Thursday, 14 March 2013

Vietnam Trip Report


Vietnam
6 – 16 February 2013

4 February 2013
Waterloo – Toronto

Karen and John invited us for dinner before taking us to the airport. We left shortly before 20:00 on a clear, cold night. There were no problems at all on the highway and we arrived at Pearson International Airport at 21:00. We were at the gate by 21:45 and settled in for the long wait for our Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong, scheduled for 01:25 departure.

5 February 2013
Toronto – Hong Kong

We were on board by 01:00 but the plane had to be deiced and we lifted off at 02:00.
The flight attendants were lovely young ladies, enough to make an old man's spirits soar, and quite in contrast to the warthogs of leathered skin and indifferent attitude we have recently experienced with North American carriers. These attendants have a tough job, starting with the physical struggle to get everyone's carry-on baggage stowed safely in the overhead compartments. They climbed on seats, wrestled with bags that were too big, rearranged them or moved them – quite a physical exercise.
Dinner was served shortly into the flight with smiling friendliness. We had opted for vegetarian meals so we were served quickly and were offered a glass of red wine with our dinner.
We tried to get a little sleep, read from time to time, listened to the classical music channel which had a decent selection, and generally tried to wile away the boredom of the fifteen hour flight.
The flight attendants were kept constantly busy, offering water, soft drinks, instant noodles and hawking UNICEF envelopes and duty free items up and down the aisles. As far as we could tell each of them worked the complete double shift without a break.
A couple of hours before arriving in Hong Kong breakfast was served and our vegetarian choice comprised a soy patty, hash browns and a fried tomato slice. There was also a fruit cup, yoghurt and a choice of beverages.
We landed in Hong Kong at 05:30 Hong Kong time on 6 February, having crossed the International Date Line, thereby “losing” a day.

6 February 2013
Hong Kong – Ho Chi Minh City

We quickly transferred through this immaculately clean and efficient airport and we were at our departure gate by 06:05 to settle in for a three hour layover before our flight to Ho Chi Minh City.
We read for a while, had a coffee and generally people watched to pass the time.
A couple of Common Mynas were the only birds we saw at the airport.
Boarding took place at 08:15 and we were in the air en route to Vietnam by 09:05.
Our vegetarian lunch was a sort of stew with potatoes, some kind of beans (navy?), green beans and tomatoes. There was also a roll and a dish of fresh fruit. The meal was pretty bland, certainly not the kind of yummy Asian food we thought we might have received. However, one does not fly for the quality of the food, and the meal served its purpose.
We touched down in Ho Chi Minh City at 10:15 local time, but had to wait quite a while for another aircraft to vacate our parking bay.
The passage through Customs and Immigrations was a speedy affair and we were soon in the arrivals area which was thronged with people, many of whom were there to greet family members living abroad and returning home for Tet, the Lunar New Year, quite the biggest and most important festival of the year in Vietnam. Our “greeter” and driver, holding a card with our names, were there to meet us, in a fashion that would be repeated everywhere we travelled, a testament to the seamless logistical efficiency of Richard Craik and Vietnam Birding. Their arrangements were always impeccably handled.
As we headed to our downtown hotel we got the first taste of traffic in Vietnam and the thousands upon thousands of motorcycles and scooters, all of which seemed to be going in random directions. While it was unclear to us how the traffic sorted itself out it was obviously crystal clear to the drivers for we never saw a road collision or accident for the entire time we journeyed through southeast Asia.
Our room at the Bong Sen Hotel Annex was a grand suite with a sitting room with two couches and a double bed, in addition to the main bedroom which was well appointed and very comfortable. We made a cup of tea and Miriam soaked in the tub for a while. I went out for a short walk and enjoyed the festive atmosphere and the incredible preparations for New Year. It was quite a wonderful sight and Ho Chi Minh gave one the impression of a highly livable, thriving, bustling city. The country is designated the Socialist Republic of Vietnam but all we ever saw throughout our stay was vigorous free enterprise at its best. Never once did we ever encounter any of the stereotypical images of dour communist functionaries or cadres of soldiers with weapons. Vietnam seemed to us a carefree, functioning, happy society.
Returning to the room Miriam decided that she too would like to take a stroll through the city festooned with an incredible array of decorations for Tet, so we went out together. We marvelled at the amount of preparation that had gone into all of this, and the energy and enthusiasm of the merry makers all around us. There was a great deal of interesting architecture to look at, including a splendid Opera House featuring special shows for the Lunar New Year. Having seen it in daylight, we determined to come back after dark to enjoy the illuminated wonderland. 

                                               Streets decorated for Tet

Soon after 17:00 we went to find a place to eat and enjoyed a delicious meal. Miriam had a pork and shrimp combination with steamed rice and a side order of sauteed napa, while I enjoyed spring rolls and rice noodles. There was also a plate of salad greens which we didn't touch, bearing in mind the advice of the tropical medicine clinic. By the end of our trip we had thrown all caution to the wind and ate whatever was presented to us with no ill effects anywhere.
By the time dinner was finished the sun had set, the city was ablaze with lights and we strolled around several blocks marvelling at all the flowers and illuminated decorations. It seemed that everyone we saw had a camera of one kind or another and photographs were being taken all around us. The digital camera has certainly revolutionized the ability of even the worst duffer to take pictures, if only from a mobile phone, which everyone seemed to have! The traffic seemed more chaotic than ever as individual headlights merged into a strobe of moving light.
There were lots of swifts flying around the downtown, but it was impossible to identify them as to species. As expected Rock Dove graced the urban landscape as they seem to in every city of the world.
We were back in the room by 19:00 and went to bed shortly thereafter, by now feeling exhausted after our long journey from Canada. And we were to be picked up at 05:00 the next morning to get to the airport for our onward flight to Da Lat.

All species 6 February – Rock Dove, swift sp., Common Myna.

