6 December 2010

Viet Nam - November 2011

Viet Nam

With a limited time frame of only 9 days, I was never going to do Viet Nam justice. Hence after useful advice from Richard Craik, I limited myself to two southern Viet Nam areas - Da Lat and Nam Cat Tien. In all I managed a decent checklist of 221 species, my first trip to South East Asia, totally unguided.

12/11/2010 - 13/11/2010

Evening flight from London, Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City, Tan Son Nhut on Qatar Airways. A useful route, as the stop-over in Doha is only an hour. Flight is evenly broken up into 6½ hours each way on the flight out. Customs and baggage collection in Vietnam is swift to say the least. Not much in terms of Duty Free if that is your thing, all the stalls are essentially Currency Converters cum Taxi operators. ATM’s are available outside the main building and you can draw up to VND 2 000 000 at a time. Rough Exchange Rate: $1 = VND20 000,  £1 = VND30 000

I stayed in a local hotel as I was due to fly to Da Lat early the next day. Taxi fair was arranged inside with one of the operators rather than picking one up outside. Hence taxi was pre-paid and no potential for rip-off ($8.00). Dinner at a restaurant next door to my hotel ($3.00). Having arrived late evening, I had the privilege of being driven through rush hour Ho Chi Minh City. The striking absence of cars versus the inundation of motorbikes was astounding. I had of course been warned about this, but until you are actually amongst the thousands of bikes it is impossible to appreciate. To call it chaos would be unfair as the locals clearly knew what they were doing, but to the untrained eye it was absolute mayhem of the short lived kind.

A striking blue sign next to the lift in my hotel had the following useful guest information - I quote verbatim :“Prostitutes are not allowed on the hotel’’. [This lot are all size 6 and less, so that was never likely] “Do not cook (laundry in the room)”. [What?]“Do not bring into the hotel : weapons, toxics, explosives (including pets)”. [I have tried my best to imagine my German Shepherd carrying an AK47 or a few kilos of P4 - failed miserably]I do not mean to patronise the Vietnamese, after all English is not even a second language out here. Given that the large majority of the western English speaking tourists are from the US, it is possible that no-one else has seen the error in signage in any case.


Early morning, 35 minute flight with Vietnam Airlines from HCMC to Da Lat. What excitement and concern at the same time, I find out at the airport that I have inadvertently purchased Business Class tickets. Hell, I had gotten nervous about paying £100 for a return trip on an unknown airline, to find out that this was perhaps double the Economy cost had me rather concerned! (I don’t fly on any low cost airlines such as Ryan Air, EasyJet etc, don’t trust the mechanics and can’t stand the scum clientele). Tootle about for a while waiting for the Lounge to open so that I can get my first taste of a Vietnamese breakfast. In fact, I am getting quite concerned that I may have to board my flight before I can use the bells and whistles of my Lounge Access. I end up with a half hour window and find breakfast to be rather appetising if not completely unusual.On boarding my flight, I see I have little to be concerned with. New aircraft and competent looking staff. Most European Airlines would do well to visit Vietnam Airways just to gawk at the stylish silk ‘au dai’ tunics that the staff wear. Very impressive, even to an anti-fashionista like me. Flight departs on time and arrives on time - even the baggage is deposited within minutes of landing. The Unions over here don’t seem to exist in order to strike rather to facilitate ‘work’ - a seemingly foreign concept in the west.

As expected, Da Lat is merely a runway with a small terminal building. Although it will handle International flights soon. I don’t expect a mass run on the airport requiring A380’s though.Caught a local taxi to my hotel on the outskirts of Da Lat. I paid near enough $20 for this taxi only to be told at the hotel that I was ripped by 100%. The taxi owner was in for an earful from the hotel proprietor apparently - ripping off tourists is bad for business and they have an agreed rate of $9.00. So again, as you should on every occasion, get the cost checked first before you ride.As time was getting on for 10:00, I decided not to go to any of the major birding venues and instead walk around the town. I am still heavily sedated on medication for my lung infection at this time. This aspect slips my mind and along with my ‘forgotten’ cap causes some serious sunburn in the rarified air. With the mild breeze, the facial irradiation goes un-noticed until I return to the hotel. I can’t remember the last time I burnt so badly - consider contacting Hans Blix in order to obtain a cure for my nucleated epidermis.Tuck into a plateful of Spring Rolls for dinner and beat a retreat to bed. Shower feels like acid rain, but at least the damage is specifically restricted to my face only.


