As our journey through our travels progresses, myself and Matt have discussed on several occasions whether we are having a positive or negative effect on the environment and the local communities we encounter. Obviously, we like to think that showing respect and gratitude to everyone, refraining from haggling down to the last penny and donating money to good causes make a difference. But we have also discussed possible ways in which tourism could actively promote compassion for animals, respect for the environment and empathy towards local people. So when we read about Hai’s Eco Tour in Phong Nha National Park, we were excited to see that it seemed to be offering all three. With animals, jungle trekking, a BBQ and an income to local people, we were eager to see if this was ethics in action.
On the morning of the excursion we were picked up on bikes and driven into town for the first meeting point. Kitted out in some khaki jungle ‘boots’ (more resembling high top converses!) we were ready to depart. The group was about nine people, I think myself and Matt were the youngest ones by about 10 years… (Maybe eco-tourism isn’t as cool as we think it is!) The corresponding number of locals transported us on their bikes through the lush landscape of Phong Nha. The fields were green, filled with buffalo and cows and imposing limestone castes loomed in the background. We arrived at the Wildlife Conservation Centre and were served some tea while Hai told us the story of how he came to be running the tours.
Originally intending to be an English teacher, he later retrained in wildlife conservation after seeing the beauty of Phong Nha National Park and hearing of the multiple threats it faces. Poaching in the National Park has meant most species of indigenous wildlife there are under severe threat. The trend for exotic meat among tourists and the belief that ‘wild’ meat is the most ‘pure’ has helped fuel the demand. Hai mentioned there are only three tigers left, which have not been seen for several years since they were last identified on the border of Laos. In other words, they are probably long gone by now. He was adamant that although the majority of tourists may come to Phong Nha for the caves, the 85,754 hectare UNESCO rated National Park is a true wonder in itself and must be protected.
Of course, Hai continued, he understands that after poaching and logging were made illegal in Vietnam many local people lost their income. Facing poverty, they either continue the now criminalised activities or look for bombs left from the American War to dismantle. If they are ‘lucky’ and find one, two people sit on either side of the bomb and use a hand held saw to break it into two, with another pouring water inside to cool it down. If successful, they will sell the retrieved dynamite on the black market, if unsuccessful… Well I’m sure you can guess.
He told a story about a local man who had been imprisoned after he was caught selling this dynamite from a bomb. After being released, Hai offered him a job as a porter on his jungle trekking tour. On his friend’s first day he isolated himself away from the group of tourists during the lunch break. Bringing him over to the group, Hai told him that they were all equal and would always eat together. Noticing that the man was still hesitating, he asked him what was the matter. The man replied that he felt guilty eating because he would never be able to provide food like that for his children.
By the end of this story I was pretty emotional and sheepishly looked around hoping no one had seen me welling up. I didn’t need to worry as pretty much all of the women in the group were crying their eyes out! I felt both angry about the threats facing the animals in the park and inspired by Hai, who is seemingly single handedly taking on the task of saving them.
He described his vision for the future, which was that his tours would help conserve the wildlife in the rainforest and encourage compassion for animals. The money raised will go towards the rescue centre and local people who work as porters and transport providers on the day.
So the tours serve a dual purpose: Help the locals and help nature.
We looked around the animals in the rescue centre; among them there were tiny, human-like monkeys that had been saved from traps and a black gibbon with swinging long arms that had spent his first five years in a tiny cage- rendering it impossible for him to be released into the wild. Spiky porcupines that jumped when you approached their enclosure, and the cutest animal, I can’t remember what it was called but it was kind of like a big cat with a badger’s head! It was unbelievable to me that anyone would want to hurt these animals, but I also understand that people need money and food to survive and this must seem like the best option.
We departed the rescue centre and made our way over to the botanical garden where our trek was to begin. We clambered over giant rocks down to the first waterfall and the viewing point over the valley which was a beautiful sight. Our trek continued through the tall trees of the jungle, once in a while Hai would point out an interesting insect or plant, or tell a story about our surroundings. At one point Hai and his colleague demonstrated how a monkey trap works with an old one that had been left up. It was saddening to think of the painful capture of these animals and the fate that awaited them once caught. I thought back to the monkeys in the cages we had met earlier- they were so small and vulnerable, really not standing a chance.
We continued through the jungle and the undergrowth got thicker and more dense. Ascending up the valley, we scrambled over thick roots and through the narrow dark path Hai had cleared. There was a couple of points where we could poke our heads out above the greenery to see the view. It was stunning- the deep vast valley was covered by trees as far as you could see. The trek itself was pretty hardcore by anyone’s standards… At one stage I looked down to see why there was a sharp stinging pain under my arm and found giant red ants tucking into my skin, then after frantically brushing them away looked up to see a leech on my boyfriend’s back, which had somehow managed to get underneath his t-shirt. Trying to stay calm, I attempted to pluck it out but this only seemed to strengthen its determination to suction on. As blood appeared after my yanking I promptly gave up on remaining calm and freaked! Hai plucked it off without a second thought, merely commenting that Matt was very lucky: He hadn’t seen one for years!
We arrived at a cool cave, away from the warm humidity of the jungle, for a bbq that Hai’s helpers had prepared. We settled down to a delicious rice pancake feast, with tofu, pork, vegetables, salad and noodles. After packing up, we continued onto the end of the trek, covering around 10k of terrain in total. The trek finished with a dip in a fresh water pool and after the sticky humidity of the atmosphere it was a relief to get in. After drying off we headed down through the enclosed area where the rescued animals are taken before being fully released into the wild. It was amazing to see the animals roaming around that without the help of the rescue centre would probably not be alive today.
We were transported back to the bamboo café where we enjoyed a well-earned beer. We had all had a great day and were happy to feel that the tour benefits both wildlife and local people!
It would be amazing if Hai had a website through which people could donate to the rescue centre and book his tours online. We asked him if this was going to a possibility and he said that although he has had problems setting this up he hopes so in the future. It would be great if this could happen, registering as a charity and enabling people to donate online would surely be a great benefit to Hai and the Rescue Centre.
Have you ever been to Phong Nha? Or perhaps done tours with similar positive intensions? Eco Tourism is an idea that I find fascinating!