Accommodation: Bong Sen Hotel Annex Rating: Four stars

7 February 2013
Ho Chi Minh City – Da Lat – Ta Nung Valley – Phuong Nam

When we got down to the lobby at 05:00 it was in darkness and there was a man sleeping on a cot in the main area and a woman behind the desk also asleep. In any event they woke up, went to get our driver and we were soon en route to the airport. The early morning streets were much less congested than yesterday and in a mere fifteen minutes we were being dropped off at the terminal.
This was a domestic flight, of course, and I think that there were literally thousands of people travelling within Vietnam to unite with their families to celebrate Tet. This sea of people was marked by good humour, laughter and a distinct aura of jollity and anticipation of a wonderful adventure. Children were dressed in their finery and looked excited at the prospect of flying on an aeroplane. At a first glance it may have looked like mass confusion, but in fact there were many officials there to offer assistance as required and to make sure that everyone got in the right line, and we moved along quickly without a hitch. We never saw a grumpy face or heard a disagreeable word the whole time we were in the line up.
We boarded a bus and were delivered to the aircraft. Take off occurred at 06:40, about fifteen minutes behind schedule, for the brief flight to Da Lat. Touch down was a mere fifty minutes later.
Our smiling driver was there to meet us in the arrivals area and quickly we were en route to the city and the Dreams Hotel. There we met our guide Nyguyen Nogoc Dung (pronounced Dzum). We had not had breakfast and our room (hardly surprising so early in the day) was not ready, so we left our bags in the lobby and were permitted to enjoy breakfast at the hotel. What a fine spread. As was the case every day there was bacon, ham, eggs cooked to order, cereal, yoghurt, bread, cheese, and best of all , copious quantities of a variety of succulent fresh fruit. Fruit juice, tea and coffee were available. Most days we just concentrated on the fruit, it was so delicious. I have never eaten so much mango in a short period in my life! It was interesting to note the legacy from the time when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. The bread was a mini baguette, bought fresh every morning, and the cheese La Vache qui Rit, a French cheese found the world over.
At 09:00 we left to go birding in the Ta Nung Valley. As soon as the driver dropped us off we had our first serious disappointment; the guide had no scope. Since there were no other participants on this adventure we had left our own scope at home, electing instead to take a few more clothes without exceeding the baggage limits. It never occurred to us that the guide would not have a scope. We have never been with a guide who did not have one. There were a couple of areas in the forest where a scope might have been a bit of an encumbrance, but for 95% of the time we birded outside the forest and sorely missed the advantage a scope would have given us.
For example on this first morning we had an Indochinese Barbet, a lifer for both of us, perched high in a very tall tree, singing loudly, and a scope would have been the perfect way to really get to see the bird. Alas, we had to be content with a binocular view only.
There were many other interesting birds, especially a flock of about sixteen White-cheeked Laughingthrushes. A Black Eagle soared overhead and we saw a female Mugimaki Flycatcher. A couple of Green-backed Tits really recalled the ones we had seen in Bhutan in 2007. It's amazing how the memory of a bird can be etched so indelibly in one's mind. We heard a Green Imperial Pigeon, but later we would see several of this magnificent species. We had great looks at Burmese Shrike.
We birded only until 10:30 when Dung said we had to go back to the highway where the driver would pick us up, to move to another birding area we assumed. Both Miriam and I were already getting the sense that we did not have an especially good or dedicated guide. For the most part he seemed mildly disinterested and appeared to be simply filling in the hours he was obliged to commit to us.
                                                               Grey Bush Chat
         

Back at the road the driver was not there and we had to wait for him to return. A Brown Shrike in a low tree on the other side of the road offered a pleasant diversion. Finally we moved off at about 11:15 and were delivered back to the hotel. Our room was now ready and the front desk had our bags taken up. The room was small but quite adequate for our needs, and the water in the shower was hot.
Just after noon we crossed the street to a family restaurant for lunch and ate very well. Miriam chose a bowl of lemon grass soup with beef, tomatoes and pineapple which she said was flavourful indeed. I had Fukien noodles with a stir fry of vegetables, pork, shrimp and squid. We each had a coke to drink and after the meal they served us a cup of delicious green tea. All of this cost 120,000 Vietnamese Dong, a mere $6.00!
After lunch we meandered along the street for a while, picking our way around the motorcycles parked everywhere on the sidewalk. It seemed strange at first, but we soon got used to it, and by the end of our stay thought nothing of it. At 14:15 we returned to our room to wait to be picked up at 15:15 to go birding again.
This time we went to an area called Phuong Nam and pretty much birded along the road. The clouds were dark and we heard the occasional rumble of thunder but no precipitation ever fell. It was in this location that we saw the endemic Vietnamese Greenfinch, three of them in fact. A very cooperative Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike posed for photographs, and we renewed our acquaintance with the stunningly beautiful Mrs. Gould's Sunbird. A White-throated Kingfisher dazzled us and we were very fortunate to see two adult Slender-billed Orioles with a juvenile.
This is the last time I'll harp on about the absence of a scope, but we really would have liked a closer look at these birds. A Eurasian Jay was a lifer for Miriam. Both Miriam and I have a special fondness for nuthatches and we were delighted with reasonably good views of Chestnut-vented Nuthatch.
At 17:25 our driver picked us up and we were whisked back to Dalat. We were about to ask a few questions about some of the birds we had seen, but there was no chance. Dung, like so many Vietnamese people, rode a motor bike, and almost before our feet hit the ground he had his helmet on and was ready to go. We never did get a chance to review the day's activity and unless he needed to use the computers in the lobby of the Dreams Hotel he disappeared almost instantly.
Dinner was taken in the same restaurant where we had enjoyed lunch (in fact this became our favourite spot). Miriam ordered stir fry chicken with Chinese mushrooms and I had a yellow chicken curry in a clay pot and it was simply delicious. We both had steamed rice to accompany our meal. Miriam had watermelon juice to drink and I had passion fruit juice, always simply referred to as passion juice!
We were back in our room by 19:30 and passed the evening reading and doing our bird list until bedtime.

All species 7 February – Little Egret, Black Eagle, Spotted Dove, Barred Cuckoo-Dove, Green Imperial Pigeon, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, White-throated Kingfisher, Indochinese Barbet, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Long-tailed Minivet, Brown Shrike, Burmese Shrike, White-bellied Erpornis, Slender-billed Oriole, Ashy Drongo, Eurasian Jay, Green-backed Tit, Grey-crowned Tit, Flavescent Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Black-crested Bulbul, Common House Martin, Yellow-browed Warbler, Kloss's Leaf Warbler, Mountain Fulvetta, White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Common Myna, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Little Pied Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Siberian Stonechat, Grey Bush Chat, Mrs. Gould's Sunbird, Streaked Spiderhunter, Eurasian Tree Sparow, Scaly-breasted Munia, Grey Wagtail, Vietnamese Greenfinch.

Accommodation: Dreams Hotel Rating: Four stars.