I figured that a steep climb would help clear my lungs quicker than the dodgy meds. Off to Mount Lang Biang, one of the highest points in central Viet Nam. A ‘‘Say An’’ (chap who drove me on the back of a motorbike) picked me up at 06:30 and we were at the entrance for 07:00. For one reason or another I did not make use of the traditional 4x4 trip up to the trail. Figuring that many birders do not see the section between park entrance and trail, I thus decided I would. Initially this seemed to be very promising with a number of good bird parties amongst the lower reaches of the climb.However, with fatigue and the increasing temperature, birds tailed off and by the time I reached the start of the trail I was already shattered, and late. The 4 km hike up took an hour and twenty minutes to ascend - and it is not pleasurable! I must have seemed an old man to any voyeurs, plod, plod plod, hack, hack, hack, spit, stop, breath - repeat ad nauseum all the way up. In hindsight, at least this had been on a tarred road. The trail itself quickly descended into a rather muddy and very slippery path suitably wide enough only for anorexics. [by the end of my trip, I would have fitted into this category quite well actually]

The birding soon dried up and I started to ascend the peak proper for no better reason than it was there. I could and should have learn’t not to do these things in Costa Rica, but my pull up mountains is almost equal to the vertiginous attraction to the ground that I suffer from standing on precipices. I turned back within 20 metres of the summit as it became impossible to free climb the remaining steps on the slippery mud. Getting down was going to be issue enough without having to jump down sections.Descent accomplished, I still had the 4km of tar road to complete and this was perhaps harder on my legs than the going up. My inner thighs are still hurting from the jarring hop, skip, jump action required in descending a 1 in 3 hill.Caught the local bus back to Da Lat and then a taxi to the hotel. Arranged for another motorbike taxi to take me out in the afternoon. A much shorter trip that required much less movement. Caught the local bus again which proved to be a cheap and very efficient means of transport. More unlikely was the fact that most of the English speaking Vietnamese were met here. Unlike in the UK, speaking to one another on Public Transport is considered ‘de rigueur’ here. Spring Rolls followed by some beef and veg stir fry for dinner.


By today, I had given up on arranging early morning transport as it seemed un-reliable. Everyone here is very keen that you have breakfast at all costs - it is good for you apparently! None the less, I arranged to rent a motorbike for a few days so that I could move about more freely. This was arranged through the hotel I stayed at. Daily rental costs around VND90 000 and a full tank of fuel is never much more than VND60 000. I headed off at 06:30, still too late! I got to Di Nong Trai (Ta Nung Valley) in less than 20 minutes without getting lost. However, not getting lost on the way there was no precursor to success in staying located at Di Nong Trai. I tried using the maps made by Henk Hendriks, but they are very much out of date. Again, only after I found the excellent report by Vincent van der Spek did the place make better sense. Although, there have been further changes to the site. I spent the better part of the morning rambling through undergrowth, being cut and bitten to pieces in a vain attempt to find the ‘‘upper trail’’. Due to various fallen trees and recent logging, even the lower trail took a long time to locate.After getting fed up and disconsolate with the area, I left late morning and headed off to Ho Tuyen Lam for an expeditionary investigation. Having the motorbike allowed me to travel the newly constructed roads around the dam and see what areas were available.I stopped at the dirt track near to Datanla Falls to see if any White-cheeked Laughingthrushes were to be found. None were, but it was quite un-necessary as they are to be found quite easily at Di Nong Trai in large flocks as well as below the dam wall of Ho Tuyen Lam.


