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   V I E T N A M
 
     
27 December 2008 - 17 January 2009
 

   

Introduction:

With our friends John and Greta Graham's 10th wedding anniversary pending, Greta had decided to plan a surprise trip to Vietnam for John. After some research on where John could still get a few lifers, she had settled on the country and moved into the planning stage. John was blissfully unaware of where she was planning to go, but he was aware that she was planning a trip and, for several months, he was itching to find out where they were going. Of course, Greta had already told us where they were planning to go, so it took a lot of self-restraint on my part to not let slip where they would be going (at this point in time, we were not going on this trip!). Eventually, when she did tell him where they would be going, he was "over the moon" and like any good birding friend would, phoned me immediately to invite us along! It did not take a lot of convincing and, within a couple of hours of John actually finding out where they were going, we were now joining them. And then the serious planning started...

Overview:

Known officially as The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it shares its northern border with China and is bounded on the west by Laos and Cambodia. The remainder of the country is surrounded by sea with some 3 260 km of coastline. In the south-west, it is bounded by the Gulf of Thailand, whilst most of the east cost borders on to the South China Sea and, in the extreme north, it shares its boundary with the Gulf of Tonkin. At around 329 560 km2 in size, it is a long narrow country stretching some 1 650 km from north to south and is only 50km across at its narrowest point. With a population of in excess of 86 million people, the major concentrations of the population are around 2 main centres. In the north, the area around Hanoi, the capital, and the Red River is heavily populated whilst in the south, the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) are the most densely populated areas. With it being such a long country, there is a distinct climatic difference between the north and south. Whilst the average temperature range across the entire country is 22 - 27 deg C, the seasonal difference in the north may be as much as 12 deg C whereas in the south, it is hardly noticeable at around 3 deg C. Humidity is generally at around 80% and the country is also heavily affected by monsoons with an annual average rainfall of 1 500 - 2 000mm with rain on about 100 days every year. Around 75% of Vietnam's territory consists of mountains and hills and it is also crisscrossed by thousands of rivers and streams with a river discharging roughly every 20km along the entire stretch of its coastline.

Birds:

With over 850 species recorded in Vietnam, it is certainly an attractive destination for international birders. Of these, 12 are considered to be truly endemic (Annam Partridge, Edward's Pheasant, Orange-breasted, Collared, Golden-winged and Chestnut-eared Laughingthrushes, White-throated and Pale-throated Wren Babblers, Vietnamese Cutia, Black-crowned Fulvetta, Grey-crowned Crocias and Vietnamese Greenfinch) whilst there are a host of other near-endemics and specialities which are possible. With the current state of taxonomy in a constant state of flux, there are also at least 5 distinct subspecies which are endemic to the country which may well be elevated to full species level in the future (Blue-winged Minla, Rufous-backed Sibia, Black-throated Sunbird, Red Crossbill and Brown Bullfinch). Having said all of this, the birding is extremely tough in the country and, outside of the national parks, we saw hardly any birds at all! Even in the parks, we typically found that the birds were extremely skittish and one generally never really got very close to them.

     
Vietnamese Cutia Grey-crowned Crocias
     

Mammals:

Vietnam has a list of around 220 species recorded of which 7 species are considered to be endemic. 5 of these endemics (Chapa Pygmy Dormouse, Small-toothed Mole, Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey, Vietnam Leaf-nosed Bat and White-rumped Black Lemur) together with 4 other species occurring in the country are considered to be "Critically Endangered" whilst a good number of others fall into the "Endangered" and "Vulnerable" categories as dictated by the IUCN list. Mammals are not obvious in Vietnam and are generally seen only in small numbers and almost entirely restricted to the national parks and reserves.

     
Common Palm Civet Eastern Striped Squirrel
     
Reptiles:

With the sparse resources that I was able to track down, it would appear that Vietnam has a list of just over 450 species of reptiles recorded. Of these, 7 are considered to be endemic, although this number is sure to change as some resources indicate that, since 2000, a number of new species have been described to science in the country.

     
Green Pricklenape Siamese Crocodile
     
Our trip:

With the assistance of our friend Rodney Cassidy of Silver Bird Safaris (www.silverbirdsafaris.com), we were put in touch with Viet Nguyen of Vietnam Travel (vietamtravel@hotmail.com) to make all the arrangements for our trip. Viet is well known amongst the international birding community and most birders visiting the country, according to trip reports that I have read, make use of his services. Although it is possible to do it on a self-drive basis, we opted to go for the guided route as we had heard of many stories where people got lost trying to get to certain spots or bookings that they had made up front mysteriously disappeared when they eventually arrived at the place. In hindsight, there is no way that we would have been comfortable driving in Vietnam anyway as the traffic and the actual driving of many drivers would have probably given us heart failure as we were trying to find our way around in a new country.

Many email messages were sent back and forth fine-tuning the itinerary until we were all happy with it and then it was time to firm up all the necessary bookings. Viet arranged everything for us including accommodation, transport, guides and our internal flights. Throughout the course of our trip, all arrangements went extremely smoothly and there was always someone waiting to greet us whenever we arrived at our destination. From a bird guiding point of view, the standard was pretty low, although there were a couple of guides (and one in particular) that stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Most of them knew only the more common birds or those that were easiest to identify, but those that demanded a little more skill to identify were typically just ignored. Our guide at Cat Tien National Park knew his patch fairly well and got us virtually all the birds we were after whilst our guide at Bach Ma National Park was an order of magnitude better than anyone else and was, to our minds, the only true local birder that we met in Vietnam.

The local currency, the Vietnamese Dong, was trading at about VD 1 670.00 = ZAR 1.00 (South African Rand) at the time of our visit and every time we went to exchange some cash along the way, we were presented with a huge wad of notes and became instant millionaires! Most things were fairly inexpensive and, at the markets, one was able to test your negotiating skills quite often and several times were able to come away paying less than half the amount originally quoted for a particular item! Although Malaria is a potential hazard (and we had to take the necessary precautions), we did not really even see a mosquito on our trip. This may well have something to do with the time of year that we visited (being winter and the rainy season), but this did present us with another little issue to deal with, especially in the south - leeches! Hundreds and hundreds of the menaces...in Cat Tien National Park, you would take your life into your own hands when you stopped along one of the forest trails to look at a bird as the leeches would just appear out of nowhere and close in on you.

Perhaps one of the other lasting memories of visiting Vietnam is the sheer number of scooters / mopeds on the roads and also how these are loaded up to transport the most wonderful array of items from one point to another. I have put together a separate page showcasing a gallery of photos of some of these heavily burdened bikes, so click on the link below if you are interested in seeing it:

Gallery of scooters / mopeds

 

Daily account:

27 December 2008

Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) landed at about 11h00. After clearing through customs without any problems, we met up with our guide, Son, and our driver, Thy, and headed off towards Cat Tien National Park. This was our first introduction to Vietnamese driving and took a little while to get used to! It was also here that we noticed the distinct lack of birds and, apart from the odd Eurasian Tree Sparrows, we saw hardly anything for the first hour or two of driving. A stop off at a roadside restaurant for lunch saw us watching a small flock of Asian Palm Swifts overhead while an Oriental Honey Buzzard caused some excitement as well. Arriving at the Dong Nai River at around 15h00, we were then ferried across to the Cat Tien National Park and after being greeted by the local staff on the other side of the river, we were transferred to our accommodation for the next few nights. It was also here that our guide and driver left us and promised to be back in 3 days time to collect us.