8 February 2013
Da Lat – Ta Nung Valley – Suoi Tia

We had been told to be ready to go birding at 06:00 and we went down for breakfast just before 05:30. The young fellow preparing breakfast had sufficient bad attitude for two people and shooed us away with his hands and said “Later.” We told him that we had been told to come at 05:30 and got the same response, “Later.” We climbed the three flights of stairs back to our room, and went back down again about ten minutes later. Everything was not ready, but we could get fruit and coffee, and a baguette with cheese so we were happy. Mr Smiley was not even happy that we were there!
We were already in the lobby when Dung arrived at 06:00 but he told us that “something had happened” to our driver so we had a different car and driver for the day. It was foggy and a pleasant 14 degrees when we left to return to the Ta Nung Valley, arriving there at 06:20.
Most of the birds we saw during the early part of our walk were the same species as yesterday, except for a beautiful pair of Scarlet Minivets, and two Blue-bearded Bee-eaters. This was followed by a Red-vented Barbet, stunningly beautiful and very vocal.
An Indochinese Barbet was even more gorgeous. A Hill Prinia flitted in front of us and finally afforded very good looks. The recently split Dalat Shrike-Babbler was not hard to find, but a male Red-headed Trogon was clearly the bird of the day.
As I have already stated we were not exactly enamoured with our guide and this feeling was getting amplified. If Miriam and I stopped to admire a bird, or to check out some other interesting facet of the walk (a flower, a butterfly, a lizard) Dung simply carried on. He obviously had his schedule and he wasn't changing it for anyone. Sometimes he would be three to four hundred metres ahead of us. We never saw him give so much as a backward glance. If the terrain got difficult he simply went ahead of us, never checked whether we needed a helping hand, whether we had made it over the obstacles. Simple good manners and a degree of kindness seemed absent altogether.
We were also having problems with his heavy accent. We understand, of course, that this is not unexpected with people whose native tongue is not English, and I am sure that were I to attempt Vietnamese I would fail equally. But I am not in the business of being a paid, professional guide where communication is paramount. Lest anyone accuse me of insensitivity, let me point out that I speak three languages, and get along in a rudimentary fashion in two others. But communication was getting difficult. Permit me to give just one example (although there were many others) to illustrate the point. We would ask a question and would receive an answer totally unrelated to what we had asked. On hearing a bird singing, we inquired “What species is singing?” His response: “There are no Edwards's Pheasants here.”
I think my diction is reasonably clear, and Miriam's certainly is. She enunciates each word well, but he still frequently misunderstood what we were saying. It got to be frustrating to say the least.
The other difficulty was Dung's total inability to point out a bird when he had located it. Directions such as “Little bird up there,” or “On the low branch” or “In the broad-leafed tree” were standard directions.
We never did see any of the endemic laughingthrushes or the Grey-crowned Crocia and we got a little tired of having him regale us with stories about how he found them for other birders and what wonderful, prolonged experiences they had with the birds.
We birded only until 10:30 and again we expected that we might be going to another spot for an hour or so but the driver picked us up and whisked us back to the Dreams Hotel. We were there by about 10:45.
Our room had been made up and we stayed there until noon when we crossed the road for lunch. I had a Diet Coke and Miriam watermelon juice, spring rolls (a mixture of ground pork, shrimp, carrot, onion, rice vermicelli and mushroom, wrapped and fried and served with a delicious dipping sauce), crispy tofu with chilies and lemon grass and an order of clay pot rice. There was not a scrap left on the table and we had spent less than $11.00!
Before heading back to the room we took a walk along the street and really enjoyed seeing the panoply of activities taking place before our eyes. Eurasian Tree Sparrows were ubiquitous and they have essentially taken over the role of the House Sparrow in areas of human settlement. We were told that their preference for nesting has now become the thatched roofs of houses.
At 15:30 our guide and driver returned and we set off again to go birding. We were deposited at an area called Suoi Tia where it appears that numerous resorts are under construction. We walked along the roads but the birds were basically inactive. The highlight was a Bay Woodpecker carrying food and two Chestnut-vented Nuthatches. We did see a Blue Whistling Thrush.
At 17:30 the driver picked us up and we drove back to Da Lat, on the way seeing a Greater Coucal in a tree a short distance from the road.
At 18:00 we walked over to “our” restaurant for dinner and started up the stairs, but music was blaring so loudly we decided to try somewhere else. The owner saw us and immediately turned down the volume and switched to a mild kind of jazz and we were seated.
Miriam ordered French onion soup and we shared stir fried beef with vegetables, and fried rice with vegetables – all very tasty. Miriam had a Seven-Up and I had passion juice.
We had noticed a couple of times a grizzled looking caucasian fellow walking the streets and on this evening he came into the restaurant. In fact, as we learned later, he was staying at the same hotel as we were. He was American and seemed overly friendly, announcing to all who cared to listen that he kept returning to Vietnam. He seemed to go out of his way to befriend every local he met and never failed to ask anyone and everyone their name and announce where he was from. There seemed to be an empty look in his eyes, and we suspected that he was dealing with some kind of private angst. We'll never know, of course, but he seemed to be about the right age (probably mid-sixties) to have fought in what the Vietnamese refer to as the American War. Whether he had seen things, or done things, which left him scarred, and with a compulsion to return to Vietnam is open to question, but one certainly got the impression that he was driven to continually return by some inner force beyond his rational control. There are still problems from that era associated with the defoliant Agent Orange, both in terms of retarded forest growth and the extent of terrible problems like cancer associated with its application. There is also the tragic issue of children born of mixed parentage who are now adults encountering difficulties being accepted by either society. In any event one certainly had the impression that this was not the case of a simple tourist returning to a desirable destination. We asked questions of ourselves each time we saw this fellow walking the streets of Da Lat.
After dinner we returned to our room, arriving there around 19:30 and chatted and read until it was time to turn in for the night.

All species 8 February – Crested Serpent Eagle, Spotted Dove, Barred Cuckoo-Dove (H), Green Imperial Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Greater Coucal, Green-billed Malkhoa, Red-headed Trogon, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Indochinese Barbet, Bay Woodpecker, Scarlet Minivet, Brown Shrike, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Slender-billed Oriole, Maroon Oriole, Ashy Drongo, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, White-throated Fantail, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Black-crested Bulbul, Radde's Warbler, Kloss's Leaf Warbler, Grey-cheeked Warbler, Hill Prinia, White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Black-headed Sibia, Blue Whistling Thrush, White-throated Rock Thrush, Verditer Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Mrs. Gould's Sunbird, Streaked Spiderhunter, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Grey Wagtail.

9 February 2013
Da Lat – Mount Lang Bian – Ta Nung Valley

Once again we presented ourselves for breakfast at 05:30 and the attitude of the young man preparing it was, if anything, even worse than before. To say he was sullen would be an understatement. No doubt we were the only ones leaving at so early an hour, so perhaps he resented having to start his day earlier than he otherwise would have done just for us. It crossed our minds that he was in the wrong business if he couldn't handle minor changes to his routine. His displeasure was matched only by the size of the dangling ear adornment which hung down one side of his neck.
Our original driver and Dung picked us up at 06:00 and we set out on a clear, cool morning for Mount Lang Bian. On the way there I did a double take when I saw a zebra munching on grass at the side of the road and I was even more startled when I saw a second one. The driver and Dung had a good laugh over this. It seems that people paint their horses to resemble zebra and we saw several others along the way. What the reason is for this curious custom I have no idea.

Upon arrival at Mount Lang Bian we rented a jeep for 240,000 Vietnamese Dong to take us part way up the mountain, where we would disembark and proceed on foot. It was a strenuous climb, often over sizable obstacles such as tree roots and boulders, and I hung back to lend a helping hand to Miriam while Dung surged ahead. The birds were predominantly those we had already seen in the Tan Nung Valley, but there were a few notable new species, not least of which was the endemic Vietnames Cutia (four of them as a matter of fact) high in a tree. We never did see Red Crossbill, a species to be expected in this coniferous montane environment, and a candidate to be split but we had a great encounter with a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and a Golden-throated Barbet. We also saw Eyebrowed Thrush and Olive-backed Pipit. But we were unable to connect with the endemic Collared Laughingthrush. We heard it and Miriam thinks she may have gotten a fleeting glimpse, although insufficient to positively identify it. Grey-bellied Tesia was heard too but no one was able to catch a glimpse of this endemic.
We made our way down to the rendezvous point and the jeep picked us up at 11:00 to ferry us back down to the entrance gate.
On the way back to the hotel we detoured via the Pagoda of the Smiling Bhudda where we had a brief, highly interesting visit and took some photographs.

                                                      The Smiling Bhudda

We had planned on going to our “regular” restaurant for lunch; alas it was closed for New Year, as were many other places along the street, and the few that we could find open didn't look too appealing. Finally we went back to the Dreams Hotel and asked the proprietor where we could eat. She directed us up the hill and we found the Peace Café, part of a small hotel which seemed to be principally used by young back packers. The tables were low to the ground, with benches on one side and small stools on the other, so we sat down and ordered a Diet Coke (received Pepsi) and a Seven Up. Lunch comprised fried noodles with lemon grass, onions and green pepper, a plate of fried vegetables with shrimp, spring rolls and steamed rice. It was all quite tasty.
We rested in our room until 15:30 and returned to the Ta Nung Valley where birding was very slow indeed. We saw exactly three species – Ashy Bulbul, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail and heard Black-hooded Laughingthrush.
We were back to our hotel by 18:00 and went out for dinner about a half hour later. As was the case at lunch time many restaurants were closed but we managed to find a “family restaurant” open. We shared a combination soup hot pot, chicken with ginger and steamed rice, and sauteed vegetables with soybean curd. I tried a glass of Vietnamese wine and found it quite awful! The food at this restaurant was unexpectedly bland.
After dinner we walked back to the Dreams Hotel and were upstairs in our room before 20:00h. We showered and turned in for the night, tired after a strenuous day in the sun.

