Vietnam: Da Lat Endemics & Indochinese Specialties

This tour focuses on Southern and Central Vietnam. This includes the endemic rich region of Da Lat, which boasts must-see birds like Gray-crowned Crocias and Vietnamese Cutia; combining this with the country’s most diverse park, Cat Tien, which comes loaded with both birds and mammals from Bar-bellied Pittas and Siamese Firebacks to Black-shanked Douc-langurs and Green Peafowl; there will also be visits to a number of emerging sites in the center of this long, thin Indochinese country for a further dose of rare and local birds and animals, like Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush, Sooty Babbler, Black-crowned Barwing, and Red-shanked Douc-Langur, one of the prettiest primates on Earth.



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 resyaurants near our hotel.

PLEASE NOTE: If you wish to visit areas of interest from the American War in Saigon (e.g. Reunification Palace/War Remnants Museum), this could be arranged as a half-day/full day on this day or a day earlier if you decide to arrive early. Please let us know and we can arrange this for you.

Day 2: Saigon to Cat Tien National Park. We will leave the hustle and bustle of this 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, overlooking the Ben Cu Rapids. The next three nights will be spent at Forest Floor Lodge in the park.

Bar-bellied Pitta is one of the top Indochinese birds
Bar-bellied Pitta is one of the top Indochinese birds (Ken Behrens)

Days 3 – 4: 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. This national park protects the largest tracts of lowland forest remaining in Vietnam, and we will be visiting the most accessible and famous sector of the park, Nam Cat Tien, 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 both some Indochinese specialties such as Bar-bellied and Blue-rumped Pittas, Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant, Siamese Fireback, Red-vented Barbet, and Gray-faced Tit-Babbler; in addition to some more widespread, though no less important species, such as Green Peafowl, and Great Slaty, Heart-spotted, Pale-headed, and Black-and-buff Woodpeckers. A massive list of possibilities occurs within the park from Red-headed and Orange-breasted Trogons to Dusky and Banded Broadbills, to 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 to Large-tailed Nightjars “chonking” from the forest floor. Blyth’s Frogmouth and Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl are among the rarer night birds in the park. Mammals possible during these dusk drives include Sambar, Red Muntjac, Leopard Cat, and ferret-badger. Daytime periods along trails will give us a chance at the handsome Black-shanked Douc-langur, a beautiful primate that is confined to Indochina. Our time within the park will involved a mix of balcony birding from the lodge, with dawn jeep rides looking for pheasants feeding on the tracks in the cooler early mornings, and some trail walking to stalk pittas and other interior forest birds. All four nights will be spent in the comfortable Forest Floor Lodge.

Cat Tien is a prime place for the shy Siamese Fireback.
Cat Tien is a prime place for the shy Siamese Fireback. (Ken Behrens)

Days 5 – 6: Deo Suoi Lanh. After a final morning in Cat Tien on day 6, we will head further north to a low-lying mountain pass near to the town of Di Linh, which we will visit for the afternoon of day 5 and for the entire morning of day 6. 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”. By birding a road that traverses Deo Suoi Lanh we will be on site for such species as Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, Indochinese Barbet, and Black-headed Parrotbill. Other enticing birds found in the area include Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Long-tailed Broadbill, Blue Pitta, Maroon Oriole, and both Dalat and Clicking Shrike-Babblers. After a full morning around the pass on day 7, we will head further north to Dalat. The night of the first day will be spent in the tiny town of Di Linh, with the following night in Da Lat.

Day 7: Ta Nung & Ho Tuyen Lam. The city of Da Lat is a very comfortable base from which to explore the nearby forest areas of the Da Lat/Langbian Plateau. The plateau holds a number of local species, some of which are only found there, or are only shared with a small area of Cambodia or Laos. 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 and Indochinese Green Magpie. Other birds we will be seeking at Ta Nung will include Black-headed and Rufous-backed Sibias, the local (soon-to-be-split?) race 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 from our hotel to another very local site, Ho Tuyen Lam, a scenic lake surrounded by pine woodland, which holds the possibility of Vietnamese Greenfinch, the endemic race (species?) of Red Crossbill, Slender-billed Oriole, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Burmese Shrike, and Black-collared Starling. This and the following two nights will be spent in the city of Da Lat. This city is a long-established tourist attraction famed for its scenic setting and pleasantly moderate climate, and where a French Hill Station was constructed in the early part of twentieth century.

Mrs. Gould's Sunbird. Most spectacular sunbird in the world?
Mrs. Gould's Sunbird. Most spectacular sunbird in the world? (Ken Behrens)

Day 8: Mount Lang Bian. Lang Bian is the highest peak in the area, with one of its two peaks reaching 2400m/7875ft, which is clearly visible on clear days looming above the city of Da Lat. The lower flanks are cloaked in pine forest, with the upper flanks giving way to mixed evergreen forest. Both of these forests hold key species for the tour, and after taking a jeep to the trailhead we will work our way up through the pine woods, keep an eye out for Red Crossbill, Large Cuckooshrike, and the endemics Vietnamese Greenfinch and Vietnamese Cutia, before we emerge into the denser mixed evergreen forest on the upper slopes, which we will search for the notoriously elusive Collared Laughingthrush, a species which is endemic to the plateau. Other targets on the mountain include Golden-throated Barbet, Pygmy Cupwing, Clicking and Dalat Shrike-Babblers, Black-crowned Fulvetta, and Gray-bellied Tesia. After a morning on the mountain we will descend to Da Lat, and return to either Ho Tuyen Lam or Ta Nung in the afternoon. Another night will be spent in the city of Da Lat.

