Vietnam, 15th March - 3rd April 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


G.W. Allison

General: I joined an Ornifolks trip to Vietnam. Ornifolks are a private American concern who organise foreign birding trips, sharing costs to cut down on the trip price. Their website is I flew with Singapore Airlines at a cost of £612, booked through Wildwings. The flights went via Singapore and the return from Ho Chi Minh City involved a stop-over. The prices of accommodation at the various hotels/National Parks and the internal flight between Hanoi-HoChi Minh City were all covered by the price of the trip, so I'm unable to break down costs, but the trip was put together by Exotissimo ( Tel: (84 8) 825 1723. Website: ) and they can provide all the details. Richard Craik, their Marketing Manager (, joined us for the Bao Loc/Da Lat leg of the trip and was extremely helpful, particularly as he knew precisely where to go to see the areas speciality birds.

We stayed at the Mela Hotel in Tam Dao, the Sera Bank Hotel in Bao Loc and the Golf 3 Hotel in Da Lat and these were all fine. Ditto the park accommodation at both Cuc Phuong and Cat Tien. As has been pointed out in trip reports before, the accommodation at the Ramsar reserve at Xuan Thuy is very basic, but bearable for one night. You certainly wouldn't want to take a shower here!

All our transportation was included, so we didn't need to muck about hiring motorcycle taxis and the like, but previous trip reports have all mentioned the state of the roads. I'm pleased to report that with the exception of the roads to Cuc Phuong and the Ta Nung valley, all the roads were of good quality and we had no problems getting anywhere. And both the two roads mentioned are currently being up-graded, which will improve things further. However, despite the improved road surfaces, it's still slow going getting anywhere.

Currency is the Vietnamese Dong, which at the time of my visit worked out at around 15,000 to the US $ (I got 17,600 at the airport, but not as much anywhere else).

Food was cheap (usually under $4 a meal) and generally good, although rather "samey" for the vegetarians in the party; and Tiger beer ranged in price from 10-20,000, with a special mention to the Long Hoa restaurant on Duy Tan St. in Da Lat who did 650ml bottles for 18,000. Cans of soft drinks were c.6,000. Bottled water was available everywhere and we drank this rather than the tap water.

I had no problems with illness on the trip. The other usual discomforts (leeches and mosquitoes) were not a major problem, mainly due to the very dry conditions in the south. Tam Dao was (surprisingly) the worst for leeches. We saw a few at Cuc Phuong and Ta Nung. Otherwise it was leech-free. Mosquitoes were a minor irritation at Cuc Phuong.

In the north, the weather was very UK-like - largely grey and damp, with some heavy, thundery showers at Tam Dao and persistent rain on our last day at Cuc Phuong. Cat Tien was very hot and dry and it was slightly less hot, with some thundery showers at Da Lat.

Tam Dao: An old hill station about an hour and a half's drive north of Hanoi. We stayed at the Mela hotel, quite a big hotel situated in the north-east of the town, that had good sized rooms with en suite bathrooms. Of the various trails mentioned in previous trip reports, we spent most time on the "water tank" trail, situated at the end of the top road on the western side of the town, about 15 minutes walk from the hotel. We tried what I suspect was the "contour" trail one morning, but it was very narrow, wet and slippery and seemed to have been designed for mountain goats, so we only got a couple of hundred metres along it before we gave up. I also spent a bit of time birding along the road that looped back from the hotel towards the radio transmitter steps. Best birds seen were short-tailed parrotbill, chestnut bulbul, coral-billed and streak-breasted scimitar babblers, grey and lesser necklaced laughingthrushes and ratchet-tailed treepie along the water tank trail, streaked wren babbler on the contour trail and an unexpected white-bellied redstart in the town itself. Both green and purple cochoa were heard but not seen, as were a selection of owls, including mountain Scops. A trio of German birders had great rufous-headed parrotbill by the water tank.

