Bird watching in Vietnam
(I wrote this article for "The Guide", a monthly publication here in Vietnam)
Whilst most visitors still come to Vietnam to visit the classic tourist sights; more and more guests do take an interest in the flora and fauna of this beautiful country. However, many a time I have heard comments to the tune of “there are no birds!”
Though it may appear this way, especially in the more populated areas, Vietnam actually hosts a large number of bird species. There are currently more than 850 species that have been recorded (compare this with less then 600 in England), including 12 endemics, or species that cannot be found anywhere else.
Admittedly, many of the birds are forest birds and are not always easy to see. Elsewhere, birds have become very shy due to continuing hunting and trapping. Nevertheless, the patient observer will easily see many birds in the right habitat though many of the specialties such as Pheasants, Babblers, and Pittas need not only perseverance but also a bit of luck. Obviously, it helps if one visits with a knowledgeable guide; many of the Park Rangers know the birds, and the calls they make, very well. Alternatively, there are a couple of tour operators that specialize in birding tours and will ensure that you are accompanied by an expert.
Birding in Vietnam is pretty straight forward in the established National Parks and whilst infrastructure is basic at times, accommodation is easily found and food is plentiful and often very good. These parks are very safe, the biggest annoyance being leeches during the wet season. Whilst messy, they do not carry any diseases, and a pair of leech socks and a good blast of repellent will keep them at bay. My personal nightmare are gnats but, once again, they do not like insect repellent. Do inquire about necessary permits before venturing out on your own; many of the parks are out of bounds for foreigners. The forests can be incredibly hot and humid and you are well-advised to take plenty to drink.
Accommodation is generally pretty good, if basic. You might want to invest in one of those silk sleeping bags easily found in the cities. Food is good and often great, and there is always plenty of it. And as no day of birding would be complete without a couple of cold beers in the evening, for me anyway, it is good to know that this is easily available in all the larger national parks.
Bird watching in Vietnam is really possible all year round, but the rainy season makes walking hard at times. The winter is drier in the North and South; there is also the added bonus of visitors from countries further north. Many birds are at their most vocal in spring and are thus easier to locate.
As birding is still a fairly new concept in Vietnam, there might be some curiosity as to what it is you are doing. By all means do try and explain and let people take a look through your binoculars; I feel it is important that the local communities realize that there might be an interest in protecting and preserving Vietnam’s unique flora and fauna.
You will not need much to start birding. Whilst it is possible to spend thousands of Dollars on binoculars, telescope and other trappings, a decent pair of binoculars (stay away from the Russian cheapos sold locally) a good guidebook and a notebook and pencil for recording your sightings is all that is needed for a start. The book to have for the region is “A Field Guide to the Birds of South East Asia” by Craig Robson. I have seen it once in a bookstore in Ho Chi Minh City but it might be easier to order via the Internet.
You do not have to walk around in camouflage, though wearing a Hawaiian shirt is not encouraged. Go for subdued colors and were trousers and long-sleeved shirts to protect you from thorns, sun, and mozzies. Walk quietly and look for movement to find birds. Forests can often be amazingly quiet for long periods before all hell breaks lose when a feeding flock of birds moves through. Some of the best birding I have done is when I found a good spot and just sat still for a little while. You might not be able to identify every bird; the “LBJ’s” (Little Brown Jobs) can be a nightmare. Don’t worry; there is nobody out there that can identify each and every bird they see.
Most importantly: go out there, have fun, and enjoy the great nature that Vietnam has to offer.
Following are short descriptions of a few sites that should be on any birder’s list of places to visit. There are also a number of trip reports on my own website: www.hannostamm.com.
Cuc Phuong National Park:
This is the oldest park in Vietnam and was decreed by President Ho Chi Minh himself in 1962. Just over three hours away from Ha Noi, the park has good facilities with basic but clean accommodation both at the entrance and at Bong sub-station further inside. The park is best avoided on weekends and holidays when it can get crowded and noisy. Food is good and plentiful and, more importantly, there is beer! Trails are well marked and beauties such as Woodpeckers, Broadbills and Barbets are not too hard to see. My personal favorites, Pittas, are also pretty common but require a lot more effort.
Well worth a visit is the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre at the entrance; they do a great job in ensuring that primates have a chance of surviving in Vietnam and deserve your support.
Bach Ma National Park:
Less than an hour from Hue, the park has good infrastructure both at the entrance and at the summit. If you do not like leeches, you may want to avoid the park during the rainy season! Also keep an eye on weather forecasts as the Center of Vietnam sometimes gets clobbered by Typhoons. As the park covers different altitudinal zones, there is a wide range of bird species. Most sought after are a number of partridges and pheasants but they are not easy to see. However, there are plenty of more conspicuous birds to keep both amateurs and hard-core twitchers happy. If you can, try and hire Mr. Le Quy Minh as a guide. He heads the Ecotourism Department at the park and apart from being a very nice chap also knows his birds.
Cat Tien National Park:
This is probably the birding site in Vietnam and should not be missed. Easily reached in three hours from Ho Chi Minh City, this park is again best avoided on weekends and holidays (unless you enjoy a bit of Karaoke). Not only is the park great for birds, there is also a good chance of seeing larger mammals; though forget about seeing the last few remaining Javan Rhinoceroses.
Tra Su Forest Reserve:
Less then an hour from Chau Do, and close to the Cambodian border, this is one of my favorite sites. The vast number of roosting and breeding egrets, herons, and ibises make it an amazing spectacle, even for non-birders. The site is best visited a couple of hours before dusk when hundreds, if not thousands, of birds come back from feeding on the Cambodian side. The site is private and you may want to check with the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel for permission to access and to arrange a boat to take you to the watch tower in the centre.
Birdlife International in Indochina
This is the regional program of Birdlife International, a network present in over 100 countries to promote the protection of birds and biodiversity.
This Company specializes in birding tours in Vietnam and beyond and is run by Richard Craik, a man well-known in local birding circles and with a lot of Vietnam experience under his belt.
Endangered Primate Rescue Centre
Home to some of the rarest primates in Vietnam, often rescued from poachers and traders, this centre ensures that these wonderful animals do not go extinct.
Oriental Bird Club
This club is intended for anyone with an interest in the birds of the Oriental Region. The modest subscription fee supports conservation efforts throughout the area.