Cat Tien National Park (www.namcattien.org) is about 720km2 in size and comprises mainly lowland tropical rainforest as well as large stands of bamboo woodlands. There are also some areas of old disused farmlands, grasslands and wetland areas and the park is considered to be one of the prime birding and wildlife destinations in the entire country.

Our accommodation was a  house that was raised up about 2m above the ground and consisted of a central open area with en-suite rooms on either side of this. The facilities were basic, yet comfortable and our room was air-conditioned. Already, we had noticed the increase in bird activity inside the park, so we quickly got rid of our bags and headed off outside to see what we could find. We had about 1,5 hours left before it got dark and headed off down the road leading past our house. Very quickly we were adding new birds to our list including Asian Brown Flycatcher, Arctic Warbler, Indian Roller, Greater Racquet-tailed and Ashy Drongos, Green Imperial Pigeon, Ashy Woodswallow, White-crested Laughingthrush and Green-eared Barbet, as well as our first mammals in the country, Long-tailed Macaques. John, Greta and Margaret all managed to get leeched on this little walk, but fortunately, I was spared. As dusk fell, large numbers of Great Eared Nightjars appeared overhead and we were also fortunate to find a single Grey Nightjar amongst them. Back at our house, there were hordes of Flat-tailed Geckos all over the building. Dinner was at the local restaurant and then it was time to go to bed as we wanted to get up early to go birding.

     
Being ferried across the Dong Nai River The view from the ferry
   
The sign says it all... Dealing with the leeches
   
Our accommodation in Cat Tien National Park Our accommodation in Cat Tien National Park
   

28 December 2008

After an early breakfast at the restaurant (and nearly getting attacked by some rather aggravated Long-tailed Macaques at the same time!), we met up with our national park guide, Vu Trong Duyen, who would be assisting us over the next few days. It was also then that we realised that most Vietnamese people put their first names last and Duyen soon explained to us how this all worked. We also hired ourselves some leechproof socks from the headquarters. These are effectively finely woven socks that you wear over your other socks and pants and get tied up under your knees. The weave is too fine for the leeches to fit through (they quite happily get through normal socks), so you are fairly protected from them when you walk in the forest. However, it is a bit of a fashion statement that ordinarily one would not make...

The first part of the day saw us walking several of the trails to the north-west of the park headquarters including the King Dong and Lagerstroemia Trails. New birds came thick and fast and we enjoyed the likes of  Streak-eared and Stripe-throated Bulbuls, Little Spiderhunter, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Red-breasted Parakeet, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Crimson Sunbird, Orange-breasted Trogon and Violet Cuckoo whilst the likes of Grey-faced and Pin-striped Tit-babblers, Black-and-buff Woodpecker, Black-naped Monarch, Racket-tailed Treepie, Blue-eared Barbet, White-rumped Shama and Thick-billed and Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers were also enjoyed. An Asian Barred Owlet was a lucky daytime find whilst the first of our major targets for the area, Germain's Peacock-Pheasant was also seen well. It was also my first introduction to flying lizards when we found a Common Flying Lizard climbing up a tree and then jumping off and gliding across to the next one. This walk also produced Long-tailed Lizard and Green Pricklenape.

Back at headquarters, we settled in at the open air restaurant for some lunch and drinks in the company of a Common Sun Skink and some Long-tailed Macaques before heading off later in the afternoon in a south-westerly direction from the headquarters. We were soon picking up a slightly different suite of birds and added Woolly-necked Stork, Vinous-breasted Starling, Large and Black-winged Cuckoo-shrikes, Greater Flameback, Linneated Barbet, Pied Bushchat, Orange-breasted Pigeon and finally our first wild Red Junglefowls. We were also fortunate to find Red Muntjac (a small deer) and Pallas's Squirrel in the area, but the real highlight was nailing another of our big target birds for the area, Green Peafowl. We managed to find no fewer than 8 of these birds all gathering in the late afternoon and eventually going to roost up in a large tree.

Back at our accommodation, we were able to find a beautiful Tokay Gecko on the staircase before heading off to dinner at the restaurant. Once again, we had a early night with another early morning on the cards for tomorrow.

     
Our guide, Duyen The clan in their leechproof socks
   
Habitat near the park headquarters Birding along the road in Cat Tien
     

29 December 2008

Once again, we were up for an early breakfast at the restaurant before being driven to the start of the Crocodile Lake trail with only a Red Junglefowl and a fleeting Forest Wagtail being seen along the way. The trail is a 5km walk to Crocodile Lake through forest (and obviously a 5km walk back!), but is fairly flat so is not that strenuous. The start of the trail provided us with a new mammal, Black-shanked Douc, whilst the walk through the forest delivered a number of good birds. Blue-winged Leafbird, Abbott's Babbler, Banded Kingfisher and Black-and-red Broadbill were pretty special, but Bar-bellied Pitta really stole the show. It certainly gave us the run around for a little while, but eventually showed extremely well. What a cracker!

We eventually reached Crocodile Lake and went into the viewing tower while we waited for our lunch to be prepared in the "restaurant" below by the local staff. Yellow-breasted Prinias were in the reeds below us and views across the lake yielded Bronze-winged Jacana, Lesser Whistling Duck, Osprey, Common Kingfisher, White-breasted Waterhen and Red-wattled Lapwing. After a great lunch, we decided to take a walk around the lake, but it was not long before the heavens closed in and it started pouring with rain! Not to be outdone, we carried on birding in the rain and managed to add Paddyfield Pipit, Grey-headed Lapwing, Common Snipe, Yellow Wagtail, Green-billed Malkoha and Siberian Stonechat. Back at the viewing tower, we were afforded good views of a Siamese Crocodile and while I walked closer to the lake to get a closer view of it, I was also able to find a Changeable Lizard.

The walk back to where we were being collected again delivered most of the same things seen earlier in the day as well as two other birding highlights - Siamese Fireback and Scaly-breasted Partridge. We were also fortunate to find Northern Pig-tailed Macaque on this walk. By the time we eventually got back to our accommodation, it was already dusk. We had booked ourselves onto a night drive for tonight which was an experience all on its own! About 25 people were stuffed on to the back of a large truck (one could not really see directly forward as the cab of the truck was in the way!) and then driven out into the more open areas at high speed with a park official on the back of the truck shining a spot light around at head spinning speeds! How we ever managed to see anything on this night drive was a miracle in itself, but when someone did pick up eyeshine in the lights, they would scream and the truck would screech to a halt. Everyone would look at the animal in question without a word being said (the park official did not bother to identify a single thing that we saw on the trip!) and then we would head off again. We did however still manage to see Red Muntjac, Sambar and Common Palm Civet on this whirlwind drive. Then it was back to the restaurant for dinner, a quick catch up on the admin stuff getting the lists up to date and then off to bed.

