Naomi Kerp's Diary
Restoring Vietnam's Forest

Saturday, May 22, 2004 Friday, May 21, 2004
Thursday, May 20, 2004 Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Tuesday, May 18, 2004 Monday, May 17, 2004
Sunday, May 16, 2004 Saturday, May 15, 2004
Friday, May 14, 2004 Thursday, May 13, 2004
Tuesday, March 23, 2004 Monday, January 2, 2004
Friday, December 19, 2003

Related Sites

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Our last day together! We had noodles for breakfast and then drove back to Hanoi. We went back to the same place on the river for lunch—no chicken feet this time. It really made us reflect how much we'd learned since then. It seems like longer than a week.

Back in Hanoi, Sinh dropped everyone off one by one. It was quite sad since I don't know if I will see any of them again. Han especially was so cute. We got along really well. Jenn and I have become fast friends, and we will travel together for another week in North Vietnam and plan to see each other again in Thailand in December.

I learned so much on this expedition. I would never have become so immersed in Vietnam—the culture and environment—without this trip. I am so grateful to Earthwatch and Alcoa for this wonderful privilege.

Friday, May 21, 2004

We got up early today. Sinh decided that by the time we get to the research site, it will be time to go to the minority village, so we have a free morning! I think it's a bit of a shame, because I won't get to see the jungle for one last time. But instead, we climbed a very steep, slippery hill to the Observation Box. It was an amazing view of the mountains. We then walked around the huge botanical park, which was a showcase of all the different species in Vietnam. We saw some native spotted deer.

Goodbye Cuc Phuong! I bought some souvenirs with the national park logo from the gift shop, and Jenn and I packed up our room. I loved it here. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Vietnam, but I really love this little corner of it.

We all got our bags into the van again, and we're off to the minority village. Vietnam has many minority groups, and the village we're visiting belongs to one of the biggest—the Muong people.

The government is expanding National Highway Number 1, and unfortunately it's going through part of the national park. To their credit, they are building about four kilometers (2.5 miles) of bridges to bypass all of the fragile riverine areas, but the new highway will go directly past the Muong village. The workers at the bridge construction site actually wore hard hats (first I've seen in Vietnam). Our van had to weave in and out of piles of dirt, excavators, and dump trucks. Our driver got us bogged, and we all had to get out and push. It was crazy.

The village was near a river and had wooden stilt houses and lots of little gardens and palm trees (to keep away bad spirits). The village headman's house where we stayed is beautiful—a big airy room on stilts, with kittens, puppies, and his eight kids running around the place. The kids were so cute. I asked one little girl "Ba go kwe hoom?" (How are you?), and she ran away! I started feeling quite sick and had to hang out by the toilet for an hour or so. Luckily, the village had some plumbing. Luckier for me, the feeling passed!

We walked to the river as the sun went down. It was beautiful. The others jumped in and went swimming, while little kids yelled "Tay oi!" (Hey, Westerner!) at us from the opposite bank. I had a quick shower—just a tap in the wall—before it got dark (no lights). The villagers brought us out dinner, which we ate sitting on woven mats on the floor. I still wasn't feeling right in the stomach, which was annoying because the food was delicious!

After dinner, everyone in the whole village came down and sat around in the headman's room. The kids were all dressed up and excited. I think it's a real occasion for them.

The men played instruments while the women did some different dances and songs. Then they wanted us to sing! Andy and I did an Australian show of "Give me a home among the gum trees," complete with actions. The kids thought it was hilarious. Hiroshi sang a Japanese song, but the Americans let the team down! Then we all did this bamboo dance—it's jumping in between bamboo poles being bashed together. Or maybe it's just a trick to hit some foreigners. I don't know! All I know is, I had bruised ankles by the end from getting smacked with bamboo.

