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South Vietnam Birding Trip Report
13-19 MARCH 1999
By Alfred Chia
Participants : Alan Owyong, See Swee Leng, Kenneth Kee, Alfred Chia
Of the few Indo-Chinese countries, Vietnam is perhaps the most accessible, safe and the friendliest of all to visit presently. Her lifting of many restrictions and extension of its arms to welcome investors and tourists alike have meant a steady stream of visitors to her shores in recent years. Birdwatchers are no exception.
Ranked tenth in the world, behind USA, in terms of its importance for endangered bird species - 7 critically endangered; 9 endangered and 29 vulnerable (Collar et. al. 1994), Vietnam has also a high count of 10 endemic species. Indeed, 3 endemic bird areas (EBAs) have been named by Birdlife International : the Da Lat Plateau, the Annamese Lowlands and also the South Vietnamese Lowlands - between the Da Lat Plateau and the Mekong Delta (Stattersfield et. al. 1998). Most recently, with the discovery of 2 new species and probably another 10 new subspecies at Ngoc Linh, a fourth EBA has been identified. Led by project leader Jonathan Eames, Black-crowned Barwing (Actinodura sodangorum) and Golden-winged Laughingthrush (Garrulax ngoclinhensis) were found in surveys carried out by the Birdlife Vietnam Programme, which collaborated with the Forest Inventory Planning Institute. At 2598 metres, Ngoc Linh is the highest mountain in the Western Highlands located in the central-southern part of Vietnam (New Endemic Bird Area for the World. World Birdwatch June 1999 Volume 21 No. 2).
Vietnam is thus an exciting and important destination for any birdwatcher, and is one country where more discovery awaits to be uncovered.
As we had only about 5 ½ days (after taking away traveling time), we visited only Mount Lang Bian, Ho Tuyen Lam and the Nam Bai Cat Tien National Park. Despite the short time, we managed to garner the endemic Collared Laughingthrush and the Vietnamese Greenfinch, near-endemics like the Red-vented Barbet and the Yellow-billed Nuthatch and sought-after species like Chinese Francolin, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Woolly-necked Stork, Bar-bellied Pitta, Indochinese Cuckoo-shrike, Green-backed Tit and the Red Crossbill. In total, we had a species list of 170 birds, seen and heard.
If going from Singapore, a visa can be applied at the Vietnamese Embassy at 10, Leedon Park. Cost is S$70 (for application made at least one week in advance of departure). A photograph is needed. You will also need to bring an extra photograph with you on your departure. This is needed at immigration in Vietnam, besides filling in a whole lot of other documents.
We flew Singapore Airlines (return) at S$610, direct to Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City. Throughout our trip in Vietnam, land and water-based transportation (at Ho Tuyen Lam), accommodation and guide was arranged through N.T.N. Travel and Trading Co. Ltd 34, Le Qui Don, District 3, HCM City. Fax 848 - 9320105 Tel 848 - 8203486/8203487. Contact person is Nguyen Van Viet. He speaks English and prior arrangements can also be made through e-mail at : email@example.com. We were charged at USD 219 per person.
Departure tax from Vietnam is USD 10.00
Local currency is the Dong. This is not available in Singapore. You will have to change on arrival at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Vietnam. US dollars is also widely in use here and they will love to have them!
1 USD = approximately 14000 Dong
S$12 = approximately 100000 Dong
At Da Lat, we stayed at Lam Son Hotel. This plain, serene and unobtrusive abode has basic amenities, including heated water. It is also near to birding sites at Mount Lang Bian and Ho Tuyen Lam.
At Cat Tien, accommodation is within the park itself and the rooms have mosquito net, hot boiling water for drinking, as well as a packet of washing powder to wash your soiled clothing. No heated water though, but who needs it when you are in the midst of a humid lowland forest area. We chose one without air-conditioning (but with fans) as these are away from the canteen area (noisy) and also because it has separate single beds instead of a double in the air-conditioned ones.