     
The sign says it all... View across Crocodile Lake
   

30 December 2008

After another early breakfast, we headed out to the Heavens Rapids trail where we spent the morning birding. We had to be back by 11h00 as we were being collected by our guide and driver, so time was short, but we still manage to add a few more birds to the list. Ochraceous Bulbul, Red-vented Barbet, Purple-naped Sunbird, Ashy Minivet, Large Woodshrike, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike and Asian Paradise Flycatcher were all seen as well Lesser Yellownape, Laced Woodpecker and Jerdon's Baza. This trail also produced two new mammals for the trip - Small Asian Mongoose and Yellow-cheeked Gibbon. It was then back to our accommodation to pack up before being collected by a new guide, Hoang, and our earlier driver, Thy.

All too soon, we were leaving Cat Tien and on our way to Da Lat. After about a 5 hour drive (with a lunch stop along the way), we arrived at Da Lat with the only things of mention en route being Stork-billed Kingfisher and Long-tailed Shrike. Our first stop was the Datanla Waterfall just outside of town. Although it was now raining, we decided to walk down to the waterfall which proved to be quite a walk down into a valley to get there. Of course, as is usually the case in these things, the walk back up was a lot more strenuous and, although the ambient temperature was actually quite cold, we were all boiling by the time we got back to the car. Apart from a Pallas's Squirrel, virtually nothing else was seen along this walk. We then continued into town and booked ourselves into the Hoang Anh Resort, a really smart 4 star hotel (www.hoanganhhotelgroup.com/dalat/). Whilst walking to our rooms, we heard a Collared Scops Owl calling and wanted to try and see it. The girls (especially Margaret and she will never live this one down!) convinced us to first pack the bags into the room and then go and look for it which we begrudgingly agreed to do. Needless to say that by the time we returned, the owl had moved off and we were unable to relocate it and we never ever found this species again on the entire trip!

     
Heavens Rapids Trail Heavens Rapids Trail
   
Birding along the Heavens Rapids Trail Birding along the Heavens Rapids Trail
   
The sign says it all... Datanla Waterfall
   
Hoang Anh Resort Hoang Anh Resort
   
Hoang Anh Resort Hoang Anh Resort
   

31 December 2008

After an early breakfast at the hotel, and then our guide getting us a little lost, we eventually arrived at the base of Mount Langbiang. From the base of the mountain, there is a road up to the top, but no public vehicles are allowed to drive on it, so we arranged for one of the park's jeeps to take us up 4km to the start of a trail that we were going to walk. Unfortunately, the weather was not really on our side as it was completely overcast (with light intermittent rain) and the wind was also howling. Nevertheless, we started off on the trail and walked the first section which winds its way through large tracts of Pine forests. We managed to locate a few bird parties and enjoyed good views of Black Bulbul, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay, Long-tailed Minivet, Green-backed Tit and Grey Bushchat as well as one of our main target birds, Vietnamese Cutia. Fortunately for Margaret, she managed to find the latter, so managed to gain a little respect after the previous evening's owl incident...

We then descended down into a thickly forested valley and up on to the other side of the valley where there was lush montane forest. Here, our main target bird was Collared Laughingthrush and almost instantly we got several birds calling. Although we tried to tape them in closer, they remained at a distance, so we decided to try and fight our way through the forest to see if we could get closer.  We managed to get reasonably close to them, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not get a view of them at all. Eventually they stopped calling and disappeared and we had to walk away knowing we had missed this major endemic. Working our way through the forest in the hope of finding them again (without any luck!), we were at least fortunate to come across a few bird parties which contained the likes of Ashy and Mountain Bulbuls, Ashy-throated Warbler, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Gould's Sunbird, Rufous-winged Fulvetta, Chestnut-fronted Shrike-Babbler and Grey-chinned Minivet whilst Rufous-capped Babbler, Verditer Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and Blue-winged Minla were also present. Eastern Striped Squirrel was a new mammal for us here and Bowring's Supple Skink was the only reptile that we encountered.

The walk back down added only a few more birds as the weather had gotten decidedly worse by now. Pale-legged Warbler and Olive-backed Pipit were new additions and we were also lucky to flush a Large-tailed Nightjar from its daytime roost. We met up with the Jeep again at about 14h00 at the start of the trail and drove back down to the base of the mountain to meet up with our driver and guide (we had birded the trail on our own as our guide knew nothing about birds!). Because of the wet weather and the terrain we had just been through, we were basically covered in mud, so we decided to head back to the hotel to clean up a bit. Back at our hotel, we managed to find Black-collared Starlings in the garden before even getting to our rooms.

A little later, we headed out again to the markets in the centre of town and then afterwards, the night market before going to dinner at a local restaurant in town. The markets sold just about anything that you could possibly imagine and the stall venders were hard sellers not giving up terribly easily when you indicated that you were not interested.

     
Base of Mount Langbiang Jeep ride up to the start of the trail
   
View from the top of Mount Langbiang Heading down into the forest on Mount Langbiang
   
Visiting the markets in Da Lat Visiting the markets in Da Lat
   
Visiting the markets in Da Lat Visiting the markets in Da Lat
     

1 January 2009

After an early breakfast at the hotel, we were driven to a site known as Ho Tuyen Lam. Located around a large dam with tracts of both Pine and montane forests, the site looked very promising. Armed with a map of the area that we had sourced from a previous trip report, we started off on the trail which leads around the lake and passes through two tourist camps. The initial part of the walk took us through some patches of Pines as well as other more open scrub. The dam was pretty sterile birdwise and only gave us Little Grebe and Chinese Pond Heron, but the vegetated areas delivered Sooty-headed Bulbul, Black-throated Tit, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Grey-capped Woodpecker and Burmese Shrike amongst others as well as one of our target birds for the area, Red Crossbill (which is likely to be split in the future as Vietnamese Crossbill). What was also depressing at this site was seeing some of the locals using Asian Elephants to perform manual labour. It seemed to be pretty much an accepted thing to do, but we did not enjoy this at all.