The kids were all sent home, and the headman brought out his pride and joy—a communal hubble-bubble looking thing but with warm alcohol that you suck up through bamboo straws. Eventually, everyone had enough of that and went home, and we were allowed to sleep. The women hung individual mosquito nets all through the room, so it looked like lots of cocoons. I slept quite badly on a cane box for a pillow.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Everyone was late for breakfast this morning and drank lots of coffee! I recognized quite a few people from last night—all the tourist office guys and the dining room girls. What a bonding experience! Thank goodness Jenn and I are in the bamboo field today! I feel sorry for the others. They had to hike quite a distance, and we ate lunch separately because it was too far to come back.

So many people came and stared at us today. We've started taking it in turns to deal with them. We finally got overrun by about 15 school kids, who jumped all over our stuff and touched our hair. Our site also got invaded by bees, so we had to keep jumping around to avoid them while still trying to record the light every minute.

We all had a warm beer as usual on the balcony back at the guesthouse. Tomorrow night we plan to stay in a minority village, so tonight is our last night here. Everyone got a bit nostalgic at dinner and exchanged addresses and business cards. Mr. Hien gave me a bracelet, and Sinh gave me a badge of the national park. I wish I'd thought to bring everyone something from Australia. I have enjoyed being here so much, I really don't want it to end. Everyone is so great.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

It poured with rain again today, which means we couldn't measure light intensity. We stayed in Bong for a while, then decided to hike to the Ancient Tree, which is in the opposite direction of our research site. It's one of the species with huge buttress roots and has a trunk circumference of eight meters (8.7 yards) above the roots! It has lots of graffiti on it though, which is a shame.

Every time we have lunch at Bong, there is a huge stick or leaf insect sitting on the table. It's fantastic. I went to the toilet and had to shoo a frog out of the bowl! After lunch, we went back to the research site and did a few hours of monitoring. It was still raining, however, and we kept having to wait. We all get along really well, and our sessions have become a bit of a language fest. Between the six of us, we speak bits of English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German, and we are all trying to learn some Vietnamese.

We had dinner early, as today is Ho Chi Minh's birthday! Sinh celebrated by having some different alcohol with dinner—rice vodka, which was actually really smooth and fortified rice wine. Then we were off to join the local Vietnamese in their celebrations!

We went down to the town to the local gymnasium, where two youth groups were putting on a bit of a party. We all got seats of honor at school desks in front of a makeshift stage with Uncle Ho's photo everywhere. There was lots of singing and dancing and flower giving, complete with a guy playing a keyboard doing drum rolls at the end of every speech. It was classic! They said they were really proud to have foreign guests, and Andy made a speech about how much we all loved Vietnam. The girls were all dressed in the traditional ao dai (long flowing dress with slits) and served us tea.

Then the celebration really started. It became almost a high school disco with a CD player and disco ball. It was so much fun! They brought out a metal jerry can full of rice alcohol, and everyone did rounds of the room, cheering and making toasts of "Chuc si kwe!" to Ho Chi Minh. The alcohol was nasty. We ended up drinking it like tequila but with chasers of watermelon. All the younger boys pulled us up to dance, and we cha-cha'd around the room. It was a great night! Everyone was so welcoming and really happy to let us join in. When we finally left, Sinh gave everyone a vitamin supplement so we wouldn't have hangovers for work tomorrow. Haha!

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

I measured tree circumference all day today. I got bitten on the bum by an ant while I was bending down—this is becoming a regular occurrence! It hurt more than the wasp sting.

The transect was steep, clayey, and very slippery. We have to be like mountain goats and jump from rock to tree root to get up. I found some cool snails that live on the wet rock outcrops and are shaped like marine snails but in the jungle! Now every time Han sees any, she plucks them off and brings them to me! They think I'm snail-mad. There are also these huge spiders. Their legs are an adult hand span across but really thin. They remind me of the Martians out of War of the Worlds and are really creepy.

