ULTIMATE VIETNAM BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Ho Chi Minh City (the official name for Saigon), from where we will drive to Cat Tien for a four nights stay. The city was dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ during the French colonial period and some of the old flavour remains. We will arrive at Cat Tien in time for some initial exploration.
Ultimate Vietnam: Days 2-4 Cat Tien was the first national park to be established in southern Vietnam and is situated only 100 kilometres to the northeast of Saigon. The park lies at the base of foothills which eventually lead to the Da Lat highlands. The beautiful lowland forest in the eastern half of the park is probably one of the last remaining areas that supports almost the full spectrum of the rich Cochinchinese avifauna and was very fortunate to escape the spraying with defoliants during the civil war that destroyed vast tracts of forest elsewhere in southern Vietnam.
The park is a mosaic of different habitats, dominated by a series of seasonal wetlands at its centre. Small flocks of waterbirds including Eastern Cattle, Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, and Chinese Pond-Heron, gather to sun themselves in the trees. Overhead larger birds such as Woolly-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant and Grey-headed Fish-Eagle flap past in search of a quiet place to feed. In the early mornings Green Peafowl can be heard calling from the larger trees surrounding the wetlands, where they have a good preen before flying down to commence feeding. Along the edges of pools and marshes we may find Cinnamon Bittern, White-breasted Waterhen, Stork-billed Kingfisher and Palearctic migrants from northern Asia such as Oriental and Black-browed Reed Warblers, Lanceolated Warbler and Dusky Warbler.
In the evening groups of Great Eared Nightjars emerge to hunt over open areas while Large-tailed Nightjars fly low over forest clearings. After nightfall we will have a good chance of seeing Asian Barred Owlet and Brown Hawk Owl.
Other birds we should see in the open grassy habitat include Striated (or Little) Heron, Collared Falconet, Red-wattled Lapwing, Lesser Coucal, Indochinese Bushlark, Black-hooded Oriole, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, Chestnut-capped Babbler, Baya Weaver and White-rumped Munia. If we are very lucky even the rare Asian Golden Weaver can show up.
A driveable track, leading from the park headquarters in the south to Dac Lua substation in the north, bisects the reserve. The first part of the track runs close to the banks of the Dong Nai River. In the mornings many birds are active along the riverbanks and we should encounter White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Black-and-red Broadbill, Racket-tailed Treepie, Rufescent Prinia and perhaps winter visitors such as Thick-billed and Radde’s Warblers. As we move further into the heart of the park the partly deciduous forest becomes taller, although still open, and is interspersed with dense patches of evergreen forest and thorny clumps of bamboo.
Much of the bird activity will be concentrated around fruiting trees where we will find birds such as Thick-billed, Ashy-headed (split from Pompadour) and Orange-breasted Green Pigeons, Green Imperial Pigeon, Red-breasted Parakeet, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Green-eared and Lineated Barbets, the little known near-endemic Red-vented Barbet, Ochraceous and Black-headed Bulbuls, Great and Common Ioras, Golden-fronted and Blue-winged Leafbirds, and Asian Fairy-Bluebird. In roving flocks we should find Green-billed Malkoha, Laced Woodpecker, Banded and Dusky Broadbills, Large Woodshrike, Scarlet Minivet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Abbott’s and Scaly-crowned Babblers, and Pin-striped Tit-Babbler.
Clearings in the forest are always a good place to linger, attracting such species as Black Baza, Crested Goshawk, Shikra, Crested Serpent Eagle, Red Junglefowl, Red Collared and Spotted Doves, Plaintive and Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoos, Greater Coucal, Asian Palm Swift, Germain’s Swiftlet, Great and Oriental Pied Hornbills, Indian (Black-billed) Roller, Dollarbird, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Blue-eared and Coppersmith Barbets, the huge Great Slaty and White-bellied Woodpeckers, Striated Swallow, Stripe-throated and Streak-eared Bulbuls, Black and Hair-crested Drongos, Brown Shrike, Chestnut-tailed and Vinous-breasted Starlings, Golden-crested and Hill Mynas, Black-naped Oriole, Ashy Woodswallow, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Van Hasselt’s Sunbird (split from Purple-throated), Olive-backed Sunbird, Yellow-vented and Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers, and Paddyfield Pipit.
Venturing along the smaller side trails into patches of evergreen forest, we will be looking in particular for such secretive specialities as Siamese Fireback, the near-endemic Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Green-legged Partridge, Black-and-buff Woodpecker and the near-endemic Bar-bellied Pitta. With persistence we have a good chance of seeing all of them during our stay.