Having now improved on my locational knowledge and not about to forgive myself if I didn’t have another go at the Crocias, I decided to make another trip to Di Nong Trai. I now told the staff what time I was leaving, rather than asking. Hence I left the hotel at 05:30 to be in position for 06:00. I drove all the way to the lower end of the valley and hardly moved from the forest/river interface. There was little need, admittedly the forest was not any busier than it had been the day before at around 07:30, but the species content was. As opposed to the previous day, many new species were found early, but were not seen again after the first hour and a half. Perhaps mere co-incidence, but on both occasions that I saw grey-crowned Crocias, they were singular birds mingling with White-cheeked Laughingthrushes. This early in the morning, neither species were making any calls, simply feeding quietly between 6 and 10 feet off the ground. Having satisfied myself here, I devoted mid-morning to investigating the opposite end of Ho Tuyen Lam.Still having a few hours available in the afternoon, I re-visited the former section of the lake. This was in a last ditch effort to see one of the Nuthatches rather than climb Mount Lang Biang again in search of Collared Laughingthrush - given my poor success with the Laughingthrushes, I figured this just wasn’t going to be the Family for me on this trip. As it happens, the first rain of my trip fell and there was little to be done except get soaked.


I spent most of the day transferring from Da Lat to Nam Cat Tien. The journey by vehicle is around 200km and takes approximately 4 hours to complete. En-route we descend the Da Lat plateau, the pass seems to be covered for miles in every direction with fantastic pristine forest. We pass at least three motor vehicle accidents, one of which looks as though it may involve fatalities. Given the nature of the driving, I am oddly surprised that it has taken this long to see an accident. Motorbike carrying capacity is infinite, we pass amongst other delights, a 125cc carrying two huge tractor tyres!Eventually we pull up to the Dong Nai river, the only entrance to Nam Cat Tien is via a boat transfer. I arrived a little after two and after signing in and dropping my gear, was out for the remaining few hours of daylight or greylight as things have become over the last two days. Birding was near enough impossible in the lighting conditions and then it started to rain. The rain did clear off after an hour and I spent a decent 45 minutes birding before the light failed completely.


Woke up at 06:00 to find that I was late, sun-up is earlier than in Da Lat. Got dressed half asleep and stumbled out to get the late morning birds. Started with the tar road towards Uncle Dong’s Trail before entering the forest. Walked about Lagerstroemia Trail connecting back to Uncle Dong’s Trail. By this stage, birding had exited my priorities and I left the forest via the shortcut. Mosquitos and leeches had become quite unbearable. Due to a slight oversight, I had left my Insect Repellent in the bungalow and passed up on the leech socks! This hour in the forest gave me a fraction of an idea of what it must have been like to be an American GI during the war. I was under such complete assault from leeches and mosquitos that I could not concentrate on anything else, let alone an invisibly lethal enemy. In fact it isn’t difficult to see how soldiers became more fearful of the environment than the enemy.Morning was slow with only a Bar-bellied Pitta responding to playback - but not enough to reveal itself. After a quick breakfast of Beef Noodle Soup, I headed back out, this time in the direction of the grassland area.

Although it was mid-day, many birds were still available and there were no pesky leeches or mosquitos. Almost equally irritating though were shiny name plates lauding HSBC - of all things to find in the middle of National Park! HSBC have provided sponsorship for the reforestation of disturbed areas with indigenous trees. Which is all good and fine, but why put shiny metal name tags with the sponsors logo all over every sapling? One big signboard, which is already there would surely have sufficed? HSBC, it is the jungle so to speak - green, brown, not shiny... Good intentions but lacking in tact.The afternoon I spent walking towards Heaven’s Rapids trail. With imminent rain and dense cloud cover, the birding was again good - although lighting was a problem. Finished the day pretty dry and with most of the commoner birds, the major targets would have to wait until tomorrow. Dinner tonight includes the obligatory Spring Rolls (I order at almost every meal they are that good) and a some pork and rice.


I’m up for an early morning drive to Crocodile Lake. Although my transport was arranged for 05:30, there was little movement until 06:00. While Vietnamese Time is no where near as bad as African Time - anything earlier than 06:00 seems ‘difficult’. Not much happening on the roads en route to the Crocodile Lake trail. The trail itself fortunately had less leeches than the ones closer to HQ. Birding was slow to good in parts, but even with less undergrowth - it was still very difficult to get clear views of anything. Had one response from a Blue-rumped Pitta but nothing further. One Bar-bellied responded and came for a closer look, enough time for a decent naked eye view only, coy bugger. Crocodile Lake itself was a little disappointing, way too much Water Hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes in evidence. The typical species were present, but no ducks, adjutants or fish eagles.In the afternoon, I went for a long walk towards Heaven’s Rapids searching for a dead tree that contained Collared Falconets. I never did find this tree, but perhaps did not walk far enough past the Heaven’s Rapids drop off area. The track was extremely muddy, but the habitation was drier and more open. Patches of bamboo interspersed with mature forest and occasionally some open grass areas. The walk back was barren other than a Germain’s Peacock Pheasant that dashed across the road.