We finished work half an hour early today to go to the hot mineral springs. We went back out to the little village outside the national park, dodging little boys herding water buffalo on the road. The hot spring is diverted to an indoor swimming pool at this health center. It looked a bit unhygienic, but we all braved it and jumped in like the local boys. Jenn and I had a hot shower for the first time since we got here. The men drank a bottle of apricot wine again at dinner, while the rest of us had a nice lukewarm beer. It has become a tradition. After dinner, Han made us all sing a song from our countries.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Jenn was still feeling paranoid about bugs and leeches, so we requested to do the control site today. It was a really relaxing day. We sat in our little bamboo field on a plastic sheet and took turns measuring light intensity. The measurements have to be done every minute, which is too short a time to be able to read or do anything else, so we chatted most of the day. We must've looked really strange to all the Vietnamese visitors and school kids walking past—two foreign girls sitting in some bamboo. Everyone was so curious. Even if they didn't speak English, they would come up and stare at us taking measurements. It was very hard to explain what we were doing! "We're measuring the sun." All of the school kids wanted photos with us. It was so cute.

When we got back to Bong, we saw a puppy with six toes on its back feet (Agent Orange?). There were hundreds of butterflies in a ditch. I thought it was amazing until I realized they were all congregating around the pipe that came out of the men's urinal.

We all played cards after dinner, and tried the Birds Nest White Fungus drink. Disgusting! It had white chunks floating in it.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

There was a torrential downpour this morning. We got saturated just running from our room to the dining room. Everyone in the whole place gathered inside the dining room and watched the rain. Coming from a dry climate, I never see rain like this! It's amazing. The whole place just seems to stop.

Sinh said it's too dark to take the light intensity measurements, so we decide to go to the Cave of Prehistoric Man. That was an adventure, climbing up slippery metal ladders in the rain. Three human graves dating back 7,500 years were found in the cave. It's still a place of worship, with incense and fake money being burned on the floor.

The cave went quite deep, with lots of bats. Amazing. We all bought some unusual food and drink from the little stand on the side of the road. Bong was full of buses of Vietnamese high school kids, all playing noisy games. We agree that they seem younger than teenagers where we're from.

We hiked about one kilometer (.6 miles) from Bong, and Sinh chose our control site. This is a small field of bamboo that used to be a rice paddy before the national park was declared. Sinh needs an open clearing to do the light intensity measurements. Each measurement must be taken on the minute for the whole day so Sinh can compare it to values we get under each canopy.

We struck off the path and followed Mr. Hien to place the first transect. I heard some buzzing noises, but not soon enough. Jenn got stung in the bum by a big orange wasp! She doesn't like bugs and was really paranoid for the rest of the day.

There are basically four jobs for us to do: light intensity measurements, tree height and stem length, tree circumference, and setting up the transect. We estimate tree height by holding a three-meter (3.3-yard) bamboo pole against the tree and extrapolating upwards. It's quite difficult because the canopy is very thick with lots of vines, and you can't tell which tree is which. I found it so interesting to get up close to the jungle. The soil is so thick and clayey, and there's so much life. So lush compared to the Australian bush. I led the way back to the track. What a mistake. We went straight past the wasp nest again, and I got stung on the arm! It was quite swollen and itchy.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

We had traditional Vietnamese noodles for breakfast, and then went to the visitor information center to learn about the park. It was really low technology but excellent—lots of background on the geology and diversity of the park, which is what I'm interested in. The whole area used to be an ocean, and the karst hills were islands—hence the erosion underneath.

Cuc Phuong was the first national park in Vietnam, and some villages had to be relocated. There is a Primate Rescue Center here run by German scientists. They save animals from poachers and illegal trafficking and rehabilitate them to the wild. Sometimes it's not possible—I saw a gibbon with only one arm. It's very sad.

We drove to the little community named Bong at the center of the park after lunch. The narrow road through the jungle was full of clouds of hundreds of butterflies. There's more here than I've seen in my entire life—it's like driving through a snowstorm, they're so thick. It was amazing.

