We arrived at Ben En National Park, one of the most relaxing parks in north Viet Nam, early this month to join a reforestation programme with people in Thanh Hoa's Nhu Thanh District.
Located about 45km from the central province of Thanh Hoa's heart on the southwest, the 16,000ha park, half of which is virgin forest, is home to valuable and rare species of animals and birds, such as the red wolf, black gibbon, great hornbill, gayal, tibetan bear, red-face monkey, elephants, bears and, until recent years, tigers.
Farmer Lo Van Quang, 45, a member of the Tay ethnic people, said locals were happy to join the programme started five years ago by the Japanese camera company Canon. To date, more than 140ha of new forests have been replanted.
Do Xuan Loc, deputy head of Thanh Hoa Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's Forest Ranger Branch, said he hoped the project could be expanded to bring more green to Thanh Hoa and the park itself.
Quang said since joining the programme, residents had learned about the need to grow trees and how to protect the environment to develop tourism, which is largely based on the forests, lakes and caves that fill the park.
Until the replanting work began, his family earned a small living growing rice. But, following advice from tourism authorities, he borrowed money and built a new house on stilts, which is now also used for a homestay.
"I also learned to greet and help travellers tour the park. As a result, we now earn a total of about VND 4-5 million (US$180-230) per month," Quang said.
Primitive forest covers 8,544-ha of the park, which features a 3,000ha lake with 21 islets. Studies have revealed 1,389 species of plants, 1,004 species of animals, 201 species of birds, 54 species of reptiles, 31 species of amphibians, 68 species of fish and 499 species of insects.
The park was established in 1992 and gradually expanded. It is not only a protected breeding ground for many rare creatures, but also an attractive destination for ecotourism. Ben En has a wide and diverse system of lakes, caves, mountains and forest. The two biggest lakes are Ben En Lake and Muc Lake.
Quang said we should spend a week to take in all the sights, but we didn't have much time and asked him to take us to the main attractions.
First we visited the dreamy Muc Lake by canoe and enjoyed the breeze as well as the fauna and flora around it. We felt like we were lost in a world of gods surrounded by water and floating clouds.
Quang told us an old legend about the lake, saying that it was created by a giant cuttle fish, a son of the River King, who became so entranced by the surrounding beauty that he forgot the way home.
One day, the cuttle fish was stranded on a shallow shoal and died from exposure after struggling to reach deep water. The place where it died became the Muc Lake and the cuttlefish's tentacles became the streams that fed it, Quang said.
The 4,000ha lake, with a depth of about 12m, consists of 21 islands, appropriately named Me (Mother), Tinh Yeu (Love) and Tuong Lai (Future) and dreamlike caves like Suoi Tien.
Legend has it that fairies from heaven often come here to relax and bathe.
A nearby cave known as Lo Cao has a more topical history. It was used by Professor Tran Dai Nghia during the war against the French to produce cast iron to make weapons used at the great battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Quang invited us to his home to enjoy a local speciality, ca me, a big river fish, to steam with special forest herbs, the names of which he prefers to keep secret. We enjoyed the dish so much because it is so tasty and its special fragrance is unforgettable.
Leaving Quang's home, we met Tong Van Hoang, director of the Centre for Preservation and Development of Creature and Environment, who invited us to prolong our trip. We thanked him, but our bus had been booked and we had to go back to work in Ha Noi.
Ah well, there is always a next time!