Cuc Phuong: Our first night was spent outside the park gates as there was no available accommodation at the Bong substation. This allowed us to add large-tailed nightjar and the local race of yellow-bellied prinia to the trip list. The remainder of our stay was at Bong in the comfortable en suite chalets, with meals at the dining hall facility. On the Friday, we birded the Loop trail, the road and the grid of trails behind Bong. Saturday morning we spent on the Valley trail and in the afternoon we birded a very small trail to an "ancient" tree, the raised walkway to an "ancient" cave and the road in between. These sites were about three-quarters way back to the park entrance. On Sunday morning we again visited the raised walkway in another vain attempt to actually SEE bar-bellied pitta and also successfully visited a site adjacent to the park entrance for white-winged magpie.

While Friday in the park was quiet, Saturday was pretty busy and Sunday, had we been staying all day, would have been absolutely heaving! At one point, our bus had to pull off the road to allow about 15 coaches full of school kids pass!

Despite trying a number of methods to see pittas, frustratingly none were forthcoming (except 1 bar-bellied seen briefly from the front of the bus on the Sunday morning). Bar-bellied pittas were heard all over the reserve; and there was one blue-rumped pitta that responded to a tape next to the steps at the end of the Loop trail behind the staff accommodation. Best birds were pied falconet, white-browed piculet, grey-backed shrike, rufous-tailed robin and rufous-throated fulvetta at Bong; limestone and streaked wren babblers, red-vented barbet, Hainan blue flycatcher and chestnut-fronted shrike babbler on the Valley trail; silver pheasant, red-headed trogon and eye-browed wren babbler on the Loop trail; Malay night heron, Japanese, black-breasted and orange-headed thrushes, Asian stubtail and olive-backed sunbird along the road.

Xuan Thuy: Situated on the Red River delta, this Ramsar site is a wintering area for a number of rare waterbirds, including spoon-billed sandpiper and black-faced spoonbill. The accommodation at the Ramsar centre is very basic, although in fairness, it's not really designed to cater for groups. My "bedroom" was an office with a bed in it! Meals were provided on site and it has to be said that Em's noodles were amongst the best we had on the whole trip. The only high tides during our visit were between c.4.30-7.30am and so early starts were in order. Organisation here was pretty woeful - despite the boat trip twice being confirmed by the ground agent prior to our arrival, when we got there we were told that no boat was available! And when that was sorted out, our departure the next morning was delayed when our guide couldn't find the pick-up point or the boat! On the 2nd day, having failed to see spoon-billed sandpiper at the usual site on day 1 and with no up-to-date gen. forthcoming, we gambled on trying another area and booked a boat to take us there. Once all this was sorted, we were told that 2 spoon-billed sandpipers had been seen at the original site 10 days previously! Needless to say we dipped. We did see a Nordmann's Greenshank at the s-b sand site and black-faced spoonbills were roosting on the shrimp ponds east of the Centre. To get there turn right out of the gates of the centre and then almost immediately right again and walk along the clay bund checking the ponds on your right hand side. We also kicked through a couple of stands of Casuarina pines on the sandy islands and found them to be a bit of a migrant trap, with a fine selection of Sibe cripplers (White's thrush, blue robin, rubythroat, two-barred and dusky warblers, chestnut and black-faced buntings) amongst other things.

Cat Tien: Possibly the ideal time to visit this National Park? The forest was incredibly dry and there wasn't a leech or a mosquito to be seen. I'm not sure how this affects the swamp areas like Crocodile Lake, as we didn't actually make it out there, but it certainly made seeing pittas a lot easier! We arrived in Saigon mid-afternoon and then spent some time in the city changing money, buying water etc. Cat Tien is a good 3 hour drive north of Saigon, so it wasn't until after dark that we arrived at the reserve. Despite our late arrival, we were ferried across the river and allocated comfortable AC rooms with en suite facilities. Meals/cold drinks were provided in the canteen and these were of pretty good quality and certainly plentiful.

