Bar-bellied Pitta is one of the special birds in Cuc Phuong National Park. Photo: Suppalak Klabdee
Stretching a thousand miles down the east coast of Southeast Asia, Vietnam supports a vast array of habitats. Between the mighty deltas of the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south are endless beaches, fertile plains, lush rainforests, and high plateaus with rhododendron-covered peaks rising to over 9,000 feet.
It’s no wonder then that Vietnam is home to over 850 species of birds, among them more endemics than any other country in mainland Southeast Asia. By visiting both the north and the south we’ll see a great variety of Vietnam’s distinctive birdlife, which combines influences from the Himalayas, the Palearctic, and Malaysia, including a large number of Indochinese specialities that are difficult to find elsewhere in the region.
With the ravages of the past well and truly behind it, Vietnam has emerged as one of Asia’s thriving economies and one of its most popular tourist destinations. It has an infrastructure to match this popularity, and we’re assured of a warm welcome everywhere we travel in this fascinating country.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening at our hotel in Hanoi. Participants should arrive no later than 17.00. Night in Hanoi.
Days 2–4: After an early breakfast we’ll depart Hanoi for Cuc Phuong National Park, an area of limestone hills covered in primary rainforest and the first national park to be established in Vietnam. We’ll have two full days to explore the park, where we’ll hope to see such special birds as Bar-bellied and Blue-rumped Pittas, Silver-breasted Broadbill, White-tailed Flycatcher, White-winged Magpie, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Rufous-throated Fulvetta, Limestone Wren-Babbler, Fujian Niltava, and Pied Falconet. One afternoon we’ll visit Van Long Nature Reserve. Here we’ll take a sampan to the dramatic limestone cliffs that are home to the largest population of one of Vietnam’s most beautiful of its many endangered primates, the Delacour Langur. Various waders, herons, bitterns, and a breeding pair of Bonelli’s Eagles are often seen here. Nights at the Park Headquarters guesthouse.
Day 5: After breakfast and some birding in the lower reaches of the park, we’ll leave Cuc Phuong for the hill station of Tam Dao, driving north on Highway 21 to Tam Dao, where we should arrive in time to spend the afternoon birding in the park.
Tam Dao means ‘three peaks’ in Vietnamese, although they are seldom seen because they are usually cloaked in mist. This very beautiful reserve is rich in biodiversity, and there are a number of sought-after birds to be found. The town itself is fascinating: it’s perched on the hillside and a popular place for visitors from nearby Hanoi. Night at Tam Dao.
Days 6: We’ll spend today in the montane evergreen and bamboo forest above the town. Specialities here include Chestnut Bulbul, Grey Laughingthrush, Coral-billed, and Streak-breasted Scimitar-babblers, and Greater Rufous-headed and Short-tailed Parrotbills. Resident species include Red-billed Blue Magpie, Grey Treepie, and Collared Babbler. Winter visitors that may turn up between November and March include White’s, Grey-backed, Japanese, Eye-browed, and Black-breasted Thrushes as well as Fujian Niltava. Night at Tam Dao.
Day 7: We’ll have a bit of time for early morning birding at Tam Dao before transferring to Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport for the short flight to Hue, in central Vietnam. On arrival, we’ll drive to the scenically stunning Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its extensive cave systems and rugged limestone karsts. Night at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Day 8: We’ll have a full day to explore Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in search of such limestone specialists as the near-endemic Sooty Babbler and Limestone Leaf-warbler. The scarce and rarely seen Red-collared Woodpecker is also possible, as is another scarce endemic primate, Ha Tinh Langur. The birdlife is active and exciting, and large mixed flocks often contain some very glamorous species: Sultan Tit is common and Purple Cochoa is sometimes seen. For those who wish, this afternoon we’ll visit the world-renowned cave system of this remarkable area. Night in Phong Nha.
Day 9: After an early morning birding session back at Phong Nha National Park, we’ll depart for the long drive south to Bach Ma National Park. This afternoon we’ll commence our birding in this reserve where the Annamite Mountains meet the sea. Night in Bach Ma.
Day 10: We’ll have a morning in Bach Ma National Park. This lovely forested area is home to several Vietnamese and regional endemics including Red-vented Barbet, White-winged Magpie, and Indochinese Wren-Babbler (Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler). Other spectacular birds here include Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Indochinese Green Magpie, Black-throated and Lesser-necklaced Laughingthrushes, and a distinctive subspecies of Sultan Tit with a glossy blue-black crown - a possible future split. Red-shanked Douc Langur, a beautiful and endangered primate, is sometimes seen in the treetops below the summit trails. We’ll leave Bach Ma National Park in the late morning when the birding activity drops for the four-hour drive south to Kham Duc on the newly constructed Ho Chi Minh Highway. We’ll break the journey for lunch at Lang Co on the coast to look for the recently described White-faced Plover. Night at Kham Duc.
Day 11: This morning we’ll stop at Lo Xo Pass to look for the Indochinese endemic Black-crowned Barwing, only discovered in 1996. Then we’ll continue south down the Ho Chi Minh Highway to Mang Den, a quiet town located in Vietnam’s central highlands. Night at Mang Den.
