March 29 2001
Vietnam has the most endemic species of all the south-east Asian countries, a total of eight. With that in mind, we decided to spend a few extra dollars and try to bird Vietnam properly. We e-mailed Mr. Viet, a travel agent recommended by a fellow birder in an internet trip report, who arranged a car, a driver and our accommodations for us. Although I can’t say how the trip would have gone if we’d traveled independently as usual, we really appreciated Mr. Viet’s services.
When we arrived in Hanoi we weren’t surprised that it was raining - the Lonely Planet says to expect drizzle during March and April. What we weren’t expecting was a seven-day monsoon. Our first night in Hanoi we weren’t too pleased, but we couldn’t really complain too much since we’ve barely seen any rain in the past six months. We amused ourselves by researching all the lovely birds we planned on seeing in Tam Dao.
Tam Dao is a hill station about three hours from Hanoi. It’s barely a town, more of a large green square with some hotels and shops, surrounded by hills. After two days of sitting in our hotel room waiting for the rain, fog and wind to subside, we bit the bullet and decided to leave early for our next destination. We promised the hotel staff that someday we’d return and thanked them for their invaluable language lessons. Most people’s first words in another language are usually thank you, please, and hello. Our first few words revolved around food. What a surprise.
Our next destination, Cuc Phuong national park, was ideal - aside from the rats, spiders, cold-water showers and rain. Actually, the rain more or less stopped after two days, and if I wasn’t so freaked out by the hand-sized spider with the long fat hairy legs, we wouldn’t have had to change rooms and might have missed the midnight visits by the fat clumsy rats. What an adventure… it may have been at this time that I began to think about getting a new hobby. Honestly, we really did enjoy the park, though. We pretty much had the whole place to ourselves and as long as we constantly checked for leeches, the birding was terrific.
We only had one more day in Hanoi, which is a shame because it’s really an interesting city and one I’d like to have spent more time in. Our next destination was in southern Vietnam, Nam Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam’s birding Mecca. The accommodations in the park are far better than Cuc Phuong, with air-conditioning and hot water - what a treat! We managed the almost impossible (for us) and found a pair of gorgeous Blue-rumped Pittas (Pittas are a family of birds found mostly in South-east Asia which are extremely difficult to see). Our biggest problem here was the heat. It was hard to bird past 10am or before 4pm, and when we did the heat would knock us out.
Pretty exhausted but happy, we arrived at our final destination, Da Lat. This is a very touristy city about five hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. It served as an ideal base to bird the surrounding hills and lakes. Here we finally found one of the eight endemics, the Vietnamese Finch. The weather was much nicer here but unfortunately we were both feeling a bit ill. Nothing serious, but just annoying enough to halt our daily hikes up the mountains.
Vietnam, although a bit more challenging to bird in than other countries, is a beautiful country, the parks are peaceful, and a the people are delightful. I truly look forward to coming back one day (and getting all those birds we missed in Tam Dao).