Our friend Richard Craik contacted us a few weeks back to ask us if we would like to join him and James Eaton on a recce trip to the center of Vietnam, as James was going to do a tour there in March. What a question!!!!! As luck would have it, it was fairly quiet in the hotel I work in, and we, my wife Ha and I, decided to join.
The trip took a total of five days, during which time we visited Lo Xo, Bach Ma, and Phong Nha.
Richard organized all the logistics for us and I do not know the exact break-down. However, the cost per person came to USD 342.00, including flights from and to Saigon, accommodation, car and driver, and guide for Lo Xo and Bach Ma.
Meals and drinks were extra, but generally very cheap. A meal for 6, plus drinks, would cost between USD 20.00 and USD 35.00.
As usual in Vietnam, one is never far from a beer, and they were cold, too. The preferred beer in that region is "Huda" (Hue-Denmark) and it goes down well, thank you very much.
Accommodation and food:
As we did not know what to expect, Ha had bought plenty of Muesli bars and 3-in-one coffee and tea (actually, she had to go shopping twice as she forgot the packed back-pack at home). Whilst food was generally pretty decent, the Muesli bars did come in handy on the mornings when we left without breakfast, and the coffee and tea were appreciated by all (it is easy to get hot water everywhere).
Accommodation in Kham Duc, the jump-off point for Lo Xo was basic but reasonably clean, more than basic in Bach Ma (and not very clean), and quite good in Phong Nha. All places had air conditioning; whilst it was not very hot, it did come in handy early in the evening.
At Bach Ma, we were supposed to spend one night at the entrance and one night on the summit. However, the summit was covered in mist, making the accommodation very damp and unpleasant and we stayed both nights at the bottom.
This and that:
Personal safety is not an issue, like in most of Vietnam. Well, that is apart from the insane traffic of course.
The one nuisance were the gnats at Lo Xo, they were ferocious! I was unaware of the problem and walked around in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, big mistake!!! The gnats do draw blood, but what is worse is that the bites start itching like crazy and this lasts for 4-5 days.
Laundry is probably possible if you stay long enough at each location, we did not bother for the five days we were on the road.
Shops for buying necessities (snacks, water, etc.) are everywhere, no need to lug lots of stuff.
The weather was pretty good in Lo Xo and Bach Ma, however the summit was covered in clouds at Bach Ma. At Phong Nha we had quite heavy rain in the afternoon, making bird watching pretty much impossible. Temperatures ranged from pleasant to pretty hot.
I had brought "Birds of South Asia" by Craig Robson.
A word of thanks:
First of all, thanks to Richard Craik for inviting us to tag along, it was a fantastic trip. As usual, the dry British humor was much appreciated.
What can I say about James Eaton? The guy is very nice, but scary: the smallest glimpse or fraction of a sound, and he has ID'ed the bird. I felt very inadequate. Seriously, thanks a lot for all the hints, and we look forward to our next trip with you.
A big shout to Mr. Minh, our guide, and Mr. Hung, our driver. Mr. Minh was very concerned for our well-being and was perfect in arranging everything at Bach Ma, where he is based. Mr. Hung was a little concerned about his car at first (he wiped our shoes at first before we got into the car), but he eventually relaxed and was an excellent driver. This skill is crucial on Vietnam's dangerous roads.
Last, but not least, my wife Ha. As usual, you hung in there and kept us going with snack bars and coffee/tea. Love you!
Comments, corrections, and suggestions can be sent to hannostamm"at"hotmail.com. Obviously, all faults and omissions are entirely mine.
24th of February:
Richard and James picked us up at the hotel in Saigon and we headed for the airport. After a short flight, we arrived in Da Nang at 12:30 where we met Mr. Minh and Mr. Hung. We didn't waste time and headed straight for Kham Duc. Not much on the way, just a few Large-billed Crows (now Eastern Jungle Crow as James pointed out), White-throated Kingfishers, and a couple of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters.
We quickly checked into the Kham Duc Hotel, where we found the rooms to be much better than the outside architecture would suggest. A quick lunch in a nearby restaurant followed before we hit the road for the 40-minute drive to Lo Xo.
Lo Xo is famous for Black-crowned Barwing, a local resident in Southern Laos and Central Annam. We did not really expect to see it until the next morning, but did want to have a quick look around. Whilst at the waterfall there, a couple of Imperial Mountain Pigeons flew over. We then hit a trail nearby and did manage to see a few birds before it got dark. Best bird was probably a flock of White-winged Magpies, but the Plumbeous Water Redstarts at the waterfall where not bad, either.
Not much as far as "Bird-of-the-day" goes, and I forgot to ask the others, but I'll take the Magpies.
25th of February:
After an early start we were back at Lo Xo at 06:00 to look for the Barwings in earnest. We took a trail from near the waterfall, it was here that the gnats and a single leech had me for breakfast, good thing that Ha stayed behind. The walk is easy enough after an initial steep climb, and the first very obvious birds were Ashy Drongos that were present in large numbers, and Golden-throated Barbets were calling everywhere, as were a few Greater Coucals. Other birds that were common here were Black Bulbuls, Red-whiskered Bulbuls, and Maroon Orioles. No Barwings, but good views of a Grey-bellied Tesia almost made up for it, a lifer for me.
As the Barwings were obviously not present, we headed back to the road, joining Ha. We had hardly walked a few meters when Ha shouted out "Barwing"! Sure enough: our first Black-crowned Barwing. Whilst very difficult to photograph, we all had very good views of up to three birds, much to the relief of all of us.
