Richard Craik, our British expat bird guide, gave each of us two gifts when we arrived in Vietnam: a silk bed sack and a pair of canvas leech socks. My silk sheet was magenta in color and the leech socks were dark, camouflage green. The sheet was like a narrow sleeping bag and the socks looked like Christmas stockings, waiting to be filled and hung. Since we were in Vietnam at Christmas time, we joked that they would serve a dual purpose on Christmas Eve. We thanked him, asking, "Will we need to use these?" Richard replied in his droll way, "Oh yes, absolutely!" Welcome to birding in Vietnam.
Four of us flew into Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is still referred to) on the 17th of December 2007 in search of birds: fabulous and drab, widespread
and endemic, and general natural history (plants, mammals, insects, etc). Our itinerary took us from the Mekong Delta in the south to the far north near the
Chinese border. National parks and hill stations in foothills and mountain areas preserve the best birding left in Vietnam; those were our destinations. We were
going for the birds, but these parks attract people who love jungles and forests and the chance to seethe unexpected. The parks – Cat Tien, Bach Ma and Cuc Phuong –
are, relatively speaking, remote and only accessible by car or van.
As in many parts of the world, wild places in Vietnam have disappeared, destroyed by war (Agent Orange), population pressures (many people), by the urge
to make money (trapping wildlife to sell), and poverty (eating the wildlife). The protected places, the national parks are now the last bastion of safety
for the many birds, mammals and plants of Vietnam.
Crossing the Dong Nai River to Cat Tien
Cat Tien National Park was our first stop. The 100-mile drive from Ho Chi Minh City to the park took about 3 hours through progressively smaller, more rural
villages, until we reached the Dong Nai River, the boundary of Cat Tien National Park. Women in conical hats were pushing cold bottled water,
snacks, and coconuts in a friendly, competitive, cacophonous and repetitive way, "You buy from me? You buy from me?" Leaving our van, a small ferry
took us and our luggage across the muddy-colored water toward a break in the dense jungle on the opposite shore. There, in the heat and humidity, we hauled our
too-heavy wheeled luggage up the ramp and down a narrow concrete path to the park headquarters.
Tree frog: Showering with frogs
"I have reserved the best three bungalows for us", said Richard. Set back from the path and backed by forest, our rooms were side by side, with an air conditioner,
two beds in each, mosquito nets, a bathroom with a western toilet, sink, detachable shower head and a drain in the middle of the room. Ours also had a resident
frog who plopped down from the ceiling during the evening shower.
Cat Tien provides sheets, so no silk bed sack needed here. In other parks they are good (essential?)
to have. As an aside everywhere we went the hotels and bungalows provided some kind of free body care amenity: shampoo, lotion, bath foam, soap, slippers, robes, cotton
buds, emery boards, razors, toothbrush and paste. At the high end places we might get all of these, but we always got at least a toothbrush, a tiny tube of
paste and soap – even if of a minuscule sort.
The river forms both a physical and psychological border. No private cars are allowed and once across the river, a humid, green, quiet pervades. It is birding time, nature’s time.
Up at 5:00 each morning; 5:30 – a quick breakfast of noodles and rich, filtered Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk in the restaurant. Then wearing the knee-high
leech socks, with binoculars, spotting scopes, bird books, water and packs, we walk into the forest to see what has been promised. Birders love lists and are beguiled
by the possibilities. Descriptions of birding spots usually say it is possible to see: Germain’sPeacock-Pheasant, Orange-necked Partridge, Blue-rumped and Bar-bellied
Pitta, Siamese Fireback, Heart-spotted woodpecker, Woolly-necked stork, Gray-faced Tit-Babbler. My favorites are the spectacular Great Hornbills. Sometimes all we heard
was the deep, loud swoosh from the beating of their wings as they passed overhead, obscured by the towering canopy.
We spent three nights at Cat Tien, driving and walking to various habitats every day. Cocodile Lake is about a 10-ilometer round trip hike over a sometimes rocky, but
level forest trail. The trail ends at the edge of a large lake, with a water hyacinth lined shore, surrounded by forest. Rare Siamese Crocodiles nudge through the
hyacinths, only the eyes and snout protrubing. The ranger’s tall wooden lakeside observation tower, built on stilts, is ideal for resting and looking for wildlife.
Our guide had arranged lunch; we ate fried fish, rice, cucumbers, and looked out over the lake and the jungle. We spotted a troop of Crab-eat Macaques
swimming across an inlet and scampering quickly up on the shore – undoubtedly nervous about crocs. One thing about a group of birders, they have plenty
of optical equipment for viewing things at a distance.