The main intention for this site was to try and get into the montane forest areas, but eventually the path that we were following just petered out long before we reached the forest. The path also crossed several muddy streams en route and one had to precariously balance yourself as you walked across the logs that had been placed there so as not to fall into the mud (some of us however were not completely successful in this task...). After a bit of bashing through the thick tall grasses, we eventually found another path (which was actually an elephant track as we later found out) and followed this for a while until it started forking off in all different directions. Needless to say, we eventually got ourselves horribly lost trying to follow these elephant tracks and also ended up having to do a lot of bundu bashing to get anywhere. By the time we eventually managed to get ourselves into a decent patch of forest (complete with cuts and scratches and leaving a trail of blood that we could follow back), it was already very late and quite hot, so the bird activity was pretty quiet. Despite the conditions, we continued to push on in the forest and managed to find a few birds including Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (no Yellow-billed Nuthatches unfortunately!), Rufous-backed Sibia, Lesser Shortwing, Mountain Tailorbird and Rufous-browed Flycatcher. Fortunately, we also had a GPS with us, and had marked a number of points on the walk to the forest, so were able, with some more bundu bashing, to eventually find our way back. The walk back only added a few extra birds, best of which were Lesser Yellownape, Indochinese Cuckooshrike and Chestnut-capped Babbler, whilst we also had frustratingly fleeting glimpses of an accipter which was probably a Chinese Sparrowhawk, but we just did not get enough detail on it to be absolutely sure. Arriving back at the collection point at about 15h00, we then headed back to the hotel to clean up a little.

A little later, Margaret and I caught a taxi and went off to visit the "Crazy House". Designed by a Russian-trained Vietnamese architect, it operates as a guesthouse and gallery and certainly does live up to its name in terms of design. After spending a bit of time going through the place, we headed off to the Lam Ty Ni Pagoda where we also got to meet the person considered to be Da Lat's most eccentric personality, a monk named Vien Thuc. He is the pagoda's sole occupant and has apparently lived there since 1964 when he moved there at the age of 19. He is known for his art and prepared us 2 "off the cuff" traditional art pieces while we were there to take back with us. From here, we made our way back to the hotel and went for dinner in the hotel restaurant.

     
View across Ho Tuyen Lam View across Ho Tuyen Lam
   
Locals using Asian Elephants for labour Trevor crossing over a muddy stream
   
John crossing over a muddy stream Greta getting to know the muddy stream a little better than the others
   
The Crazy House The Crazy House
   
The Crazy House The Crazy House
   
Lam Ty Ni Pagoda The eccentric monk, Vien Thuc
   

2 January 2009

Once again, we were up for an early breakfast and then driven to the Ta Nung Valley where we were dropped off for the day. Unfortunately, there was quite a strong wind blowing which made birding a little difficult. The first part of the walk down into the valley passed through some Pine Forest and degraded farmland areas and we managed to find White-throated Rock Thrush, Flavescent Bulbul and Hill Prinia amongst others here. As we dropped down lower into the valley, the vegetation improved and there were large tracts of montane forest with some interspersed grassy areas, a few small rivers and a small dam. We spent the rest of the day in the bottom of the valley and managed to squeeze out a number of new species including one of our big target birds, Grey-crowned Crocias. We were also lucky with Bay Woodpecker, Black-browed Barbet, Black-headed and Rufous-backed Sibias, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Pin-tailed Parrotfinch, Gould's and Black-throated Sunbirds, Grey-cheeked Warbler, White-rumped Munia and Black-headed Parrotbill (a recent split from Grey-headed Parrotbill).

Our guide and driver arrived back at lunch time and dropped off some lunch for us which we enjoyed down at one of the rivers as a Grey Wagtail kept watch. Other species noted here included Black-crested, Mountain and Ashy Bulbuls, Mountain Fulvetta, Streaked Spiderhunter, Blue-winged Minla, Black-throated Tit and Jerdon's Baza whilst the only mammal we saw was a Pallas's Squirrel.

At about 17h00, we headed back to the hotel stopping along the way to visit the old train station. After cleaning up back at the hotel, we headed out to dinner at a local restaurant.

     
View across the Ta Nung Valley Heading down into the Ta Nung Valley
   
Birding in the Ta Nung Valley Birding in the Ta Nung Valley
   
Birding in the Ta Nung Valley Birding in the Ta Nung Valley
   
Lunch is served... ...and enjoyed by all.
   
Train station in Da Lat Closer view of train station
   

3 January 2009

With a last morning left in Da Lat, we decided to head back to Mount Langbiang in the hope that we might find a few of the species that we had missed on our first trip there. However, the weather was even worse this time and we had thick fog, strong winds and quite a bit of rain. With only a couple of hours available, we headed straight through to the forest, but were unable to even get a sniff of the laughingthrushes we had heard on our first visit. We also heard Grey-bellied Tesia, but were unable to get a view of it. The only consolation prizes that we were able to dig out in the area were Eyebrowed Wren Babbler and Grey-headed Woodpecker, although things like Large Niltava, Rufous-capped Babbler, Green-backed Tit, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch and Grey Bushchat were all good to see again.

We left at about 10h30 and headed back to the hotel to pack up before heading out back to Ho Chi Minh City. After what seemed an eternity (6 hour drive with a break for lunch), we eventually arrived in HCMC and booked ourselves into the Saigon Hotel. We were pretty knackered after the day, so just ordered room service and crashed early.

     
View across Mount Langbiang Getting that dipping feeling on Mount Langbiang
   
Saigon Hotel View from our hotel
   

4 January 2009

Today was spent entirely doing tourist things in and around Ho Chi Minh City. After a late breakfast at the hotel, we eventually left at 09h00 and headed off to the Cu Chi Tunnels. After sitting through an initial audio-visual presentation, we were then taken of a tour of the area where we shown various things related to the Vietnam War from how the people survived on minimal amounts of food through to the most bizarre and painful looking booby traps you have ever seen. Probably one of the most interesting experiences here was actually getting to go down into the tunnels and crawl through them. These tunnels, which are probably only about 1 metre high, are not for the faint-hearted. Without a torch, it is so incredibly dark down there that you cannot even see your hand in front of your face and the temperature is also phenomenally hot! It was difficult to believe that people actually lived down here and that they survived it! The short time we spent down there was more than enough for me... Once out of the tunnels, we were then taken to a shooting range where we were all given the opportunity to fire a number of rounds with one of the several weapons they had available. We all chose to shoot with AK47s and I can honestly say that it is certainly the first birding trip I have ever been on where I have used a automatic machine gun!!

From here, we then travelled to the Lacquerware Workshop. Set up by the government for disabled people (many of them disabled from the war), they produce some of the most amazing artwork there and we spent a couple of hours (and a good wad of cash) going through the place and the tourist shop. Our next stop was the Jade Pagoda, a Buddhist temple in the middle of HCMC. It was a little different to what we expected and was extremely busy and also very cluttered. The smell of incense was also a little overwhelming at times, but nonetheless, it was an interesting experience. In stark contrast, our next destination was the Notre Dame Cathedral which was large, quiet and airy. Built in the late 1800's, one can clearly see the French influence in the architecture which is mirrored in another building just across the road and our next destination, the Main Post Office.

After having finished walking through all of these historical buildings, we were then taken to a large bookstore. I was hoping to find some books on Vietnamese wildlife there, but came away with absolutely nothing. In fact, their natural history section was rather a non-event (there is not a huge interest in this in Vietnam) and, in the confusing setup that was the bookstore where all subjects were totally mixed up, we managed to only find 2 bird books - one on Birds of North America and the other on Birds of Europe!

It was then back to the hotel to clean up before heading out to a restaurant close by for dinner and then some shopping at the local night market. Although this was not a birding day, we did manage to see a handful of species along the way with Ashy Tailorbird and Pied Fantail being the most noteworthy.

