Within the week we were planning, we opted to stay in a small area of South Vietnam (specifically South Annam, bordered to the West by Cochinchina), flying into and out of Ho Chi Minh airport, with a not too uncomfortable 3 hour drive to Cat Tien, then a longer 6 hour drive back from Da Lat. This gives a good range of species and habitats within a manageable circuit. In outline, the three localities visited are:
This is a lowland site that was established by the Vietnamese government in 1992. It is reached by a ferry crossing over a narrow stretch of the Dong Nai river which borders it, and there are both budget and higher priced accommodations on site. We stayed in the former, which was more than adequate for a couple of birders, as was the food in the restaurant. Be ready for some high temperatures and high humidity here (mid 30’sC and almost 100% respectively at some times during our stay). There is a track which cuts through the accommodation and headquarters area, which goes on for several miles in each direction and gives some good roadside birding. The hides/feeding stations seem very rough and ready, being built of a simple metal frame and having plastic sheets over with rough slits cut in them. There are usually hard plastic seats to sit on. However, there are still locks on these, and they are well tended by the company with the feed of mealworms and corn. Be ready for uncomfortable heat in them, and they also do get leaches at times.
Nui San Pass
Sometimes tagged as Di Linh, this is in fact about 17km away from the town of that name. It is more an area than a location, and consists of hilly forests at an altitude just short of 1000m. The company use a small 6 bedroomed lodging about 10 minutes drive from the feeding stations, but that may be about to be sold. There are 7 feeding stations, and most have either an upward or downward steep climb to get to them, from only a few metres to 100+ metres in length. It is worth the occasional hassle though, since some of the birding in these hides can be excellent (it can also be quiet at times in some of the hides). As opposed to Cat Tien, the temperatures are hot rather than baking, and insect activity seems to lessen also.
This is the higher elevation location, with the highest of the birding sites used at just over 1600m. The town itself is very large and busy, but is a convenient base for the birding. The plus side is that there is more accommodation choice and it is thus of a generally higher standard. The other plus is that there is a greater variety of habitat to choose from, since we encountered anywhere from quiet in forest sites, to busy tourist destinations such as the Tiuclam Monastery and Ta Nang, and roadside birding on new tarmac. Temperatures are cooler yet again, although when we were there it still was T-shirt weather first thing, and could reach hot through the middle of the day (around 30xxxC on the last full day). The slight difference within the national park here is that it is illegal to feed the wildlife, so the hides which were used at the former two sites should not be used. Since this is recognised as an endemic hotspot, it follows that there are many species local only to here, and there also seems to be a move to split even more species from current subspecies (it is worth checking the IOC for the latest updates, though).
The rainy season is from May to September/October, and this means that some of the trails would be very messy, if passable at all. We chose April since it was still within the dry season (we did have drizzly rain on our first full day), and breeding would either be starting or under way. The entrance airport of choice is Ho Chi Minh, which we reached direct from London Heathrow on a 13 hour flight.
There are good long hours for birding at this time of the year. It gets light at around 5:30am, and dark at around 6pm. We were usually picked up at around that 5:30am time for a 6am birding start. We were either taken back to a restaurant at around 8am for breakfast and for lunch at around 1pm.
Ø The electricity sockets are the 2 pin type as used in Europe
Ø Good quality grips on walking shoes or boots are preferred for some of the routes to the hides
Ø Leach socks are useful for Cat Tien
Ø Food is very good. Vietnamese is usually served, although they also seem keen to turn out omelette when they spot a westerner
Ø The local currency is the Dong, although with the company we used all was provided for. However, any pricing is often quoted in terms of $US, although day to day I’m not sure local businesses would accept this over the Dong
Ø Wifi was provided in Cat Tien and Da Lat, but not when visiting Nui San Pass
Ø While there are some decent South-east Asia field guides available, it really is worth investing in the more recent “Birds of Vietnam” by Lê Quý Minh & Richard Craik (published by Lynx). It has much more accurate distribution maps, and also illustrations of the species forms which occur in Vietnam. Be wary of some of their own splits, although they do often qualify these with the original superspecies.