Southern Vietnam: Birding with a Camera. Da Lat Endemics & Indochinese Specialties

This is a Birding with a Camera® Tour (BwC). We try to balance seeing as many birds as possible while also trying to take great photos of them. We still target endemics and other specialties. We will also try to see and photograph other animals if any are around. Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for a traditional Birding Tour to Indochina, you should check out our Cambodia tour. Note that the optional extension is more difficult for photography, and will be run more like a traditional birding tour.

In the early 2000’s, Vietnam was known for some of the toughest birding in Asia. A little over a decade later, one can go and have mind-blowing encounters with Blue, Bar-bellied, and Blue-rumped pittas, Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Siamese Fireback, and other seldom-seen endemic gems of the Da Lat Plateau. The construction of incredible purpose-built hides in the southern part of the country means that in a short time you can come away with incredible photos and views of some of Asia’s best birds. The regular supply of Bahn Mi sandwiches, delicate Vietnamese spring rolls, and fragrant Pho means that this tour doubles as a foodie’s delight. All accommodation has en-suite facilities, wifi and hot water. Hardly tough at all, and suddenly it’s become one of the most enjoyable trips in Asia.

This tour focuses on Southern Vietnam including the endemic rich region of Da Lat, which boasts must-see birds like Gray-crowned Crocias and Vietnamese Cutia, and the country’s most diverse park, Cat Tien, which comes loaded with both high-quality birds and mammals from Black-shanked Douc-langur to Golden-cheeked Gibbon and Green Peafowl. There is also an extension to the center and north of Vietnam, but this takes the form of a more traditional birding tour as photographic opportunities there are tough.



Day 1: Arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). After your arrival in the southern capital and commercial center, you will be transferred to a hotel in this vibrant city. The tour starts with a welcome dinner at one of the many delicious restaurants near our hotel.

PLEASE NOTE: If you wish to visit areas of historical interest from the Vietnam War (e.g. Reunification Palace/War Remnants Museum), this could be arranged on request if you decide to arrive early.

Day 2: Ho Chi Minh City to Cat Tien NP. We will leave the hustle and bustle of the southern capital behind as we pass through rice paddies and villages en-route to the best park in all of Vietnam, Cat Tien. Located about three hours north of Ho Chi Minh City, we will arrive in time for some afternoon birding, which may see us pick up Golden-crested Myna, Great Hornbill or even Black-and-red Broadbill in the grounds of our lodge deep within the park. The next four nights will be spent in the park.

The stunning Banded Broadbill is sure to be a favorite near Cat Tien
The stunning Banded Broadbill is sure to be a favorite near Cat Tien (Keith Barnes)

Days 3 – 5: Cat Tien National Park. With three full days within Vietnam’s flagship park, we should leave with a substantial bird list, and pick up a wonderful crop of mammals too. We will split our time between sitting in the delightful blinds that have been erected at Cat Tien, walking the trails looking for flock specialty birds, balcony birding from the lodge, and jeep rides looking for pheasants and mammals along roads. This park protects the largest tracts of lowland forest remaining in Vietnam, and we will visit the most accessible and famous sector of the park, which contains seasonally flooded grassland and lowland dipterocarp forest, much of which is dominated by dense stands of bamboo. The park boasts more than 350 bird species, which include some incredible Indochinese specialties such as glowing Bar-bellied and bulky Blue-rumped pittas, stealthy Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, elegant Siamese Fireback, bulky Red-vented Barbet, and somber Gray-faced Tit-Babbler. In addition to those are many widespread, though no less important species, such as the magnificent Green Peafowl and Great Slaty, Heart-spotted, Pale-headed, and Black-and-buff Woodpeckers, Red-headed and Orange-breasted Trogons, Dusky and Banded Broadbills, White-crested Laughingthrush, and Banded Kingfisher. Night forays might yield some notable birds as well as mammals, such as harrier-like Great Eared-Nightjars gliding over the forest canopy and Large-tailed Nightjars “chonking” from the forest floor. Blyth’s Frogmouth and Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl are among the rarer nightbirds in the park. Mammals possible during these dusk drives include Sambar, Red Muntjac, Leopard Cat, and Ferret-badger. Daytime outings along trails will give us a chance at the handsome Black-shanked Douc-langur, a beautiful primate that is confined to Indochina, and maybe a Golden-cheeked Gibbon if we are lucky.

