Hai Le Cao

Leave your cares behind with a hike through Cat Ba National Park

Before getting married, I spent a lot of time pursuing my passions. After settling down, I was swept away by work and the hustle and bustle of my busy life. Each day flew by in a flash. I needed ways to balance my life and recharge my energy.

There are many islands within Cat Ba National Park

I have learned to do this by exploring the wilderness. On my latest trip, I accompanied a friend on a trek to the center of Cat Ba National Park. While this was not my first visit to this forest, every trip is a new experience. I’m always excited and full of anticipation.

Forty-five km southeast of Hai Phong and 25km south of Ha Long City, Cat Ba National Park lies on the largest island of the Cat Ba Archipelago, a cluster of islands shaped like a bow. The islands have an average height of 100m to 150m above sea level. Their highest point is Cao Vong Peak, at 331m.

Cat Ba National Park covers around 150km2 of limestone mountains and lush rainforest. It is the largest tropical rainforest growing on a limestone island in Asia, and a prime example of its type in the world.

A mushroom grows on a rotting tree trunk

We were lucky to be guided by Mr. Hoan, a local islander and longtime resident experienced in forest trekking. True to the characteristics of a rainforest, giant ferns gradually appeared on both sides of the trail as we made our way to the park’s center. The ancient forest welcomed us with cool air and the pleasant scent of plants and trees.

After nearly four months of being stuck inside our houses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, how precious were these moments immersed in fresh and wonderful nature! The thousand-year-old banyan trees stand tall and strong, their roots deeply embedded in almost every nook and cranny of the sharp cliffs, which are made of weathered limestone. Occasionally, we encountered another species of banyan, the strangler ficus. These sprout upon a host tree and grow around it. While they often eventually kill the host tree, they may also help it to withstand typhoons, making the relationship potentially mutually beneficial.

A thousand-year-old banyan tree stands tall and strong
Like a child’s journey to discover the world’s mysteries, I looked at the strange and surprising shapes that Mother Nature had set before my curious eyes: a tree trunk shaped like a giraffe with stripes formed by fungi; and mushrooms with patterns and parallel veins like flowers reaching for the radiant sun. Underneath the shade of trees and bushes, diverse insects live their little lives: snails hunt for refreshing raindrops suspended from leaves; two beetles lie motionless, camouflaged on a wooden trunk, enjoying the quiet under the tree canopy.

The deeper we went, the more the scenery changed, becoming more opulent and primitive. The highlight of our journey was reaching a body of fresh water in the middle of the forest called Ao Ech (Frog Pond). Perhaps this place was named for its resident frogs and bullfrogs, whose croaking could be heard from hundreds of meters away.

Va Nuoc plants rise to create a flooded forest landscape

While the cacophony can be heard during the dry season, it becomes louder as the rainy season approaches. Myriad frogs join together, along with various birds like crows and coucals, singing a “forest concert”. 

I was enchanted by these thrilling sounds and enjoyed the cool humid breeze. During this season, the pond is full of water that flows down from rocky crevices. From the bottom, thousands of va nuoc plants rise to create what resembles a flooded forest. Standing from 5 to 10m tall with rough bark, this flora species is unique to Cat Ba National Park.

As we only had one day, we had to bid farewell to the forest by the time it grew dark. My heart was soaring with appreciation for the old-growth forest and Mother Nature. After a long day trekking through the jungle, we did not feel tired, but refreshed and recharged with positive energy and an open mind.