Crocodile Lake, Vietnam

11 Jun

My girlfriends and I stepped  onto the dusty road in the middle of nowhere and watched in trepidation as the bus pulled away and the three of us were left clutching our backpacks and staring at the great expanses of countryside in the blinding mid-day sun.  This was what we had been looking for, our big attempt to get off the well-beaten “tourist track” in Vietnam.  Yet as a crowd of men approached us on motorbikes and started yelling at us in Vietnamese, we started to wonder just what we had gotten ourselves into.

My friend had read about this beautiful national park in our tattered guidebook,or as we called it, the Lonely Bible.  There was no real way to access the park except to get dropped off on the side of the road and hope for locals to offer you a ride to the main park entrance by motorbike, but it was a UNESCO designated biosphere and home to some of the rarest and most beautiful wildlife in the world.  In fact, it is one of only two places in the world where the rare Javan Rhino can still be found in its natural habitat.  And so, there we were, three blonde girls who spoke no Vietnamese, facing a crowd of 20 Vietnamese men with their motorbikes.

After some tense negotiations, we hopped on the back of three motorbikes and wound our way through some of the most strikingly beautiful countryside we had seen on our journey.  Mist was rising from the mountains and I could sense the jungle slowly starting to swallow us up.  We spent our time in the park wandering around on their extensive network of trails, getting eaten alive by leeches, and listening to the sounds of the jungle come alive at night as we drank beer with the rangers.  Yet even though we were a 40 minute motorbike ride and a 10 minute boat ride from the nearest road, we wanted to submerge ourselves even further in the wilderness.  We had heard that it was possible to hike to a distant ranger outpost on a lake and spend the night with the rangers, giving you a fleeting chance at spotting the some of the elusive Javan Rhinos.

As we tied our leech socks extra tight, I asked my friend Ashley if she was sure this was such a good idea.  The lake, after all, was called Crocodile Lake, and was reported to be teeming with giant crocks.  And since we had already gone way beyond our budget with the expensive motorbike ride and the in-park lodging, we were pinching pennies and had opted not to pay extra money for food while we were staying out at the lake.  But, the adventurer inside of me was eager to explore the park further, as was the idea of truly getting away from it all.

Our night hike to spot rare wildlife was anti-climatic, but it was also hauntingly surreal and at times terrifying.  After we had hiked in utter darkness for about an hour, our guide turned off his flashlight, leaving my friends and I grabbing for each other as we listened to the crescendo of insects and birds around us swell with intensity.  He asked us to remain absolutely still, and as we waited for several endless minutes and strained our ears to listen for footsteps in the distance, I looked at the dark canopy above me that was pierced only by a few brilliant stars.  So this is the wilderness, I thought to myself, and I breathed in the fragrant moist air of the rain forest.

When we returned from our fruitless hike, the sun was just starting to make its bold appearance in the sky.  We sat by the lake (which was, in fact, full of crocodiles) and watched the sky turn pink across the misty water.  I saw a lone bird float across the shimmering lake and for a moment, I could almost imagine what the world was like before us humans arrived and started to destroy everything.

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