     
Demostration at Cu Chi Tunnels Our guide, Hoang, demonstrating one of the nasty booby traps
   
Another nasty boobytrap Inside the tunnels
   
This was a day not to get on Margaret's wrong side... ...but I also got a chance to get my own back.
   
The Lacquerware Workshop The Lacquerware Workshop
   
Producing pieces at The Lacquerware Workshop Producing pieces at The Lacquerware Workshop
   
Jade Pagoda Inside the Jade Pagoda
   
Notre Dame Cathedral Inside Notre Dame Cathedral
   
Main Post Office Inside the Main Post Office
   

5 January 2009

After breakfast at the hotel at about 07h00, we went walking around a bit on the streets of HCMC before heading back to the hotel to pack up. We were collected at about 10h00 and transferred to the airport where we caught the 13h10 flight to Hue. After about a 90 minute flight, we landed in Hue and quickly cleared through all the baggage claims before heading outside to be met by our guide for the next couple of days, Minh. I already liked Minh right from the start because he was holding a sign that said, "Hello Mr. Trevor and friends". As it turned out, Minh was to be our birding guide at Bach Ma National Park and he clearly knew his stuff as well as being well prepared with all the bird calls (something totally lacking with all the other guides that we used).

We drove for just over an hour before reaching Bach Ma National Park (www.bachma.vnn.vn). The park conserves large tracts of montane forest and, at the higher altitudes, can be rather cool (compared to the lowland areas). It is also hugely affected by monsoons and is, quite believably based on our experience, the wettest place in Vietnam receiving an annual rainfall of about 8 000mm! As we entered the gates at the bottom of the mountains, we could see a lot of mist higher up and, as we drove up the narrow winding road towards the top where our accommodation was (around 1 400m asl), we were soon engulfed in the mist which made birding quite difficult. En route to the top, we were lucky on two occasions to find Silver Pheasants on the road which allowed reasonable views before disappearing. Once booked into our rooms (which were rather basic rooms with mattresses on the floor), we were soon out to try and take advantage of the last little bit of light. The only birds we actually managed to see were a group of Black-throated Laughingthrushes although we did hear Short-tailed Scimitar Babbler and Collared Owlet, neither of which would come closer with taped calls.

Dinner was at the local restaurant (not that one had too much opportunity to take any other option for food) and then it was an early night as we were planning to get up early in the morning.

     
The sign says it all... Our accommodation at Bach Ma National Park
   

6 January 2009

We were up at 05h30 this morning only to find that it was literally bucketing down! After having a couple of cups of coffee at the restaurant to try and warm up a bit, we decided to brave the weather and walked along the road a little way down the mountain. Birding in this weather was tough and, even although we were totally drenched, we still managed to dig out Olive-backed Pipit, Sultan Tit, White-bellied Yuhina and White-crowned and Slaty-backed Forktails. After being forced to beat a hasty retreat, we ended up back at the restaurant and spent the next few hours drinking way too much coffee and talking absolute nonsense as we watched the weather outside eliminating our chances of a number of good birds available in the area.

Early afternoon saw us attempt yet again another walk, but this was equally fruitless and the only thing of note that we found was a Chestnut Bunting which, according to Minh, was a first record for the park. At around 16h00, the rain stopped for a short while and we were quickly out to see what we could find. Because of the weather, the birding activity was not great, but we still managed to find Red-headed Trogon, Fork-tailed Sunbird and Puff-throated Bulbuls as well as Red-cheeked Squirrels. As it turned out, this proved to be our worst day of the trip in terms of weather and also the great misses on the bird front because of this.

     
View across Bach Ma National Park View across Bach Ma National Park
   
Conditions made birding extremely difficult Trevor and Minh
   

7 January 2009

Although we were up already, a knock on the door at 05h30 had Minh standing outside to say there was a Brown Wood Owl calling close by. We were quickly off after the owl and, within a short while, were having good views of it. After enjoying the owl and then a cup of coffee to warm up a bit, we took the opportunity of no rain to go for a walk. There was at least more bird activity than yesterday and we managed to find White-throated Fantail, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Grey-cheeked Warbler, White-browed Scimitar Babbler, Yellow-breasted Magpie and the absolute highlight of the day, a stunning Blue-rumped Pitta that came in to Minh's whistles and literally walked right out on to the road!

After breakfast and packing everything into the car, we sent the driver off further down the mountain to wait for us and slowly walked down along the road. Birding was difficult as there was thick mist around, but a couple of bird parties at least produced Sultan Tit, Yellow-browed Warbler, Golden Babbler, Mountain Fulvetta and White-bellied Yuhina. After reaching our vehicle, we then headed down to the base of the mountain where we also spent some time birding (in much better weather conditions). Our main target here was Masked Laughingthrush which only some of us got on to, but we also managed to find both Grey-faced Buzzard and White-rumped Falcon as well as Long-tailed Shrike, Red-whiskered Bulbul and Racket-tailed Treepie.

It was then time to head back to Hue and after just over an hour, we found ourselves booking into the Hoang Giang Hotel (http://huonggianghotel.huonggiangtourist.com/). We sadly said our good-byes to Minh (it really was a pity that we did not have him accompanying us on the entire trip!!) and then waited for our new guide, Loan, to collect us at around 14h30. After initial introductions to her, we then set off to the Hue Citadel, the Imperial City and the famed Forbidden Purple City. This was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 until the abdication of the last emperor, Bao Dai, in 1945. The Imperial City, situated within the Citadel, is a walled "city" that encompasses the Forbidden Purple City, the latter being an area that was off limits to all but the emperor and his wives and concubines. It is a collection of palaces, pavilions and temples and the attention to detail in many of the buildings is really quite stunning. We spent the rest of the afternoon marveling at the various buildings and their historical value, but even with all of this, we were still keeping our eyes open for birds. In the many trees in the gardens around the Forbidden Purple City, we managed to find several species including Oriental Magpie-Robin, Blue Rock Thrush, Common Iora and even had a Japanese Sparrowhawk overhead, but a cuckoo that landed in a nearby tree right in the middle of the guides speech was a real pain as we just could not get enough on it from that distance. I tried to sneak away for a closer look, but quickly got hauled back for being rude and leaving the tour midway! It was probably an Oriental Cuckoo, but we will never know!

Back at the hotel, we sat out on the deck overlooking the Perfume River having a couple of drinks and enjoying a flock of House Swifts overhead and as it got dusk, large numbers of bats appeared, but there seemed to be no way to get enough detail on them to make any sort of identification. I am sure it must have been a pretty common species right in the middle of a built up city, so if anyone has any ideas on which species might be here, I would be happy to hear from you. Dinner was at the hotel restaurant and then it was off to catch up on some list admin before going to bed.