In this habitat we should also be able to locate Emerald Dove, Orange-breasted Trogon, Banded Kingfisher, Greater Flameback, White-browed Piculet, White-rumped Shama, the endemic Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, White-crested Laughingthrush, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Ruby-cheeked and Purple-naped Sunbirds and Little Spiderhunter.
Other species we may well encounter at Cat Tien include Crested (or Oriental) Honey-Buzzard, Common Flameback, Heart-spotted Woodpecker and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, as well as such wintering species as Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Pale-legged Leaf and Two-barred Warblers, and Red-throated (or Taiga) and Asian Brown Flycatchers.
We also have a reasonable chance of finding Blyth’s Frogmouth, Violet Cuckoo, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Blue-rumped Pitta, Thick-billed Flowerpecker and Asian Golden Weaver. If we are very lucky we will come across the little-known, near-endemic Orange-necked Partridge (once thought endemic, this species has now been found in Cambodia).
In addition to birds, Cat Tien’s forests are an important refuge for Black-shanked Douc Langur, one of the most colourful and least known primates in Asia, and Buff-cheeked Gibbon. If we are very lucky we could even come across the rare Annamese Langur (split from Indochinese).
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 5 After some final birding at Cat Tien we will drive north to Di Linh for an overnight stay. In the afternoon we shall start the exploration of the Deo Nui San area.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 6 Today we will have all day at Deo Nui San, a pass surrounded by impressive forested hills. We will look for a number of species which are easier to find here than on the Da Lat Plateau including Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, Speckled Piculet, Long-tailed Broadbill, Grey-eyed Bulbul, Bronzed and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos, the near-endemic Black-headed Parrotbill (split from Grey-headed), Black-hooded and White-cheeked Laughingthrushes, the endemic Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, Streaked Spiderhunter and the distinctive local races of Black-headed and Rufous-backed Sibias, Blue-throated Flycatcher and Black-throated Sunbird (here of the beautiful, red-breasted johnsi race). If we are lucky we will find one or two of the more secretive birds of the area such as Bar-backed Partridge, Blue Pitta, Alström’s (or Plain-tailed) Warbler, Spot-throated Babbler, Rufous-browed Flycatcher and Indochinese Green Magpie. In the late afternoon we will drive to Da Lat for a three nights stay.
Ultimate Vietnam: Days 7-8 The Da Lat (or Lang Bian) Plateau is home to a remarkable avifauna dominated by Indochinese endemic species and also Indochinese subspecies of birds with Himalayan affinities. The town of Da Lat itself is a traditional hill resort for the inhabitants of Saigon and was a major destination for bird collecting expeditions during French colonial times: many of the unique birds discovered on the plateau were taken close to the town limits or on the nearby peaks. The resort was founded in 1893 by the famous French doctor Yersin, who recognized the site’s health-giving qualities and the surrounding area now produces large quantities of fruit, vegetables and flowers.
The Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park which also includes Mount Lang Bian (c2200m), the third highest peak of the plateau, is only a short distance from the town. We will also visit the mixed forest surrounding Tuyen Lam Lake and some other localities. Native pine forests abound with such species as Large and Indochinese Cuckooshrikes, Long-tailed Minivet, Burmese Shrike, Ashy Drongo, Slender-billed Oriole, Grey Bushchat, Yellow-browed and Kloss’s Leaf Warblers, Green-backed Tit, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch and the endemic Vietnamese Greenfinch. Interesting local subspecies of Eurasian Jay and Common (or Red) Crossbill can also be found here.
In the open areas we should see Black-collared Starling and winter visitors including Grey-faced Buzzard, Blue and White-throated Rock Thrushes, and Olive-backed Pipit. In evergreen scrub running through the pine forest and along the evergreen forest edge we should see Banded Bay Cuckoo, Necklaced Barbet (split from Golden-throated), Black-crested, Red-whiskered, Flavescent and Sooty-headed Bulbuls, Hill Prinia, Verditer Flycatcher and Scaly-breasted Munia. Regular scanning of the skyline may produce Black-shouldered Kite, Black and Rufous-bellied Eagles, and House Swift.
Bird flocks will be encountered almost constantly once we enter the evergreen forest and will consist of species such as Bay Woodpecker, Greater and Lesser Yellownapes, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Grey-chinned Minivet, Ashy Bulbul, White-browed Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Silver-eared Mesia, Blue-winged Minla, Mountain (Annam) Fulvetta, Blyth’s Leaf, Grey-cheeked and Chestnut-crowned Warblers, Mountain Tailorbird, Little Pied and Mugimaki Flycatchers, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, White-throated Fantail, Black-throated Bushtit, Hume’s Treecreeper (split from Brown-throated), Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and Mrs Gould’s Sunbird.
