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Venturing into Vanishing Vietnam





An opportunity to remember Monsieur Delacour and try and score a hattrick of doucs.


Part 1


Some around these parts may have noticed, that I have posted very little recently and may have wondered if perhaps I had sneaked away for a bit, either that or I’d contracted Covid-19, I thought it was now about time that I confessed, that I had indeed sneaked away, during February.


I knew at the beginning of the trip, that I really should write a report, since Vietnam is a country that I presume many don’t know much about, at least as far as wildlife is concerned. I finished writing the report some weeks ago, It’s just taken a while for me to get around to start posting, for various reasons, in part because I took a heap of photos and I like to gradually upload them to Flickr in small batches, rather than all at once and wanted to have the majority done before I started, so as not to hold up my report. I like to write reports principally on slightly more off the beaten track places, because although I do wrestle with the issue of flying and climate change, I’ve always believed that wildlife tourism is good for conservation and I want to encourage more people to visit places I’ve been to, particularly ones that don’t get so many visitors.


However, in this difficult and strange world we find ourselves in at the moment, I had started to wonder, is there really any point in writing reports to try and encourage people to travel, when no one knows when it might really be possible to travel normally again. It is a very worrying to think about the impact that the collapse of tourism may have on wildlife, the Sunday Times recently ran a story “Poaching threat as safari trade collapses”, it won’t just be Africa and its wildlife that suffers, everywhere that depends on tourists will be impacted. On balance I thought I should carry on and post a report regardless, even if we may not be able to travel for the foreseeable future, I hope that my report will prove interesting reading in these fraught times and that people here will enjoy my photos and handful of videos, we all need a bit of escapism.       


When I chose the subtitle of this report, I thought, that if you are not a serious primate/monkey nut, or very keen mammal watcher and you don’t happen to have a copy of A Field Guide to the Mammals of South East Asia on your bookshelf, then the name Delacour won’t likely mean anything to you and you may not even know what a douc is. This was part of the reason, I felt I needed to write a report about this trip, and because whilst Vietnam has grown in popularity as an exotic cultural destination, it’s probably not even on most people’s radar as a possible wildlife destination. This is understandable, many people when they think of Vietnam just think of the Vietnam War, one of the most brutal and ultimately pointless wars of the second half of the 20th century, one that brought nothing but death and destruction for people, wildlife and the environment. Many people with an interest in wildlife, at least in recent years, if they think about Vietnam, think about the country’s involvement in the illegal wildlife trade, for this reason as much as anything, they would not consider the country somewhere, they’d want to visit. I hope that after reading this report, some people might reconsider, whilst I’m not under the illusion that wildlife tourism can save all of what’s left of the country’s wildlife, it can certainly help save some of it. As more wildlife tourists visit, this should I hope encourage the development of further ecotourism projects and this perhaps in time, will help foster a different attitude to wildlife, amongst a better educated younger generation of Vietnamese


The Red Chateau, France 1918



Painting by New Zealand artist James Fraser Scott (1877-1932)


Back in WWI after a gruelling battle at Amiens in France in 1918, a young British artillery officer was ordered to retreat with his men and occupy a nearby chateau at Villers-Bretonneux, a quite large Victorian red brick building, that he considered rather ugly. The house was clearly abandoned, it’s owner was Monsieur Jean Delacour, but he was at the front serving with French army, and all of his staff had obviously left, when the fighting drew close. On reaching the chateau he, was surprised when exploring the grounds, to see a whole series of large aviaries, containing an entire collection of the most beautiful exotic pheasants and other birds, seeing that they had not been fed, but that there was a plentiful supply of food there for them, he ordered his men to keep the birds fed during their stay, caring for these birds no doubt provided welcome respite from the horrors of the war. Their R&R at the chateau was short lived, after a week orders came through to pull out, the Germans were advancing, knowing that the German soldiers would be hungry he assumed they would kill and eat the pheasants, so he instructed his men to open their cages and let them out, to take their chances. Then on the spur of the moment he went back inside the house and liberated a very neatly pressed pair of silk pyjamas, that had been laid out on top of a chest of drawers, like many others he had lost much of his kit and had endured considerable discomfort, so thought I’ll be darned if some German soldier will have those.




The owner of the chateau, Jean Theodore Delacour was a great ornithologist and naturalist from a wealthy French family, the original family chateau at Villers-Bretonneaux had been destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War, in WWI being in a very strategic position on high ground, the rebuilt chateau was not just occupied by the British, but later by the Australians who referred to it as the Red Chateau. There was very fierce fighting between the AIF (Australian Imperial Forces) and the Germans, as a result the chateau was left as a ruin and remained a wreck, until just a few years ago, when to the dismay of Australian veterans’ organisations, it was completely demolished. Worse than the loss of his home, Jean lost his only brother in the war, he decided not to have a family of his own, having no wish to bring children into such a horrible world, and briefly left France to live in England. Eventually, he decided to return and bought a chateau and estate at Cleres in Normandy and there established a new menagerie, he became an ornithologist through studying the birds in his collections, during this time at Cleres between the wars, he was invited to visit French Indochina and would go onto to write, the definitive four volume book series on the birds of the region. Perhaps inevitably his new home, was bombed by the Luftwaffe during WWII, destroying much of his collection of birds and other animals, he however, managed to escape to America, where he was found a job at the Bronx Zoo and would as a result come to work for the New York Zoological Society, since renamed the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). He would go onto write other bird books, including Waterfowl of the World, illustrated by the great British naturalist and artist Sir Peter Scott. He eventually returned to France to restore his zoo and for the rest of his life, divided his time between the France and the US, he decided to donate his zoo at Cleres to the French Museum of Natural History, it remains a zoo today.


I inherited my love of birds and the natural world in large part from my grandmother, who was a very keen botanist and ornithologist, she would when possible, travel to meetings of the International Ornithological Congress. It was while my grandparents were attending once such conference, some 40 years after the First War, that my grandfather discovered that one of the keynote speakers was Jean Delacour, when an opportunity arose, he introduced himself and recounted how during WWI, he and his men had occupied the chateau at Villers-Bretonneux and had done their best to look after his pheasants, before deciding to release them. He then confessed, to his terrible crime of having stolen the pyjamas, Monsieur Delacour thanked him profusely, for his efforts looking after the pheasants and shrugged off the theft of the pyjamas, saying that he was glad my grandfather had taken them. regarding the whole incident with some amusement,


Although principally an ornithologists and expert on pheasants, it is actually a primate that bears his name, in 1930 in the north of Vietnam, he discovered a then unknown species of leaf monkey, the Delacour’s langur (Trachypithecus delacouri), now one of the rarest monkeys in the world with only around 200 surviving. My father as a supporter of the conservation organisation Fauna and Flora International, had taken an interest in their work in Vietnam to save Delacour’s langur, because of his father’s connection with Mr Delacour. Last year he discovered that it would be possible to visit Vietnam and see Delacour’s langur in the wild. The company Tropical Birding have recently started running what they call a Birding with Camera tour to South Vietnam, that provides great opportunities to photograph some fantastic birds and at least a couple of great primates. They also offer an optional extension to central and North Vietnam, and it was this extension that would offer the opportunity to see Delacour’s langur, plus a couple of other monkey species, it was this knowledge that led to the planning of this trip to Vietnam.


As some will recall, I visited Zambia back in Nov/Dec of last year, I would never normally go on two trips in quick succession, but when asked if I wanted to join this expedition, being both a keen birder and monkey/primate nut, I couldn’t say no. The trip would give me the chance to see some primate species, that I have always wanted to see in the wild, species that I never thought I would see outside of captivity, as well as a heap of new birds, that should include more pittas.