     
Hoang Giang Hotel Hoang Giang Hotel
   
Inside the Forbidden Purple City Inside the Forbidden Purple City
   
Inside the Forbidden Purple City Inside the Forbidden Purple City
   
Inside the Forbidden Purple City Inside the Forbidden Purple City
   
Doing the tourist thing at the Forbidden Purple City Margaret and our guide, Loan, at the Forbidden Purple City
   

8 January 2009

John and I were up early and caught a taxi out to the Tu Duc Mausoleum as we had been told there was some good birding in the gardens there. We spent a couple of hours birding in the gardens and, despite the overcast conditions, managed to still find a few birds including Great Tit, Masked Laughingthrush, Radde's and Dusky Warblers, Japanese White-eye, Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Taiga Flycatcher. After much trouble (and a phone call to the taxi company which ended up costing us US$3.00 for an extremely short conversation!), we eventually managed to find a taxi and got back to the hotel by 11h00 to meet up with our wives who had spent the morning shopping.

At around 12h00, Loan arrived at the hotel to collect us and we headed straight back to where John and I had just spent the morning, Tu Duc's Mausoleum, but now it was to do the tourist thing and not birding. Tu Duc ruled Vietnam from 1848 - 1883 and one of the most interesting facts about him is that, although he had 103 concubines, he did not father a single child. After completing the tour of this mausoleum, we then headed off to the tomb of Khai Dinh who ruled from 1916 - 1925. In contrast to Tu Duc's tomb which is relatively plain, Khai Dinh's tomb is an ornate overstatement with lavish marble finishes inside and clearly matches the personality he is said to have had.

Our next stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda. The 7 storey tower standing at the entrance of Thien Mu (meaning "Heavenly Lady") is one of Hue's defining landmarks and is featured on almost all tourist souvenirs showcasing Hue. Other than the temple itself, there is also a monastry here which trains future monks and it was rather strange to see the way that they live. From the pagoda, we then boarded a boat and cruised down the Perfume River (it was raining quite a bit by now!) until we reached our hotel where we were dropped off at the jetty outside our hotel.

Just across the road from our hotel, we had spotted a restaurant that had an extensive menu of Western food, including pizzas, so dinner was had there before heading off to bed.

     
The sign says it all... Inside Tu Duc's Mausoleum
   
Inside Tu Duc's Mausoleum Inside Tu Duc's Mausoleum
   
Inside Tu Duc's Mausoleum Inside Tu Duc's Mausoleum
   
Inside Tu Duc's Mausoleum Inside Tu Duc's Mausoleum
   
Khai Dinh's tomb Khai Dinh's tomb
   
Khai Dinh's tomb Khai Dinh's tomb
   
Inside Khai Dinh's tomb Inside Khai Dinh's tomb
   
Inside Khai Dinh's tomb Inside Khai Dinh's tomb
   
Thien Mu Pagoda Thien Mu Pagoda
   
Thien Mu Pagoda Thien Mu Pagoda
   
Boat trip on the Perfume River Boat trip on the Perfume River
   

9 January 2009

After a rather slow and lazy morning at the hotel, we were collected at around 10h00 and transferred to the airport where we caught the 12h05 flight to Hanoi. The flight was a little over an hour long and after landing, we soon met up with our new guide, Son, and our driver, Dung. From here, it was a rather long drive (about 4,5 hours with a break for lunch) before we reached our next destination, Xuan Thuy National Park. The drive was pretty uneventful birdwise, but we did get to see a few of the common species including Eurasian Kestrel, Common Kingfisher and Brown Shrike. After first reporting in at the local police station, we then made our way through to the park headquarters where we would be staying for the next 3 nights. We had barely arrived at our accommodation and were still busy unpacking our luggage when the power went down (and remained down for the rest of the night), but fortunately, they had a generator there and so could get the dining area up and running in order to feed us.

Situated at the estuary of the Red River, Xuan Thuy National Park has vast tracts of intertidal mudflats and also three islands. The remainder of the area comprises large areas of mangrove swamps and aquaculture ponds. It is a very important wintering site for many species of migratory wader, but also has a healthy population of people (who live off the land) living within the confines of the national park. What also took quite a bit of getting used to for us was the fact that they only have one tidal cycle per day (one high and one low tide) and not two as we are used to in our part of the world.

     
Greta with our guide, Son Our driver, Dung
   

10 January 2009

Arrangements had been made the previous evening to get out to the furtherest island, Con Giao Xuan, to look at the waders that were there. After having an early breakfast, we left the park headquarters at 06h00 and were driven about 12km to where we would be meeting up with the boat. As high tide had already been at 03h00, we needed to get out to the island quickly before the tide dropped too much. We were on our way on the boat by 06h30 and about 20 minutes later, after having woven our way through literally hundreds of bamboo houses on stilts in the lagoon, the boat stopped about 300m short of the island (the skipper did not want to go any closer in case he bottomed out the boat) and we had to hop overboard into thigh high cold water and wade our way across to the island. This was not the easiest task in the world as it was extremely soft and muddy underfoot which meant that one's balance was a little tested and we were also carrying all our optical equipment with us! After what seemed like a nervous eternity, we eventually set foot on solid ground and immediately got to work on the waders. The feeding flocks comprised huge numbers of Kentish and Lesser Sand Plovers as well as Dunlins, but there were also a number of other species mixed in with them including Common Greenshank (no Nordmann's unfortunately!), Marsh Sandpiper, Sanderling, Grey and Greater Sand Plovers, Red and Great Knots, Red-necked Stint and Common Redshanks. There were also a couple of gulls around which, from the views obtained, seemed to all be Heuglin's Gulls (of the ssp tamyrensis). Despite spending several hours going through all the wader flocks, we were unable to locate the "holy grail" here, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and also missed on another of our targets, Saunder's Gull. At the agreed time, we walked out over the extremely slippery and, by now completely exposed, mudflats until we reached the water and then waded out even further to reach the boat again.

Back on dry land again on the other side, our trip back to the headquarters took us along a raised road through some aquaculture ponds and we managed to add a few more species here including Chinese Pond Heron, Common Kingfisher, Black-shouldered Kite, Siberian Stonechat, Yellow Wagtail and Spotted Redshank. Back at headquarters, we enjoyed a delicious lunch and then spent a couple of hours "relaxing" around headquarters. Relaxing really just meant we were birding right there instead of going anywhere else and we managed to pick up several species in and around the headquarters like Plain Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Richard's Pipit, White Wagtail, Pintail Snipe and Eastern Marsh Harrier.

Later in the afternoon, we were joined by one of the national park guides, Truong, who took us on a walk through some of the aquaculture ponds. We found several large flotillas of waterfowl which harboured Eurasian Teal, Garganey and Eastern Spot-billed Duck whilst others like Little Grebe, Pied Kingfisher, Zitting Cisticola, Black-tailed Godwit, White-breasted Waterhen and Slaty-breasted Rail were also seen. We found one pond which seemed to have a huge amount of activity on it with plenty of Great and Little Egrets, Grey Heron and mixed flocks of Common and Spotted Redshanks and finally nailed one of our target birds here as well, Black-faced Spoonbill.