Siamese Firebacks at Cat Tien
Siamese Firebacks at Cat Tien (Keith Barnes)

The blue-purple spotted Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant is one of the regular feeder birds in Cat Tien
The blue-purple spotted Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant is one of the regular feeder birds in Cat Tien (Keith Barnes)

Day 6: Cat Tien to Deo Suoi Lanh. After a final morning in Cat Tien, we will head farther north to a low-lying mountain pass near to the town of Di Linh. During our journey north, we will check any of the paddies lining the road for migrant shorebirds, Green Bee-eaters, and Plain-backed Sparrows, before we arrive at our first highland site, which will subsequently offer us our first of the highly-prized Dalat endemics. There is an epic bird blind at Deo Suoi Lanh which we will spend time at. It is regularly visited by Siberian and Orange-headed Thrushes and White-throated Rock-Thrush, but the true stars that we hope will make an appearance are Indochinese Green-Magpie, Silver-breasted Broadbill, and Black-headed Parrotbill. We will also do some roadside birding and may encounter Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Long-tailed Broadbill, Blue Pitta, Maroon Oriole, and both Dalat and Clicking Shrike-Babblers. The night will be spent in the tiny town of Di Linh.

Blue Pitta is another epic bird that is now being fed in the Da Lat area
Blue Pitta is another epic bird that is now being fed in the Da Lat area (Keith Barnes)

Day 7: Di Linh to Da Lat. After more birding in the mountains near Di Linh, we well head to Da Lat, where we spend three nights. This city is a long-established tourist attraction famed for its scenic setting and pleasantly moderate climate, where a French Hill Station was constructed in the early part of twentieth century. It makes a very comfortable base from which to explore the nearby forest areas of the Langbian Plateau, which holds a number of regional endemic species. We will begin our exploration of this fascinating area with a foray down to the Ta Nung Valley, made famous in the nineties for the rediscovery of the Vietnamese endemic Gray-crowned Crocias, which remains regularly seen there. Any passing “bird wave” will be scoured for this bird hiding within. Ta Nung will also provide a further chance at Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, as well as other local species like White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Black-headed and Rufous-backed Sibias, the local race (and possible future split) of Black-throated Sunbird, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Streaked Spiderhunter, White-spectacled Warbler, and Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler. In the afternoon, we will head out to Ho Tuyen Lam, a scenic lake surrounded by pine woodland, which holds the possibility of Vietnamese Greenfinch, an endemic race of Red Crossbill, Slender-billed Oriole, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Burmese Shrike, and Black-collared Starling.

The Orange-breasted Laughingthrush is another South Vietnam endemic that we ought to see very well
The Orange-breasted Laughingthrush is another South Vietnam endemic that we ought to see very well (Keith Barnes)

Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird is perhaps one of Earth’s best-looking sunbirds
Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird is perhaps one of Earth’s best-looking sunbirds (Keith Barnes)

Days 8-9: Full days Da Lat. We will split our time between the bird blinds and forest trails, taking our time to score some cracking photographs of seldom-seen birds. Mixed flocks may reveal endemics such as Vietnamese Greenfinch, DaLat Bush-warbler, Vietnamese Cutia, and Black-crowned Fulvetta along with more widespread species like Large Cuckooshrike, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Golden-throated Barbet, Pygmy Cupwing, and Clicking and Dalat Shrike-Babblers. The blinds draw in some of the best endemics and skulkers and we’ll spend time there hoping to catch up with a quartet of stunning laughingthrushes: Orange-breasted, Collared, White-cheeked, and Black-hooded. Other visitors may include the tiny but strident Gray-bellied Tesia, scythe-billed Short-tailed Scimitar-babbler, Large Niltava, Rufous-throated Partridge, and Lesser Shortwing. A nocturnal foray may reveal the very tricky Hodgson’s Frogmouth.

Collared Laughingthrush is an endangered endemic that we ought to see very well
Collared Laughingthrush is an endangered endemic that we ought to see very well (Keith Barnes)

The isolated Da Lat endemic robinsoni race of Spotted Forktail may be split, and it’s a stunner!
The isolated Da Lat endemic robinsoni race of Spotted Forktail may be split, and it’s a stunner! (Keith Barnes)

Day 10: Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh City and departure. We fly back to Ho Chi Minh from Da Lat, where the tour comes to a close.

____________________

OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Central and Northern Vietnam (8 days)

The birds are shier and more skittish in northern Vietnam, and there are no blinds. While we will still make an effort to photograph the birds when the opportunity arises, the quality and number of photos will be much less on this extension compared to the main tour. Consider yourself warned! However, if you would like to see more of this fascinating country as well as add a bunch of superb and very local Indochinese specialties to your life list, then it is well worth it.

Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City to Mang Den (same day as day 10 of the main tour). After our flight to Chi Minh City, we will catch a connecting flight to Mang Den, where we will spend the night.