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This would not in fact, be my first visit to Vietnam, a good few years ago now, I had the good fortune to travel around South East Asia, visiting all of the mainland countries except Burma on a low budget backpacking adventure, combining culture with birding and wildlife where possible. Whilst in Malaysia I included a brief visit to Borneo taking in both Sarawak and Sabah, which added considerably more wildlife than I would have seen otherwise, Malaysia as a whole certainly proved to be the best country for wildlife viewing. This trip was an almost entirely very low budget adventure, of the sort where you think that taking a night bus, is a good way to save money on accommodation, but then find that you never sleep very well and travelling at night miss a lot of scenery and other sites, so it never really works as a strategy. Of all the countries I visited the one I liked the least, the one I felt, I would be the least likely to ever revisit was Vietnam, partly because I’d travelled the length of the country and seen the main cultural sites, but mainly because for a naturalist Vietnam his a hard country to like, especially if you are a birder.


If you visit India, in parks in the cities like Delhi or Kolkata you will see lots of common birds like doves, mynas and parakeets and when travelling by road you see plenty of birds in the countryside, this is more or less the case in Thailand also, but not so in Vietnam, the country seems almost empty of birds. On my original visit I saw hardly any birds anywhere, on my list I only recorded 6 species, on reflection I must have actually seen at least a couple more. The reason I saw so few birds, is because Vietnam has effectively been de-birded, across the country, birds suffer one of two fates, if they are beautiful songsters they end up in cages, if not, unless they are very small, they simply get eaten.



Prisoner white-rumped shama, Da Lat,  Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr


Not a great shot, as I took it from the front of my hotel in Da Lat, across the street from the shop where the cage was, white-rumped shamas are very common in the wild in the rest of East Asia but not in Vietnam.


The only bird that is really common across its range in the South, is Germain’s swiflet, purely because they’re one of the swiftlets whose nests are used for birds-nest soup, and they are thus protected and even effectively farmed, as concrete buildings are put up specifically for them to nest in, harvesting the nests from these towers is far easier and less dangerous than harvesting them from caves. The situation for mammals is even worse, like parts of China, in Vietnam people will eat anything and everything, or use it as traditional medicine. This is a terrible shame, because Vietnam is probably the most biodiverse of all the mainland countries in South East Asia, my impression was that very little wildlife remained, and what did was likely near impossible to see. Of course, my attempt to see birds and other wildlife was not helped by the fact that my travelling companion at the time, had no interest at all in nature, this combined with the difficulty of getting to some of the wildlife sites, meant that I didn’t devote as much time to looking for wildlife as I would have liked. In particular attempting to see at least a few primates.


As will be obvious, to regulars from some of my reports and other postings, I have a passion for primates, Vietnam is a country that at least on paper should be on every monkey man’s (or woman’s) bucket list, it has the highest primate diversity of all mainland Asian countries, because of the topography of the country and the distance from north to south, that has given it a huge variety of habitats. Indonesia with its countless islands, is the only Asian country to have more species, Vietnam has 25 primates 6 gibbons, 12 langur/leaf monkeys, 5 macaques and 2 lorises. A few of these are quite widespread occurring throughout much of South East Asia and even beyond in to Bangladesh and India or south into the Sunda islands, however all but one of the langurs are Vietnamese endemics or Indochinese regional endemics, the latter species just occurring in Vietnam and Cambodia or Vietnam and Laos, sometimes all three, or Vietnam and China. Vietnam’s langurs are divided into 3 genera, the doucs Pygathrix with 3 species, the crested langurs Trachypithecus with 8 species and 1 snub-nosed monkey Rhinopithecus. The gibbons likewise are regional Indochinese endemics restricted to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia or Vietnam and Laos and or China. On my first visit I made a point of visiting the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Cuc Phuong NP and saw a selection of these primates in captivity, including the critically endangered Delacour’s langur, the monkeys and gibbons are ones that have been rescued from markets and such like. I presumed that seeing any of these species in the wild would be nigh on impossible given how rare they now are, if I’d paid more attention at the time, I would have realised that I could have gone on an excursion to try and see Delacour’s langur. Generally, my impression, remained for some time that seeing any of these monkeys or gibbons or any wildlife in Vietnam would be seriously difficult. In fact, from reading various trip reports in recent years, I realised that actually you can see some of them if you know where to go. From thinking I’m really not sure if I’d ever want to go back to Vietnam, I changed my view, to I’d definitely return but only on a wildlife tour, provided I could be confident of seeing primates, alongside good birds.


The doucs


As mentioned there are three species of douc langurs, however, for a long time there was thought to be just a single species, likely because no one had properly looked at these monkeys, they only occur in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and obviously for quite a while last century, there wasn’t a lot of research on the wildlife of Indochina’s forests, going on. Eventually when did take a proper look at them taxonomists split them into two and then much more recently three species, although similar their differences are sufficient that they are quite clearly 3 species. They are named for the colour of their legs, specifically their shanks, the three species are known as black, grey and red-shanked. I knew that with luck we had a good chance of seeing the black, and a possibility of seeing the red, but that if we made a few minor tweaks to Tropical Birding’s suggested itinerary, we should be able to guarantee sightings of the red, a species I wasn’t willing to risk missing,  and hopefully be fairly sure of seeing the grey-shanked. The amended itinerary would give us a shot at scoring a hattrick and bagging all three douc species.   


Since I’ve visited Vietnam before, I thought I’d put in a few of the better photos I took then, I didn’t take an excessive number because I was using slide film, so the old photos from my first visit are scanned slides. I should probably buy a dedicated slide/film scanner, because I originally bought a Canon flatbed scanner, so that I could scan other things as well and it would have a use when I’d finished scanning my slides, but the image quality it produced is a bit variable some photos look great and some don’t. I think a dedicated scanner should give better results.



View of Ha Long Bay from Haiphong, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr


Halong bay with its numerous islands is one of the most scenic and popular tourist destinations.



Halong Bay, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr


Sadly, we didn’t have time to include a trip to Halong Bay this time, as I would have liked to have gone back there. 



Thai Hoa Palace window, Hue, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr



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The ancient trading port city of Hoi An is a very popular destination, famed for its tailors shops, where you can have clothes made for you, in very short order and very cheaply, since this trip wasn’t a sightseeing tour, we didn’t have time to visit Hoi An, I didn’t mind, as the suit I’d had made in Hoi An, is still doing fine. :lol: 



The Tran Clan House, Hoi An, Vietnam


In 1802 this combined house and chapel was built by Tran Tu Nhac one of the emperor Gia Long’s trusted mandarins, to honour his ancestors before he was sent off to become an ambassador in China  

Being a trading port, the city has always had a significant Chinese community



Quang Trieu Assembly Hall, Hoi An


Apparently this Cantonese assembly hall was shipped to Hoi An in pieces from China.


Having included some brief history in a number of reports now, I thought I would do so again here, my intention was not go back too far, nor cover the Vietnam/American War in too much detail, I don’t know enough about the early history of Vietnam, and I presume that most people will know a little bit about the war, I’m no expert on the subject and this is after all supposed to be a trip report.


However, having decided to put some of my old photos in, I realised I needed to go back a bit further than I’d initially intended.




The Kingdom of Champa


In around about AD 192 in southern and central Vietnam the Hindu Kingdom of Champa was formed, it’s thought that Hinduism was brought to the country from the Sunda Islands off to the south (Borneo/Indonesia). The region had been occupied and dominated by the Han Chinese, a rebellion led by Khu Liên also known as Sri Mara who was born in what is now Quang Nam province, defeated the Han, he is said to have established the Kingdom of Champa, that lasted from the 2nd century to the 17th century. The Chams were great rivals of the Khmers who dominated neighbouring Cambodia as it now is and built the great temples of Angkor, anyone who has visited Angkor will likely have seen the great carved friezes around the base of the Bayon at Angkor Thom, that depict the Khmers going to war with the Chams. Around the base of Angkor Wat itself one of the friezes depicts a huge naval battle, between the Khmers and the Chams that took place on Lake Tonle Sap the largest lake in the region, the dead were fed to the Siamese and salt water crocodiles that would have been abundant in the lake at the time. Today very few of these crocodiles exist there outside of crocodile farms, the Siamese species is critically endangered.