Day 12: We’ll have a full day at Mang Den, where the seldom seen and exceptionally shy endemic Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush, discovered in 1999 and seen by only a handful of birders, will be our main quarry. Just a few kilometers from the town we’ll explore a large area of excellent montane forest, the most reliable site in Vietnam for three other scarce birds: Pale-capped Pigeon, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, and Black-hooded Laughingthrush. Night at Mang Den.
Day 13: We’ll have a second morning’s birding at Mang Den before taking the scenic drive north to Yok Don National Park, arriving in time for a late lunch and a search on the Srepok River just in front of the park HQ for the recently described and near-endemic Mekong Wagtail. This recently declared national park borders the Mondulkiri Protected Area in Cambodia and constitutes one of the largest areas of protected lowland forest in South East Asia. The habitat is characterized as a mosaic of deciduous and semi-evergreen forest interspersed with areas of rainforest. Not surprisingly, it’s considered one of the most biodiverse areas of Vietnam and a number of species that have disappeared elsewhere in the region can still be found here. Night at Yok Don National Park HQ.
Day 14: After an early breakfast we’ll cross the Srepok River to bird in and around the Yok Don Botanical Gardens. Specialities here include the scarce White-rumped Pygmy-falcon, Collared Falconet, several woodpeckers including the beautiful Black-headed, Rufous Treepie, and the curiously-named Neglected Nuthatch. We’ll leave Yok Don mid-morning for the drive to Da Lat, stopping en route for lunch. Night at Da Lat.
Days 15–17: We have three full days to explore the excellent birding sites around Da Lat. In the Ta Nung Valley, a small but bird-filled area of remnant evergreen forest about 6 miles (10 km) from Da Lat, we’ll look for the rare and endemic Grey-crowned Crocia as well as White-cheeked Laughingthrush. The distinctive subspecies of Blue-winged Minla, Rufous-backed and Black-headed Sibias, and Black-throated Sunbird can also be found here.
In addition to the wonderful Ta Nung Valley two other sites around Da Lat are well worth visiting: Mount Lang Bian and Ho Tuyen Lam. Mount Lang Bian is a 6700-foot peak about 20 minutes by road from Da Lat, and we’ll spend a day exploring its pine and montane evergreen forests. Our target species here include wintering Mugimaki Flycatcher, Grey-crowned Tit, Vietnamese Cutia, Black-crowned Fulvetta, and Vietnamese Greenfinch. The most sought-after species at Lang Bian, however, is the beautiful and very secretive endemic Collared Laughingthrush. Ho Tuyen Lam is a man-made lake just two miles from the centre of town. The pines here are home to Burmese Shrike, Slender-billed Oriole, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, and Vietnamese Crossbill, among many other species. We’ll also appreciate Da Lat’s cooler climes and its old French colonial buildings and numerous outdoor cafes, restaurants, and markets. Nights at Da Lat.
Day 18: This morning we’ll head to Di Linh, a two-hour drive from Da Lat. Descending from the plateau, we’ll pass by a virtual mosaic of rubber, teak, tea, and coffee plantations, as well as fascinating Vietnamese architecture. The forested mountain pass known as Deo Suoi Lanh is an ideal site to look for several Da Lat Plateau specialities, including Black-hooded, White-cheeked, and Orange-breasted Laughingthrushes and the near-endemic Black-crowned Parrotbill. We’ll continue onward from the pass to arrive at Cat Tien National Park in the late afternoon. Night at Cat Tien headquarters.
Days 19-21: Cat Tien National Park contains the largest remaining area of lowland tropical forest in southern Vietnam. We’ll have an amazing three full days around the park. There are more than 330 bird species here, including the endangered Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Green Peafowl, and the very elusive Orange-necked Partridge. The list of mammals includes Eurasian Wild Pig, Sambar, Red Muntjac, and Gaur (very scarce, although increasing in numbers) as well as two endangered primates, Black-shanked Douc Langur and Buff-cheeked Gibbon.
Over the next three days, we’ll take jeeps to visit areas around the park such as Heavens Rapids and Crocodile Lakes, where Grey-headed Fish-Eagle and Lesser Adjutant may be seen. The three-mile walk through the forest to Crocodile Lake is an excellent place to look for Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant and Blue-rumped and Bar-bellied Pittas, as well as Red-and-Black and Banded Broadbills and Orange-breasted Trogon, among many others. Other Cat Tien specialities include Scaly-breasted (Green-legged) Partridge, Siamese Fireback, White-bellied, Great Slaty, and Black-and-buff Woodpeckers, Red-vented Barbet, Woolly-necked Stork, and Grey-faced Tit-Babbler. Nights at Cat Tien headquarters.
Day 22: We’ll have the last morning of birding in Cat Tien National Park before driving back to Ho Chi Minh City for our final dinner. Night at Ho Chi Minh City.
Day 23: The tour concludes this morning in Ho Chi Minh City with transfers to Tan Son Nhat International Airport for flights home.
Updated: 23 November 2020