All species 9 February – Chinese Pond Heron, Rock Dove, Golden-throated Barbet, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Scarlet Minivet, Clicking Shrike-Babbler, Green-backed Tit, Mountain Bulbul, Ashy Bulbul, Black-crested Bulbul, Grey-bellied Tesia (H), Yellow-browed Warbler, Kloss's Leaf Warbler, Rufous-capped Babbler (H), Rufous-throated Fulvetta, Mountain Fulvetta, Black-hooded Laughingthrush (H), White-cheeked Laughingthrush, Vietnames Cutia, Blue-winged Minla, Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Eyebrowed Thrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Mrs. Gould's Sunbird, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Grey Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit.

10 February 2013
Dalat Pagoda – Central Market – Flower Gardens – Railway Station – Crazy House

Yesterday our guide and driver had both been lamenting the fact that they would be unable to spend New Year with their families, so we had agreed to give them the day off.
Dare I say that we were not the recipients of attitude from the young man when we went down for breakfast at 06:00? Perhaps this hour of the morning was more to his liking, although his degree of preparation seemed barely more advanced than when we had presented ourselves early. He still had to turn on the main lights for us. However, he returned our greeting when we wished him Happy New Year in Vietnamese! And he even did so with a smile.
As was our practice each morning we feasted on fresh fruit and were very happy to do so. In fact, at every other location we would visit in southeast Asia we would regret not having this bounty. Food was always good everywhere, but fresh fruit was conspicuously absent from the menu.
We used the computers in the lobby for a while and then set out for the pagoda which would be the centre of life in the area on this auspicious day. Arrive early, we had been told and so we did. It was amazing to see the throngs of people all dressed in their best clothes worshipping at the pagoda and taking part in the numerous festive events everywhere to be seen. Everyone made us feel welcome and we dispensed a lot of Canada flag pins to eager children (and a few adults too). It was a great experience to have shared in this celebration.

                                                     One of many shrines

We returned to our room so that I could replenish my stock of pins and we headed for the central market. Several people had told us that it was a “must” visit and we were looking forward to it. Unfortunately most of it was closed for Tet. The only stalls open were serving food. It was still pleasant to sit on a bench and watch the people go by and we passed a couple of hours in this manner.
On the way back to the Dreams Hotel we stopped for a coffee in a very modern, upscale coffee house. The coffee was good, although very expensive by Da Lat standards (60,000 dong for two) and we were told that the proprietor was especially happy to see us since we were the first customers of the new year, something which portends good fortune I would imagine.
We rested for a while in our room and then set out for the Peace Café for lunch. It was crowded, with a lot of back packers coming and going. The door was constantly opening, but perhaps it was just as well since several people were smoking. Miriam ordered noodle soup with chicken and vegetables and a fruit salad of banana, mango pineapple and yoghurt. I opted for chicken curry with steamed rice and a mango smoothie. We were a little put off by the table which had not been wiped off and was sticky in places. Miriam's food came almost immediately and she found it very tasty. Mine took so long, however, that we thought they had forgotten it. When it finally arrived, after Miriam had completely finished her meal it was decidedly second rate. The principal ingredient was potato. As for chicken, I think they waved the bird over the pot!
After eating we walked back to the pagoda where we handed out a whole lot more Canada flag pins to children who seemed to have nothing, and explored a whole lot more of the pagoda now that it was largely free of worshippers.
Returning to the hotel we were picked up at 15:00 by Dung and the driver to visit the Flower Gardens. We found it a little unusual, although I am sure not particularly significant, that the driver thanked us for letting him off for the best part of the day, and explained a little of how he passed the time in family devotions and other activities. From Dung nothing.
The Flower Gardens, adjacent to a man-made lake are superlative, very well planned, clean as a whistle and appealing in every way. We enjoyed them very much. There was a small wetland at the far perimeter of the gardens when we saw some great birds, including Common Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, Common Snipe, White Wagtail, Paddyfield Pipit, Cinnamon Bittern and White-browed Crake. And all we had to do was stand and watch!

                                                      Chinese Pond Heron

                               Western Osprey


Following our visit to the wetland we proceeded to the oldest railway station in Indochina, originally built by the French in 1932. It provided a fascinating view into the past and we enjoyed the visit. Especially interesting was a vintage photograph of a young-looking Ho Chi Minh addressing the workers there. It was explained to us that the American invasion force had used the rail line to transport troops and matériel during the American war, so the Vietnamese Liberation Army destroyed part of the line. It has never been rebuilt due to a continuing lack of funds, but it is hoped that one day a rail link will reconnect Da Lat with the coast.
Our final activity of the day was to visit The Crazy House. And crazy it is too, spooky almost. This is the vision of a classically trained architect who tired of conventional rectilinear designs and progressed to a free form. The house is like a giant emergent plant and weaves its way hither and yon, with various rooms integrated into the whole, and now available for rent. Weird though it is, it captured our imagination; it is yet under construction and it would be interesting to see the final product.
We returned to the hotel and went out for dinner at around 18:00. Given the paucity of restaurants still open for business during New Year, we chose to patronize The News and New Art Café. The food was simply delicious and they even served wine from Chile, Argentina and Australia. We each had a glass of Australian red. Dinner comprised spring rolls, caramelized chicken in a hot pot with steamed rice, and capsicums (bell peppers) stuffed with minced pork and rice. The presentation of the food was outstanding, including a carrot carved to resemble a rose on an arrangement of green leaves.
At 325,000 Vietnamese Dong this was our most expensive meal in Vietnam – still a bargain by western standards at less than twenty dollars.
After dinner we strolled back to the hotel to get ready to move to Di Linh the following day.

All species 10 February – Cinnamon Bittern, Chinese Pond Heron, Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Western Osprey, Common Moorhen, White-browed Crake, Common Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Rock Dove, White-throated Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Burmese Shrike, Mountain Bulbul, Yellow-browed Warbler, Great Myna, Common Myna, Black-collared Starling, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Paddyfield Pipit.