In the best evergreen forest we should find Wedge-tailed Green and Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Barred Cuckoo-Dove, Indochinese Barbet (split from Black-browed), Mountain and Himalayan Black Bulbuls, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Maroon Oriole, Lesser Shortwing, Pygmy Wren-Babbler, the beautiful endemic Collared Laughingthrush, the endemic Grey-crowned Crocias, the endemic Vietnamese Cutia (split from Himalayan Cutia), Dalat Shrike-Babbler (split from White-browed), Clicking Shrike-Babbler (split from Chestnut-fronted), the endemic Black-crowned Fulvetta (split from Rufous-winged), White-bellied Erpornis, Grey-bellied Tesia, Ashy-throated Warbler, White-spectacled Warbler, Large Niltava and Yellow-cheeked Tit.
If we are lucky we will find one or two of the more elusive inhabitants of the area such as Chinese Francolin, Rufous-throated Partridges, Silver Pheasant, Green Cochoa, Short-tailed Scimitar Babbler, Dalat Bush Warbler, Brown Prinia or a wintering Siberian Thrush.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 9 Today is a travel day as we first travel north to Pleiku and then head for Mang Den in Kontum province for a two nights stay.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 10 The hill forests of the Mang Canh region hold many species of birds, some of which we will encounter for the first time, but the key speciality here is the endemic Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush, first discovered only in 1999, which we have an excellent chance of observing. We should also have more chance to see the superb near-endemic Yellow-billed Nuthatch and the enigmatic, near-endemic Short-tailed Scimitar Babbler (the latter, also known as Indochinese Wren-Babbler and sometimes placed in Rimator as it appears to be a close relative of the Long-billed Wren-Babbler) and our first chance to see the localised and unique, black-crested, gayeti race of the Sultan Tit. Others interesting birds here could include Jerdon’s Baza, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo, Austen’s Brown Hornbill, Necklaced Barbet, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Eye-browed Wren-Babbler, a different race of Black-hooded Laughingthrush, Grey-headed Parrotbill and Blue-throated Flycatcher. If we are really lucky we can come across Rusty-naped Pitta or a Pin-tailed Parrotfinch.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 11 After some early morning birding around Mang Den we will continue northwards to remote Kon Tum Province where we will stay overnight at Tu Ma Rong. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration of the area.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 12 The Central Highlands are the least populated part of the country and probably the last untouched wilderness of Vietnam where unbroken forest stretches as far as the eye can see. This border area with Cambodia and Laos is where two new bird species to science (Golden-winged Laughingthrush and Black-crowned Barwing) were described as recently as the 1990s! These new species were originally found by Birdlife International expeditions to the remote Mount Ngoc Linh (2598m), which is the highest peak of the Central Highlands. This morning we will visit the slopes of this amazing mountain where we will look for both of these recently described birds! We will have a very good chance to see the superb Black-crowned Barwing but we need a modicum of luck to connect with the Golden-winged Laughingthrush. There are two more exciting birds leave in this forest, the Red-tailed Laughingthrush and the Indochinese Fulvetta. We will certainly be on a lookout for both and any other interesting birds we can find in this virtually unknown area. Other species we may well encounter include Asian Emerald Cuckoo, the rare and striking White-winged Magpie, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Spot-throated Babbler, Red-tailed and Blue-winged Minlas, Rufous-backed Sibia and Green-tailed Sunbird.
After spending all morning in the Mount Ngoc Linh area we will drive to Lang Co near Da Nang for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 13 Overlooking the South China Sea, the resort grounds are good for birds and early morning we will look for Light-vented Bulbul, Daurian Redstart, Mandarin (or Chinese) Blackbird (split from Common), Masked Laughingthrush, Brown-throated Sunbird and Grey-capped Greenfinch. After breakfast we will drive to Bach Ma National Park. This park is situated in the narrow central region of Vietnam, just north of the Hai Van Pass where the Annamite Mountain Range meets the South China Sea. In 1932 a road was built to the summit of Bach Ma (1448m) and the area became a French colonial hill resort. The area was officially classified as a national park in 1991, consisting of 22,000 hectares of core area plus 21,000 hectares of buffer zone. Lowland evergreen forest is the dominant forest type below 900m, with montane evergreen forest taking over above this elevation. Bach Ma has a special microclimate and rather changeable weather. Indeed, it is one of the wettest places in Vietnam with some 8000mm of precipitation falling annually at the summit!