We arrived and kitted up all ready for the jungle. Sinh and the other Vietnamese just wear sandals with leech socks (thick canvas socks). It's very different. Coming from Alcoa, I have to wear steel cap boots, hard hat, safety glasses, etc., when I work in the bush. I would not be allowed out in sandals! We all tucked our pants into our socks and covered ourselves in insect repellent. It's not just leeches to watch out for but big spiders, spiky caterpillars, and wasps.

We hiked for about three kilometers (1.9 miles) on a little path through the forest. It was so hot and humid, we were all drenched in sweat. The jungle is so thick and lush, with lots of lianas (hanging vines). I spotted a tiny snake and a huge jumping worm.

Cuc Phuong is mostly visited by Vietnamese on school trips or holidays. We passed people on our hike wearing thongs, high heels, and even bare feet! I can't believe it, especially as Jim got a leech inside his socks and boots! Sinh burned it off with a lighter. It bled a bit, but he said it didn't hurt. We visited the Thousand Year Old Tree, which is a species with huge buttress roots—incredibly big.

We walked off the track into the jungle, and Sinh told us about the project. We practiced the methods we'll be using for the next week. We'll be measuring the height, stem length, trunk circumference, and light intensity under each tree in the transect. Han and Sinh will record each plant's life stage, location, canopy structure, health, and species.

On the way back to Bong, we hiked to Palace Cave. The whole area is riddled with limestone caves and underground systems. It was so cool inside, we stayed there a while just to recover! Once we got back to Bong, we all cracked open a warm Ha Noi beer and sat around on our terrace. I found a can of Birds Nest White Fungus drink in our room—gross. Jenn and I decided we will try it before we leave.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Sinh, our team leader, was late, so I wandered around the markets for a while. We have debated about it, but we're fairly sure some of the meat for sale is dog (dog-like head, dog-like tail—it's definitely not a pig!).

I met Hiroshi, who is a chemist from Canon in Japan, and Jenn from Santa Barbara, California (USA). We also have Han, who is a young research officer with Sinh, and Mr. Hien, who is a wiry tough guy and retired botanist helping us out. We had lunch in a dodgy little restaurant on West Lake, then the four-hour drive to Cuc Phuong National Park.

Vietnamese roads are crazy—no one seems to obey the rules. My record for the amount of stuff I've seen on a motorbike is a draw between five women, one guy and two large pigs, and two guys and a car door. Very resourceful people! You can tell we are all new to Vietnam because we gasp and hide our eyes while the driver just laughs.

Rural Vietnam has a large French influence—every house is a narrow terraced building with wooden shutters. It looks so unusual next to rice paddies and buffalo. It's beautiful.

Cuc Phuong is only 160 kilometers (99 miles) from Hanoi in a valley surrounded by mountains protecting it, but the drive took four hours. The last section is a dirt road.

It was already dark when we arrived, but the air is cooler and humid and full of insect and frog noises—magic! We're staying in a guest house at the entrance to the national park. It's a two-storey terraced building going moldy from the damp. Jenn and I are sharing a room upstairs complete with noisy geckos and mosquito nets—it's gorgeous! We don't have any hot water, but it's really refreshing. There is a dining room where we will eat at every night—the food was delicious and so authentic. Sinh brought out a bottle of apricot liqueur to celebrate our arrival. The bottle says apricot, but personally I think it was mentholated spirits! I later saw it for sale—US$.50 for a whole bottle!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

I arrived in Hanoi this afternoon after spending a night in Kuala Lumpur on route from Perth. It is so hot and humid—I hope it's cooler in the jungle. On the way into the city from the airport, I already saw women in conical straw hats, water buffalo, and lots of rice paddies. Vietnam actually looks like what you expect!