The Khmer army marching to war, at the Bayon, Angkor Thom Cambodia


The Cham’s major religious centre was established at Mỹ Sơn, just west of Hoi An in Quang Nam Province, numerous temples mostly dedicated to Shiva were built here between the 4th and 14th centuries, in the 15th century the northern part of Champa was conquered by the Viets and thus the Chams were forced to abandon Mỹ Sơn. The site remained abandoned until it was discovered by French Colonial archaeologists, in the late 1930s they began restoration work to preserve the ruins. Their work was sadly undone, when during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong established a field HQ amongst the temples, in 1969 the USAF launched bombing raids on the site. Evidence of at least 70 structures has been found at Mỹ Sơn. but only 20 remain standing and reasonably intact, the site’s most important temple was apparently destroyed by the bombing.  




Ruins of Mỹ Sơn, Quang Nam




Further south other temples known as Cham Towers have survived rather better.




Po Klong Garai Cham Tower




The various Cham towers like this one are still used as temples by Vietnamese Buddhists, most of the Cham people in Vietnam and Cambodia eventually converted to Islam, but one group the Baloram Cham did not, they remain one of only two Native Hindu People’s, outside of the Indian Subcontinent.


The French


French traders had been visiting the coast of what became known as Indochina since the 18th century, they were followed by missionaries who set about converting the local people to Catholicism. The French Jesuit missionaries were been quite successful in converting the people, but the inevitable result was a backlash resulting in campaigns to drive out the missionaries, so they asked for military protection at the end of the 18th century French troops went into the south then known as Cochin-China to protect the missionaries and to provide military support to the Emperor Gia Long, also known as Nguyễn Ánh the first of the Nguyễn Dynasty, to reclaim his throne and expand his territory as far north as China. In the early 19th century Britain had curtailed French ambitions to expand their territories in India, if the French wanted an empire in the East to match Britain’s, they decided it would have to be in Indochina. The emperor while initially on friendly terms with the missionaries, started to fear the power and influence of the Catholics and proceeded to throw them out, this provoked French military intervention beginning a series of military campaigns that would see them conquer the whole of Vietnam, when they took over the three separate territories of Cochin-China, Annam and Tonkin, adding on the neighbouring countries of Cambodia and finally in 1893 Laos, to create the federation of Indochine Francais. At the same time Britain was expanding eastwards out of India into Burma. The King of Siam at the time King Chulalonkorn, also known as Mongkut (the king portrayed in The King and I and Anna and the King) saw what was happening and cleverly managed to expand his territory and at same time give the two rival colonial powers enough of what they wanted, to give them no reason to colonise, thus he kept out the British and the French, ensuring that what became Thailand was never colonised.


French Indochina was an extractive colony, where the objective was to exploit the natural resource of the area to enrich France, to this end they built roads and a railway from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. Any opposition to their rule was treated very harshly, this just served to increase discontent amongst the Vietnamese. In the early 20th Ho Chi Minh who would become the great leader, was as a young man living in exile mostly in France, although he even worked briefly in London, at the time because of his age, he had no voice or power amongst the Vietnamese, they in turn being a colonised people had no voice, his view that the Vietnamese should be represented at the Versailles conference that ended WWI was ignored, his attempts to gain an audience with the US president likewise. It was during his time in Europe that he travelled to the Soviet Union and became a communist. No one was interested in Vietnam, until that is the Japanese invaded in WWII, after the fall of France to German forces, the French colonial administration in Vietnam went over to the pro-nazi Vichy regime and sided with Japanese. However, not entirely sure that they could trust them the Japanese eventually arrested most of the French, during this time Ho Chi Minh decided to return to lead the communist Viet Minh guerrillas and fight the Japanese, they may have portrayed themselves as liberators, but it was clear to Ho that they weren’t, he saw one group of oppressors being replaced with another. At the time the USA was more concerned about defeating Japan than communism and so recognising that the Viet Minh were the largest guerrilla group supported them, despite the fact that they were communist, they promised that they would support the Vietnamese desire for independence.


When Japan was defeated in 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared independence and held a huge victory parade, however, the US changed their minds about Vietnamese independence, fearing that Ho and the Viet Minh would turn the country communist. When the war ended, it was decided that British forces under Lord Mountbatten should take charge of the south and Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek the north. British, Free French and even captured Japanese troops restored order in the south in Saigon and ended Vietnamese independence, this paved the way with US backing for France to reclaim their entire colony, thinking that a return to French rule would stop Ho’s communists. In 1946 the Viet Minh then launched a guerrilla campaign against the French that became the First Indochina War, what started as a small guerrilla war turned into an all-out war, as the Viet Minh were transformed into a proper national army, backed by the USSR and China. As a way out in 1948 the French reinstated Emperor Bao Dai, the last of the Nguyên dynasty making him ruler of what they intended, would become an independent country led by him. They had decided to give up Cambodia and Laos, but believed that Vietnam was too important to deliver to the communists. They vainly hoped that the people would unite behind the emperor and not behind Ho Chi Minh.


Led by the brilliant General Võ Nguyên Giáp, the Viet Minh defeated the French decisively at the battle of Dien Ben Phu in 1954, in part because the US turned down France’s request for air support. The federation ended with France granting Cambodia and Laos independence. The decision was then taken at a conference in Geneva to temporarily divide the country in two North and South, the intention was that there would then be elections in 1956, paving the way for reunification. Whilst Bao Dai agreed to the settlement, that had been worked out, his prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem refused to sign up to the Geneva Accords, likewise the US, the North was more populous than the South, so Ho was confident he would easily win an election, Diem feared this would be the case, so he launched a coup ousting the emperor, turning the South into a dictatorship.


Ho Chi Minh and his government in Hanoi realised they would have liberate the South and reunify the country by force, the Americans then took the fateful decision to send military advisers to assist the South Vietnamese military, America got inexorably sucked into the Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam war and in Vietnam as the American War, that began in 1955 and ended in 1975.



Roof Reunification Palace, Saigon, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr


During the war a South Vietnamese pilot attempted to assassinate Ngo Dinh Diem by bombing his residence, the Independence Palace, now called the Reunification Palace.



Tank, Reunification Palace, Saigon


As the war neared its end, communist tanks stormed the palace.



Remains of French and US aircraft, Military Museum, Hanoi


Whilst acknowledging the appalling impact of war on people it is easy to perhaps forget the devastation caused to the environment and wildlife, the next two images are from Wikipedia



Hill 875 Vietnam

United States Army Heritage and Education Center / Public domain


This image depicts US soldiers on Hill 875 during the Battle of Dak To in Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands in 1967, during the course of the battle the hill was completely denuded of cover, I presume no natural forest remains on the hill now. A couple of the birding sites we visited were close to the town of Dak To, I’m not sure exactly where Hill 875 is but probably only 30-40 miles from where we were birding.  A similar horrendous and ultimately entirely futile battle is depicted in the war film Hamburger Hill, this hill Dong Ap Bia also in the Central Highlands in the A Sau Valley, is quite away further north near the Laotian border, the fighting between the 101st Airborne primarily and the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) who were dug in in fortified positions on the hill, was so ferocious, that US soldiers dubbed it Hamburger Hill because their comrades were being turned inro so much hamburger meat. Dong Ap Bia was really of no strategic importance, after they had taken it the US forces soon abandoned it. The following photo shows very well the total destruction caused, to this forested mountain.


Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division inspect damage in the surrounding area of Dong Ap Bia during Operation Apache Snow, May 1969
United States Army Military History Institute (USAMHI) / Public domain

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@inyathi the story of the Red Chateau and your family’s connection to Jean Delacour is a wonderful introduction to your TR. Looking forward to seeing what wildlife has survived in Vietnam and also a firsthand account of a Tropical Birding BWC trip. 


I visited in 1996 and had no interest in returning maybe your experience will inspire me to re-consider. 



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The Vietnam War was particularly devastating because of what most people today would consider a serious war crime committed by the US. In 1962 the US launched Operation Ranch Hand a campaign of chemical warfare, they thought that they could get away with this, because the chemical weapons were designed not to kill people but plants. They deployed an entire arsenal of different chemicals known as rainbow herbicides, since they were stored in barrels each identified by a different coloured band painted around the barrel, green, pink, white, purple, blue and most infamously orange. The Viet Cong guerrillas in the South were completely reliant on supplies sent from Hanoi, large quantities of arms and ammunition were sent by truck south along the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Americans were determined to disrupt this supply line, but they couldn’t see the trucks to bomb them because of the dense jungle canopy, the answer was to destroy the forest canopy, by aerial spraying the trees, with Agent Orange a mix of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) They soon extended the spraying to other forest areas to try and deprive the Viet Cong of places to hide, when Operation Ranch Hand was finally shut down, almost 20% of Vietnam’s forests had been sprayed at least once. Sometimes a single spraying was enough to kill big mature trees, some forests may have been sprayed multiple times, it’s no surprise that scientists found lower biodiversity in sprayed forests than in unsprayed ones.


This spraying was from an environmental point of view a major war crime, a bigger war crime from a human perspective was the spraying of rice paddies with Agent Blue, the Americans wanted to starve the VC out of the jungle, but discovered that bombing was not an effective method of destroying rice, herbicide was much more effective, but they weren’t just depriving the VC of food, large numbers of innocent peasants starved to death when their rice was destroyed. Nearly fifty years later, these toxins are no longer as prevalent in the environment as they once were, and a huge amount of habitat destruction has taken place since the war, but I’ve no doubt that forests badly degraded by Agent Orange, would have been more easily cleared than pristine forest and people in power would likely have seen little point in preserving degraded forest.


For a few years now, one of the conservation charities that I donate to, has been the World Land Trust, by coincidence just last year they ran an appeal “scorched earth to forest haven” to raise money, to help Viet Nature carry out a project to reforest some largely bare degraded hills and reconnect remnant patches of forest in an area heavily impacted by Agent Orange during the war. The first phase of the project is to plant 120,000 trees, this will create new habitat for amongst other species the endangered red-shanked douc monkey, in what will become the Bac Huong Ha Nature Reserve.


The country’s wildlife suffered not only from the effect of the spraying, living out in the jungles, the Viet Cong would have relied heavily, on whatever bushmeat they could obtain from trapping or shooting, anyone who has watched a few Vietnam War films or has actually been to Vietnam and visited the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, may have seen some of the old low tech boobytraps made from sharpened bamboos that they used to target US soldiers, these traps were originally designed for hunting large mammals, like perhaps sambar deer or wild boar.



Pitfall trap with punji sticks, Cu-Chi Tunnels, near Saigon, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr


The trapdoor over the pit, that would be covered with leaf litter, seesaws, any soldier stepping on it, would be tipped straight down on to razor sharp bamboo punji sticks at the bottom of the pit, this wouldn't necessarily kill them, so the tips of the sticks would often be smeared with excrement, to try and ensure that the wounds they caused would become infected.


Then of course, terrified trigger-happy US soldiers had a tendency to shoot anything that moved, when flying over the country in helicopters or even just on patrol. Of course, it’s too easy just blame everything on America and the war, also to be fair to the US, when researching this part, I discovered something that I never knew, that my own country’s military had tried using herbicides including Agent Orange, when fighting local communist Chinese insurgents, during the Malaya Emergency. Although clearly not on the same scale, it was this precedent that apparently made Kennedy and his government think they could get away with it. A huge amount of habitat destruction has of course taken place since and is still ongoing and national parks and other protected forests have been literally emptied of wildlife as animals have been shot or trapped for meat, medicine or just for pets. For a while conservationists have been talking about the issue of silent forests, Vietnam sadly illustrates this problem almost better than anywhere, I just hoped that when I ventured into some of the country’s forests I’d find something to see and hear, rather than total silence.


The main report will follow shortly.


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9 hours ago, inyathi said:

The reason I saw so few birds, is because Vietnam has effectively been de-birded, across the country, birds suffer one of two fates, if they are beautiful songsters they end up in cages, if not, unless they are very small, they simply get eaten.

I remember I very similar situation in Laos, as soon as you passed the Laotian border, coming from Thailand, there was not one bird left. Every young village boy carried a slingshot. On the market you had even kingfishers, bee-eaters or owlets for sale, for the meat. 

Congratulations for this brilliant introduction to your upcoming main report, 


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Reading with great interest and just a tinge of sadness @inyathi....my son and I should be touring Vietnam at the moment :(


Thank you for taking the time to put this thread together.

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I should before I start the report proper mention the inescapable issue of coronavirus/Covid-19, this trip was obviously planned and booked, well before the outbreak hit the news, like everyone else we had no inkling of what was coming. When the Chinese did finally reveal what was happening in Wuhan, it was only a few weeks before our departure on the 8th of Feb, if the outbreak had started months before and been ongoing when we were thinking about doing this trip, we would likely have backed out and chosen somewhere else, well away from South East Asia and shelved any idea of visiting Vietnam. But with only a few weeks to go and no serious warnings about visiting Vietnam from the FCO, we decided to press on, cancelling because of the virus would have been difficult from an insurance point of view and I certainly did not feel any need to cancel.


My feeling at the time, remembering what happened during the West African Ebola crisis, was that the media were yet again going in for a lot of scaremongering, but at the same time I was a little concerned, because I recognised that this is a very different virus, one that unlike Ebola we could realistically catch, on our travels, if we were unlucky. In the run up to departure there were just 12 cases of the virus in Vietnam, all people who had been in Wuhan, the Vietnamese government had stopped all flights to mainland China, initially this included Hong Kong and Macau, but they temporarily lifted that ban, just until all Vietnamese people in those two cities, who wanted to come home had done so and then reinstated it. So there would be no flights to or from China at all by the time we arrived in Saigon, I was only really concerned about airports but not that concerned as there were no China flights , out in the jungle I wasn’t bothered at all, nor in the cities, towns and villages we would visit and stay in, the likelihood of us meeting an infected person was in my view next to nonexistent, I didn’t expect that to change during the trip. The only new cases reported during the trip were near the Chinese border far north of Hanoi, this didn’t concern us. I really thought the entire trip offered minimal risk and saw no reason whatsoever to cancel.


@Whyone? I'm sorry to hear that, when I was departing for this trip, I was thinking it was a spectacularly ill-timed trip and that we were like so many other people, really unlucky to be travelling at this time, now I think the exact opposite, that we were actually very lucky and ended up travelling at just the right moment. Had we been booked to go any more than maybe a week or two later, the trip would almost certainly have been cancelled, the risk once there was very low and we didn't get stranded out there, I think there are still plenty of Brits stuck out in various countries. Our bird guide for this trip, probably had at least another three or four more trips lined up for this year, these have all had to be cancelled. I've just read now that Vietnam has only 245 cases of Covid-19 and no deaths so far, if that's accurate they are doing something right. I just hope, that we can all get out of this mess and that by next year people will start to be able to travel normally again, and that you and your son make it out to Vietnam someday soon. If there is a silver-lining I hope that Vietnam will commit to following China's example and clamp down on the illegal wildlife trade and wildlife markets.