Day 2: Deo Mang Den. This site has risen to birding prominence with the discovery of the local Indochinese endemic Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush, which was only described in 1996. While the town itself is surrounded by pines, we will focus on the montane evergreen forest farther afield that could yield some highly-prized species such as Black-hooded Laughingthrush and Yellow-billed Nuthatch (for which this represents the very best site on the tour), Pale-capped Pigeon, the odd Ratchet-tailed Treepie, the rare Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, shy Red-tailed Laughingthrush, and Black-eared Shrike-Babbler. Besides those much-wanted species, other birds in the area include Pale Blue Flycatcher, Red-headed Trogon, Yellow-cheeked and Gray-crowned Tits, Golden Babbler, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, and Rufous-faced Warbler. The night will be spent in Mang Den, close to this rich area of montane forest.

Black-eared Shrike-Babbler
Black-eared Shrike-Babbler (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Mang Den to Dak. This location holds three more recently described Indochinese endemics: the striking Black-crowned Barwing, Indochinese Fulvetta and stunning Golden-winged Laughingthrush, which is also threatened. None of these birds are easy, and we will have to work hard to tease them out.

Day 4: Dak to Bach Ma. If still required we will target the headline species from yesterday. While searching for them we might encounter other striking targets like White-winged Magpie, Red-tailed Laughingthrush, Red-tailed Minla, and Plumbeous Redstart. Later in the morning we will hit the road again, heading east to the shore, this time to Bach Ma National Park, stopping en-route for the scarce Masked Laughingthrush. We will spend two nights inside the park at Bach Ma.

Day 5: Bach Ma National Park. A full day will be spent in the park targeting some of the tricky local species found within, like the extremely secretive Annam Partridge, Austen’s Brown Hornbill, and Indochinese Wren-Babbler, along with further chances at Ratchet-tailed Treepie. Other cool birds here include Japanese Thrush, White-cheeked and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, Bay Woodpecker, and White-gorgeted and Chinese Blue Flycatchers. At night there is also the chance of finding the scarce Hodgson’s Frogmouth.

White-cheeked Laughingthrush is a boisterous character and easily seen at the purpose-built blinds
White-cheeked Laughingthrush is a boisterous character and easily seen at the purpose-built blinds (Keith Barnes)

Day 6: Bach Ma to Phong Nha. The day will be spent driving and we may make some opportunistic stops for birding. We have two nights near Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Day 7: Phong Nha-Ke Bang NP. This national park protects some amazing karst limestone habitat and we will seek out the extreme specialties of this stunning habitat like the Beelzebub-like Sooty Babbler, golden Limestone Leaf-warbler, and the incredibly tricky Red-collared Woodpecker. There are also some amazing monkeys here and we are hopeful that we will see Hatinh Langur and Red-shanked Douc Langur.

Day 8: Phong Nha-Ke Bang NP to Ho Chi Minh City. After another morning in the park, we drive to Hue and fly to Ho Chi Minh City, where the tour concludes.

Custom extensions to Northern Vietnam can also be arranged if desired which could include Ba Be National Park (for the rare White-eared Night-Heron), Van Long Nature Reserve (for Delacour’s Langur and waterbirds), Tam Dao for northern hill birds, or Cuc Phuong National Park (for Pied Falconet and many others).

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are required on most days (5:00-5:30am) to get to the birding areas early when the activity is highest at dawn. There are some long drives on this tour, with several of 4 hours, and one drive of 8 hours planned. Elevation is not a major issue on this trip, where Da Lat and Tam Dao are the highest areas to be visited, at around 4900ft (1500m).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Some time will be spent sitting in blinds, but there will also a fair amount of walking involved, with hikes of around 2 miles (3.5km) on many days. For the most part this will be on easy tracks, roads, and trails, but there will be a few inclined sections in the mountains.

CLIMATE: Vietnam’s climate is varied; in the highlands at Da Lat, daytime temperatures typically vary between 55-77°F (12-25°C); in Cat Tien, the hottest site, temperatures can reach 95°F (35°C) and humidity can be very high.

ACCOMMODATION: The accommodations in southern Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh, Cat Tien, and Da Lat) are all good to very good. On the extension the accommodation is simpler. However, all accommodations have hot water, full-time electricity, en-suite bathrooms, wi-fi and most have air-conditioning.

PHOTOGRAPHY: On the main tour the photo opportunities are superb, with many species visiting purpose-built blinds that will occupy much of our time. The extension is not very good for photography, and the birds are some of the shiest in Asia, offering limited photography compared with the main tour.

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best in the northern winter (November-March), when additional winter migrants are present, and the resident species are at their most vocal and active.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Although visas on can be obtained on arrival for some western countries, this usually only applies to stays of 15 days or less. Therefore, for anyone taking both the main tour and the extension, a visa must be obtained on arrival. Electronic visas are available for many nationalities. Please be aware that obtaining any required visas are your responsibility, and this should be done well in advance of the tour.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 9, and if taking the extension, the night of day 1 to the night of day 7 of the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 10, and if taking the extension, from lunch of day 1 to lunch on day 8; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the morning of day 10, and if taking the extension, from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 8; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s); entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; visa and passport fees; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.