Leeches were common. Unlike the aquatic leeches of African Queen fame, these terrestrial leeches are tiny and thread-like before feeding – they are so thin they can
easily slip into a bootlace hole and through porous socks. They attach to warm bodies and then inch their way toward skin The leech socks are made of impenetrable
canvas to keep the leeches away – toe to knee. Of course that didn’t stop them from falling down my shirt collar, or even attaching to the palm of my husband’s hand
as he brushed against a leaf. Fortunately, they feed and drop off and carry no known diseases – small, but bloody comforts.
The Cat Tien Forest was defoliated with Agent Orange during the American War (as the Vietnamese call it), but the large old growth trees survived. Now the forest
seems healthy, providing a good habitat for even such rare and shy animals as the Annamese Rhino, which eluded us. Elephants are also supposedly here, but the largest
mammal we saw was a sambar, Asia’s largest deer. Cat Tien has recovered well and is now a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
The park does have a few open air trucks with seats in the back to transport folks to more distant parts. Birding this way can be relaxing, as long as the driver is
willing to idle along. The trucks are high: allowed us to get a view up and over the roadside vegetation into pocket ponds frequented by iridescent Common Kingfishers
and Lesser Adjutant Storks – who knows what else. Driving along the one-car-wide concrete ribbon, with the bamboos arching over and touching above our heads, is its
own in-the-moment experience.
At the end of a long day, usually at dusk, we would wobble into the little open air, thatched-roof bar for a Tiger beer, maybe witha little lemonade to concoct a
shandy. Dinner was served in a high-ceilinged restaurant with tall windows opened to the outside. The light attracted interesting moths and beetles. The food was
plentiful, fresh and tasted delicious. The beer was always refreshing.
After crossing the river again, with more greetings of: You Buy From Me, we hopped in our waiting van and headed for the next birding spot.
Bach Ma and Cuc Phuong National Parks
Each of these parks has much to recommend it; in many ways the experiences are similar to Cat Tien – quiet, wild areas with the opportunity to see a wide variety
of wildlife, some of which it is possible only in that particular area.
Unfortunately for us, Bach Ma, which sits at 1,200 meters, was shrouded in clouds and rain. The one-lane mountain road had been badly damaged in a recent storm;
road workers, seemingly camped out permanently in flimsy canvas lean-tos, had repaired some of the worst damage to make the road passable, but it was still a
harrowing drive up the mountain. The rain persisted, making the birding difficult to impossible. Lonely Planet describes Bach Ma as simply gorgeous –
with stunning views – so our bad experience shouldn’t dissuade people from visiting. The prime visiting time is March to September, with April to June promising
the best weather.
Our jumping off point for Bach Ma was Hoi An, a city with an ancient center and lovely beach resorts. Since we did some sightseeing on the way to Bach Ma in My Son, the capital of the former Champa Kingdom, it took the better part of a day to get up the mountain.
Our silk bedsacks finally came into play at the Bach Ma guesthouse. There were two beds in the damp, chilly room, each with a damp-ish mattress, pillow and blanket;
no sheets or pillow cases. The silk bedsacks, plus the blanket worked well. Meals were served in a large, high-ceiled room that used to be the police station for
the French. The food was plentiful; apparently they think you need lots of it, especially at dinner to get you through the cold night.
Since it was wet and
the trails muddy, we stuck to the road, minimizing our exposure to leeches. Juggling umbrellas, binoculars and spotting scope, we did see a pair of Red-Headed
Trogons – beautiful sought-after birds with brightly colored plumage: dark red heads, pinkish-red belly and a white breast band; they stand out even in the rain.
We missed a fabulous bird, the Silver Pheasant, by seconds. As is the way, it was seen and spooked by some day trippers. They were very excited and delighted telling
us how magnificent the bird was. Ah well – good for them.
The drive down the mountain was leisurely and much less harrowing. We walked part of it, looking for wildlife, enjoying the orchids on the road bank. Back at
the entrance, we checked out the small museum.
From Hanoi it is a three and a half hour drive to Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s first national park, founded in 1962 by Ho Chi Minh, considered to be one
of the most important protected areas in the north and in the country. It did not suffer defoliation during the war, so the forest is in good condition. Unfortunately,
as in many places in the world, park rangers fight illegal logging, habitat destruction and poaching by people surrounding the reserve. There are places to stay at
the headquarters, as well as bungalows deeper inside the park at the Bong Substation, about 18 kilometers beyond the gate. Both places have modest restaurants.