Happy, we moved on to the nearby village inhabited by the "Katu" people and on to a trail leading towards the Laotian border, ignoring a "No trespassing" sign. A Black Eagle soared overhead, and both Black-collared and Vinous-breasted Starlings whizzed by. A male Violet Cuckoo first flew over, but then settled in a nearby tree to give excellent views. We also managed to see yet another Black-crowned Barwing here.
We had to head back Kham Duc as we were expected in Bach Ma that afternoon. As it turned out, the drive was considerably shorter than feared and we arrived in Bach Ma at around17:00 after a 4-hour drive. Quick dumping of bags and a spin around the entrance to the park produced 2 Japanese Thrushes and a gang of White-crested Laughingthrushes. The last bird of the day was a Large-tailed Nightjar calling from just outside our rooms.
The "Bird-of-the-day" was a unanimous decision: Black-crowned Barwing, a lifer for everybody.
26th of February:
Was I glad that the night was over! I am not used to mattresses about 2 millimeters thick. After a quick cup of tea, we were on the "Pheasant Trail" by 06:00. Parts of Bach Ma National Park really got clobbered by Typhoons last year, and walking along the trail was hard going at times. However, all was soon forgotten when we managed to see a beautiful male Siberian Thrush. Apart from that, birding was fairly slow, but we did manage to see Scaly-crowned Babbler, Striped Tit-Babbler, Buff-breasted Babbler and Black-browed Fulvetta. We also saw a lot of leeches on the trail.
We continued all the way to the cascades without seeing much else and decided to head back. James and Richard heard a Pitta calling and James and I decided to track it down. It took a lot pf perseverance, but I finally managed to get good views of both male and female Bar-bellied Pittas. As a matter of fact, the male spent some time preening itself, enabling me to admire this, for me, new bird in all its glory.
Once we were back on the road, we headed up to the summit. The weather was miserable here and I sure was glad that we stayed at the bottom. Whilst waiting for lunch to be ready, we walked up the road a little bit further, discovering a couple of Silver Pheasants by the road.
As we were leaving to head back down, I asked to stop to get a look at a group of Indochinese Yuhinas. Good thing, too: as we got out, we saw a Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush. However, the highlight here was a couple of Indochinese Green Magpies. I don't know if it was due to the heavy mist, but those usually very shy and wary birds gave stunning views.
A bit further down the hill, we decided to walk a little bit (between kilometers 13 and 12) to look for the local specialty. This turned out to be easy and, whilst almost impossible to photograph, we all had great views of Short-tailed Scimitar Babbler.
It is this last bird that Ha chose as "Bird-of-the-day", whilst Richard, James, and Minh all went for the Green Magpies. For me, it was hard to choose amongst all these real quality birds, but it was the Pittas that finally did it for me.
27th of February:
Another lousy night and off to an early start for a couple of hours of birding. We walked towards the village from the main gate and soon saw another bird that I really wanted to see, Masked Laughingthrush. Minh told me that they are sometimes difficult to see, but not this morning. They were all over the place, even on the ground behaving like European Blackbirds. A couple of Red Junglefowl were around, as were Racket-tailed Treepies. The rice paddies had a number of waders: Wood and Green Sandpiper, as well as a few Pintail Snipes. On the way back, James and Richard, who were walking ahead, flushed a nice, male Emerald Dove.
After a 5-hour drive on a good road with virtually no traffic, we arrived at the Saigon Phong Nha Hotel, which looked like a 5-star after the last two nights' accommodation. Quick check-in and off to get a boat to take us to the Phong Nha cave. The first bad mews: no way to get a boat before 07:00 the next morning. Anyway, we got to the cave and took the stairs next to it. Whilst we did see a few birds during the boat trip, Common Sandpiper and Common Greenshank amongst others, birding was impossible at Phong Nha as it began raining quite heavily.
Thus, it was back to the hotel to celebrate my birthday with a few Huda beers and a birthday cake that Ha had organized. On the way, we did try to gain access to the nearby National Park, but the Park Manager flatly refused, citing security concerns. Vietnamese can enter, but the "marauding armed gangs" apparently make it to dangerous for foreigners. A load of BS really, I think it is just too close to the Laotian border.
"Bird-of-the-day" for everyone except Richard was Masked Laughingthrush, he chose the Pintail Snipe.
28th of February:
The night was not as pleasant as expected. Whilst the bed was indeed comfortable, we first had to contend with some really bad Karaoke, only to be woken up at 05:00 by patriotic music and poems blared out via loudspeaker.
It wasn't exactly sunny, but at least it did not rain and 07:00 found us in a boat heading back to the Phong Nha cave minus Ha, who decided to have a bit of a lie-in.
We again gave the cave a miss and headed up the stairs, noting both House and Pacific Swifts en route. Whilst Richard stayed on the path, James and I scrambled up a steep trail without seeing anything. Once Richard re-joined us at the bottom, our worst fears came true: he had seen Sooty Babbler just sitting quietly. He would obviously rub that in for the rest of the trip, too.
And that was that. We headed back to Hue for a good lunch and our flights back, adding Eastern Marsh-Harrier, Sooty-headed Bulbul, and Pied Kingfisher on the way. Richard and James saw and heard a lot of more birds than I did, but I am pretty chuffed with what I did see. And missing the Sooty Babbler gives me an excuse to go back next year.
"Bird-of-the-day"? I don't want to talk about it.
Who saw Sooty Babbler?
List of species seen:
* denotes lifer for me.