We spent 3 full days and a morning here and covered the following areas:

a) Along the trail that goes from the HQ area through some "scrapper" habitat to some forest edge fields where green peafowl occur (we were too late and dipped). Further along this trail is a quarry that is a stake out for spot-bellied eagle owl, but we didn't get the chance to visit. Best birds here included black-throated and white-crested laughingthrushes, Germain's swiftlet, crow-billed drongo, Radde's warbler, black baza, Chinese sparrowhawk, pied harrier and chestnut-capped babbler.

b) The HQ trail and road, which we birded every afternoon and found to be very productive. We had blue-rumped pitta (at 2 locations), black and red, dusky and banded broadbills; heart-spotted, black and buff and great slaty woodpeckers, white-browed piculet, blue-eared barbet, scaly-breasted partridge, Siamese fireback, great hornbill, orange-breasted trogon, Abbot's babbler and great eared nightjar.

c) Crocodile trail. We birded about three-quarters of this one morning, seeing Germain's peacock pheasant, red junglefowl and Siamese fireback en route. We also taped in Javan frogmouth at the start of the trail the following evening. On the trail itself we saw several bar-bellied pittas, plus grey-faced tit-babbler, puff-throated babbler, Oriental pied hornbill, Asian barred owlet, purple-naped sunbird and green-billed malkoha.

d) Dac Lua. A village c.14 km from the HQ. This is another site for roosting green peafowl, but once again we dipped. But we did see orange-necked partridge here! On the far side of the village is a grazed area with a low, bamboo-covered ridge to the left and a couple of higher bamboo-covered hills to the right. We were able to tape in one bird using playback on the low ridge; and heard at least another 2 birds calling. Looking at the map in Paul Holmes' 1999 gen, the area is on the trails going to Bao Beo. Other birds in this area were woolly-necked stork, vinous-breasted starling, crested goshawk, red collared dove and racket-tailed treepie, with Taiga flycatcher and plain-backed sparrow in the village.

e) Heaven's Rapids trail. We didn't actually bird the trail itself, but spent a morning birding the road edge either side of the start of the trail. Best birds were blue-bearded bee-eater, dusky and banded broadbills, red-vented barbet, velvet-fronted nuthatch, Indochinese cuckooshrike, ashy minivet, white-bellied and greater yellownape woodpeckers and pale-legged leaf warbler.

Di Linh (Deo Nui San):

Pronounced "Ye Ling", we accessed this area from Bao Loc (where we stayed at the Sera Bank hotel, situated a couple of hundred metres off Highway 20 near Bao Loc church), about an hours drive back along Highway 20. The site is a forested pass (Deo Nui San) on the Di Linh-Phan Thiet road (sign-posted from Di Linh),c.20km from Di Linh. After c.15km of pine and coffee plantations, the road runs through maybe 10km of evergreen forest. Illegal logging is much in evidence, but a substantial tract of forest remains (although for how long). We birded the road edge, and there is also a trail going up into the forest by a shack-cum-shop by a waterfall on the left hand side of the road. On our visit, this trail was dry and relatively easy walking, although in November-December time, when it is likely to be much wetter, I imagine that it would be a bit of a nightmare. This area produced some of the best birding of the trip, as well as some of the easiest! Highlights included orange-breasted and white-cheeked laughingthrushes, blue and rusty-naped pittas (although only blue was seen), grey-headed parrotbill, black-headed sibia, long-tailed broadbill, mountain fulvetta, red-billed scimitar babbler, Indochinese green magpie, dark-sided thrush, green cochoa, black-throated sunbird, barred cuckoo-dove, grey-streaked flycatcher, mountain hawk eagle, speckled piculet and spotted forktail. We also heard Indian cuckoo and Germain's peacock pheasant.

