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The purpose of visiting Ninh Binh was for the day trips. Day trip 1 was to Trang An Grottoes and Hoa Lu. For day 2 we were off to Cúc Phương National Park.
Cúc Phương National Park was the first national park in Vietnam, consecrated by Ho Chi Minh during the war. This is pretty impressive! The Vietnam-American war was a pretty big deal, and the fact that Ho Chi Minh took time to recognize a national park at this time puts him on my list of famous dead people that I would love to have coffee with (preferably a Vietnamese iced coffee in this case). The history of the park put this on the “things to do” list, but the opportunity for a day in nature is what ultimately led us to go.
We hired a car and driver again for the day, and headed off for the 2 hour drive to the park. The countryside was spectacular, and we had to swerve around a lot to avoid the rice drying on tarps all over the road. We made it to the visitor center and bid our driver farewell for the morning. We skipped the visitor center because Calais wanted to get walking. Just down the gravel road is the Endangered Primate Rescue Center, the Turtle Conservation Center, and the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Center. The first stop for us was to see the monkeys!
After visiting the monkeys we walked back down the road and stopped in at the Turtle Conservation Center. This is not nearly as big as the monkeys, but was good for a few minutes of entertainment.
The park also houses a Carnivore and Pangolin conservation center. It was closed when we were there so sadly we didn’t get to visit.
After the conservation centers we went for lunch at park headquarters, and got our energy up for a hike. We hopped in the car and ventured deeper into park to the Bong Substation, the starting point for our hike.
There are a number of different hiking trails within the park. Many of these require a guide (available from the visitor center) and some are multi-day hikes that can take you to a homestay. I really wanted to do one of the hikes with a homestay in a Muong village, but Kacela wasn’t sleeping through the night. I felt like it wasn’t appropriate to force a bad-night’s sleep on a host!
We opted for the 7km Thousand Year Old Tree trail instead. In hindsight it would’ve been a good idea to get a guide so that we knew what we were looking at. If this kids were older this would’ve been a must! At 6mo and 2yo I don’t think they really cared what they were seeing, they just enjoyed the fresh air.
The hike was peaceful and beautiful. We did see a few other people on the journey, but it was relatively seldom. The trail was well kept in all but one place, where we had to precariously climb over a mound of fallen trees, with kids attached (and asleep). It added to the feeling of adventure for the day! Unfortunately we didn’t see much wildlife, other than a few birds and some spiders. I am sure it was out there, and if we had a guide it would have been pointed out to us.
It was so peaceful that towards the end I was worried we were lost! The trail flattened out and I assumed it was the end of the hike…it wasn’t! Luckily, we weren’t lost. A few more kilometres and we made it back to the beginning. By that point we were happy to jump into the air conditioned car for the drive back to Ninh Binh.
The ride home was filled with the same spectacular views as the morning, but without the swerving in and out of drying rice. We got to swerve around cows instead!
We managed to do and see a lot on our visit to Cúc Phương National Park. I would love to go back one day when the girls are a bit older. Then I would be able to go on one of the longer hikes with a homestay.
Tips for visiting Cúc Phương National Park with kids.
1. Visit the conservation centers. A lot of effort has been put into the conservation centers here and they are well worth a visit. If your kids are young they’ll enjoy just seeing the animals. If your kids are older, it’s a great way to get up close and personal with some threatened and endangered species in an environment more real and relaxed than a zoo.
2. Bring snacks and water. It can get very hot and humid in the park, especially if you are hiking. There’s a small area at park headquarters where you can buy food and drinks, but other than that you’re out in nature. We always had a nalgene with water everywhere we went, but a few snacks for the kids will help hold them until mealtime, or keep them entertained on the car ride to and from.
3. Go on a hike. There are a number of different hiking options in the park, from a 3km botanical garden stroll, to 30km+ multi-day camping trips. Some of these require a guide, some don’t. Going on one of these hikes is a great way to really experience the park.
4. Consider hiring a guide. Many of the hikes require that you hire a guide. If it’s not a requirement I would highly recommend that you do it anyways. This is something that we didn’t do, and although our hike was enjoyable it could’ve been much more educational with a guide. If you have older kids (school age and up) they will learn more, and likely see more, with a guide.
5. Spend the night. This is also something that we didn’t do because our girls were so small, but when we go back we will definitely be spending the night. It allows you to really be a part of the park, and is one less night to spend in Ninh Binh! They also have night tours available which I think would be fascinating for kids AND parents. It is incredibly cheap, and there are a number of different options for different preferences and budgets. None of these are luxury, but they provide all the necessities.
The park has a fantastic website where you can book accommodation and research the available activities before you go.