11 February 2013
Da Lat – Giabac Mountain Pass – Di Linh – Giabac Mountain Pass – Di Linh

Even though we didn't go down for breakfast until 06:00 “Mr. Attitude” needed another ten minutes. Rather than go all the way back up to our room we sat on the stairs to wait. One of the owners came out of their private quarters and suggested that we go down for breakfast so we told him that we had already tried that and had been told to wait. He went down and turned on the lights, followed by Mrs Dung in her pyjamas who went to cut up mangoes and then cook bacon.
We ate our usual breakfast consisting mostly of fruit and yoghurt.
Dung and the driver showed up around 06:30 and by 06:40 we were on the way to Di Linh. At this point the traffic was fairly light and the temperature refreshingly cool. We went through areas where garbage appeared to be being burned at the roadside and stumps also left over from forest clearance. At times you could hardly see through the smoke and flying ash.
We passed a Banded Kingfisher on a wire and I suggested that we turn around to look at it, but the suggestion was ignored. We also passed a series of rice paddies with the only ducks we saw in Vietnam and some interesting looking crake-like birds; again we just kept on driving.
At 08:30 our driver deposited us at the side of the road and we started birding. The birds were great but the conditions awful. By now the road was extremely busy with all manner of vehicles, including literally hundreds of motor cycles, barrelling down on us with barely a break between one group and the next. Everyone seems to have the habit of sounding the horn when going around a bend or passing another vehicle, so we had a constant cacophony of vehicular noise, to say nothing of the fumes. Add to this the incredible volume of garbage strewn along the road and it was decidedly unpleasant. By far the largest component of the garbage was the ubiquitous plastic water bottle and a whole array of styrofoam food containers and plastic bags.
So much for the sanctimonious platitudes of the plastics industry who claim that their products are environmentally friendly; true perhaps, but if people simply throw their refuse away it hardly matters. And in rural Vietnam, I doubt that there is a central refuse tip or landfill site of any kind. Some of the trees might well have been decorated for Christmas they were festooned with so many bags. Ironically, this provided one of the few opportunities when Dung's directions were easy to follow - “Near the red plastic bag” wasn't too difficult to comprehend!
As for birds, there was no shortage of interesting species including Swinhoe's, Long-tailed and Scarlet Minivet, Maroon Oriole, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Black-throated Sunbird, Asian Fairy Bluebird and Black-browed Barbet, as well as several species of Green Pigeon difficult to identify with precision.
After about two hours we arrived at a small roadside restaurant/general store where our driver awaited us. We all had a cold drink which was described as Aloe Vera juice. The first sip was a little disconcerting when a small gelatinous mass slipped into your mouth. But it was a refreshing drink and very tasty. We then walked for about ten minutes more, farther along the road, and then returned to the store. At 11:15 we got back into the car to drive to Di Linh.
On the way to the hotel we stopped first at a restaurant where our driver ordered food for all of us.
The selection he made was great – steamed rice, a crispy pork dish, morning glory, and a soup with Chinese cabbage and shrimp. Miriam and I both had watermelon juice to drink.
Our hotel, the Phuc Huy, was not far from the restaurant and we went to check in. Our room was big and very clean, but the mattress and pillows were simply slabs of hard foam covered with nylon sheets and pillow cases, with a matching duvet of the same material. Not an ideal choice in tropical conditions it seemed to us. There was a hand held shower on the bathroom wall, but we could never figure out how to get it to work, and a large plastic bucket of water with a scoop. I thought that might have been intended to flush the toilet but the the toilet flushed just fine so I am not quite sure what the purpose of the barrel of water was.
At 14:30 we again piled into the car and returned to the same road we had birded this morning. We stopped just before the store and started walking uphill from there. Dung took off on a very steep trail up into the forest, but for Miriam it was nigh to impossible to scale. Some of the steps, gouged from the red clay, were half her height, and slippery too. It was plainly impossible for her to climb them and exhausting too. In any event, she declined to try, and Dung who was by now way ahead simply hollered down that she should walk back to the store where the driver was waiting. I clambered up to him, we tried briefly to call in the endemic Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, without even a response, and then slithered back down to the road.

                                             Black-crested Bulbul

When we walked past the vehicle I thought that Miriam was asleep so I didn't bother her; as it turned out she was not, and would have preferred to come with us, since the car was almost unbearably hot.
She did get out to walk by herself and got an excellent look at the near endemic Black-crowned Parrotbill, and a passable picture too.
In addition to the species seen on our morning walk Dung and I saw two Long-tailed Broadbills, a truly enigmatic bird, Wedge-tailed, Yellow-vented and Pin-tailed Green Pigeons, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Barred Cuckoo-Dove and Dalat Shrike-Babbler among others. For part of this birding time he was on his cell phone to his wife checking on what she would be doing without him for the continuing New Year's celebrations. I was told that she would have to take their little boy by herself to the pagoda and then she planned to go to a karaoke bar.
At 17:20 we headed back into town and decided to go directly for dinner before returning to the hotel. The restaurant where we had eaten lunch was closed, as were most other places it seemed. We had dinner from a roadside soup vendor, where we enjoyed a very tasty noodle soup, and an ice cold beer – 70,000 dong for everything!
Back at the hotel we could not coax any hot water out of the faucet. We tried to get some sleep but there was the constant noise of children in the hallway, doors banging, traffic outside and the constant chorus of car horns. Miriam finally decided to read when she noticed a couple of small insects crawling on her. When she examined the sheet they were all over the bed.
Needless to say this was not our best night's repose!

All species 11 February – Crested Serpent Eagle, Besra, Rock Dove, Barred Cuckoo-Dove, Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Red-vented Barbet, Black-browed Barbet, Long-tailed Broadbill, Swinhoe's Minivet, Long-tailed Minivet, Scarlet Minivet, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Maroon Oriole, Ashy Drongo, Flavescent Bulbul, Ochraceous Bulbul, Grey-eyed Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Ashy Bulbul, Black-crested Bulbul, Common House Martin, Radde's Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Kloss's Leaf Warbler, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Spot-necked Babbler (H), Rufous-capped Babbler, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Black-headed Parrotbill, Mugimaki Flycatcher, Little Pied Flycatcher, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Black-throated Sunbird, Streaked Spiderhunter, White-rumped Munia.

Accommodation: Phuc Huy Hotel Rating: Three stars.


12 February 2013
Di Linh - Giabac Mountain Pass – Cat Tien National Park

We were checked out of the hotel and back on the road just before 06:00.
Dung had told us the previous evening that breakfast would be coffee and cake at the little store/restaurant we had visited yesterday. Upon arrival roosters were announcing the start of a new day, a very pleasant sound indeed, alas soon to be drowned out by the unceasing, ferocious onslaught of traffic. It confounded the mind to see how young ladies could ride side saddle on a motor cycle at considerable speed around curves and not fall off, especially since there was often a child sandwiched between the driver and the passenger, and not infrequently cargo strapped to the bike also. They rode with panache, however, perched demurely to safeguard their modesty when disembarking.
We were seated on tiny chairs at a tiny table and served green tea in little miniature shot glasses, quite delicious in fact. Coffee was also served in a small glass with sweetened condensed milk on the bottom and an individual drip filter perched atop each cup. It was very sweet but warm and comforting! The cake referred to by Dung was in reality a cellophane package of cookies, sort of rolled and crispy.
We birded along the same road as yesterday where Miriam was able to see Long-tailed Broadbill which she had missed yesterday, and I Black-headed Parrotbill similarly missed when we were birding separately. Other than that it was pretty much a repetition of yesterday's birds, all of then nonetheless exciting and wonderful. The more we saw common species the more we became able to quickly identify them and really take the time to look at them closely. It did not escape our attention that the Ashy Bulbul, oh so common at the moment, would be a never to be forgotten memory once back home in the snowy environment of southern Canada.
Our driver collected us at 08:45 and we set off on a dusty, noisy drive to Cat Tien. En route we travelled through an area where pagodas gave way to Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals, and we assumed that we were experiencing a region evangelized during the French occupation of Indochina. Interestingly different religions seemed to have accommodated each other; we saw an imposing Catholic church bedecked with prayer flags.
We arrived at the ferry crossing at 11:30 and our guide, Vu Trong Duyen, (pronounced Dzuyen)was there to meet us. We bought our tickets for the boat and while waiting enjoyed an ice cold drink made from sugar cane.
It was a short ride across the river, Dzuyen got our room key from the administration building, and showed us to our unit. It was basic, but had air conditioning and hot water in the shower.


We washed up and went for lunch to the Yellow Bamboo Restaurant, one of two eateries in the park. We shared fried noodles with vegetables and chicken, and a similar dish with seafood. They did not have anything we wanted to drink so we had water back in our room.
We sat outside under a broken down gazebo for a while, but it was unbearably hot and we soon retreated to our room until it was time to meet Duyen at 15:00.
I was enormously happy when we met Duyen to see him carrying a scope. In fact there was never even a minute of our birding time with him when he did not carry it, no matter how dense the forest, and he refused any offers of help in carrying it. In fact, he would adroitly carry his scope, smoke a cigarette, go ahead of us with pruning shears to cut down any branches that might be in our path, and pick up every piece of litter he saw, all the time being alert to every sight and sound in the forest. It was really quite remarkable, especially when he told us that he was sixty-three years old. I am sure that he could have out-performed most twenty-three year olds. He recounted having spent sixteen years in the North Vietnamese Army, based mainly in Hanoi, and had served at Cat Tien for twenty years.