Duc Trong marsh:

A small town on Highway 20 between Di Linh and Da Lat, we visited this marsh to break the journey and add a few more wetland bird species to the trip list. It's known to be a site for black-browed reed and Pallas' grasshopper warblers (although we only saw the former). I can't give directions, as our guides had to ask for directions themselves, but the turn-off to the marsh is by the main post office building in Duc Trong, on the right side of the road as you head towards Da Lat. Best birds were the aforementioned reed warbler, plus Burmese shrike, cinnamon bittern and pheasant-tailed jacana.

Da Lat area:

A pleasant, bustling hill town with a growing tourist industry. We stayed in the rather posh Golf 3 hotel (on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street near the main market) and visited 4 sites in the area. These were:

a) Datanla Falls: c.4km back on Highway 20 and just off the main road, this is a small area of cultivated gardens, remnant forest and a waterfall. It costs 5000 VND to get in. We visited on 2 afternoons and had Vietnamese greenfinch in pines around the entrance on both occasions. Other highlights were slaty-backed forktail and blue whistling thrush around the falls and little pied flycatcher, spot-throated babbler, chestnut-vented nuthatch, mountain imperial pigeon, black-browed and red-vented barbets and taiga flycatcher. Richard Craik has seen cutia, drongo cuckoo and large niltava amongst other things here.

b) Mount Lang Biang: We hired jeeps at a cost of 300,000 VND per jeep to get us up the mountain to the evergreen forest as early as possible. We tried to tape in the collared laughingthrushes along Paul Holmes' cattle track, but only heard distant responses. Further up the main trail (by a cleared area) we connected and had crippling views - and were also able to watch a cutia in a tree above at the same time! According to Richard, the birds will respond readily to tape, but will only come in so far before "sending in" 1 or 2 birds to investigate further. They usually approach silently and low down in cover, but often (as in our case) stick around for a while. Other birds in the forest included rufous-winged fulvetta, lesser shortwing, snowy-browed flycatcher, white-browed shrike babbler, chestnut-crowned and white-spectacled warblers and pygmy wren babbler. Walking back down to the checkpoint through the pine forest didn't produce very much of note - lots of yellow-browed and Blyth's leaf warblers, black bulbuls and a couple of little pied flycatchers. In the open area around the checkpoint there were black-collared starling, Burmese shrike and blue rock thrush.

c) Ta Nung valley: The place to see grey-crowned crocias. We had neck-breaking views of 1 fairly soon after entering the forest in response to tape, but eye-level views of 3 on the far side of the valley after crossing the stream, just before the trail started to get rather overgrown. While we did follow the trail higher up the hillside shown in Paul Holmes' gen, we entered the forest by following the stream for 100m below the dam. Other birds here included grey-bellied tesia, rufous-backed sibia, large niltava, hill myna, grey-cheeked warbler, blue-winged minla (the non-blue-winged form!) and mountain tailorbird.

d) Ho Tuyem Lam: Located at the far end of Quang Trung reservoir. This is signed from Highway 20 just beyond Datanla as you head back towards Bao Loc. A boat is required to get to the birding area and it's debatable how much longer this area is going to survive in its current state. We didn't get to the area mentioned in all the trip reports up to c.2002, being dropped by the tourist "resort" and birding the area immediately beyond this. There are still patches of remnant forest, but Richard told us that the whole area is earmarked for development with, for example, a plan for c.10,000 hotel rooms and a theme park! We heard black-hooded laughingthrush, blue pitta and at least 1 crocias in response to tapes, but didn't see any of them. This is a guaranteed spot for slender-billed oriole and Burmese shrike is easy too, but we didn't add many new species here. Highlights were a very obliging lanceolated warbler, red crossbill, Mrs Gould's sunbird, white-tailed leaf warbler, Vietnamese greenfinch, ashy, grey-chinned and long-tailed minivets, Indochinese cuckooshrike, green-backed tit and banded bay cuckoo.

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