December 25, 2005
One of the popular and cool things to do is a guided jungle trek in the national park of Cat Ba island. It sounds quite an innocent and safe activity, but it is NOT and in fact can be quite dangerous. The guides usually offer two treks, an easier one lasting a few hours and a second more difficult one lasting at least 6 hours and far more demanding than the former. If you are not experienced, go for the first. If you do not have a reasonable level of fitness, don’t go at all. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes with a good grip on the ground and clothing that does not leave any skin exposed. If possible, have a first aid box with you.
When we started the trek, our group consisted of two Vietnamese guides; three fit girls from Australia, UK, and New Zealand; another Kiwi couple; two tall German guys (one of them said he was a Lufthansa pilot); and myself. The first kilometre was easy and flat. Once we reached the hilly, rocky terrain, I was using my hands to grip horizontal tree branches. The soil was slippery as hell from rain that fell the night before. On the ground, stones and rocks had a flat shape, razor sharp at the end. It wasn’t long before the Lufthansa pilot had a near fall following a slippery step and abandoned the trek. I kept going, not willing to accept my older age and poor shape with grace, going uphill through the thick foliage, the drizzle, and the slippery soil, and I couldn’t stop trying to imagine the poor American soldiers who some 30 years before would try to negotiate similar terrain, with rifles, ammunition, and supplies on their back. Nightmarish!! Similarly, I could not help but admiring our Vietnamese guide, who was climbing as if he was walking on a flat surface, wearing plastic flip-flops and holding two plastic carrier bags in his hands. What were the precious items that were worth carrying in those stupid bags through thick jungle and on the summit of this hill?
Eventually we reached the peak, and despite my efforts, I was the last one to reach the summit. I was coughing like mad and was almost physically sick from the sheer exhaustion. It took me a good 10 minutes to regain my composure and start admiring the view. I was feeling as thirsty as a nomad in the middle of the desert but had no water with me!! And then, VOILA, the Vietnamese guide, with a charming smile, opens the carrier bags and reveals water bottles and Coca-Colas, which he started selling at prices three times above those at ground level!! At the end of the trek, the ever-surprising and helpful Vietnamese guide helped us wash, as most of us were covered in mud from head to toe.
From journal Halong Bay and Cat Ba island-Natural Wonders