Back at headquarters, it was time for dinner after which our guide, Son, introduced us to the fineries of drinking Vietnamese Rice Wine. Giving it to us in mineral water bottles, it looked pretty innocuous to start with until you took a gulp! Wow, this stuff had some serious kick...

     
The sign says it all... Our accommodation at Xuan Thuy National Park
   
Bamboo hut on stilts Bamboo hut on stilts
   
Greta and Margaret braving the cold water John and Trevor wading to the island
   
Extensive mudflats on Con Giao Xuan Extensive mudflats on Con Giao Xuan
   

11 January 2009

After an early breakfast, we met up with our guide, Son, and the national parks guide, Truong, and headed out into the aquaculture ponds on a small boat. We stopped off at a couple of high tide wader roosts to work through them and had many of the same species as yesterday with the addition of Common Whimbrel and Eurasian Curlew. We also found a number of large rafts of waterfowl and careful scanning through them added Eurasian Widgeon, Northern Shoveller, Northern Pintail and Common Shelduck. As we weaved our way through the ponds and in between the mangroves, we also managed to find a number of other species in the area including Black-capped, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers and Lesser Coucal. A stop off at a lookout tower gave us views of Chinese Pond Heron, White-breasted Waterhen and Black-faced Spoonbill whilst a walk along one of the raised berms between the ponds added Chestnut-flanked White-eye and Red-billed Starling.

Another high tide wader roost added our only Curlew Sandpipers of the trip whilst another exposed sandbank had a gull roost on it. The majority of the birds in this roost seemed to be Heuglin's Gulls, but there were also quite a few Caspian Gulls (of the ssp mongolicus) as well as several Pallas's (Great Black-headed) Gulls. The boat trip back to headquarters also delivered our first Black Kite of the trip.

The afternoon was spent birding much the same area as yesterday afternoon and the only new bird added to the trip list was Mallard! There were however still good views obtained of a number of species already recorded earlier like Eastern Marsh Harrier, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, White Wagtail and Black Drongo. At dinner, arrangements were made of an even earlier start to head back out to Con Giao Xuan to search through the wader flocks again.

     
View across the mangrove swamps View across the mangrove swamps
   
Greta scanning from the lookout tower John scanning from the lookout tower
   
Our guide, Son The national parks guide, Truong
   
The lookout tower Our mode of transport for the day
   
Greta enjoying the exposed mudflats... ...as is Margaret.
   

12 January 2009

Managing to arrange an early breakfast and pack the vehicle and get to the collection point early enough, we were on the boat by 06h00 and on our way out to Con Giao Xuan again. After having waded through the cold water and getting to the island again, we made our way to the top end of the island where there was a big wader roost and spent the next couple of hours going through it. Despite scanning the roost from several different angles (some of these being in the water!), there was definitely no sign of any of the major target birds there. All the same species we had seen two days earlier were still present in good numbers, but we eventually resigned ourselves to the fact that we had dipped on Spoon-billed Sandpiper and waded back out to our waiting boat. We had still managed to add a couple of new species to our trip list including Common Black-headed Gull and a Merlin that kept upsetting all the wader flocks!

Back at the vehicle, it was then time to begin the long drive across to Cuc Phuong National Park (www.cucphuongtourism.com). Being Vietnam's oldest national park (established in 1962), it is nestled in amongst impressive limestone mountains and boasts large tracts of montane forest. As had been the norm on most of our trip, the distance of less than 200km seemed to take an eternity and some 4,5 hours later (with a lunch stop included), we eventually arrived at Cuc Phuong. It was still a 20km drive from the entrance gates to our accommodation which was at the well known Bong Substation, but a stop along the way produced both Crested Serpent Eagle and Pied Falconet. Eventually arriving at our accommodation, we quickly booked in, got rid of our bags and headed off to take advantage of the last bit of light around. Although there were a lot of birds calling in the vicinity, it was difficult to get decent views of anything, but we did manage to find Eurasian Blackbird (extremely skittish here!), Japanese Thrush, Lesser Yellownape, Puff-throated Babbler and Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo as well as a Pallas's Squirrel.

Bong substation has no fixed electricity supply, so a generator is run for about 4,5 hours every night from 17h00 until 21h30. With all the electronic paraphernalia that accompanies one on a birding trip these days, one had to make sure to take full advantage of this in order to make sure that all the necessary batteries, etc. were charged. The geyser in our chalet was also rather small and had enough hot water for one shower, so for both of us to shower, the timing had to be perfect. Wait for the electricity to come on, give the geyser an hour to warm up, one person has a shower, then give the geyser another hour, then the second person can shower! What was also rather suprising here was just how cold it got when the sun went down! We were forced to put on several layers of clothing at night to try and keep warm.

     
John scanning the wader flocks Our boat waits patiently for us
   
John makes his way back out to the boat Son has nearly reached the boat
   
Margaret and Son relax on the boat trip back... ...but John doesn't give up!
   
Bamboo huts on stilts in the lagoon Bamboo huts on stilts in the lagoon
   
The sign says it all... ...as does this one.
   

13 January 2009

The ladies decided to have a bit of a "lie in" this morning, but John and I were up early and met our guide, Son, and headed off down the valley trail for a short walk before breakfast. We located several bird parties along this trail and found a number of species including Hair-crested Drongo, Sultan Tit, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Red-headed Trogon, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Grey-eyed Bulbul and Grey-throated Babbler whilst back at our accommodation, we had both a Crested Goshawk and a Black Eagle soaring overhead. Breakfast at the little restaurant about 300m down the road was disturbed by a majestic Mountain Hawk-Eagle soaring overhead whilst Olive-backed Pipits were also around.

After breakfast, we spent the next few hours working the grid system. This is a series of trails through a patch of forest which are set out in a grid with each trail probably about 50m apart. Although the grid systems only covers a small area, there were constantly new birds being picked up throughout the time we spent in there and we added Siberian Blue Robin, Rufous-throated Fulvetta, White-tailed Leaf Warbler, Short-billed Minivet, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Verditer Flycatcher and Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher.

After having to be dragged out of the grid system to get some lunch, it was then time to walk the loop trail in the afternoon. This is a 7km trail which is fairly strenuous in places with lots of steps. The trail climbs up mountains, then descends into valleys and back up the other side again and continues like this the whole way. It is certainly a test of one's fitness, but nevertheless delivered some good birds including a stunning Silver-breasted Broadbill as well as Buff-breasted Babbler, Grey-capped Woodpecker and Grey-crowned Warbler and some fleeting glimpses of another Bar-bellied Pitta.

After dinner, we had arranged to go on a night walk with one of the national park guides. Although the guide had two spotlights and was shining them all over the trees as we walked down the road, he did not seem to be particularly good at finding anything (or perhaps he was just having bad luck?) and I, with my trusty small torch, managed to find the first few animals. Diversity was extremely low and we only managed to find about 4 Black Giant Squirrels and 2 Indian Giant Flying Squirrels although one of the latter did come gliding straight over our heads from one side of the road to the other. That was pretty awesome!

