Whilst volunteering at Vietnam's Turtle Conservation Centre I had the opportunity to travel down to the south of the country for a week in search of animals and hot weather. I took the plane down to Ho Chi Minh City, entering the hysteria of the city as they prepared to watch Vietnam's under 23 Team play in the Asian cup final. The streets were full of big screens and as far as the eye could see were waving red flags and people screaming their heart out. Unfortunately Vietnam lost in the last minute of extra time! But this did not stop the supporters, their team had reached the final and the whole country was to party into the next day, driving their motorbikes around the city like a crazed mob, hooting and screaming until the sun came up.
The next day as the city recovered from a mammoth hangover I jumped on a bus and headed towards Cat Tien National Park. The park consists of about 720km2 of protected lowland tropical forests, one of the largest areas left in Vietnam. The national park became famous after a discovery of the extremely rare Vietnamese Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus).
Cat Tien is an important reserve in Vietnam, both for the habitat it protects and the number of species it contains. Despite the population of Rhino going extinct in the park, it is still home to 40 IUCN Red List species and protects 30% of Vietnam’s native species. The park has varied habitats made up of seasonally flooded grassland and swamp forest. The wetland is bounded to the east, south and west by dense humid evergreen forest. This variety of habitat means the park is home to a number of special species. Waking up early in the morning and heading out on one of the trails allows you to spot the most amazing animals.
Staying at the parks headquarters allows you to wake up before the sun and start your adventure. If you head left down the track then you come across the open grasslands. Here it is easy to see different species of deer like the Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) and Muntjac deer (Cervus muntjac), Wild boar (Sus scrofa) roaming around as well as many small mammals like tree shrews and mongooses. If you go in the right season then you also stand a chance of spotting wild Gaur (Bos gaurus) the largest species of wild cattle.
If you venture the opposite direction down the trail then you enter deep into the jungle. Following the morning calls of the Gibbons you can try and spot them swinging high up in the trees. As you walk with your head looking up at the canopy you can easily spot macaques and black shanked douc langurs (Pygathrix nigripes). This park is one of the few locations where the Douc Langurs are still abundant. If you have the chance to occasionally look down then it is easy to spot many different lizard species basking in the sun spots on the forest floor. We were lucky enough to spot one of these lizards just before a beautiful snake raced over and took him for his dinner, munching his find right in front of our eyes.
All across the park can be considered a birders paradise, your eyes and ears are filled with an incomprehensible amount of bird species Hornbills, Woodpeckers, Pheasants, Beeaters, Kingfishers and even wild peacocks, Cat Tien was one of the best places I have ever been for bird watching. If you have the guts to head out on the trails at night then you can see many sleeping birds, and mammals searching round for food. I was lucky enough to spot two different Civet species searching for an evening meal. All you need to do is shine your light into the darkness and wait until you happen across pairs of beaming eyes looking straight back at you.
One of the highlights of the park is a trip into the centre of the area where there is a large wetland system centred around Crocodile lake. Aptly named this lake is a breeding area for a number of Siamese Crocodiles (Crocodylus siamensis) that were reintroduced in 2000. After a 5 km walk you can sit lake side and spot these crocodiles as well as fishing eagles and many other water birds.
Overall I was shocked be the diversity of species that are easily encountered in the park. I spent easily over 10 hours a day walking around the park in order to maximise my time there and I was rewarded with so many wonderful animal encounters. If walking this far is not your cup of tea then you can also hire bikes to get around the trails. It’s important that Vietnam realises the importance of such a bio-diverse area and continues to offer support for one of their richest national parks.