The Best of Vietnam Jan 17—Feb 04, 2016

Posted by Machiel Valkenburg


Machiel Valkenburg

Machiel Valkenburg was born in 1982 in a southern province in the Netherlands where, encouraged by his parents, he began birding at an early age. During his teens he studie...

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On January 19th I met our tour participants in the lobby of the five-star Majestic Hotel in Ho Cho Minh City (formerly Saigon). We had arrived a few days prior to the start of our tour, and we enjoyed the great service at this enchanting colonial style hotel from the 1920s. We packed up our car and, together with excellent local guide Quang, started driving towards the fascinating lowland Dipterocarp forest of Nam Bai Cat Tien. We would spend three full days birding in this amazing forest where we were blessed with many great sightings. Our days began around 05:30 with a pre-breakfast excursion, followed by a two- to three-hour session of birding after breakfast. We then enjoyed a midday siesta and had a final excursion in the late afternoon.

Bar-bellied Pitta

Bar-bellied Pitta— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


Our first excursion took us on a jungle trail where, with the use of camouflage tents and seats, we sat down and waited for foraging pittas. Within five minutes a gorgeous male Bar-bellied Pitta appeared about three yards from us. How lucky could we be? The pitta was joined by the common White-rumped Shama, Abbott’s Babbler, Puff-throated Babbler, and cute Chestnut-capped Babbler. While enjoying this spectacle, we suddenly heard a distant call from a Blue-rumped Pitta. This shy species occurred, as well, right in front of us a few minutes after hearing its call. We were stunned by its appearance and absorbed its beauty with pleasure! In the grasslands of the park we heard two endemic Germain’s Peacock-Pheasants, loved a single male Green Peafowl, enjoyed a group of Red-wattled Lapwings, scoped a close Green Imperial-Pigeon, appreciated a party of Silver-backed Needletails, and both Oriental Pied- and Great Hornbills were a few of the highlights. In the dense foliage of the jungle we had amazing views of a small group of four Black-and-red Broadbills chattering away, which shortly after were accompanied by a female and stunning male Banded Kingfisher. Around our excellent lodge we found Sooty-headed Bulbul, White-crested Laughingthrush, Yellow-vented and Scarlet-backed flowerpeckers, and three species of spectacularly colored leafbirds (Blue-winged, Golden-fronted, and Orange-bellied). On several evening excursions we were lucky to find some nocturnal birds such as Great Eared-Nightjar, Large-tailed Nightjar, Collared Scops-Owl, Asian Barred Owlet, and Brown Boobook. All in all we had a superb time birding one of the best forests of Asia! 

After Cat Tien we drove by way of Di Linh to Da Lat, which is in the middle of the Lang Bian plateau in southeast Vietnam. We visited a village where coffee was the major source of income; Vietnam is one of the world’s top producers of coffee. We enjoyed a locally produced cup of delicious coffee. In Di Ling we did some roadside birding, and here we discovered some Green Bee-eaters, heard our first Black-browed (Annam) Barbet, and scoped a gorgeous Black-crested Bulbul. Our itinerary had us scheduled for three full days in the Da Lat region; during this private tour we altered the program a little to meet the needs of our participants, focusing more on the cultural aspects of this wonderful region. In the early morning and late afternoon we scheduled birding excursions, and during the day we enjoyed several cultural activities. Top sightings included, among others, a close Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, groups of charming Long-tailed and Scarlet minivets, a delightful Maroon Oriole, displaying White-browed Fantails, special “leucotis” Eurasian Jay, and a lovely Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher.

Stripe-throated Bulbul

Stripe-throated Bulbul— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


The Da Lat flower garden is a well-maintained park showing many colorful fields of flowers which we were pleased to visit. Here we also encountered a perched Burmese Shrike and a small flock of Vinous-breasted Starlings. In the evening we visited the Linh Phong Pagoda. This Buddhist pagoda was built in 1944 and is the center of the teachings of Thich Nguyen Bich. Quang gave us an excellent insight into the life of the monks living in the temple. During the evenings we strolled the night market and witnessed the life of the locals selling locally made handicrafts. Vietnam is known worldwide for its tasty, balanced foods; on all evenings we visited excellent restaurants, enjoying the culinary skills of the Vietnamese kitchen.