                                                   Vu Trong Duyen

His birding skills were impeccable, his personality very agreeable and we enjoyed every moment with him. His accent at times was a little hard to follow but our ears became accustomed to it and it was seldom that we had to ask him to repeat anything. It didn't take long for us to realize that Peen-streepèd Teet-Babbler was Pin-striped Tit-Babbler! Once we applied those rules of pronunciation to other words all was well! As a last resort he sometimes spelled out what he wanted to convey.
We birded along the road in the park, thankfully free of traffic, but the heat got to Miriam and she returned to the room by herself at 17:00. Notably, Duyen asked her if she was okay, and he and I continued to bird while making our way back.
We heard a Blue-rumped Pitta but couldn't coax it into view, and while Miriam was still with us scored our life Great Iora. Other birds of note included the wonderful Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Laced Woodpecker, Ashy-headed Green Pigeon, Hair-crested Drongo, stunning Indian Rollers and we heard but could not see Scaly-breasted Partridge. When Duyen and I made it back to the residences Great-eared Nightjars had started to fly.
I bade Duyen good evening and joined Miriam in the room. We went to the Yellow Bamboo restaurant for dinner, where service was slow for us as they took care of a large group of tourists from Israel whose dinner comprised a pre-arranged menu.
Tonight was the beginning of what we called Restaurant Roulette! Every single meal time, without exception, the first choice we made, sometimes the first two or three, were unavailable. Tonight we both had a cold Tiger beer; Miriam had a bowl of gelatinous chicken soup, while I had a chicken stir fry with lemon grass and an order of steamed rice. The meal was both mediocre and cold.
We strolled back to our room and were ensconced therein by 19:45.

All species 12 February – Scaly-breasted Partridge (H), Red Junglefowl (H), Chinese Pond heron, Eastern Cattle Egret, Intermediate Egret, Red Turtle Dove, Spotted Dove, Common Emerald Dove, Ashy-headed Green Pigeon, Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Great-eared Nightjar, Asian Palm Swift, Red-headed Trogon (H), Indian Roller, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Red-vented Barbet, Lineated Barbet, Black-browed Barbet, Laced Woodpecker, Long-tailed Broadbill, Blue-rumped Pitta, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Common Iora, Great Iora, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Black-naped Oriole, Maroon Oriole, Bronzed Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Hair-crested Drongo, Yellow-browed Tit, Black-headed Bulbul, Stripe-throated Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Ashy Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Black-crested Bulbul, Barn Swallow, Yellow-browed Warbler, Kloss's Leaf Warbler, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Black-headed Parrotbill, Yellow-billed Nuthatch, White-rumped Shama, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher, Black-throated Sunbird, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Accommodation: Cat Tien National Park Rating: Two and a half stars.

13 February 2013
Cat Tien National Park

We went to the Yellow Bamboo for breakfast at 06:00. There were six or seven items on the menu but we had a choice of two – noodle soup or noodle soup with egg! Nothing else was available.
So, Miriam had it with an egg, I without. It was a bowl of broth with some seasonings and a wedge of instant noodles dropped into it. Miriam's egg sat atop the noodles. Coffee was served with condensed milk in it and although not very warm it tasted good.
Miriam had a large green insect perched on the side of her bowl and I think it would have sampled her noodle soup had we not removed it. It was certainly a fascinating-looking creature.
Our background music was a group of gibbons calling from the trees. We were told that a number of gibbons had been captured from poachers and were housed in enclosures prior to release into the wild. Apparently the wild gibbons came to “talk” to them and that was the sound we were hearing. It was very atmospheric indeed.
We met Duyen at 06:30 and walked in the direction opposite to yesterday afternoon. It was fairly cool at this early hour, very comfortable, and there were many, many birds.
One of the outstanding highlights was to see a number of Red-breasted Parakeets, with great scope views. One individual was feeding another, following which mating took place, for at least a minute and probably more. I thought Duyen might have offered a cigarette afterwards! It was instructive to watch the bird pluck the fruit/nut from the tree with its bill, transfer it to one foot, and then hold the food while it stripped the husk and either ate it, or offered the prize to the female.
                          
                                        Red-breasted Parakeets

We watched this troupe of parakeets for several minutes and all the while many other species came into view, providing truly excellent birding. In addition to the birds we saw Pallas' Squirrel, Cambodian Striped Squirrel and Flying Lizard. Several Germain's Swiftlet patrolled the skies overhead and Oriental Pied Hornbills were not shy.
We walked into the grounds of a lodge and over to some rapids. In close proximity Duyen located an Asian Barred Owlet, and thanks to his scope we were able to examine the bird in detail, checking the field guide for the key i.d. characters.

                                                    Dressed for New Year

Following this exciting find we progressed into the forest, where birding was very quiet. However, on leaving the cover of the trees we had first a male and then a female Orange-breasted Trogon in full, unrestricted view. It was a very special sighting indeed.
We finished the morning at a bear rehabilitation area. Numerous bears had been rescued from poachers, who capture them and sell their various parts, principally to China, where gall bladders, bile and other parts are valued as aphrodisiacs. Duyen railed against his fellow countrymen who take part in such activity. He said that they are not merely taking a bear, they are destroying Vietnam's heritage of native species which should be left alone for all to enjoy.
As previously mentioned there are two restaurants in the park and we decided to try the other one, called the Dipterocarpus Restaurant, for lunch. Superficially, it seemed a little fancier, but indeed it was sorely in need of work. At least half the menu was blocked out as being no longer available. Miriam had a Seven-up and I had a beer, then we both had stir fry noodles with vegetables (which turned out to be about 90% bok choy). Miriam had beef with hers while I chose pork.
We went back to our room to rest up before meeting Duyen at 15:30. Having brushed my teeth I placed my toothbrush and toothpaste on a little shelf which promptly spun sideways and dumped my stuff on the floor. Another shelf had two screws which were loose and slumped forward when used, dumping everything on the ground. We noticed time and again that the concept of preventive or fixative maintenance seemed totally absent in Vietnam, and we would find exactly the same situation in Cambodia. The shelves in question merely needed to have the screws tightened, or perhaps the wall plugs replaced, but a few minutes work in any event. The broken down gazebo in front of our unit could have been easily repaired using local, readily available material with the investment of an hour or so of work. Our toilet ran constantly, probably only needing an adjustment of the float valve, but I would almost bet that it is still running to this day. Nothing that broke ever seemed to get fixed. Nothing that needed a systematic program of maintenance ever seemed to receive it.
This afternoon we had rented a jeep to travel out to the grassland. The birding was great right from the getgo as we rode in the back of the vehicle with untrammelled views all around. I was very surprised when Duyen handed me his mobile phone saying that I had a call. It was Mrs Dung from the Dreams Hotel in Da Lat calling to apologize for the surly attitude of her employee. Apparently she had tried to catch up to us in Di Linh but missed us. I assured her that there were no hard feelings, but I thought that her action was a true touch of class, a quality she seemed to portray at all times I must say.
At a brief stop when we dismounted from the vehicle we heard Orange-breasted Partridge in a stand of bamboo, but it determined to remain hidden. We had great views of two Wooly-necked Storks and a Lesser Adjutant as they flew over. A Blossom-headed Parakeet perched obligingly for us enabling Duyen to get it in the scope.
Several Green Imperial Pigeons seemed to follow us enabling us to get the best looks of the trip.
We saw three Vinous-breasted Starlings well but the drop-dead highlight was the sighting of no less than four male Green Peafowl. Think of all the superlatives you can and you will still not do justice to this magnificent experience.
                                                             Green Peafowl