Part 2


I've decided to put in a very simplified itinerary, just listing overnight stops, other than the cities, I don’t suppose these place names will mean much to anyone who has not been to Vietnam, but I will put in some basic maps as I go along.  




Arrive Saigon


1-night Saigon

4-nights Cat Tien NP

1-night Di Linh

3-nights Da Lat

1-night Nui Thanh

1-night Mang Den

1-night Tu Mo Rong

1-night Da Nang

1-night Bach Ma NP

2-nights Phong Nha Ke Bang NP

1-night Van Long

1-night Cuc Phuong NP


Depart Hanoi


I would never normally want to go on a trip with so many one-night stops, so I should say that it wasn’t originally planned this way, in the original itinerary there were just three one-night stops, but remarkably our travels in Vietnam were very flexible, so we were able to move things around and choose to change accommodation for various reasons, as we went along. As a consequence, we ended up with a string of one-night stops, this wasn’t really intentional it just worked out this way, as our plans changed.  


Not much over a week before departure, we were advised that we should bring face masks, however, actually getting hold of some proved to be a bit of a challenge. Just about everywhere that had masks had sold out, they’d been bought up either by people panicking about the arrival of the virus or by Chinese Brits buying them to send to relatives in China, because they’d run out. I wasn’t too worried, everything I’d read about face masks written by experts, suggested that they do very little to stop viruses, although their value seems to be still being debated now. Even so, I was relieved when we finally obtained some basic masks, at the last minute, we were flying out on Royal Thai via Bangkok, we didn’t want to be the only people walking around Suvarnabhumi Airport not wearing masks, likewise when we arrived at Ton San Nhat Airport in Saigon. We also equipped ourselves with antiviral hand-wash. At Heathrow, other than a few East Asians almost no one was wearing a mask, in Asia wearing masks has become part of the culture and the Vietnamese government had instructed its citizens to wear masks in public.


Flying on Royal Thai, was the only sensible option, for reaching Vietnam, it’s just a short hop further east from Bangkok to Saigon, the best British Airways could offer were flights to Hong Kong, a lot further east (and north) and from there back southwest to Saigon, making for a much longer trip. Royal Thai did an excellent job, throughout the flights, the crew wore face masks, something I’ve never experienced before, this made for a slightly surreal flight. On arrival, we were met by our Tropical Birding guide Ken and our first Vietnamese guide Thien and driver Liam and minibus.


Vietnam’s largest city is officially called Ho Chi Minh City, but many people still call it Saigon, the man himself never asked to have the city renamed after him, it wasn’t his city, he was from the north, although he’s still very much revered, either name is acceptable. In death his wishes were not respected, he requested that his body should be cremated and his ashes scattered in the hills of south, central and north Vietnam, instead they determined that his fate should be the same as Lenin’s and turned him into a permanent waxwork, on display in a huge mausoleum in Hanoi.



Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum, Hanoi by inyathi, on Flickr



Inside the Reunification Palace in Saigon


The animal on top of the cabinet appears to be an Asian golden cat, this is sadly the fate for many mammals in Vietnam.


Besides the Reunification Palace, I don’t recall any particular must see sights in Saigon from my first visit, I just remember a huge city, with streets filled with legions of mopeds/motorbikes, now there are still legions of bikes, but also a lot more cars, the city has grown even bigger and like more and more major cities in the country is growing upwards, thanks to the French many of the streets are good and wide and tree-lined. I didn’t see much of Saigon, this time, as we were only staying one night. It wasn’t a long drive from the airport to the Liberty Hotel, so we stopped at a neighbouring restaurant for a first bowl of pho. Originally a northern dish pho, a broth with rice noodles, herbs and usually thin slices of beef has become the national dish of Vietnam eaten everywhere. A popular theory is that the name pho derives from the French dish pot au feu, a traditional beef stew, although the dish predates the arrival of the French, it’s possible that the use of beef is due to French influence, as the Vietnamese have always traditionally eaten more pork and chicken than beef. Whatever its origins it’s a tasty dish and one you will eat a lot of if you spend any time in Vietnam, as it is the preferred Vietnamese breakfast.


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12 hours ago, Treepol said:

I visited in 1996 and had no interest in returning maybe your experience will inspire me to re-consider. 



Maybe some of my photos will :)

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Game Warden

Depending on how much wine and biltong is left tonight after @Sangeeta's trip report, it's your's next @inyathi. Always fancied exploring the Ho Chi Minh trail.



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@Game Warden I hope you make it there someday Matt, until then enjoy:)



Rough route from Saigon (HCMC) to Da Lat


Day 1 


After an acceptable Western buffet breakfast at the Liberty Hotel, we left Saigon for our first proper stop, Cat Tien National Park, we didn’t leave too early, as it’s about a 4-hour drive northeast of Saigon, we wouldn’t get there in time for any birding in the morning and driving through Vietnam’s birdless countryside, there was nowhere to bird on the way. We didn't really stop other than to buy some fruit, I took a few shots out of the window along the way. 



View southern Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr



Fishing Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr



Fruit stall, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr


When at various times during its history Vietnam was occupied and dominated by the Chinese, their writing system known as Chữ Nôm was based on the Chinese alphabet, when the French arrived they introduced our Latin alphabet, however, Vietnamese is a tonal language, the meaning of words changes according to tone, to how they are pronounced, so to get around this problem when French missionaries started writing Vietnamese, they added all sorts of accents, far more than in French. As illustrated on this political poster, you see such posters everywhere in Vietnam. This writing system has completely replaced Chinese script.





Cat Tien National Park


When you arrive at Cat Tien, you have to take a passenger ferry across the Dong Nai, so we would abandon our bus for most of our time here. We would be staying for four nights at Forest Floor Lodge; they would collect us from the ferry and take us by golf cart to the lodge. For some of our time in the park we would be guided by a very nice local ranger/guide called Dak (I’m not certain as to the correct spelling of our Vietnamese guides’ names, so I’ve just gone with what sounds right).


I was very excited to be visiting Cat Tien NP as it is one of the best wildlife sites in the country, on my earlier trip to Vietnam, I’d reluctantly decided against trying to visit, as I knew I’d have to travel there on my own and at the time getting there by public transport was quite complicated, it would also have taken up quite a bit of time. In some respects, I’m glad I didn’t go back then, as I would not have seen what I saw there on this trip, although it was a slightly more exciting place at that time, for still being home to one species, now tragically gone forever, the entrance gate is a sad reminder of its loss.



Park entrance



Crossing the Dong Nai River


Cat Tien National Park which is divided into two separate parts Nam Cat Tien and Cat Loc, is one of the only parks in Vietnam where you can still hope to see. if you’re lucky some large mammals, although not of course the symbol of Cat Tien, the lesser one-horned rhino. For most of the latter part of the 20th century the lesser one-horned rhino, better known as the Javan rhino was thought to only survive in Udjong-Kulon NP on the island of Java in Indonesia, in the.1980s conservationists were stunned, when a rhino was killed by a local hunter in the Cat Tien region of Vietnam. It was nothing short of miraculous that a population of these animals had somehow survived the Vietnam War in an area of the country quite badly impacted by the war. Surveys indicated a population of only around ten animals, steps taken to try and protect these last mainland rhinos proved inadequate and the last known animal was found dead in 2010 having been shot by poachers, Rhinoceros sondiacus annamaticus is now definitely extinct. Other large mammals haven’t fared that well either, there are apparently still a tiny handful of elephants, I think in the Cat Loc section of the park, but they have suffered due to conflict with local people, tigers and leopards are both locally extinct, I presume clouded leopards likewise, but I don’t know. However, there are still a few gaur, sambar and red muntjac deer, wild boar and even a few sun bears. The surviving mammals of most interest to me, were the park’s primates in particular the black-shanked douc langur and the buff-cheeked gibbon, we hoped to see both of these along with some fantastic birds.







