Richard Craik, my wife Ha, and myself decided, sort of last minute to do a quick spin through the North of Vietnam. Richard is a very keen and experienced birder, Ha is pretty new to birding, whilst I have been at it for some time, also. The idea was to see some key species (White-winged Magpie and Pittas in Cuc Phuong, Black-faced Spoonbill in Xuan Thuy), and to have a quick break. Richard had just become a father, and I needed a rest from preparations for our wedding:-)))
We decided to meet in Hanoi, where Ha and I stayed at the Green Park Hotel. Not my preferred choice, but all hotels were full. Turned out that the hotel wasn't that bad, and at USD 35.00 a night, I couldn't complain too much. Richard had arranged a car to pick us up, and the trip to Cuc Phuong only took 3 hours, whereas Cuc Phuong - Xuan Thuy was closer to 5 hours, as the roads are not in the best condition. All bookings were made in advance by Richard, this is advisable, in particular for Xuan Thuy, where accommodation is limited.
Accommodation and food:
We split our stay at Cuc Phuong: two nights at the Bong substation, and one night at the guesthouse near the Headquarters. Do stay at the Chalets at Bong, and not the dormitory. The Chalets are basic, but very nice and clean. They all come with bathrooms and hot water (as long as the generator is running), and cost USD 12.00 for single occupancy and USD 20.00 for double occupancy. At Headquarters, we had a building all to ourselves. Again, the rooms were clean, and cost USD 14.00 and USD 20.00 for single/double occupancy respectively. The building is about 800 meters from the main gate, whilst Bong is about 16 kilometers from the gate. Transportation can be arranged, the trip from the gate to Bong is VND 350,000 per car (1 USD = VND 15,700).
Accommodation at Xuan Thuy is more than basic. Toilets and showers are filthy, and there is one common room for everybody. The only good news is that they want to build a new guesthouse next year. Cost per person is VND 100,000, with meal costs being VND 50,000 for dinner, VND 10,000 for breakfast, entry fee to the park is VND 50,000 and boat hire is VND 500,000 per day.
Food was outstanding throughout, and in quantities to feed an entire army. Invariably, we had a couple of meat dishes, a fish dish, veggies and rice; breakfast was either Vietnamese (soup) or Western (Omelet). Drinks, including beer, were easily available, so all necessities were more than taken care of.
This and that:
For an introduction to travel and safety in Vietnam, please see my "Travel Information" page. On the whole, the Vietnamese are very friendly, and always eager to help. Case in point is Mr. Phuong, guide at Cuc Phuong, and the young lady, whose name I forgot, who is the guide at Xuan Thuy. Language can be a problem, as English is not widely spoken outside the cities, of course I was lucky to have my wife and Richard along (Richard speaks excellent Vietnamese, unlike me). This made things easier when it came to getting hot water for our early morning coffee, and other small details.
Having lived in Northern Vietnam before, I should have been smart enough to pack something warm. Whilst the weather was glorious throughout, temperatures dipped to about 8 C at night, making the early-morning walks in T-shirt more than just a little uncomfortable. It was very dry, which also meant no leeches, much to my wife's relief.
Both Richard and I had "Birds of South-East Asia" by Craig Robson along, probably the best guide for Vietnam. I would also suggest that you take a good shorebird guide for Xuan Thuy (which I forgot).
6th of December:
Richard picked up Ha and myself around 13:00. From there, we set off for Cuc Phuong. The road is very good now, and it took us just over 2 hours to reach the gate. After some green tea, and formalities, we set of for Bong sub-station. Only birds seen on the way were Common Kingfisher and Pond-Heron, probably Chinese.
Once at Bong, we quickly dumped our bags and set off for the Valley Trail, starting next to the swimming pool (which you do not want to use, trust me). The first bird, by the pool, was White Wagtail. Red-crested Bulbuls where everywhere, with a couple of Puff-throated Bulbuls as well. One of our target species, Bar-bellied Pitta, was only heard. The shrub along the trail held Grey-crowned Warblers and White-rumped Munia.
Bird of the day must surely be Rufous-tailed Robin.
7th of December:
This morning, we decided to head for the loop trail, which starts just behind Bong. It was pretty cold, not to mention dark, when we set off. Near the beginning of the trail, Richard flushed either a Pitta or Thrush, the light was not good enough to make out any details. This was to remain the only bird for the next two hours. Somewhat disappointed, we had a quick Muesli bar (thanks, Richard), before starting the descent. It was not until we reached the caves that things started to take off: The first birds we saw were a small group of Limestone Wren Babblers, a real prize and a lifer for Richard. And now it got really busy, in just one tree we saw Rufous Woodpecker, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Maroon Oriole, Sultan Tit, Black-browed Fulvetta, White-bellied Yuhina, and Streaked Spiderhunter. Richard had a little whistle to imitate Spotted Owlet, and the birds went frantic; giving us fantastic views. On the way back for lunch, we added Blue-winged Leafbird, Long-tailed Shrike, White-tailed Robin, Asian Stubtail, White-necked Babbler, Grey-crowned Warbler and Rufous-crowned Babbler.
We took the grid to take us back to Bong, where we saw Blue-and-White Flycatcher, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and, in front of the dining hall, Olive-backed Pipit.