Nguyen Van Viet did not follow us on this trip. Instead he gave us Traii Minh Tri. Tri is young and energetic, loves nature and the forest (which is important), and will go through thick and thin with you (including getting himself dirty and wet). In fact, this was his very first trip of this nature that he had taken on. Despite not knowing the birds, he came off with flying colours and is highly recommended for those who cannot afford to engage a professional bird guide. Because of this maiden trip, he is now well-placed to lead future groups to the correct birding spots. To top it off, he speaks English too.
Weather and conditions
We went during the dry season, so rain was not a problem. But temperatures at Cat Tien was high, about 34 degrees. Leeches was not a problem throughout the trip although there were a few here and there. Contrary to advice, we went without taking any prophylaxis for malaria. The occasional mosquitoes were encountered but we came off unscathed.
In Da Lat, good local and Asian dishes can be found at Cho Da Lat, its central market, at an eating spot called Nhu Hai Restaurant. The owner hails from Shanghai in China and has been in Vietnam for decades. Because it also whips up European fare, it is also a favourite with Caucasian tourists and backpackers alike.
Elsewhere in Da Lat, be adventurous enough to try out those roadside stalls parading Vietnam's indigenous culinary delights. You will be pleasantly surprised. If you engage Tri, he should be able to point you in the right directions.
In Cat Tien, food is available within the park at its canteen. Not many choices though and the food is not exactly memorable!
Wherever you go though, food is cheap.
13 March : Arrived in Tan Son Nhat airport at mid-day and overland to Da Lat.
Check in at Lam Son Hotel in the evening.
14 March : Full day at Mt Lang Bian
15 March : Full day at Ho Tuyen Lam
16 March : ½ day at Ho Tuyen Lam and proceed to Nam Bai Cat Tien. Arrived in the late evening. Check in.
17 March : Full day at Nam Bai Cat Tien
18 March : Full day at Nam Bai Cat Tien, most time taken walking to and back from Crocodile Lake.
19 March : ½ day at Nam Bai Cat Tien, checkout and proceed to airport to send Alfred off.
20 March : Full day at Ho Chi Minh City for Kenneth, Alan, Swee Leng
21 March : Depart for Singapore
The Da Lat Plateau
Da Lat is one of Vietnam's most well-known vacation destination. It is also the honeymoon mecca of Vietnam. Located on the Lang Bian Highlands, which is part of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the city is 1500 metres above sea level, and is 305 km from Ho Chi Minh City.
The name Da Lat originates from the hill tribe people in this region. It literally means Stream of the Lat people.
When in Da Lat, do visit its Central Market. The market has an open promenade where people can walk about. On any given day, from early morning to the wee hours of the night, Da Lat's Central Market is bustling with activities. Stores selling vegetables, tropical fruits, fresh flowers, potted plants, a eat-by-the-roadside concoction of local delights, toys, local handicrafts and a wide array of goods and merchandise jostle side-by-side to grab your attention.
At the end of the promenade is a flight of stairs leading to the Le Dai Hanh Street, one of Da Lat's major thoroughfare.
Mount Lang Bian
Officially you need a permit to gain access. But to our surprise, we got away without one on account that we were Singaporeans!
The lower part of the mountain is very degraded, and looking ahead at the climb that was before us, we gamely paid 150,000 Dong (not included in NTN's fee) for a Land Rover to bring us to as high as the jeepable track could take us.
We passed through pine forest until we reached a saddle of the mountain, where we had to alight. This was somewhat between the pine forest and the montane forest that starts on the higher slopes of Mount Lang Bian. The saddle area was very productive, yielding species like the Vietnamese Greenfinch, Red Crossbill, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Green-backed Tit, Gould's Sunbird and Long-tailed Minivet.
We were collected back late afternoon by the jeep at a pre-arranged time.
HO TUYEN LAM
The only patch of decent forest remaining is at the opposite end of this large reservoir. For 150,000 Dong for a return trip, a motorised boat (easily available) will make the 30 minute trip across the reservoir (about 4 km) to drop you at your birdwatching destination and pick you up at pre-arranged time. Be very careful though to drop at the correct embankment as it can be very confusing when you actually get there. Take note that you have to disembark on the left side of the water inlet as you approach (see map). Further in, the inlet becomes inaccessible to the boat due to heavy floating vegetation. As you disembark on the grassy slope, there is a track that is close to the water's edge and runs somewhat parallel to it. Take this track and walk towards the inlet's end. It will finally opens into a vegetable plot and a hut housing the farmer. Continuing on along the track and keeping right will lead you to a fallen log, which you will have to walk across to lead you to the "Crocias Trail".