Vietnam is really not a country for the casual birder as should be clear from what I said in the introduction, book a typical sightseeing tour of the country and you may as well leave your binoculars at home, because you just won’t see any birds. It was really until recently just a country for the serious hardcore birder, willing to do whatever it takes to tick off the country’s endemics. Almost all birds are generally very shy because they are hunted and trapped everywhere, even in protected areas. What has completely transformed the situation and turned Vietnam in to a country that even less serious birders will want to visit is the introduction of bird hides. Bird photography has in recent years become more and more popular in East Asia particularly in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, when I went on birding tour of Thailand in 2011, there were a lot of local photographers visiting the national parks, using worms and sometimes fruit to attract various birds. A few years earlier on the edge of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand poachers had taken to using hides and little artificial water pools, to attract birds and other animals to hunt and trap, conservationists managed to persuade them that photographers would pay to use their hides. This was still a very new development when I visited there, I didn’t get to visit the hides, but they quickly proved to be a huge success, allowing photographers to get great shots of a variety of birds including normally very difficult to see species. Soon the use of hides started to spread in the region, the first ones were set up in south Vietnam a few years ago, this has made all the difference to birding in the country, now birders can both see and get great photos, of some rare and otherwise extremely hard to see birds. Birds that a few years ago, you would have had to work very hard just to even glimpse, can now be seen well with ease.







Dong Nai River viewed from the terrace at Forest Floor Lodge




Besides the stunning river view, a tree next to the terrace normally offered great views of leafbirds




Blue-winged leafbird, male and female






Some trees at Forest Floor Lodge




After lunch at the lodge, we walked a few hundred yards up the road to see a brown fish owl that was spending its days roosting right by the road. 




Brown fish owl




We were then taken by golf cart back to the HQ area, after a brief walk along the road looking for birds, we walked to a nearby bird hide.



Thien entering the hide




White-rumped shama, a rare sight in Vietnam outside of the most well protected areas.




Greater racket-tailed drongo



Buff-breasted babbler




Black-crested bulbul




Thien putting out meal worms




Siamese fireback pheasant




It's not just birds that come in, Indochinese ground squirrel




Indochinese blue flycatcher, male and female






Ochraceous bulbul



Puff-throated babbler 




Just because it's a stunning bird here's the pheasant again



A fantastic little mammal, the northern slender-tailed tree shrew




Hainan blue flycatcher




Rules for bird photographers


Some birds seen away from the hide.



Grey-capped woodpecker



Oriental pied hornbill




Blue-bearded bee-eater


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@inyathi your history introduction lessons are as awesome as those rare birds are! 

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@inyathi  I assume there aren't too many guide books and such on Vietnamese wildlife/birdlife?  I think you should do something about that (please).  With your knowledge and determination, you could make a great contribution even if it's something simple.

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Day 2


In the morning we chose not to have breakfast at the lodge, and went by golf cart back to the ferry and then across the Dong Nai to our minibus, the plan was to drive to two bird hides outside the park, primarily to see the bar-bellied pitta, a species not seen at the hides inside Cat Tien, since we didn’t have to be there very early, we stopped in a local town to have pho for breakfast and then a bit later to buy some coffees.



Morning rush hour, South Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr




Coffee shop


The hides are fantastic allowing you to see some birds, that you would really struggle to see let alone photograph, the set up at some of these hides is quite sophisticated, with a little pool created from stones and mortar attached to the side of a tree root, intended to look relatively natural, with a supply of water that constantly drips into the pool. Next to the pool they’ve placed various rocks and or logs for the birds to perch on, and sometimes wired sections of liana or a piece of bamboo into place above to provide more perches, once you have taken up residence in the hide, your guide will scatter meal worms around the set. If the food and water isn’t enough, they’ll hang a bluetooth speaker in a suitable place and try to call in some species. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese guides adopted a strategy of playing calls on a continuous loop, whenever he got the chance Ken would switch the calls off, unable to convince them not to play the calls more sparingly. The one major drawback is that they provide either plastic stools or chairs to sit on, Asian people are naturally short, so the seats are very low, I’m not that tall but I still found it very uncomfortable sitting on these low seats for several hours at a time, occasionally it was possible to get some slightly better chairs. Obviously, to use any of the hides you have to book them and you need a guide to take you there, you wouldn't find these hides outside the park without a guide, the guys who've set them up, know that to keep the birds safe, they need to keep the locations of their hides pretty secret, otherwise bird trappers might be tempted to pay a visit. On arrival we were met by the guy who operates these hides, he led us in and got us set up.    



This first set up, was comprised of individual hides




View from the hide


The rocks on the left attached to the tree root form a little pool, the diagonal piece of bamboo above that's wired to the tree, drips water into the pool, and a long horizontal piece of bamboo has been put across as a perch, I'm not quite sure why they decided to sweep away the leaf litter from around the base, this wasn't done at most of the other hides we visited.




Puff-throated babbler 




Hainan blue flycatcher



It didn't take very long for a female bar-bellied pitta to come in, this first view, is the sort of view you might get if you weren't in a hide and were just searching the forest for one and happened to get lucky, as finding them without a hide is not easy, you have to spend a lot of time walking up and down forest trails trying to call one in, with these hides you know that there are pittas in the vicinity that will come in, and that you should get great views.



Bar-bellied pitta


She soon came closer and hopped up onto the edge of the pool, affording us the kind of view that would be almost impossible without a hide. 




Female bar-bellied pitta 






Abbott's babbler





White-thoated rock thrush female and male




The bar-bellied is not the only pitta to be seen here



Female blue-rumped pitta 




Blue-rumped pittas, female and male







Siberian blue robin


The two hides are on different sides of the road, after leaving the first one, we spotted a pair of Cambodian striped squirrels In a tree beside the road , but I wasn't able get a shot of these small squirrels. 


While we were sat in the second hide, the guy who operates these hides disappeared for a while and returned with some iced coffees, this was not a bad way to spend a morning. 




Indochinese blue flycatcher




Stripe-throated bulbul 




Speckled forest skink




Puff-throated babbler




Orange-headed thrush


We were very pleased when a male bar-bellied pitta finally came to the second hide



Male bar-bellied pitta




Abbott's babbler and ochraceous bulbul



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After a fantastic morning of mouth watering birds, we drove back to the park, stopping for lunch along the way.

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Thanks, I’m flattered that you think that I am up to such a task, I certainly wouldn't think I’m knowledgeable enough, for any amateur effort I might produce, to be really useful to anyone going to Vietnam, besides, I’m not tempted take up your suggestion, because actually there are already some great books.


I was going to mention guide books later, but now is as good a time as any. The mammals of Vietnam are well covered in the book a Field Guide to the Mammals of South East Asia by Charles M. Francis, I have the first edition of this book (2008), from when I visited Thailand a few years back. There’s now a second edition which came out in 2019, so it should be very up to date, it apparently has 50 additional species according to the information on Amazon. If I’d been aware that it had been updated, I maybe should have bought a copy as it’s a paperback, whereas my edition is hardback, so the new one might be lighter, although with so many more species perhaps not. I’d be interested to look at a copy to see what’s new, the one thing I know from looking at it online is that it includes the Myanmar or black snub-nosed monkey a species only discovered by science in 2010 and is a Burmese endemic. I know that at least one new mammal species has been discovered in Vietnam since the first edition and I suspect likely a few more, as there are plenty of small mammals in the region. This book covers all of the mainland countries, it doesn’t cover Indonesia etc.