     
Our accommodation at Bong substation View across Bong substation
   
The restaurant at Bong substation Trail on the grid system
   

14 January 2009

Once again, the Valley Trail was tackled before breakfast and most of the same birds as yesterday were seen with additions including Fujian Niltava, Streaked Spiderhunter, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike and Black Bulbul. A short walk after breakfast from the restaurant down the main road also added Orange-bellied Leafbird and White-browed Piculet and then we started making our way back to the entrance where we would spend the night tonight. A stop along the way to walk up to a supposed cave of prehistoric man was an interesting distraction, but there was not too much birdlife around there. Arriving at our accommodation at the entrance, we quickly booked in and then got ready to head out to go birding. An immediate distraction was a Plain Flowerpecker that was visiting the tree right outside our door.

After arranging for someone to unlock the gates, we spent the rest of the day birding the Botanical Gardens, a rather large area which had been set aside to conserve various plant and tree species. Not a very formal botanical gardens, it certainly attracts its fair share of birds and we had a great time walking the various trails that lead through it keeping ourselves busy for a number of hours. More open areas produced Sooty-headed Bulbul, Rufescent Prinia, Yellow-breasted Bunting whilst an Eastern Buzzard (a recent split from Common Buzzard according to the IOC world list) soaring overhead was a welcome addition. Other birds seen during the course of the afternoon included Japanese White-eye, Common Iora, Puff-throated Bulbul, Limestone Wren-babbler, Racket- and Ratchet-tailed Treepies, Common Woodshrike, Tiger Shrike, Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike, Hair-crested and Ashy Drongos and Lesser Coucal whilst we also managed to connect with our main target here, White-winged Magpie.

Unfortunately, what we had not realised, was that the park was having a party for its staff that night at the restaurant which was situated just below our accommodation, so the noise levels were a little high with a number of people enjoying the local rice wine just a little too much. However, we were tired enough that the drones eventually just disappeared and we fell asleep rather quickly.

     
Cave of prehistoric man Our accommodation at Cuc Phuong's entrance
   
View from our accommodation View from our accommodation
   

15 January 2009

After an early breakfast, we were once again packing the vehicle and heading off, this time in the direction of Ha Long Bay. After several hours of driving, we eventually arrived there and, after a quick bite to eat, we boarded a boat for our cruise around the bay. This has to be one of the most picturesque places in the world and has featured as a backdrop scene in many well known movies. Nearly 2 000 limestone islands are dotted all over the bay and part of it has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Leaving the harbour on our boat, we were immediately impressed with the numbers of Black Kites hovering around and this continued the whole way out into the bay. Their numbers were also bolstered with the likes of Common Black-headed Gulls and Large-billed Crows. We were fortunate to make a stop on one of the islands and got to walk through two sets of limestone caves which were rather impressive, especially with the additional coloured lighting that had been put in to enhance the experience. With binoculars never far away, this little stop off also gave us a few birds including Pin-striped Tit-babbler, Light-vented Bulbul and Blue Whistling Thrush. Our cruise also took us through several floating villages in the bay and we actually stopped off at the one to visit a fresh seafood "shop". Our cruise lasted about 5 hours in total (although it never felt that long at all) and the last birds added on our way back to the harbour was a large flock of Fork-tailed Swifts overhead.

Back on land, we then headed to the Heritage Hotel Halong (http://www.hotels-in-vietnam.com/hotels/Halong/heritage_halong.html) which would be our base for the night. After taking a walk through the night markets, we then headed back to the hotel for dinner before heading to bed.

     
Boats on Ha Long Bay Internal view of our boat
   
Our boat Heading out into Ha Long Bay
   
Limestone caves Limestone caves
   
Floating Village Floating Village
   
View across Ha Long Bay View across Ha Long Bay
   
View across Ha Long Bay Margaret and Trevor at Ha Long Bay
   
Heritage Hotel Halong Heritage Hotel Halong
   

16 January 2009

After an early breakfast at the hotel, we were once again packing the vehicle and soon we were on our way back to Hanoi. These last few days had encompassed a lot of driving and today was no different finally arriving in Hanoi after several hours of being stuck in the car. On arrival in Hanoi, we made our way through to our hotel, the Heritage Hotel Hanoi (http://www.hotels-in-vietnam.com/hotels/hanoi/heritage_hotel.html) which was situated in a rather run down part of town. After booking in and getting some lunch at the hotel, we were collected again by our guide and driver with the intention of visiting the Fine Arts Museum and the Temple of Literature in the afternoon. However, we had miscalculated the traffic and got stuck in one of the worst traffic jams ever! After what seemed like an eternity of going nowhere slowly, we eventually arrived at the museum. With not a lot of time to spare, we worked through the exhibits rather quickly before moving off across the road to the Temple of Literature. What had been built up in our minds as a absolutely mind-blowing temple to visit was totally thrown out the window the minute we walked into it as there were people everywhere busy setting up for some or other concert with music blaring across the courtyards. Although the buildings were quite something to look at, the fact that one had ABBA blasting out "Happy New Year" in the background did take away from the whole experience...

Back in the vehicle, our driver then drove us through the "Old Quarter", a part of Hanoi which is full of shops and has been around for about 600 years. Each street has a specific product that is sold on it, so down one street, you will get tens of shops selling only shoes for instance whilst the next street will have shops only selling furniture, etc. We were then dropped off at Hoan Kiem Lake where we would be going to watch a water puppet show a little later. A walk around the lake had us finding a lot of bats (all apparently of the same species) flying around and we even managed to get a few really bad photos of them. However, once again, we were unable to conclusively identify them, but they seemed to be some sort of Round-leaf Bat. If anyone knows which species is in this area, I would appreciate hearing from you.

After dinner at a local restaurant, we attended the water puppet show and then were collected by our driver and transferred back to the hotel.

     
Hanoi Heritage Hotel Museum of Fine Arts
   
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
   
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
   
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
   
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
   
Shops in the Old Quarter Shops in the Old Quarter
   
Shops in the Old Quarter Shops in the Old Quarter
   
Theatre for the water puppet show Inside the theatre for the water puppet show
   
17 January 2009

After an early breakfast at the hotel, we went out for a walk around the streets of Hanoi. By 09h30, we were back at the hotel and waited for our driver to collect us and transfer us to the airport where we began the long and arduous journey back to Cape Town via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Johannesburg in South Africa.

     

Conclusion:

The timing of this trip was based on giving us the best chance of getting Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but we failed anyway at seeing that bird. What this did do is give us a lot of bad weather at several sites which caused us to miss many of the other endemics. Also, had we visited in Spring, the birds may well have been more active and responsive, so, should we plan another trip to Vietnam in the future, it would certainly have to be at another time of year. We still enjoyed the trip thoroughly and were able to rack up a list of 316 birds, 15 mammals, 10 reptiles and 2 frogs which is not too bad considering we spent a fair bit of time actually doing other more tourist orientated activities as well.

Click on this link to go through to the full list of species recorded on the trip as well as links to a number of photograghs.