A last morning of birding in Da Lat was followed by a drive towards the local airport where a new Boeing brought us to the capitol of Vietnam—Hanoi. We arrived in the early evening (with rain), and from the airport we drove to the village of Tam Dao with its similarly named national park, which would be our home for the coming two nights. The weather reports of the days prior to our arrival informed us that for the very first time ever, snow was recorded in Tam Dao. On our first morning of birding in the hills of the national park, it drizzled a little, which turned into rain after 25 minutes. We walked back encountering no birds, as the snow had driven all birds down the mountain. The rest of the day we stayed in, as rain turned into heavy rain. The next morning we woke up to blue skies and rushed to the national park where we were welcomed by a plethora of birds. One male Crested Goshawk was hunting and stirred many passerines; among them was a tiny White-browed Piculet which moved through the scrub at a fast pace. We all, however, had excellent looks at this wonderful miniature woodpecker. A few minutes later we came across a mixed flock of birds in which we quickly found an exquisite Sultan Tit, which gave a little show, performing three yards from us! We also found Japanese Tit, Common Tailorbird, Indochinese Yuhina, Golden Babbler, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Gray Laughingthrush, and a large group of beautifully colored Silver-eared Mesia! What a morning, and what birds the Tam Dao National Park showed us!

Black-hooded Oriole

Black-hooded Oriole— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


We descended from Tam Dao back into the lowlands of the red river delta for a five-hour drive towards Cuc Phuong National Park. On our way we visited the Bai Dinh pagoda, which is the largest in Southeast Asia; it is a complex of 20 architectural works on the campus of 700 hectares! We walked the premises and visited several of the large works where we enjoyed some bright golden Buddha sculptures. It was a wonderful experience. In the parks of the pagoda we met a male Japanese Thrush skulking away in the briar. We arrived in the evening in the (again—rainy) national park of Cuc Phuong. Our rooms were basic but clean in the headquarters of the park. We were ideally situated to explore the national park with its fascinating limestone formations and long list of birds and mammals. Every morning and afternoon we took walks in the park where we encountered many attractive species like the endemic Red-vented Barbet, Greater Yellownape, Bay Woodpecker, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, more Sultan Tits, Gray-eyed Bulbul, White-tailed Flycatcher, Red-flanked Bluetail, many Orange-headed Thrushes, Gray-backed Thrush, and several Olive-backed Pipits around the headquarters. The highlight of the visit to the park was, surely, being witness to a Pied Falconet catching a Limestone Leaf Warbler, two large targets for this park. We were watching a mixed group of Leaf Warblers when, out of nowhere, a lot of excitement hit the flock. We understood that a raptor was near, but only until Machiel discovered the Pied Falconet about five yards from us with a Limestone Leaf Warbler in its claws! The weather during our stay was very wet, and it made us alter the itinerary; we returned one day early to Hanoi for a guided city visit. The drive back to Hanoi allowed a visit to a small wetland where we quickly found a superb White-browed Crake, tens of Purple Swamphen, a small flock of Paddyfield Pipits, and an attractive Siberian Stonechat, a winter visitor from Russia. 

In Hanoi we lodged in the exquisite Metropole Hotel, which was voted a place in the top 100 of all best hotels in the world. With this fantastic hotel as our base, we explored the “City of Lakes” in style. We spent significant time wandering the markets in the evenings where many locals were buying their gifts for the approaching Chinese New Year celebrations. In the streets around our hotel all the major brands like Gucci, Dior, and Laboutin had their shops represented for the wealthy Vietnamese. In the ancient old quarter of the city with its narrow streets filled with motorbikes we found some excellent handicraft stores that sold elegant silk scarves and modern arts. One morning was spent in the National Art Museum which especially Joanna enjoyed very much; we noticed that many arts were influenced by the war of the sixties and seventies of the previous century. 

With a grand finale dinner and a delicious bottle of red wine, we concluded our amazing tour in the outstanding country of Vietnam!