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 all 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 by many) 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 very far north near the Chinese border. National parks and hill stations in foothills and mountain areas preserve the best birding left in Vietnam, and those were our destinations. We were going for the birds, but these parks attract people who love jungles and forests and the chance to see the 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 (think Agent Orange), population pressures (think many people), by the urge to make money (think trapping wildlife to sell), and poverty (think 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.
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.
“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 window air conditioners, two beds in each, mosquito nets, and a bathroom with a western toilet, sink and 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 everywhere 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, humid, green, quiet pervades. It is birding time or nature’s time.
Up at 5:00 am 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’s Peacock-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. Crocodile Lake is about a 10 kilometer roundtrip 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 protruding. The ranger’s tall wooden lakeside observation tower, built on stilts, is ideal for resting and looking for wildlife. Our guide had arranged lunch for us, so we ate fried fish, rice, cucumbers, and looked out over the lake and the jungle. We spotted a troop of Crab-eating Macaques swimming across an inlet and scampering quickly up on the shore – undoubtedly nervous about crocs undoubtedly. One thing about a group of birders, they have plenty of optical equipment for viewing things at 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 and 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 and now the forest seems healthy and provides 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 and allowed us to get a view up and over the roadside vegetation into pocket ponds frequented by iridescent Common Kingfishers and Lesser Adjutant Storks and 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 just at dusk, we would wobble into the little open air, thatched-roof bar for a Tiger beer, maybe with a 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 and 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 to see only in that particular area.
Unfortunately for us, Bach Ma, which sits at 1200 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. However, 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 – 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 bed sacks finally came into play at the Bach Ma guesthouse. There were two beds in the damp, chilly room each with a dampish mattress, pillow, and blanket; no sheets or pillow cases. The silk bed sacks plus the blanket worked well. Meals are served in a large, very high-ceiled room that used to be the police station for the French. The food was plentiful; apparently they think you need plenty of food, especially at dinner to get you through the cold night. Since it was so wet, and the trails so 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 and 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 in telling us how magnificent the bird was. Ah well – good for them.
The drive down the mountain was leisurely and much less harrowing, and we walked part of it, looking for wildlife and 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 and 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 and 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 km 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 an empty cage, we were told that one of the rare primates had recently died after being bitten by a poisonous snake that had crawled inside.
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 Arks, 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 if from far off, an animal in the wild, moving freely in its element. Finally, 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 and we spent two nights here. 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 magnificent yellow 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 needed to 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 countryside, getting glimpses of rural life – people and animals working together – folks living.
Overview of the trip
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.
Richard Craik, 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 suit case much easier, although many people do speak English.