Having heard many bad reports of the Night Drives, I figured I would go on one anyway and judge for myself. Unfortunately, the reports are well founded - anyone who has been on an African night drive, much less guided them will be sorely disappointed. Obviously expectations are lower due to the lower density of wildlife, but it is the method of zooming up and down a single track on a great big diesel Bedford type vehicle that disappointed the most. As it was the odd Sambar was the only mammal on show. My main attraction however was to get to the grasslands at night and who knows what may turn up in nightjar/frogmouth terms. A single Large-tailed Nightjar followed by a flushed Spot-bellied Eagle Owl. While the bird was flushed several times from one road-side tree to another, we never had long/particularly grand views. The non-birding tourists weren’t sure what was supposed to have happened during the 45 minute rush around, but I was rather stoked.


I had by this stage met up with a Spanish couple, Fran and Helen who had invited me with them to bird the Heaven’s Rapids track on their last morning. A fine morning we had, not so much in the quantities of birds, for they were scarce as they had been the day before - but the quality that we eked out. Neither of us had had a sniff at a Trogon in a combined 7 days of birding, but Fran somehow picked out a perched Orange-breasted. There was a little head scratching when a very unexpected/lost Peregrine Falcon turned up. While this would not be the first record for the park, there seems little in the way of suitable habitat nearby. Records being as scarce as they are, I found it impossible even to have a stab at which sub-species this may be, the predominantly Indian/Bangladeshi/lower Chinese peregrinator or the Philippine/Malayan islands ernesti. Given the time of year, it could even have been one of the long migrators such as calidus.

Spent mid-morning having coffee and chatting at Forest Floor Lodge. The afternoon found me peddling a rickety childs mountain bike (the only bike of 20 that worked) back down Heaven’s Rapids in search of the Falconet tree. Even though Fran had described the approximate location to me, my journey proved frustrating and I never did locate it. A consolation came in the form of a small tribe of Black-shanked Douc, only around 100 of which occur in the park.My last night in Viet Nam and perhaps it was not the worst day to be leaving. A noisy group of adolescent Australians had pitched up. Their poor teacher seemed quite embarrassed by the racket they made, although they were good kids - no profanity or alcohol etc, just hopelessly out of their depth in this jungle or anywhere outside of the city actually. Never the less, their noise was drowned out by the sudden downpour which exposed the restaurants numerous roof leaks.


My last day in Viet Nam was spent walking the main tarred road towards Crocodile Lake and back again. I stopped at the fork again and played the drumming call of the White-browed Piculet who immediately responded and gave very good views. When I passed the same area later in the morning, he was still present drumming away on the bamboo. By this stage I had seen most of everything I had targeted in Cat Tien although I did fall a little short on the Woodpeckers and Cuckoos in particular.My pre-arranged driver was due to meet up with me at 12:00. A quarter of an hour later he pitched, pointing excitedly to his left rear wheel in defence of his tardiness. Unlike my previous driver who spoke a little English and was rather chatty, this chap barely spoke two words and it was fully two hours before we attempted communication.

Now, for people who know me, I am quite capable of being incommunicado even when surrounded by people - but this was more to do with exhaustion. Our car seemed incapable of moving in a straight line, instead we fish tailed back and forth the whole way. Perhaps this had more to do with the recently changed flat than my drivers twitchiness. The excitement was not over however, the heavens suddenly opened in a way that I had not experienced since I left South Africa many years ago. The wall of water became more impenetrable when the drivers side windscreen wiper ceased operation. With limited visibility and trucks and motorbikes all over the place, even pulling off the road was an exercise in faith alone.How convenient it was that we seemed to have pulled off near a mechanic who was able to help. Whatever the fault with the wiper was, we were not fixing it. So the mechanic unscrewed and reset the passenger wiper to cover the entire windscreen rather than just my side. So, single wiper working in the same vein as most Mercedes, off we went only for the rain to stop within minutes.