Day 9: Dalat area. A final day will be spent at one or more of the sites around Da Lat (Ho Tuyen Lam/Mount Lang Bian/Ta Nung), visiting whichever of these offers the most birds after our first few days in the area. This will be left flexible, allowing us to make a plan based on what we have/have not seen in the previous two days in the area. This night will be our final night in the city of Da Lat.

Black-headed Sibia on Da Lat
Black-headed Sibia on Da Lat (Ken Behrens)

Day 10: Dalat to Yok Don National Park. After some final birding in the forests surrounding the city of Da Lat, we shall move off, heading northwest to Yok Don National Park, on the border with Cambodia. This area of deciduous and semi-evergreen forest holds a number of species rare elsewhere in Vietnam, like White-rumped Pygmy-Falcon, Blossom-headed and Alexandrine Parakeets, Rufous Treepie, Burmese Nuthatch, and the recently described Mekong Wagtail, a species confined to this tiny area in Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta of neighboring Cambodia and Laos. It is also a rich area for woodpeckers with the handsome Black-headed Woodpecker occurring along with Fulvous-breasted and Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers too. A single night will be spent in Yok Don National Park.

Day 11 – 12: Deo Mang Den. After some final morning birding at Yok Don on day 11, we will head further north into the heart of Central Highlands of Vietnam, moving up in altitude to the submontane forests of Deo Mang Den. This site has risen to birding prominence with the discovery of 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 further out from town 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, and this site will offer further chances at White-cheeked Laughingthrush too. Two nights will be spent in Mang Den, close to this rich area of montane forest.

Red-headed Trogon occurs in a number of sites throughout the tour
Red-headed Trogon occurs in a number of sites throughout the tour (Sam Woods)

Day 13: Deo Mag Den to Kham Duc. After some final time at Deo Mang Den we will head up on to the Kontum Plateau, for another recently described species, Black-crowned Barwing. There should be some time in the afternoon to search for this species around the pass at Lo Xo. We will overnight in Kham Duc.

Day 14: Lo Xo to Bach Ma National Park. The morning’s focus will be birding the forests surrounding the pass at Lo Xo, searching again, if needed, for the recently described Black-crowned Barwing, but also for 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, this time for Bach Ma National Park, although will stop en-route for the scarce Masked Laughingthrush. We will spend the night inside the park at Bach Ma.

Day 15: Bach Ma National Park. A full day will be spent in the park targeting some of the tricky locals species found within like the extremely secretive Annam Partridge and Indochinese Wren-Babbler, along with further chances at Ratchet-tailed Treepie. A full day will be spent in the park searching for a swathe of species such as Japanese Thrush, Blue-rumped and Bar-bellied Pittas, Black-throated 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. The night will again be spent inside the park again.

Asia provides the antidote to boring flycatchers in the form of beauties like this Verditer Flycatcher.
Asia provides the antidote to boring flycatchers in the form of beauties like this Verditer Flycatcher. (Ken Behrens)

Day 16: Bach Ma to Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park. After a final morning in Bach Ma, we will continue north to Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park, an area of limestone forest, which comes complete with its own local species, most notably the Sooty Babbler. On our journey to the park we may find the handsome Red-shanked Douc Langur. There will be some time in the afternoon to search for this and other species. The following two nights will be spent inside the park.

Day 17: Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park. A full day will be spent within this park that offers not only the extremely local Sooty Babbler, but also the newly-described Limestone Leaf-Warbler, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher, Laced Woodpecker, Spot-necked Babbler, Large Scimitar-Babbler, and the rare Red-collared Woodpecker. Another night will be spent inside the park.

Day 18: Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)/departure. After breakfast we will head to Hue airport and take a domestic flight to Ho Chi Minh City Airport for onward connections. The tour ends in Ho Chi Minh City airport.

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), or Cuc Phuong National Park (for Pied Falconet and many others).

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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.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. The heat and humidity of the southern section of the trip (i.e. Saigon and Cat Tien), and some trail walking make this a fairly strenuous trip, with one hike of up to 6 miles (9.5 km) undertaken at Cat Tien, in hot and humid conditions. There will be several other hikes of around 3 miles (5km) in addition to this. For the most part these walks will be on wide-open tracks, some narrow forest trails, and paved and unpaved roads. Some of these walks will have an incline to them also.

There are some longer drives on this tour, with several of 4 hours, and one drive of 8 hours planned for the tour.

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) for each.

The birding in Vietnam mainly involves forest birding, and offers some of the most challenging of its kind in Southeast Asia, with species at low density (following habitat clearance), and continued persecution through hunting for the pet trade.

CLIMATE: Vietnam’s climate is varied; in the coolest area, the highlands at Da Lat, daytime temperatures typically very between 55-77°F, 12-25°C; while in Cat Tien, the hottest site, temperatures can reach 95°F , 35°C. Levels of high humidity are expected in Ho Chi Minh City and Cat Tien in particular, often reaching 80%.

ACCOMMODATION: The accommodations in southern Vietnam (Saigon, Cat Tien, and Da Lat) are all good, while accommodations elsewhere are simpler. However, all accommodations have hot water, full-time electricity, en-suite bathrooms, and most have air-conditioning too.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding focused tour, and the birds are some of the shyest in Asia, offering very limited photography compared with many other destinations.

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 Visa on Arrivals can be obtained for some western countries, this usually only applies to stays of 15 days or less (shorter than the tour length). Therefore, A VISA MUST BE OBTAINED BEFORE ARRIVING FOR NATIONALS OF MOST COUNTRIES for a tour of this length.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 17; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 18 (main tour); safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from day 1 to the morning of day 18; 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.