The initial vegetation after the log is very degraded and at times even cleared. But this will eventually lead to very good forest and this is where you will find birds like the Maroon Oriole, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Collared, Black-hooded and White-cheeked Laughingthrushes, White-tailed Robin and the Grey-bellied Tesia. The recently re-discovered Grey-crowned Crocias can also be found here.
The pine forest and the more open vegetation surrounding the water's edge should also be birded. Vietnamese Greenfinch, Chinese Francolin, Cutia, Burmese Shrike and the Indochinese Cuckoo-shrike are easier found.
Located in Southern Vietnam in Dong Nai Province, Tan Phu District, this national park is about 120 km north-east of Ho Chi Minh City. It covers an area of 36,500 hectares and has an altitudinal level of between 100 - 400 metres. The reserve lies on the southern and western bank of a bend in the Dong Nai River, which is the second largest river in Southern Vietnam. A small, permanent fresh water lake and a large area of seasonal lakes and marshes surrounded by seasonally flooded swamp forests is included in the reserve. About 3000 to 5000 hectares of these lowlands are flooded during the rainy season and three lakes are formed. These are the Fish, Bird and Crocodile Lakes. Only Crocodile Lake, which is about 30 to 50 hectares in size, in the centre of the reserve, retains water throughout the dry season.
The climate is tropical monsoonal with the dry season being from November to April and the wet season from May to October. It has a mean annual rainfall of 2435 mm, with average temperatures between 35 degrees C and 15 degrees C minimal. Mean relative humidity stays at about 80 percent (Scott, 1989)
Birding can be done along the road that leads north from the park HQ towards Dac Lua. This is forest edge birding and quite open, so birds are easier seen. Pompadour Green Pigeon, Red-vented Barbet, Black-hooded Oriole, Golden-crested Myna and a host of other species can be seen from here.
Various trails also branched from this road to lead you into the interior of the forest. This is where secretive species like the Germain's Peacock-Pheasant, Scaly-breasted Partridge, Siamese Fireback and the Bar-bellied and Blue-rumped Pittas are found.
The Green Peafowl, listed as vulnerable (Collar et. al. 1994), is regularly seen at the Crocodile Lake. Getting there involves a jeep ride (we were fleeced? at 300,000 Dong for a return trip) from the park HQ, about halfway to Dac Lua. Then it's trekking on foot for 5 km through the forest on a good trail. This trail is also very good for Germain's Peacock-Pheasant and the Bar-bellied Pitta, though seeing them requires lots of patience and luck. Best time to see the Peafowl though is in the early morning, when they come out to feed. Thus, staying overnight at the warden's tower and sleeping on a hammock is quite imperative if you want to have a better chance of seeing it.
The critically-endangered Orange-necked Partridge (Collar et. al. 1994) is known from the bamboo-covered forests in the vicinity of Dac Lua. This bird is however seldom seen.
Stattersfield, A.J., Crosby, M.J., Long, A.J. & D.C. Wege 1998 - Endemic Bird Areas of the World. Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation. Cambridge, UK : Birdlife International
Collar, N.J., Crosby, M.J. & Stattersfield, A.J. 1994 - Birds to Watch 2. The World List of Threatened Birds. Birdlife Conservation Series No 4. Cambridge, UK. Birdlife International
Scott, D.A. 1989 - A Directory of Asian Wetlands, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland & Cambridge, UK
Polet, G., Pham, H.K. - Birdlist of Cat Tien National Park. WWF - Cat Tien National Park Conservation Project
June 1999 Volume 21 No 2. World Birdwatch. Cambridge, UK. Birdlife International
Vietnam - 7 November to 5 December 1996. Brian Gee
Vietnam - 11 December 1998 to 1 January 1999. Aidan G. Kelly
Southern Vietnam - 13 to 27 March 1999. David Fischer
Eames, J.C. - Little-known Oriental bird : Grey-crowned Crocias. OBC Bulletin 19 May 1994
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Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers 1996 - S. Harrap