director Nguyen Duc Thuan, who welcomed us into his office situated next to the park’s gateway. “In the next five or six months, we expect to establish very attractive service for tourists. The park is going to be a magnet.”

Thuan accompanied us on a tour of the park after showing us his back yard which is home to hundreds of birds. “I will introduce you to another ‘Ha Long Bay’ of Thanh Hoa in minutes,” he said. Dotted on all sides by the thatched houses of local villagers, newly-upgraded paths lead us through glitteringly deep green foliage before we reached the heart of the national park, where a wild-open space unfolded before our very eyes. We were standing on the edge of Song Muc lake, an almost impossibly beautiful part of Ben En.

Covering a total area of 4,000ha and dozens of metres deep, Song Muc Lake is crystal clear, despite its name, which means “Black” or “Octopus River”. Legend has it that a giant octopus visited the lake and got stuck when water ran dry. When the octopus died, his arms turned into four rivers, which flowed into the lake, creating an environment inhabited by 34 species of fish.

We learnt about the legend at the nearby exhibition centre while waiting for a boat. The centre is packed with information on the different species of plants, trees and animals such as bears and tigers once inhabiting Ben En, but which are now sadly extinct.

According to information from the centre, Ben En National Park covers a total area of over 16,000ha with forests covering around 8,500ha. Ben En is home to nearly 1,400 species of plants and 1,000 species of animals.

The park plays an important part in the conservation of around 30 species of plants listed in the red data list of the IUCN (2006) as well as over 42 species listed in the Red Data Book of Viet Nam. As a result, Ben En has attracted hundreds of domestic and foreign researchers every year.

When our boat finally arrived, we found out that it was one of the eight newly bought to serve tourists. Travelling around the lake is the best way to observe and experience the most breath-taking parts of the national park. While the park takes several days to cover on foot it only takes several hours to cover by waterway.

Bird watchers, with an early start, might spot different groups of water birds flying across the sky. “There is no place safer for them,” Thuan says, adding that there are thousands of them living on the islands all year-round, particularly during the summer months.

The 21 islands dotting the lake are real treasures and give Song Muc its name as the Ha Long Bay of Thanh Hoa Province. Each island has its own unique character, with different trees and plants boasting their various forms of wild beauty just above the water level. The whole scene impressed us so much that we just had to take a panorama photo, which proved to be a rather daunting task seeing as each island lies hours away from its nearest neighbour. In order to visit each island we would have needed a week according to Thuan.

Two kilometres south of the centre of the lake lies the Bat Cave, where tourists can come into direct contact with dozens of real bats as they fly and screech about. Next to the cave lies a village inhabited by the Thai ethnic minority, where visitors are able to dine with local families, sampling local specialities and experiencing a new culture.

To the North lies the Ngoc (Gem) Cave which visitors have to enter through a narrow entrance before entering the Grotto’s spectacular 80-metre long girth, complete with stalactites and a spring. 150m away from Ngoc Cave sits Can grotto which is extremely large and cool inside. From its entrance, visitors are able to capture the whole panorama of Song Muc Lake. On the same path lies Rong (Dragon) Pagoda as well as a thousand year old tree, one of the most unique natural treasures of Ben En.

After travelling for two hours by motor boat, we finally stopped at a forestry station.

Le Xuan Cai, one of the three forest rangers, welcomed us with a large smile. It had been months since the last visitors came by. Cai were preparing us a meal with fresh fish and shrimp caught from the lake as well as vegetables from the surrounding mountains. “You are all invited,” he told us upon arrival.

Cai told us a multitude of stories about the park. Before its establishment in 1986, the park had been used as an area for logging. Such a large amount of trees were cut down during the time that we struggled to see any trees with a diameter of over one metre during our trip. Although all logging activities have been declared illegal since the establishment of Ben En in 1992, illegal logging still continues.

About 18,000 people belonging to the Kinh, Thai, Mong and Tay groups currently live in a buffer zone within the centre of the park. Since their livelihoods depend largely on forest resources, it had been very difficult to prevent them from cutting down trees, Cai said.

According to Director Thuan, there are over 240 foot paths that lead straight to the limestone forest and primitive woods, which makes the work of forest guards extremely challenging. Around 20 trees are still cut down illegally every year by locals who need the wood for new houses and furniture.

Thuan told us that many households living within park borders were among the poorest communities in Viet Nam. It is difficult to do farm work in the park which prevents people from earning legal livings. Using natural resources has been a long time habit for most of them.

“As part of the Kinh community we should ask ourselves why we like wild meat and wooden furniture so badly. Our obsession has lead to the exploitation of primitive forests, too” he said.

A project set up to establish a tourism resort on 21 islands in Song Muc Lake is expected to reach completion by 2018 in addition to new park tours. An increased amount of visitors could help increase job opportunities for local communities. The forest guard said he hoped harnessing and developing tourism could help reverse the negative effects of exploitation in the area. — VNS

Paradise found: Le Xuan Cai lives at the forest with two other rangers. They return to the mainland once a month. Cai says the island is beautiful but it can be lonely. — VNS Photo Viet Thanh

Major attraction: Ngoc (Gem) Cave is famous for its glistening stalactites which spawned its name.

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