A number of different trails give access to the forest at various altitudes and we will explore some of these during our visit. One of our prime targets here is the skulking Short-tailed Scimitar Babbler and the unobtrusive White-gorgeted Flycatcher. Other birds we may well find include the unique, black-crested, gayeti race of the Sultan Tit, Puff-throated Bulbul, Ferruginous Flycatcher, Black-browed Fulvetta, Silver-eared Mesia, White-crowned Forktail and Red-flanked Bluetail. If we are very lucky we might see a Rufous-throated or Green-legged (Annam) Partridge or even the fantastic Silver Pheasant. In March and April this area can be very good for migrants and we often see here various thrushes, flycatchers and warblers. Mountain Scops Owl is not uncommon in the forest but usually difficult to see because of the steep slopes. We also have our first chance to locate the stunning Red-shanked Douc Langur and if we are very fortunate we will also encounter the recently-split Annam Gibbon. Overnight in Bach Ma National Park.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 14 After spending most of the morning in Bach Ma National Park we will travel north via Hue and Dong Ha for an overnight stay at Ke Shan.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 15 Today we will travel northwards to Xuan Son in Quang Binh province for a two nights stay. We will stop along the way to explore an interesting area of forest where the restricted-range Rufous-cheeked Laughingthrush can be found. We shall arrive in time for some initial exploration in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 16 Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park protects a giant cave system (the largest in Vietnam) surrounded by forest-covered, limestone hills. This is the home of the highly localized Sooty Babbler. The species was originally known from just five specimens collected in Laos in 1920 and was rediscovered in central Vietnam in 1994. It was allocated to the monotypic genus Nigravis but later included in Stachyris, although its behaviour and call is rather atypical of Stachyris and further taxonomic investigation is clearly needed. Another interesting bird of the area is the Limestone Leaf Warbler (split from Sulphur-breasted).
As we explore the park we will encounter many of the typical birds of this unusual habitat, including Cook’s (split from Pacific) Swift, Slaty-backed Forktail, Japanese Thrush, Indochinese Yuhina (split from Striated), Black-throated Laughingthrush, Fork-tailed and Crimson Sunbirds, and White-vented Myna. More skulking species include Tonkin Partridge (split from Green-legged) and Blue-rumped Pitta. If we are really lucky we will come across the rare and elusive Red-collared Woodpecker in this exciting part of Vietnam. The park is also a good place for seeing the endangered Hatinh Leaf Monkey and the amazing Red-shanked Douc Langur.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 17 After some final birding in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang region we will head northwards to Vietnam’s first national Park, Cuc Phuong, where we will stay for two nights. If time and schedule allows we will visit Van Long Nature Reserve in the late afternoon. It is an extensive marshy area where we may find White-browed Crake as well as Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Grey-headed Lapwing. The endangered Delacour’s Langur can be more easily seen here than at Cuc Phuong.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 18 Based at the headquarters amid superb forest in the heart of Cuc Phuong National Park we will be ideally situated to explore this fascinating area with its limestone formations and forested central valley that provide a refuge for many exciting birds.
The forest, which starts only 50 metres from the guesthouse, contains such specialities as White-bellied Green Pigeon, Limestone Wren-Babbler, the localized Rufous-throated Fulvetta and White-tailed Flycatcher. Along the various trails leading to ancient trees and caves we may well find Silver Pheasant, Rufous Woodpecker, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Common Green Magpie, the strange Ratchet-tailed Treepie, White-tailed Robin, Large Scimitar Babbler, Buff-breasted Babbler and the striking Sultan Tit. Wet areas and streams in the forest are good places to look for White-crowned Forktail. Blue-rumped Pittas are quite common in this area, although often difficult to get views of, and this is one of the best spots in Vietnam for seeing the often-difficult Eared Pitta. We have another chance to look for the rare and elusive Red-collared Woodpecker which we have seen here several times.
Along the edges of the many small forest clearings are birds such as Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, wintering Grey-crowned and Bianchi’s Warblers (split from Golden-spectacled), Japanese Tit (split from Great) and Plain Flowerpecker. Raptors include Black Eagle and may be joined overhead by Brown-backed Needletails. There is even a good chance of finding Pied Falconet resting on an exposed branch. Collared Scops Owls can be heard during the night, and we will have a chance of finding a Brown Wood Owl.
At this season, the resident bird population is still augmented by visitors from the north, which often include Rufous-tailed Robin, Northern Red-flanked Bluetail, White’s, Black-breasted, Japanese and Grey-backed Thrushes, Asian Stubtail, Manchurian Bush Warbler and Fujian Niltava. In some years Malayan Night Heron also wintering in the park but we need luck to come across one.
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 19 After some morning birding at Cuc Phuong, we will drive northwards to Tam Dao for a three nights stay.
