Vietnam, Phong Na, December 2008

Published by Charles Davies (daviesc1973 AT

Participants: Charles Davies


I spent a day at this site and thought a short internet write-up would be helpful. It seems to be a well-visited tourist site because of the dramatic limestone scenery and caves. It mostly seems set up for Vietnamese tourists, although I think some Western tour companies also stop through. About 5 hours drive north of Danang, and I suppose a bit further south from Hanoi. You can arrange a tour company to take you there from eithr city or hire a taxi I suppose – it wouldn’t really need to be a specialized birdwatching company since there isn’t that much birdwatching to be done at present (see below).

I stayed at the Saigon Phongna Hotel (US$ 18 dollars a night), near the marketplace and boat launch, and didn’t notice any other hotels in town. However, the hotel doesn’t serve any food, so you will have to wander around the market area. The best place I found, which has Western menus (although very little of the food actually listed on them!) – go to the main road, turn left, keep walking past the market and over a bridge, it is on the left side of the road just past a karaoke, with three red lanterns hanging up. I didn’t find a place for breakfast in town, although once you get to the cave, you can buy instant noodles and hard boiled eggs from the vendors there.

The tourist route here seems to be boat rides to the caves. There are two caves, but they are right next to each other. Phong Na cave is accessible by boat, and Tien Son cave by foot. The signs say you have to take the same boat there and back, but you’ll want to negotiate to stay on your own and find another boat if you want to be left (at least partially) alone to birdwatch. The boat to the cave costs 200,000 plus the entrance permit (20.000 or 50.000 I think).

A steep stairway leads up from the river to Tien Son cave. I took the first boat there in the morning, climbed up to the cave and back down, and eventually found a group of Sooty Babbler right by the start of the trail, in some flowering bushes across the trail from the fields. The vendors trooped up while I was eating and set up stalls at regular intervals up the staircase, and their persistent approach to sales scared off both me and the birds (including the second and third groups of Sooty Babbler I ran into). However, one of them pointed me up a little side trail and said “birds”, after clambering upI duly found a nice flock including a Rufous-tailed Robin.

The Babbler is actually a pretty striking bird and I think worth the trip. It is outnumbered by Striped Tit-Babbler – I once saw them together in a flock, and the Tit-Babblers stayed higher whereas the Sooty Babbler were on or near to the ground. Am also pretty sure I saw a Spot-necked Babbler, although only glimpsed through the dense vegetation.

That said, this is definitely a one-bird site at the moment because of the lack of any set-up for birdwatching. After returning from the cave in the early afternoon, I walked down the road through a long strip settlement (and constant catcalling) to the park headquarters (an impressive, modern looking building in the middle of a bare field) that had been pointed out from the boat, to try to arrange some hiking in the park, but it turned out to be the one place in Phong Na where no one paid me any attention at all! Eventually left and walked further down the road to where the trail ran out on the opposite bank of the river from the cave, but didn’t manage to access any forest.

Indochinese Black Langur is apparently sometimes seen near the caves, although none during my visit.

If and when some trails become accessible (or if you speak Vietnamese and/or are otherwise able to arrange something with the park authorities), it looks like a spectacular area from some hiking with a bunch of exciting animals too.

In the meantime, for a more enjoyable birdwatching experience, Stijn De Win recommends Na Hin forest in Laos, which also has Sooty Babbler nearby. See

Species Lists

Great Egret – 2

Little Egret – 5

Cattle Egret – about 40

Common Sandpiper – 1

Green-billed Malkoha – 1

White-throated Kingfisher –2

Pied Kingfisher – 1

Oriental Pied-Hornbill – heard

Olive-backed Pipit – 5

Yellow Wagtail – 1

Black-crested Bulbul – 2

Stripe-throated Bulbul – 1

Blue Rock-Thrush – 2

Common Tailorbird – about 15

Dusky Warbler – about 10

Yellow-browed Warbler – 3 and a few heard

Taiga Flycatcher – 2

Blue-throated Flycatcher – 1 + 2 blue-flycatcher spp

Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher – 2

Rufous-tailed Robin – 2

Oriental Magpie-Robin – 1

White-throated Fantail – 2

Sooty Babbler – 8

Spot-necked Babbler – 1 (80% sure)

Striped Tit-Babbler – about 25

Mountain Fulvetta – 1

White-bellied Yuhina – 2

Brown Shrike – 4

Eurasian Tree-Sparrow – 5