As for birds, luckily a book on the birds of Vietnam was just published in December 2018, this book the Birds of Vietnam by Richard Craik and Lê Quý Minh is an excellent book and really the only bird book to take, it’s the first bird book to exclusively cover Vietnam. The only real alternative is Birds of South East Asia by Craig Robson that I also have, this book is seriously let down by the fact that it has no distribution maps, it just has a big map of South East Asia at the end, showing the countries and then different regions within them and just describes the distribution in the text, this a ridiculous way of doing things. The Birds of Vietnam has individual maps on the plates right next to the birds, so when you look at the book you can see immediately that a bird is or isn’t found, wherever you are at that moment. It also has the obvious advantage of only having Vietnamese birds, fewer species means that the plates are less crowded. It is much more up to date, a lot of birds that were previously treated as endemic subspecies have now been elevated to full species and more will likely become full species, with birds that were considered subspecies, in the scientific names they have included the old species name in brackets, as not everyone accepts these taxonomic changes. As a sign of how new this book is, there is a QR code next to each bird, so that you can scan this to get extra information, I’ve not tried this. The book should make a huge difference to birding in Vietnam, Richard Craik is the founder of Vietnam Birding a company that specialises in birding tours to Vietnam, his co-author is one of his guides. 


There is also a Vietnam Birds app, this is free so I downloaded it, however the one time I tried to use it, I discovered it has a very serious flaw, out in the field only the thumbnails show up, not the full pictures of the birds, you only see the full pictures when you are connected to wi-fi, to have the pictures in the field away from wi-fi, you evidently have to download each of them separately, from their database. I didn’t try and do this, I didn’t know I needed to until I was in Vietnam, because the app worked fine when I first installed it at home, because of course, I was connected to my wi-fi, so it could access the pictures, without them having to be downloaded.


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Ohhh! Yet another one to read and get distracted! I'll follow in Matt's footsteps and get to this with some wine! :D 

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A wonderful start to your report, really educational, and excellent photos. Your family links to M. Delacour was a brilliant introduction.

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Back in Cat Tien, we walked passed the park HQ and stopped at the Yellow Bamboo Restaurant for a cold drink, since it was now very hot, and then birded our way over to a different hide just yards from the road not far on beyond the HQ.



Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr








This poster seems to show what a great place the national park is for recreation and people, it's not such a great advert for the importance of national parks for wildlife conservation, which one might hope is what they are for, seeing this and the park logo on the main HQ building, I couldn't help feeling both sad and angry, at the loss of the lesser one-horned rhino and the ongoing issue of the illegal trade in rhino horn in Vietnam.



Yellow Bamboo Restaurant


Black and red broadbill


I was a little surprised to see a sign bearing a Jane Austen quote.






Bird hide



Germain's peacock pheasant


While the bar-bellied pitta is best seen at the hides outside the park, the blue-rumped can be seen in the park



Blue-rumped pitta male




Green-legged partridge



Black-headed bubul




Stripe-throated bulbul




After returning to the lodge we went for a short night walk up the road to look for lorises, but had no luck, we did however, spot a masked palm civet.


This had been a great day, with plenty of gorgeous birds including two new pittas, another lovely pheasant and a partridge, all birds that would be very hard to find without the hides, Ken had led tours to Vietnam, before the hides were introduced and explained just how much effort was involved to find them, walking up and down trails playing their calls, hoping to get a glimpse, pittas are naturally shy skulking birds, gamebirds like pheasants and partridges are also understandably extremely shy here, the ones that aren't don't last long. 



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Day 3


The plan for the morning was to have early breakfast and then go out to look for black-shanked doucs, Forest Floor Lodge offers Western breakfast or Vietnamese. Before the French arrived Vietnam had no culture of bread making, the French taught them how to make baguettes, the mini-baguette has become the standard bread everywhere throughout the country. The Western breakfast consisted of fried eggs, chunks of bacon, mini-baguettes and jam. Curiously some of the cubes of butter turned out to be cheese.


We needed to get to the area where we might see the monkeys, ideally earlier than anyone else, monkeys in Vietnam are obviously quite shy, too many tourists might spook any doucs that might be around and we could miss them, the area we needed to get to, was too far to walk to or reach in the golf cart, so we’d arranged transport with the national park. A vehicle duly arrived outside the lodge, this was a pickup truck with an open back and forward facing bench seats, driving along the main park road we stopped for a few birds



Red-breasted parakeets, Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr



Then as we carried on driving, we spotted movement in the tree tops, it was clearly doucs, but they were moving away too fast, we were not able to get more than a glimpse of them as they disappeared into the forest, I feared this might be my only view. We soon discovered that we weren’t able to drive all of the way to our destination, the main road on beyond the lodge had just been a dirt road, but they were now in the process of turning it into a concrete road, so we had to stop when we reached the roadworks and start walking.



Coppersmith barbet


Besides birds, I was pleased to see this beautiful red-necked keelback, which was enjoying a nice breakfast of frog.



Red-necked keelback eating a frog






Red junglefowl


Always good to see, these beautifully coloured wild cockerels are a familiar sight and sound of Asia's jungles, even when you don't see them you hear them crowing, you always have to remember when you hear them that they really are wild birds, at least if they are properly in the jungle. When seeing one, particularly the hens, my rule of thumb is if you can see people or buildings close by, then you are probably looking at a domestic chicken, no people or buildings and it looks right, then it's a proper junglefowl, domestic cockerels are often much bigger, so even if they have all the right colours, if they are too big then they're not junglefowl. There were a few chickens wandering about at the lodge but I'm confident they were just chickens.



 Junglefowl hen taken at the hide on day one


Nearing our destination, we encountered another small troop of doucs high up in a tree, whilst we were able to get reasonable enough views with a scope and binoculars, I couldn’t get a clear enough view to take any decent photos. However, we were astonished when not many minutes later we found more doucs on the other side of the road this time right out in the open. I hadn’t been at all certain at the start of the trip, if I’d even see the black-shanked douc, I certainly never expected to get such great views. We watched the monkeys for some minutes, like their African colobus cousins they are prodigious leapers, before long they’d disappeared into the forest, had we arrived just a bit later we would have missed them entirely.



Black-shanked douc (langur)




In common with other Colobines, being leaf monkeys, they have a multi-chambered stomach for digesting the cellulose, not unlike cows, this is why they always look pot-bellied.












From what I've read the black-shanked douc (Pygathrix nigripes) which is endemic to southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia, is the most common of the three douc species, the largest population is in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia, this is somewhere I'd love to visit, it's a remote part of Cambodia not that easy to get to, otherwise I would have expected that if I were going to see this douc species it would have been there, rather than in Vietnam, but while it may not have nearly as many of these monkeys, Cat Tien is much easier to get to.   


Black-shanked douc langur range map


One douc down, two to go.:D



Dark-necked tailorbird




Crocodile Lake


We had at this point reached the start of a trail to Crocodile Lake, this is one of the main tourist attractions in the park, it’s a 5 km trek from the road to the lake, apparently it is very picturesque and does as the name suggests have crocodiles in it, between 2001 and 04, WWF reintroduced 60 critically endangered Siamese crocodiles to the lake. Many tourists hire bicycles to get to the start of the trail, then they have to walk, my concerns that other tourist might have spooked the doucs before we'd got here, had been unfounded, because most of the other visitors we encountered, as is often the case, seemed entirely unaware that you need to be out very early, if you want to see any wildlife. Or perhaps they weren’t that interested in the wildlife, but then seeing people pedalling through the heat of the day, I rather wondered what the point was. The doucs we'd seen were long gone before any other tourists arrived.