After lunch, we walked along the road from Bong to the main gate. A low Black Eagle gave us excellent views but, after that, it became pretty quiet. As is often the case in tropical rain forests, there are long periods which are very quiet, before it becomes extremely active all at once, making it difficult to decide which bird to look at first. A nice bird seen here was Ratchet-tailed Treepie, whilst the Red-headed Trogon was a lot more difficult to see. Amazing how such a colorful bird can virtually disappear! Here, we also saw our first Rufous-throated Fulvettas, as well as Striped Tit-babblers. A single Red-vented Barbet looked stunning, and Japanese White-eyes and a couple of White-throated Fantails added to our trip list. Just before it got dark, we flushed a single female Japanese Thrush. Whilst trying to find it again, Ha called us over to the Chalet, the trees in front held at lest three Eurasian Blackbirds. Nothing special for Europe, but they are much rarer here in Vietnam. Also, unlike Europe, these birds are very shy over here, and easily spooked.
And that was it for the day; a huge dinner and a few beers hit the spot just right, before it was early lights out. I think Richard's bird of the day must have been Limestone Wren Babbler, whilst I'll go for the Japanese Thrush, a lifer for me. Ha liked the Eurasian Blackbirds, as she actually found them.
8th Of December:
This morning was bl...y cold!!!! I could hardly hold my bins but what the heck, there was birding to be done. We started off on the grid between Bong and the dormitory. A White-rumped Shama gave brief views, as did Rufous-capped Babbler. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement and shouted "Bar-bellied". However, this was wishful thinking, as it was actually a Blue-rumped Pitta. We all got good views of this stunning bird. From here, we tried the road again, where we came across at least 5 Silver-breasted Broadbills. We also clocked our first Minivet, Scarlet Minivet, as well as Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. Just before lunch, we tried the Valley trail again, and again heard Bar-bellied Pitta. However, the bird proved elusive and we never actually managed to see it:-(. We did add Bronzed Drongo and saw at least 4 Asian Fairy Bluebirds in a fruiting tree.
After lunch, it was off to the main entrance, where we would spend the night. The drive in a beat-up Lada was not a little harrowing. We did make it down in one piece, and it was the same routine all over again: dump bags, go birding. We had arranged with Phuong, the local guide, to take us to the Botanical Garden, where we wanted to find White-winged Magpie. Once again, we were out of luck, and only added Crimson Sunbird and Black-winged Cuckoo-Shrike to our lists.
Dinner was excellent again and I think we can agree that the Blue-rumped Pitta was bird of the day for all of us.
9th of December:
Ha wanted a bit of a lie-in, so Richard and I went for a quick spin before breakfast. The trees along the road where full of Eurasian Blackbirds, there must have been at least 30. Finally, we also saw a very common bird that we had missed so far, Oriental Magpie-Robin. Just before heading back for brekkie, Richard wanted to check out the area at the gate to the Botanical garden, and it was a good thing, too: right inside the gate, there were at least 8 White-winged Magpies, lifers for both if us. On the way to pick up Ha, we also saw White-crested Laughingthrush, Ashy Drongo, and Sooty-headed, Black-crested, Red-whiskered, Grey-eyed, and Puff-throated Bulbuls.
After breakfast, we gave the Botanical garden another shot. We failed to see the Magpies once more, but did see Grey-backed Shrike, Common Iora, Spotted Dove, Lesser Coucal and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.
This was the end of our stay at Cuc Phuong, it was off to Xuan Thuy. The driver assured us that he knew the way, but this proved to be not entirely true, and it seemed to take forever to get there. After we had checked into our (horrible) room, taken a look at the bath facilities (and decided not to use them), we set of in search of Black-faced Spoonbill.
The first birds we saw were plenty of Kingfishers: Common, a single Pied, White-throated, and Black-capped Kingfishers where all over the place. A couple of Greylag Geese flew overhead, there were plenty of Little Egrets, Great White and Grey Herons, a single Purple Heron, but no Spoonbills. Spotted Redshanks were very common, whilst we saw only two Black-tailed Godwits. Slaty-breasted Rails gave only brief glimpses, whilst the White-breasted Waterhens and Common Moorhen where more accommodating.
Somewhat disappointed at dipping on the Spoonbills (which the warden had assured us were nearby), we headed back before it got dark to alleviate the miss with a couple of beers. Bird of the day for Richard and me were the White-winged Magpies, as Ha missed those, she settled for the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.
10th of December:
Another cold morning, another early start. We had initially planned to head out to the islands to look for Spoonbilled Sandpiper and Nordman's Greenshank but, due to commitments (Richard's work, Ha and my wedding) we cancelled that and took the boat to look for the Spoonbills again. First, however, we came across both Spot-billed Ducks and Common Teals. There was a lonely Eurasian Curlew, whilst Broadbilled Sandpipers where much more common. As we were just about to give up hope, success: a single Black-faced Spoonbill. One of the locals told us that all the other Spoonbills had flown off very early, so we counted ourselves lucky.
After breakfast, our trip came to an end, well, almost: as Ha and I were heading out, we saw 12 Black-faced Spoonbills right next to the road. Of course, Ha had to rub in the fact that she slept in and still saw the birds:-)
Here, I would like to thank Richard for his excellent companionship, and my new wife for being the greatest!
Black-faced Spoonbills amongst the Egrets
List of species seen:
* denotes lifer; CP = Cuc Phuong, XT = Xuan Thuy