Hanoi is a beautiful city—it's full of crumbling French-style terraced buildings and large tropical trees lining every street. It's kind of grubby and run down but really charming. The Old Quarter has narrow streets full of motorbikes and woven baskets, gravestones, etc.—cars don't even fit down them. Ho Kiem Lake is in the middle of the city, and it's like an oasis of calm amongst all the crazy streets. Apparently gigantic tortoises up to 250 kilograms (551 pounds) have been spotted, but I think it's an urban legend (despite the stuffed one in the temple). I really wanted to get a closer look, but I physically could not cross the road because it's so busy and dangerous.

I met Andy, Jim, and Donna from my team for dinner in a traditional Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the lake. Andy is the ranger-in-charge at Lake Eildon National Park in Victoria, Australia, and a bushman at heart! We're meeting the rest of our team at Jim's hotel in the morning.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Today I have finished all my flight bookings, visa applications, etc. It is so exciting—only seven weeks to go! My expedition begins before most of the other Alcoa people's do, so I have been quite rushed to get everything organized. Debbie Cronin, who is also an Earthwatch Fellow and with whom I work at Alcoa in West Australia, is off diving in Jamaica. We have been following each other's progress and are getting excited together.

I have been e-mailing my fellow expedition team. There is Jim and his wife from Utah, a man from eastern Australia and another from Japan, and an American woman—six of us altogether.

We are all arriving the day before the expedition begins in Hanoi, which looks like a beautiful city. During our expedition, we will be staying in a guesthouse at Cuc Phuong National Park. It is 160 kilometers (99 miles) from Hanoi, but the journey will take us four hours. Apparently the roads are shocking, and no one drives after dark due to enormous potholes.

I have been doing lots of reading on Vietnam. The country has been at war for such a long period of time—with China, France, and the United States. I can't imagine what it would be like.

After the expedition finishes, I will be travelling on my own for two weeks. I want to see the rest of Vietnam and go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The staff at the national park has offered to teach us Vietnamese in the evenings. This will come in handy for the rest of my trip! The only things I'm not looking forward to are my hepatitis injections.

Monday, January 2, 2004

Wow! I can't believe I've been accepted into the Earthwatch program. I just got an e-mail from the Alcoa coordinator, and I am going to Vietnam! I'll be doing rainforest restoration in a national park in north Vietnam. I feel so lucky. I have just run up and down my office hallway telling everyone. They sent a list out of all the Earthwatch Fellows Alcoa is sponsoring worldwide—only three from Australia. I feel very privileged. I am going on my expedition with Jim, an Alcoa employee from Utah (United States). I leave in May—only a few months away!

I have always had a fascination with Vietnam, so this is fantastic! In working for Alcoa, I do a lot of forest work with leaf area, canopy structure, tree characteristics, etc. So, I might actually learn something relevant to my job on this expedition. We will be recording a lot of ecological characteristics, such as height, health, and flowering, to develop a database about the different conditions each species prefers at different stages of life. The Vietnamese can then use this knowledge to re-forest all the areas affected by the war, exotic pine plantations, and excessive logging. Apparently I have to watch out for leeches!

Friday, December 19, 2003

I submitted my application for the Alcoa Earthwatch Fellowship program. I have been thinking for ages about what to write that will give me the best chance of getting selected. I have researched doing conservation volunteer programs before, but they have always been too expensive. Now I have the chance to be sponsored!

I am an environmental scientist and have been to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador. I love rainforests, and I tailored my application toward it. I put a lot of thought into my answers, and I hoped I would be successful. Only time will tell.

Related Sites

"BioBulletin" of Vietnam's Forests
The American Museum of Natural History explains how the current stable political environment in Vietnam is enabling scientists to inventory and study this nation's diverse biological resources.

Pressures Facing Vietnam's Forests
A section of the 2001 State of the Environment Report for Vietnam, published by the United Nations Environment Programme, assesses the pressures facing Vietnam's natural forests.

Photo Gallery

View the images from Naomi Kerp's diary.

Earthwatch Institute

Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.

Restoring Vietnam's Forests

Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.