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A chance to be one with nature

  Located in the northern province of Ninh Binh, Van Long Nature Reserve is the largest wetland in Vietnam's northern region / PHOTO COURTESY OF NINHBINH.GOV.VN

It is said that one man's poison is another's nectar.

It sounds unfair and unacceptable that one person's sadness can be another person's happiness, but we were not feeling guilty as we visited the Van Long nature reserve in Ninh Binh.

While local authorities may rue the fact that the place has not attained the popularity of other sites in the province like Trang An and Tam Coc Bich Dong, which are home to numerous caves and historical relics, we were distinctly happy about it.

It was a hugely welcome relief, not being bothered by people offering various handicrafts or other items, not to mention this service or that.

The Van Long nature reserve is not quite different from the more popular places mentioned above. The 3,000-hectare area is home to 457 plant and 39 animal species, including rare ones, as well as 32 caves and many mountains.

However, due to limited investments, the largest wetland in Vietnam's northern region has not been a big draw since it was first introduced as a tourism site in 1999.

My friends and I reveled in this relative lack of popularity.

Our boat seemed to move through still waters because they were not crowded with other boats. We could see why the wetland had been called "the bay without waves." 

It was not a pretty boat. It was made of concrete and covered with bamboo wattles, but our ferryman was a simple-hearted man who kept telling us different stories, mostly about local life.

Van Long, however, is not just about calmness, silence and peace.

In action 

We'd set out at 5 a.m. with a boat we'd booked the day before, hoping to encounter Delacour's Langurs (Trachypithecus delacouri), which are listed as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

According to Tilo Nadler, director of the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Ninh Binh, Van Long is now home to more than 40 of the rare langurs. It is the biggest population of the leaf-eating monkeys in Vietnam. But, the animals are rarely spotted by visitors, as the boat rides typically do not happen when the primates are up and about. 

Perhaps it was our lucky day. Just as our boat took a turn at the first mountain, we saw a very big primate sitting near the water's edge. It looked at us for a moment, before slowly leaving its place and climbing on to a tree with leafy branches.

Then, all of a sudden, a group of some ten langurs showed up and ran all over the mountain cliff, making a lot of noise. 

A woman in another boat nearby said they were chasing a fox. We did not believe her, but were too busy taking photographs to take the issue further. It is a pity that our photographs were not very good as they were taken from hundreds of meters away in the dim early morning light.

The chaotic scene lasted for more than 20 minutes before the monkeys left, as suddenly as they'd appeared. Our boatman told us that he'd never seen what had just happened before. He'd only seen one or two monkeys from afar, earlier. 

As we continued our ride and went deep into the wetlands, we saw groups of birds that made a lot of noise at our presence.

Wild ducks were quietly swimming in the waters, but quickly flew away on hearing the sounds of approaching boats. Storks which were standing still higher up also took off hurriedly, but soon returned to their places. It seemed that we were not too close to them enough to be any concern.

Most of the birds here were a kind of stork that has beaks similar to that of pelicans but smaller. It was unfortunate that no one at that time could tell us its name. 

According to our boatman, local people love the stork because it eats channeled apple snails that threaten local crops. A stork can eat up to one kilogram of snails a day, he said.

Meanwhile, local photographers are attracted to it because its flying pose is as beautiful as that of the famous Sarus cranes in the Mekong Delta province of Ca Mau. They often gather in the wetlands as the sun goes down, hoping to catch tens of thousands of storks flying with their cameras.

We did not have the luxury of being able to wait for a long time, so the small groups of storks were good enough for our cameras.

Despite the chaos caused by the birds, Van Long was still at peace.

The calm and pure water surface, still mountains, high wild grass and flowers like lotuses, lxora and water lily together, they created a harmony that we felt blessed to be part of, if only for a while.

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