Driving though afternoon HCMC traffic was not as exciting as driving a motorbike had been. The port is located north of the city, meaning that the vast majority of the motorways are clogged by 16 wheelers driven by drivers who think they are still driving their scooters! Two of them rattled containers ahead of us, causing one container to tilt and slip half way off its bed. Crumbs would have been all that remained had said 50 ton container come off and landed on the taxi next to it. Having cleared this section of the motorway, the remaining hour to the airport was relatively peaceful if not very congested with bicycles, motorbikes and scooters. With such few cars and a limited number of large busses, traffic while seemingly very congested actually keeps moving at a decent pace. Watching the activities of the motorbike and scooter drivers was fascinating. You actually have to drive a scooter in this traffic to understand that there are well established intricacies not immediately obvious to untrained eyes. However, texting while driving in this can’t be good for anyones health and some stealthy police pulled one chap over. Besides much protestation from the ‘texter’, the Police seemed to be in no mood for any bull.The rains came in heavy again prior to departing Tan Son Nhut, but there were no delays. The return flight was remarkable for it’s uneventfulness. Transfers were on time, we landed early at Heathrow and even the baggage handlers got our luggage out early. The biggest shock came with the 30 degree C drop in temperature!It has been a while since I visited a country and had such a universally positive experience (Cuba was the last). I would like to take the opportunity of thanking the People of Viet Nam for being such accommodating and friendly hosts. I should have no trouble in recommending your amazing country to everyone I know. Do please strive to protect what remains of your wildlife, Viet Nam would be all the poorer for not having the diversity it currently enjoys.

Accommodation and organisation

I used the services of Vietnam Birding to help with a suitable plan of action for my limited time frame as well as arrange Taxi Transfers and Accommodation at Cat Tien National Park. Richard provided very informative advice, not so much on where to go, but how long I needed as well as the best methods of arranging this. I arranged my own flights, long-haul and internal as well as accommodation in Da Lat. I must of course thank him for providing 2 items of clothing which were extremely useful, leech socks which I had neglected as well as a cap which I had forgotten. These were unexpected bonuses which saved my face from further sun burn and my body from further hidden leeches!

Vietnam Birding Richard Craik

3rd Floor, 71-75 Hai Ba Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City


+84 8 3827 3766

Da Lat
YK Home Villa Hotel

9 Yet Kieu, Ward 5, Da Lat.


+84 633 561 466

I took a chance and booked a hotel with limited reviews (albeit very good ones) via Agoda. As it happens, the hotel is slightly outside the main town centre - thus not much noise. I would hate to be staying in central Da Lat. I never thought I’d say this, but there is a country where the populations drivers toot horns more than those in India, they are Vietnamese! Besides being quieter, the hotel is run like a home. Almost everything can and does get done very quickly - all you need do is ask. The hotel is run by sisters, Huong and Thu Nguyen. A most delightful pairing who looked after me as if I was family. After the first day, they had tuned in to the way I worked, coffee arrived whenever I sat down - they even gave me ‘breakfast’ at 14:00 in the afternoon because I had skipped it while out birding. Everything from arranging taxis, to motorbike taxis, motorbikes, laundry etc was handled superbly. I was normally quite shattered after roaming about that I couldn’t be bothered to eat in town, hence I had dinner in house every night. Food was very tasty as well as being plentiful. At a little over £12.00 a night this was more than just a bargain.

Cat Tien

Standard bungalow booked via Vietnam Birding.

** A new hotel development has gone up since most other reports were published. While I did not stay at the venue, I was able to have coffee on the balcony and have a look at the rooms and tents. This is most definitely up market by comparison to the typical bungalows of the National Park. Nor is it cheap, at a minimum of $100 a night in the low season. However, if you are coming to the end of a long and grueling journey or money is not an issue, then this is certainly a viable option.

Forest Floor Lodge
Cat Tien National Park


+84 631 669 890

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