Ta Lai Longhouse at Cat Tien National Park
We have officially found a new bolt-hole when Ho Chi Minh City gets too much.
Our new holiday hot spot is just 3.5 hours and a million miles away — no pollution, no traffic, no crowds. Just clean air and quiet and the possibility of actually being totally alone without being locked in your bedroom.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, to the wonderful world of Cat Tien National Park.
Miss M and I did a quick reconnaissance of the area last week, during the second week of school holidays when I’d hit the when-will-this-be-over mark and she the I’m-gunna-be-unreasonable-all-the-time-to-get-attention mark.
It was a snap decision to book bus tickets and get out of Dodge, leaving the lovely baby Sunny in his dad’s very capable hands for two days.
Our destination was Ta Lai Longhouse just outside the national park.
We aced the first part of the journey with flying colours: 3.5 hours on a cramped sleeper bus, with Miss M entertained by toys, sticker books, cashews, made-up fairy stories and, as a last resort, a princess puzzle app on my phone.
The second part also went well, even though I failed to negotiate the going rate with the xe om driver to take us from the bus set-down point to the longhouse.
It should have been about VND100,000 per person, according to the Ta Lai Longhouse website. Since we were 1.5 people, I figured we’d pay about VND150,000. But the lone xe om driver driver waiting at the bus stop at Tan Phu Town told me I needed to give him VND50,000 li xi (lucky money) on top of the 1.5 person fare because it was still Tet.
The official Tet public holidays were over, but, hey, VND50,000 is all of $2.50 so not really such a big deal.
Just as she did when we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, Miss M fell asleep during the xe om motorbike ride.
The reason the longhouse held so much appeal for me is because it was set up in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and an NGO, and a portion of the profit goes to support the four Ta Lai villages, home to people from the Ma, Tay and S’tieng ethnic minorities.
Ta Lai Longhouse also runs holiday camps for kids. Miss M isn’t old enough yet, but I wanted to see the place before even thinking about packing my precious princess off on a bus for adventures without me. (You see the problem here?)
We arrived at the longhouse to find the place virtually deserted. We were the only guests.
“Yay,” I said enthusiastically to Matt, the young British on-site manager, while thinking blackly “shit, I have to entertain this kid all on my own THE WHOLE TIME?”
We wandered off to check out our “room” in the bamboo longhouse, built by local villagers three years ago. It consisted of a small area screened with a semi-transparent curtain.
As well as the longhouse, there’s a covered dining area, a bamboo hut that serves as the kitchen, a bathroom block and a two-storey building for the office and staff quarters.
In the course of checking out our new digs we met Matt the Cat, who may or may not be pregnant, and then we were served a lunch that included French fries.
Miss M was in heaven — cats and chips!!!
That afternoon we tried just about everything Ta Lai Longhouse had to offer, all in record time.
A planned two-hour cycle was abandoned after about 15 minutes because the follow-on attachment, the light mountain bike and the deeply rutted tracks were so incompatible we took a tumble.
The planned long leisurely swim lasted for about 25 minutes because once the kayaking French tourists left, it became boring. Plus a leech found Miss M’s thigh.
The planned long leisurely walk lasted for 7.5 minutes and included two hangry tantrums. (Note to self: trying to delay dinner time to 7pm just doesn’t work after a long bus trip.)
As the afternoon melted away, we found ourselves back at the longhouse, where Miss M couldn’t decide which of her two new toys she loved more — Matt the manager or Matt the Cat.
Before, during and after dinner Matt, who has a masters degree in zoology, was an absolute champion, answering Miss M’s questions, listening to her stories and knocking back a few coldies with Miss M’s mum til bed time rolled around.
It was such a great day that Miss M was asleep after only four seconds of playing with the torch.
It was such a great day, she was up before dawn the next day, ready to do it all again.
We were the only ones awake, long before the staff. And if I didn’t know cats, I’d say before them too.
Completely alone, we looked at the lake and searched for the cats while I distracted Miss M from trying to find Matt the Manager’s bedroom.
We examined fresh cashews.
By now, I’d escaped the city and my deadlines for long enough that this early morning kid stuff was as enjoyable as it should be.
Eventually, one of the cooks arrived with a bag of still-warm baguettes, and moments later we were feasting again. Then it was time for the highlight of our trip, the half-day jungle trek.
The jungle starts just a short walk from the longhouse, down a dirt track that runs along the edge of a cashew plantation.
Suddenly we were plunged into a new world, one with dappled light, a narrow leaf-littered path, draping vines, and a canopy high overhead.
The Cat Tien National Park is supposed to be teeming with bird and animal life. But the only sound in our part of the jungle this particular morning was Miss M, singing, talking, asking questions and announcing I AM THE QUEEN from the top of every rocky outcrop we passed.
After half an hour she was exhausted and we stopped to rest.
Ah well, it was an ambitious expedition.
Our guide, Mr Ne, who spoke no English, gave Miss M a friendly lecture in Vietnamese on conserving her energy by not talking.
I gave her a friendly lecture in English about how the birds won’t sing if a five-year-old is being loud in the jungle.
Totally unfazed, Miss M said she wanted to go home and play with Matt the Manager.
It was supposed to be a 3.5 hour trek, but we were back at the longhouse after one hour and 10 minutes. And once the longhouse office came into view, Miss M started running and calling for Matt.
We decided we’d spend the rest of the morning checking out the national park headquarters, about 20 minutes by xe om from the longhouse.
Miss M, of course, fell asleep on the motorbike.
Matt had warned us that the bear rehabilitation centre kept odd hours and he was right. It was shut. We were told to come back at 2pm, then told to come back in two hours, but we were meeting our xe om in one hour and we were booked on the 3.30 bus back to Ho Chi Minh City.
The bear rehabilitation centre went on our Things To See Next Time list, along with the museum in Ta Lai Village and kayaking. The pre-dawn gibbon trek and Crocodile Island are on a different list, which will either be called Things To Do Once Miss M Turns 12 or Things To Do When Matt the Manager Offers To Babysit.
On this particular day, with the bear centre shut, I asked the lady at the national park help desk where we could see some animals. She very unhelpfully yet grandly waved at everything beyond the office door.
We decided we’d go for a walk to see what we could see, just like the bear who went over the mountain.
When the buildings ran out, we found butterflies, jungle and a giant Tung tree, which prompted Miss M to tell a story about the tree. Which was A KING. A magical king. Who SURVIVED. Until he died. TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO. When Mummy was a child.
And then she found a dandelion clock, which she decided she’d give to Matt the Manager as a gift.
She clutched that tiny dandelion clock all the way back to the longhouse — on the ferry back across the river, during the 20 minute wait for our xe om driver, on the 20 minute motorbike ride and the long run up the steps to find Matt.
Later, after lunch and a game of snakes and ladders with Matt, when it was time to pay the bill, I saw he’d paperclipped the bedraggled dirty dandelion clock to my business card, which was sitting in the middle of his desk.
We can’t wait to go back.
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