Ultimate Vietnam: Days 20-21 Tam Dao, the old French hill station that served the inhabitants of Hanoi, is about three hours drive to the northwest of Hanoi. Although most of the old buildings were destroyed during the war, Tam Dao retains something of the atmosphere of an old hill station in miniature. Sheltered by a semi-circle of forested heights reaching 1350m, Tam Dao became a popular haunt of ornithologists early in the 20th century. Its rich and colourful forests, now a national park, have a very distinctive character, with a blending of birds that one otherwise encounters in the Himalayas, northwestern Thailand and southern China. A number of trails meander through the forest at various altitudes, offering quiet observers the chance to see a wide variety of species.
In the tree tops we should see Black-winged Cuckooshrike and Chestnut Bulbul. The enigmatic Grey Laughingthrush joins parties of Streak-breasted and Red-billed Scimitar Babblers, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes and Collared Babblers (split from White-hooded). A whistled imitation of the call of Collared Owlet can attract excited small birds, including David’s Fulvetta (split from Grey-cheeked), Black-chinned Yuhina and Golden Babbler. Streaked and Eyebrowed Wren-Babblers can be found foraging close to the ground alongside leafy trails, while the gorgeous Red-headed Trogon and the retiring White-gorgeted Flycatcher favour the shadier areas of the forest. In scrub and secondary growth and along the forest edge we may find Pale-footed, Brownish-flanked and Russet Bush Warblers, and Grey-backed Shrike. Other birds we may well come across during our visit are Ashy Bulbul, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler (split from White-browed) and the spectacular Red-billed Blue Magpie.
Uncommon specialities that we will be on the lookout for at Tam Dao include Green Cochoa, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, the very localized Short-tailed and the noisy Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbills. If we are really in luck we will come across the shy Blue-naped Pitta or the rare Purple Cochoa.
(If the endangered White-eared Night Heron is showing again at Ba Be National Park at the time of the tour we will have the time to make a visit to the area and try our luck.)
Ultimate Vietnam: Day 22 After some final birding at Tam Dao we will return to Hanoi, where the main section of our tour ends this afternoon.
NORTHWEST VIETNAM EXTENSION
Ultimate Vietnam (Northwest): Day 1 After the main tour ends we drive on a new motorway to north-western Vietnam to the famous town of Sa Pa, situated at the base of the sacred Fansipan Mountain, where we will stay for three nights.
Ultimate Vietnam (Northwest): Day 2 Our main quest at the mighty Fansipan Mountain in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range is to find the highly localized, near-endemic Pale-throated Wren-Babbler. Fansipan Mountain is sometimes called the ‘Roof of Indochina’ as it is the highest peak in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia at 3143 metres (10,312ft). The Pale-throated Wren-Babbler is confined to bamboo undergrowth in the lower parts of the mountain and generally rather scarce. It has been split from Long-tailed Wren-Babbler and it is only found in Northwest Vietnam and adjacent Southern China. We will be exploring suitable habitat for our target bird on various forest trails.
We will also come across some other Himalayan species such as Great Barbet, Yellow-cheeked and Yellow-browed Tit, Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler, Grey-bellied Tesia, Ashy-throated and Blyth’s Leaf Warblers, Rufous-winged and Rusty-capped Fulvettas, Bar-throated Minla, Stripe-throated and White-collared Yuhinas, Snowy-browed and Brown-breasted Flycatchers, Small Niltava.
If we are really lucky we could come across one or two of the more scarce birds like Golden Parrotbill or Silver-eared Laughingthrush, or even the extremely rare White-throated Wren-Babbler (Fansipan is the type locality for this very little-known species).
Ultimate Vietnam (Northwest): Day 3 Depending on the weather, as well as our previous day’s success with the Pale-throated Wren-Babbler, today we can climb to the top of the Fansipan Mountain by the newly built cable car. This new cable car has been awarded two Guinness certification for being the world’s longest three-wire cable car (6292m long) and also having the biggest altitudinal difference between the starting and the ending point (1410m).
In the higher areas of the mountain we may well see Chestnut-headed Tesia, Black-faced Warbler, Whiskered Yuhina, Black-faced, Scaly and Red-winged Laughingthrushes, White-browed Fulvetta, White-browed Bush Robin and, if we are very lucky, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler and Bar-winged Wren-Babbler.
Ultimate Vietnam (Northwest): Day 4 On our final morning we will explore some more open habitat around Sa Pa and will look for Collared Finchbill, Little Forktail, Plumbeous Water Redstart and White-capped Water Redstart. After lunch we drive back to Hanoi airport, where our tour ends in the late afternoon.