We weren’t intending to visit the lake but we would walk part of the trail, Annamese silvered langurs are often seen along this trail, we hoped to try and see some of these monkeys along with a few birds. The morning had been great so far and I had been feeling perfectly fine but part way along the trail whilst we were attempting to call in some trogons, I got a sudden pain in the gut, which told me that I needed to dash off into the jungle, I suffered an experience no doubt familiar to many a ‘US grunt’ during the Vietnam War, I wasn’t able to get quite as far from the trail as I would have liked and then had to lie very low when I saw a group of people walking along the trail. They were of course tourists and not Viet Cong, but I was still glad to be wearing a well camouflaged green but non-military shirt, thankfully they kept going. I felt much better afterwards and had no further trouble for the rest of our time in Cat Tien, it wasn’t a pleasant or funny experience at the time, but I can laugh about it now. We did get brief views of a red-headed trogon, but as with so many Vietnamese birds they are very shy, in Thailand where I’ve seen red-headed trogons in Khao Yai National Park, seeing them there is not that difficult, they will come and perch long enough to give you a reasonable view, here they pretty much just fly past, or perch for just a few seconds and then vanish, there were other tourists on the trail at the time which didn’t help.  


When it was getting towards lunch time and too hot we returned to the road



This couple were just arriving, as we were leaving.



At the road there is a little shelter with some benches, we waited there for a few minutes while Thien attempted to phone the national park driver, he was unable to get through, he then much to the consternation of another tourist, who was also waiting there, grabbed a bike and set off back down the road, as this was her bike she was understandably concerned, after we called out to him, he assured her that he would be back very shortly. After a while he returned and we walked back to the start of the roadworks and waited for the car, we soon got bored of waiting, it was getting hotter and there was still no sign of the car, Thien was having no luck with his phone, so we started walking slowly back down the road, it really didn’t look like the car was coming anytime soon, but it was much too far, to want to walk all the way to the lodge given the heat. So when Thien spotted an empty sand lorry heading back in our direction, he flagged it down and the driver agreed to give us a lift, we gratefully jumped on board, for those of us in the back, this was a slightly unorthodox and not very comfortable means of getting back, but it got us home to the lodge and far sooner than the park’s car would have done, which did eventually pass us once we were well on our way.



Thien on the way back to the lodge

Edited by inyathi
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Golden-fronted leafbird, Forest Floor Lodge, Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam by inyathi, on Flickr



In the late afternoon, another national park car arrived to drive us the other way beyond the HQ, to what’s referred to as the Grassland Area, this is a small part of the park that was at one time farmed by the military, they cleared the forest to create fields. Rather than allow the forest to regenerate, the park authorities have kept it as open country and put up two viewing towers for spotting wildlife. Our principal objective here was to try and spot a green peafowl, this is the much rarer South East Asian cousin of the familiar common peafowl or peacock, it differs obviously in being green rather than blue, it also has a longer more upright crest and yellow face markings. A short walk didn’t produce any peafowl, so we drove on to the first tower, but there were other tourists already there, so we carried on to the second tower. Away in the distance too far away to photograph we spotted a single peacock, seeing this bird was another reason I’d wanted to visit Cat Tien. But for a population on Java, the green peafowl is endemic to mainland South East Asia, its range used to extend into the far east of the Indian Subcontinent but it may now be extinct in the north east of India and Bangladesh, it does also occur in southern China but its range there has been much reduced and it’s now found only in Yunnan and possibly part of Tibet. It is likely extinct in Malaysia and much of Thailand. There are three subspecies, in 1949 Jean Delacour identified that Indochinese birds were a distinct subspecies which he named Pavo muticus imperator, he suggested that historically, this peafowl would have been common throughout Vietnam except perhaps the very far south, now they have all but disappeared from most of the country, leaving Cat Tien as one their main strongholds in Vietnam and one of the best places to see them.


On my earlier visit to Vietnam I made the mistake of visiting the zoo in Hanoi, I rightly assumed that they might have some local animals that you wouldn’t find in zoos elsewhere, but inevitably as I suspected it was a horrendous place, however, I did photograph a green peafowl, so I thought I’d put the shot in, to show what the green species looks like, since I didn’t get any wild photos in Cat Tien and many people may not even be aware of this rare and beautiful bird.




Then I thought I wonder if I can find an illustration to put in as well and found this on Wikipedia.




Daniel Giraud Elliot

 / Public domain




Burmese shrike



Grassland Area





Sadly, we saw no other wildlife, gaurs are sometimes spotted in this area and some were seen on a recent Tropical Birding tour, but we had no luck, I’ve seen these beautiful wild cattle often enough in India not to mind missing them too much, but it still would have been nice to see them in Vietnam. On the way back to the HQ at dusk, I spotted a northern red muntjac.


Once at the HQ we returned to the Yellow Bamboo, for some cold drinks, to pass the time whilst we waited for it to get dark, once dark we would join the scheduled night drive.






Lesser short-nosed fruit bat


Besides, fruit bats there was a little ginger kitten playing under the restaurant tables, this was the nearest thing to a tiger in Cat Tien, despite still being a kitten it was clearly a fearsome hunter, I noticed that it was playing with something very small, that was twitching as if it was an animal and still alive, curious as to what this animal was as it looked too small for a rodent, I went over to look and discovered that it was the tail of a common house gecko. The little cat had evidently caught the gecko, which had then shed its tail to try and escape.  

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Great stuff Inyathi, a fascinating read. Had never even thought about wildlife in Vietnam. A bit depressing to hear about the state of wildlife there but you certainly visited some really good places. Those hides are outstanding.

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@michael-ibk Thanks, there’s plenty more to come, the hides have just made so much difference, they’ve just completely revolutionised birding in Vietnam, all my bird photos were taken with a 100-400mm lens and entirely handheld, because being a twit I’d packed a monopod, but then left it at the lodge. I’d been tempted to get a lightweight tripod for the trip. If I’d realised just how much time I would spend in hides and what fantastic birds I’d see, I would have done so. Besides the primates, this is really why I felt I had to write a report, because most people here would likely have no idea that you can see and photograph birds like this in Vietnam, on my first visit I would certainly never have imagined returning and seeing such birds, I knew about hides like this in Thailand, but until reading the details of what Tropical Birding were offering, I wasn't really aware of there were such hides in Vietnam. 

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As is fairly typical in this part of the world, going on a night drive, meant boarding a large truck, this had 36 seats, these at least face forwards, Ken had hoped we might be able to do a private night drive, but they don’t allow this, this is understandable as there is really only one road and the drive basically goes into the Grassland Area and back, you don't go into the jungle. 



We're all going on a night drive by inyathi, on Flickr


I feared that the drive would be pretty disappointing and it was much as I expected, we saw quite a lot of sambar, in India these deer are diurnal and as anyone who's been there will know, not hard to see, but here, they’re almost entirely nocturnal, otherwise we saw some young wild boar and various roosting birds.



Sambar hind



Wild Boar




Asian Brown Flycatcher





Sambar stag





Cat Tien no longer has any large cats, I know that tigers are long gone and our ranger/guide Dak said there were no leopards any more, but it does have some small ones, notably I assume the leopard cat, however, our excitement at seeing a cat running away, was short-lived, when it was pointed out, that it was just a ranger’s cat. For the well-travelled naturalist, this kind of night drive is almost always disappointing, but you feel you have to go, just in case, because you never know, when you might see some unusual mammal, that you would never have seen otherwise. They do though serve a purpose, most of the other visitors on board were Vietnamese, they got to see some of Cat Tien’s wildlife, without these night drives, they would likely leave without really seeing any animals at all, having Vietnamese people visit their parks and see animals has to be a good thing.

Edited by inyathi
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You are doing a great service to the wildlife of Vietnam.  I wouldn't have dreamt of travelling to Vietnam to see  wildlife. I hope the locals can see the benefit of rewilding.  And that was a great history lesson. I  very vaguely remember my leftist uncle with his Che Guevara T-shirt  returning from protests staged in front of US Consulate in Calcutta. They used to shout in Bengali : "Tomar naam, Amar naam Vietnam, Vietnam."  meaning your name , my name : Vietnam, Vietnam.

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