On the way back we spotted a Sambar Deer (doe) with two young.
Just before reaching the rooms a Large-tailed Nightjar left a bush and flew alongside us in close proximity, to cap a fabulous afternoon of birding with the ever convivial Duyen.
Dinner was taken at the Yellow Bamboo, where their lack of many items on the menu seemed to reach a new low. Miriam ordered a sweet and sour shrimp stir fry and I selected chicken with beans, which seemed simple enough. “No chicken” the waiter said, “Beef.” I switched to pork. “No pork” I was told. “Beef.” But I didn't want beef so I asked for fish. “No fish” was the answer. “Beef!” So, I settled for beef. We shared a bowl of rice, that being the one thing that was always available.
We both had a Tiger beer with dinner and bought a 3L bottle of water to take to the room.
While we had been out this afternoon the driver of the vehicle picked three pieces of fruit and gave them to us. He called them milk apples. We opened them up in the room and found them absolutely delicious. We had our dessert of fresh fruit after all.

All species 13 February – Orange-necked Partridge (H), Red Junglefowl (H), Wooly-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Chinese Pond Heron, Little Egret, Western Osprey, Black-winged Kite, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Red Turtle Dove, Spotted Dove, Green Imperial Pigeon, Vernal Hanging Parrot (H), Blossom-headed Parakeet, Red-breasted Parakeet, Greater Coucal, Lesser Coucal, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Asian Barred Owlet, Large-tailed Nightjar, Germain's Swiftlet, Orange-breasted Troogon, Indian Roller, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Green-eared Barbet, Blue-eared Barbet, Common Goldenback, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Ashy Woodswallow, Common Iora, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Brown Shrike, Black-headed Shrike-Babbler, Black-naped Oriole, Black-hooded Oriole, Ashy Drongo, Bronzed Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Hair-crested Drongo, Black-naped Monarch, Racket-tailed Treepie, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Stripe-throated Bulbul, Streak-eared Bulbul, Black-crested Bulbul, Barn Swallow, Yellow-browed Warbler, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Golden-crested Myna, Vinous-breasted Starling, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Siberian Stonechat, Blue-winged Leafbird, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Mrs. Gould's Sunbird, Crimson Sunbird.

14 February 2013
Cat Tien National Park

When we went for breakfast the coffee was hot and we had our usual noodle soup with egg (both of us). By now the waiter had taken to announcing before we asked “No bread!”
We met Duyen at 06:30 and once again we had a jeep. We drove for about nine kilometres, along the way scattering three wild boar, and were dropped off to bird along the forest road. We tried for Blue-rumped Pitta near Ben Su Rapids but had no luck. We moved back to the point where we had been dropped off and were successful in locating Bar-bellied Pitta. The views were not great but that's often the way it is with pittas, a difficult and skulking family of birds.
Birding was a little slow and Duyen spent quite a bit of time digiscoping and recording Blue-bearded Bee-eater. After hearing Vernal Hanging Parrots several times we finally were able to see them well as nine birds remained for some time in a tree top. We heard Germain's Peacock-Pheasant but were unable to see the bird.
                                          Stripe-throated Bulbul

A troupe of Black-shanked Douc Langurs provided us with great entertainment.
There were three Large Woodshrikes and a couple of Green-eared Barbets, but the pièce de résistance was a pair of Red-and-black Broadbills. These birds are simply breathtaking. The colour of the upper mandible simply defies belief. It is almost fluorescent. Not only did we see these incredible birds, we saw them very, very well and for an extended period. Miriam was busy shooting frame after frame to ensure a good photograph and Duyen was determined to help her to achieve her goal. At one point he was directing her as she followed the birds and telling her where to stand. He aimed his laser pointer on the ground and said “Stand here.” He was right too, she wound up with some very good shots.

                                         Red-and-black Broadbills
    

When the birds finally flew off the jeep picked us up again and we were back in our room a little after 11:00.
At lunch time Miriam ordered a Yomot (a kind of yoghurt drink) but they didn't have any! Rather than go through the whole list we both ordered Seven -up which we could see in the refrigerated cabinet.
Miriam ate fried tofu with tomatoes and rice. I had chicken vegetable stir fry with noodles. As we were leaving I asked if they had any fruit we could buy and they produced a “hand” of little bananas. We took these back to our room and enjoyed a couple of them, and found them very good. They lasted us until our departure – in fact there were still a few left when it was time to leave Cat Tien.
I took a nap while Miriam sat outside reading, after which we decided to go back to the restaurant for a glass of iced coffee each. Very refreshing and a bit of a pick-me-up too!
At 15:30 we met Duyen once again to walk along the road in the direction we had done the first afternoon. It was not especially productive, but we did find Buff-chested Babbler, a lifer for both of us. We had a great look at a White-rumped Shama, truly a wonderful bird to see. Duyen told us that it was highly sought after as a cage bird and had thus become wary and elusive. Apparently people hold singing competitions for shamas where the quality of song is adjudicated (somewhat subjectively I would imagine), the winner taking away the prize. We had clear views of a flock of fourteen Orange-breasted Green Pigeons.
We spotted a distant Asian Barred Owlet and Miriam walked across a field to get as close as she could for a photograph.

                                               Asian Barred Owlet

Just before making it back to the compound three Large-tailed Nightjars were flying ahead of us.
We went for dinner at about 18:45 and on this night were entertained by a little boy from China who was there with his parents. He told us that he was Danish, living in China, but that they had a house in Sweden, and a friend from Canada, and that he was going on a night safari..and...and... His parents were willing to pay us to take him for an hour or two!
Having asked for menu items they didn't have, as usual, here is what we wound up with for dinner – spring rolls, chicken, stir fried with lemon grass and chilies, steamed rice, and morning glory fried with garlic. We each washed it down with a Tiger beer.
Flushed from our banana success at lunch time I asked whether they had any other fresh fruit and we were able to get a plate of watermelon slices. Why they do not feature something like this as part of their standard fare is beyond me.
Back at the room we grabbed our binoculars and spent a little time gazing at the night sky, brilliant and crystal clear without any interference from anthropomorphic light sources.
We were abed by a little after 21:00.

All species 14 February – Red Junglefowl (H), Germain's Peacock-Pheasant (H), Chinese Pond Heron, Spotted Dove, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Ashy-headed Green Pigeon, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Red-breasted Parakeet, Green-billed Malkhoa, Asian Barred Owlet, Large-tailed Nightjar, Indian Roller, Oriental Dollardbird, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Green-eared Barbet, Black-and-red Broadbill, Bar-bellied Pitta, Large Woodshrike, Ashy Minivet, Black-naped Oriole, Black-hooded Oriole, Ashy Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-crested Bulbul, Barn Swallow, Yellow-browed Warbler, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Large Scimitar-Babbler (H), Buff-chested Babbler, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Grey-faced Tit-Babbler, White-crested Laughingthrush, Asian Fairy-bluebird, White-rumped Shama, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Hainan Blue Flycatcher.