We spent one night in the bungalows at the headquarters, enjoying the Botanical Garden as well as the fascinating Endangered Primate Rescue Center. Within the
Center, large open air cages house an extraordinary collection of endangered langurs and other primates, which have been rescued, rehabilitated and are encouraged
to reproduce. The caged area is backed with a large natural area where the primates, once restored to health, can be released to roam and feed, living as close to
a natural life in the wild as possible. Many must be fed because the forest in this area doesn’t produce enough of their food. Vietnam has 20 species of primates
with five of them found nowhere else. It is a very civilized way to treat our cousins. Two spectacular primates in the Center are the Red-shanked Douc Langur and
Delacour’s Langur. Upon viewing the empty cage, we were told that one of the rare primates had recently died after being bitten by a poisonous snake that had crawled
Since we always prefer seeing creatures in the wild, we took a side trip from Cuc Phuong to the Van Long Nature Reserve to see (we hoped) Delacour’s Langur on the
limestone cliffs – its native habitat. A reservoir, creating a shallow lake that laps at the base of soaring limestone cliffs, protects the langurs. Two by two, like
into little Noah’s Ark, we gingerly stepped into sampans, rowed, sculled, or poled by small, strong women in brown blazers. Our little flotilla of three sampans,
moved out into the water. Flocks of little Egrets lifted off, their snow white feathers turning pink in the late afternoon light before they settled down again.
Finally, after threading our way through the watery channels, we began to scan the cliff face. It is always interesting to see an animal in a zoo setting, but it is
thrilling to see, even from far off, an animal in the wild, moving freely. With our three flat bottomed sampans bunched up, Richard pointed
out two Delacour’s Langurs sitting on an outcropping, the white hair on their legs and middle, like a pair of white bermuda shorts, standing out against the rock. After
frantic: Do you see them? No! Where are they again? Okay – do you see that tree up on the cliff – all by itself? Go to the right to a dark rock – then up to 2:00
and they’re sitting side by side. Oh yes I have them – thanks! And so it went. From our distant vantage point they were small even in our binoculars, but still there,
still free and alive.
The Bong Substation is even quieter than the headquarters; we spent two nights there. We hiked the trails looking for whatever was flying, crawling, slithering,
or running. We saw some marvelous rare birds, such as the very hard to see White-winged Magpie. A more common bird, but still a knockout is the Sultan Tit – a lively
little black bird with a magnificenty ellow crest. Our bungalow was set in the forest right next to a huge fruiting tree that the birds loved. It was a pleasure to sit
on the steps and see what flew in to feed. In the evening we walked on the forest-fringed road to the restaurant accompanied by rustlings and calls.
The silk sheets weren’t needed at Cuc Phuong, but we used the supplied mosquito nets. Early on, we asked Richard if we should use the nets. He replied, "probably
not at this time of year, but I always use them because you never know what might fall on you from above". So we used them. Since our bathroom had a resident hunting
spider the size of a salad plate, it seemed like a good idea. He roamed the ceiling and the walls searching for insects. I don’t think he was interested in us, but
he was fast and damned intimidating.
We drove to all the parks – they were our destination. However, one of the wonderful advantages to this way of travel was seeing the contryside, getting glimpses of
rural life – people and animals working together – folks living.
Our travels had two goals: seeing birds and seeing the interesting sites and sights of Vietnam. We zigzagged around the country by plane, van and train, usually
trending northward toward the Chinese border. The one exception was a jaunt south for an overnight on a boat in the Mekong Delta for birds, floating markets and
villages on the river. The choice of cities was determined by their proximity to the various national parks. So the itineray saw us going from Ho Chi Minh City by
van to Cat Tien National Park; by van to Cat Tien to Dalat; by plane to Danang and Hoi An from Ho Chi Minh City; by van to Bach Ma National Park and then on to Hue;
by plane from Hue to Hanoi where we hopped the Victoria Express train for the overnight trip to Lao Cai and Sapa, our most northerly point. We returned by overnight train to Hanoi and loaded up a van for Cuc Phuong National Park. We drove back to Hanoi for a night and drove to our final destination of Halong Bay where we
spent the night on a comfortable boat. This schedule stretched from 17 December to 8 January.
RichardCraik, the owner of Vietnam Birding, put our trip together and accompanied us for the entire trip. He is a very good birder, knowledgeable about other wildlife,
speaks Vietnamese and is comfortable in his adopted home. He certainly made ordering food and buying a new suitcase much easier, although many people do speak English.
The rooms at the park HQ in Cat Tien currently cost between 25 to 30 US dollars a night. The price for a car from Ho Chi Minh City to Cat Tien is around 100-150 US
dollars each way; a mini bus like ours was 150-200 US dollars each way. The accommodations in the parks are spartan, but fairly clean (the sheets when we had
them appeared fresh). Each, the rooms, not the sheets, came with their own wildlife. And don’t forget the free toothbrush and toothpaste. The rooms and food are
very cheap, but since there aren’t many cabins, rooms, or bungalows, it is good to have reservations.
I Always take my boots off and put my feet up.