Our over night field trip to an old hill station called Bach Ma is pre-arranged and we can’t cancel it. This will be a wet one.
Bach Ma is a national park located half way down the crooked finger of a country that is
Our ornithologist, Mr. Minh greets us warmly. In spite of the rain and the unlikely prospect of seeing many birds, he insists we trek up the mountain during which he entertains us with his life history.
Minh was university educated in
He told us too about his part recently in an Australian research project documenting the history of colonial Bach Ma. His role in Dr. Fife's study was to ferret out the local elderly to record their memories. Too often though, they were not cooperating, dying before he could interview them.
It rained sideways. We walked more than twelve kilometres over an afternoon and the following morning. Minh continued his stories, now about the history of Bach Ma, interrupting only to draw Dan’s attention to a bird. Over three days, the bird count will total 35 in spite of the rain. Dan is delighted. For my part, I walk and listen, taking notes about the mountain as best I can under a borrowed hooded motorcycle poncho that drapes to my ankles. It had a built-in "window" of clear plastic through which I could view my moving pen.
I was reasonably comfortable in my portable tent and confident that the anti-leech socks that Minh lent us would protect me from losing a bucket of blood to those awful creatures. Minh is an advocate of leech protection. He recounted, matter-of-factly, how he had to pull a leech off his penis one time on an overnight campout on the mountain. His girlfriend was just as unlucky but he didn't continue the story.
Bach Ma was a hill station built by French colonists in the 1930s. That’s comparatively late for many hill stations across
The most famous hill station surviving in
On Bach Ma, we walk the same cobbled path as had Vietnamese bearers eighty years ago when they transported French officials and their families in litters to the mountain retreat. Earning what Minh calculated were three
We walk by the hard rock foundation stones of villa after villa, all that’s left after what's called the American War. We stopped at one fully intact structure, recently restored as a guesthouse for naturalists and students who now come to Bach Ma in peace time. While the building had been pasted back together, the pool, a gazebo, and the tennis court lay abandoned in the sunken terraces off the road, overgrown and cracked. Other houses, beyond restoration, show bullet-pocked foundation stones jutting up from piles of dead leaves, like grave stones. Here is a place where man has retreated, and nature is reclaiming its own.
Minh identifies a screaming red-wiskered bulbill.
At its height, there were more than 130 structures on Bach Ma. Ironically, the village’s destruction is perhaps the mountain’s best protection in peace time. The mountain was left alone and then designated a national park in 1991. As a park and not a hill station, Bach Ma is protected from modern developers who are changing the environment of other hill stations, like Dalat, by bringing in timeshares, condos, arcades, shopping centres and karaoke.
Bach Ma was pulled into the war because the plateau at the top was used by an American helicopter launch and observation post. The view over the agricultural basin extends to the sea and Bach Ma was therefore of strategic value. But with the misty rain and fog, I had trouble seeing my own hand scribbling notes. The commanding view was lost on me.
Although the Viet Cong could not hide in the villas, they continued to be a threat to the plateau. Minh shows us the entrance to a complicated tunnel system with five exits in which Viet Cong fighters lived and observed. For three years, both sides were stalemated here. Neither mounted an attack against each other. The Americans could hear voices in the bowels of the mountain, and although they knew the location of at least a few of the entrances, they would not blow them up for fear of damaging their own helicopter base. The Viet Cong on their part would not compromise the system of tunnels by coming out to sabotage the base.
A silver pheasant crosses the road ahead.
At one turn of the slithering path, the outline of a staircase makes Dan curious. Like
A black-throated laughing thrush squeals somewhere deep in the woods.
It's time to turn back. It's nearly dark.
Three kilometres later, we arrive at the stone building which was once a police station and now the park's entrance hall and restaurant. It's deserted except for a few staff, assembled to support our stay in the empty old chateau across the path. Once we pick off the leeches that have stowawayed into the folds of our socks, it's time to retire. As we head off into the dark, Minh tells us that this is the place where he saw a tiger grab a chicken the previous year, right here on the driveway at about this time of night, just when we are crossing it to our room. Minh is so droll.
I am carrying seven blankets to our room under my portable tent. It's still raining. Our room has a fireplace but it doesn’t work. There are twelve-foot ceilings, a gigantic half moon window with shutters, and no furnishing except two metal-legged beds with naked mattresses. I will wrap one of the blankets around the mattress for a base and use the others on top.
Dan and I bury ourselves under the blankets. We are so tired. We forget to wish each other happy new year before falling into deep sleep. In the silence of these first hours, Bach Ma is at peace.