Finding our place in nature

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The Ham Xe Lua (literally train tunnel) stream meanders through rocks said to be 150 million years old in the Phuoc Binh National Park.

The cliché has to be used. Unforgettable. Our four-day, three-night journey of discovery to the BidoupNui Ba and Phuoc Binh national parks in the Central Highlands had moments galore that were simply unforgettable.

The 46-kilometer trek started at the K'long K'lanh forest management station, 1,439 meters above sea level. Every day, we had to climb nearly 850 meters and walk for around 11 kilometers through forests before reaching Bidoup Mountain, 2,287 meters above sea level. At night, we slept in tents set up in the forest.

Actually, if the trip was only about conquering the mountain, we might have "surrendered" early, given our severe colds and the exhaustion in our legs. But the landscape's natural, grandiose beauty and stories of legends and daily life recounted by locals kept us going.

The ancient pơ mu (Fokienia) tree, that has a circumference equal to the embrace of up to ten people, was one of the unforgettables. It showed us, quietly and firmly, our place in nature's scheme of things.

Binh To Ha Lung, a Churu man guiding us, told us the tree's diameter was least five meters. The Churu are an ethnic minority community living near the Bidoup -Nui Ba National Park.

Xuan Vinh of the Institute of Tropical Biology, who traveled with us, said the tree, which has been in Vietnam's Red Data Book of endangered species of fauna and flora for 15 years, is 1,305 years old.

GETTING THERE

Around 50 kilometers from the resort town of Da Lat, the Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park is located in Lam Dong Province's Lac Duong and Dam Rong districts. Next to Bidoup is the Phuoc Binh National Park situated in the Bac Ai District of Ninh Thuan Province.

The Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park covers an area of nearly 64,000 hectares and the Phuoc Binh National Park covers more than 19,800 hectares.

To explore both national parks, tourists can book a tour with travel company Vietmark, 1st floor, 166D Tran Hung Dao Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Tel: (08) 5 404 5404 or 5 404 3939.

As we left the giant tree we reflected on the relationship the ethnic minority people in the area had with nature that allowed both to thrive and be strong. One small story showed how nature was sacred to the Churu.

We were told of a holy stone in the Phuoc Binh National Park, contiguous with Bidoup-Nui Ba, that answered prayers if you "fed" it with some leaves. Even if people did not feed the stone, they should show their respect to it, Lung told us. If visitors do something offensive and desecrate the stone, they will be punished, he added. The stone has a mouth (a chink) that visitors can use to feed it.

Yet another sight that will stay forever in our memory is the Ham Xe Lua (train tunnel) stream and waterfalls in Phuoc Binh meandering through stones and cliffs that Vinh said are 150 million years old.

Churu village

We were extremely happy on seeing the first stilt house of the Churu people after four days of wandering in the forests. They invited us to sip some corn wine and talked to us about their customs.

In the Churu society, women actively pursue the man they want to marry, not the other way round, and a after the wedding, the men move to their wife's house. But the image of the Churu man as quiet and passive was also broken for us. Through several days of traveling through the national parks, we discovered they were an ebullient lot.

Both Binh To Ha Lung and Binh To Ha Giang always helped women carry their backpacks, told us "secrets" for not getting lost when going through the forest, and cooked us tasty meals.

Explaining how to make wine from corn, Giang said, "First, shuck the corn and boil the kernels until they are well-done. Then, grind yeast and mix it with the kernels. Put the mixture into a sealed bag for two days before placing it into a jar. It will become wine a week later and can then be consumed."

At the Churu village, we saw farmers harvesting rice. The Churu people plucked the first rice grains by hand to show their devotion to the "God of Rice." These first grains are deemed sacred and worshipped so that the Rice God will bless the community with bumper crops.

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