15 February 2013
Cat Tien National Park

Perhaps delirious from our success with fruit, we ordered bread and cheese (me), and bread with omelette (Miriam) for breakfast. Silly us. There was no bread, so it was back to our customary noodle soup, which was always good, but we were getting tired of it and would have liked something different.
In fact today the soup did not contain the customary bean sprouts, but finely shredded Chinese cabbage.
We set off in our jeep at 06:30 and drove for about a half hour along the road where we were dropped off. A Banded Kingfisher greeted us almost right away. We were able to get a very good look at a Pale-headed Woodpecker, a bamboo specialist, in its preferred habitat. The bamboo which had not been cut grew to substantial heights. We heard what we thought was a woodpecker, but it turned out to be a Blue-eared Barbet excavating a nest hole. The chips were flying and the cavity got bigger as we watched.
Our greatest excitement, however, came when, in plain view, we had two Dusky Broadbills. What great good fortune. The size of the bill on this species has to be seen to be believed. As was the case with its congener yesterday, we were able to take good photographs. In fact before we were through, a third and then a fourth bird appeared. Duyen once again acted as stage director as Miriam jostled for the best photographic vantage. It was wonderful to see how our rampant enthusiasm spilled over to him; he was giving thumbs up and positively beaming.

                                                                              Dusky Broadbill

I did not take account of the time we spent with these birds but I think that ten minutes, perhaps more, would not overstate it.
We were picked up at 11:30 and driven back to the administration headquarters.
By noon it was time to play Restaurant Roulette. Miriam hit it right first time when she asked for stir fried vegetables and chicken with noodles. I selected shrimp with coconut, but they had no coconut. Why not shrimp with vegetables and rice our waiter suggested. Why not, I replied, and that is what I had. Miriam tried again to get Yomot, but they didn't have it. She substituted iced coffee and I had a Seven-up.
The food was good at the restaurant and freshly prepared, but we were certainly getting weary of the same limited selection.
After lunch it was time for a nap and then we went to the office to pay for our jeep rentals and other incidentals.
At 15:30 Duyen met us with the jeep for our last birding foray at Cat Tien. The first species we saw upon disembarking was a party of three Siamese Firebacks, a bird I was resigned to not seeing at this late stage. Then, to our great good fortune, we saw a Black-and-Red Broadbill engaged in nest construction.
Pig-tailed Macaques joined us at the roadside and going round a bend we saw a party of a male and two female Red Junglefowl.
We located a small area with what appeared to be a slight, spring-fed wet area. This was very productive indeed with many song birds coming to drink and bathe, and a White-breasted Waterhen and a Ruddy-breasted Crake.
We were back in our room by 18:00 but we had no air conditioning or hot water. Apparently there were problems with the electrical supply.
We went for dinner at 18:30 and each had a Tiger beer. Miriam then had fried rice with vegetable and tofu, and I, lucky on my second choice, had winter melon soup with meat. The meat was actually a bone in the soup. Miriam's dish of fried rice came with a blob of cold steamed rice and there was nothing about the dish that resembled fried rice.
Shortly after we received our food all the lights went out. As candles were being lit the lights came back on and the electrical problems seemed to have been resolved.
Back at our room the air conditioner worked and we had hot water in the shower.
We made final preparations for our departure tomorrow and turned in early.

All species 15 February – Scaly-breasted Partridge (H), Red Junglefowl, Siamese Fireback, Chinese Pond Heron, Besra, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, White-breasted Waterhen, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Common Emerald Dove, Red-breasted Parakeet, Green-billed Malkhoa, Banded Kingfisher, Blue-bearded bee-eater, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Blue-eared barbet, Coppersmith Barbet (H), White-bellied Woodpecker, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Black-and-Buff Woodpecker, Great Slaty Woodpecker (H), Black-and-red Broadbill, Dusky Broadbill, Large Woodshrike, Ashy Minivet, Ashy Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-naped Monarch, Ochraceous Bulbul, Black-crested Bulbul, Barn Swallow, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Puff-throated Babbler, White-crested Laughingthrush, White-throated Laughingthrush (H), Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Golden-crested Myna, Oriental Magpie-Robin, White-rumped Shama, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher.

16 February 2013
Cat Tien – Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City – Siem Reap, Cambodia

We were up at 05:45 and got everything ready for our departure before we went to breakfast
Our server seemed to be almost waiting for us, and greeted us with a smile as he said “Bread!”
So we ordered coffee, bread and omelette for Miriam, which turned out to be two fried eggs muddled together, and bread and cheese for me. We were not surprised when the cheese was two wedges of La Vache Qui Rit. We had lots of time so we ordered a second coffee.
Duyen, on his day off even, had come to help us with our bags. The ferry was just pulling in as we arrived and we were across the river in no time. We sat on a bench chatting with Duyen while we awaited the arrival of our driver. Duyen mentioned that it is very hard to get young people interested in birds, although they would like to train some new guides.
Our driver was scheduled to pick us up at 08:30 so at 08:35 Duyen called to inquire where he was. It turned out that he had been sitting there in his car all the while, although we could not understand why he would not have come to look for us.
In any event, we said goodbye to Duyen and thanked him for his exceptional guiding and were soon on our way back to Ho Chi Minh City for our flight to Cambodia. The roads were busy and we experienced the normal constant horn honking and thousands of motorcycles, but it was an interesting journey through a considerable amount of Vietnam. There seemed to be little break between one town and the next and we passed through human settlement most of the time.
We arrived at the airport at 12:15 so we had lots of time to spare. We passed some of this watching Eurasian Tree Sparrows that had taken up residence inside the terminal. We got to our gate at 14:15 and were taken by bus out to the aircraft. We took off for the short flight to Siem Reap at 16:00.
The next part of this narrative will resume with the details of our birding adventures in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

All species 16 February – Chinese Pond Heron, Common Emerald Dove, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Flavescent Bulbul, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, White-throated Rock-Thrush, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

General Comments

We very much enjoyed Vietnam and found a vibrant, dynamic, forward-looking society. From what we could tell as casual observers in the country for a brief period, it has largely put the scars of war behind it and is moving forward. We were welcomed everywhere we went and found the Vietnamese friendly, helpful and always anxious to chat.

Vietnam Birding

Our tour through Vietnam and Cambodia was organized by Vietnam Birding, owned and operated by Richard Craik. From the moment we started to communicate Richard was professional in every way and always prompt in his correspondence. The logistics of our journey were handled to perfection and we have nothing but the highest praise for his organization.

Our Guides

Nguyen Ngoc Dung – Quite simply the worst guide we have ever had. He seemed to lack many of the basic skills required by a professional birding guide and had little empathy with his clients. He seemed self-centred and disinterested and at times downright ill-mannered. It is inexcusable that a guide would not have a scope.

Vu Trong Duyen – A fabulous guide, a very decent human being, a pleasure to be with from the moment we first met him. We have nothing but the highest praise for his excellent birding skills, dedication to finding the birds his clients want to see, stamina and perseverance. It was always a pleasure to be with Duyen.

Field Guide

We used Craig Robson's A Field Guide to the Birds of South-east Asia which seems to be the de facto guide used by everyone in the region.
While certainly very helpful, we were not as enamoured of it as others seem to be. It suffers greatly from a lack of distribution maps and I found this to be a serious irritant. Furthermore, some of the illustrations are not especially well done, the drongos in particular being quite awful. There were other birds which we felt were not well depicted.

Taxonomy

IOC World Bird List 2012.

Further Information

Contact David M. Gascoigne or Miriam Bauman 519 725-0866, email: theospreynest@sympatico.ca

A spread sheet of all the birds seen with dates and whether they are lifers for David or Miriam can be made available on request.


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