Birding with the family? It’s not always easy, but in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, we could combine the two, and it turned out great. Read on to find out more!
A little disclosure about the bird photos in this post: I could easily create two paragraphs of engaging copy about our professional equipment run over by buses, motorcycles, trucks, OUR motorcycle, or eaten up by the crocodiles in the park, but the fact is, that we don’t have any. Many thanks to our friend, Dániel Balla, for helping us out with his bird photos.
We are birders, and we’ve been working in nature conservation for years (more about us here). If I have to say one word that describes our connection with nature, wildlife and specifically birds, I will choose the word passion.
However, combining this passion with being a full-time parent to young children is not always easy. Our lives and jobs changed a lot, and the time we can spend in nature is way less than before. That’s why we can appreciate these occasions even more now.
Getting there by motorbike - Da Lat - Cat Tien
This trip was our first attempt to survive the traffic in Vietnam while riding a bike. Turned out great, much better than expected. We drove bikes in Bali for ten months, daily, but still, when we arrived in Vietnam, it took us three weeks to convince ourselves to ride here too.
The traffic in Vietnam isn’t for the faint-hearted, and it’s much different than let’s say in Bali. The route between Da Lat and Cat Tien is great to get used to the traffic. It is far less overwhelming like riding on the highway between Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Noi.
We based ourselves in Da Lat for three weeks, and - as we planned only a short visit to Cat Tien - we did this tour from there. We could leave the big bags at our friend’s place - thanks again, Curtis! - so we were free to explore with the carry-ons only.
Rented two bikes (8 USD/bike/day, message me for the company name), and reached Cat Tien in 8 hours. It’s 170 km only, but we had to stop several times because of the rain - and still arrived soaking wet to our accommodation. That’s what you get if you don’t want to stop because it’s “not that bad”. Disclaimer: No kids were harmed during this trip; they have decent rain ponchos.
At one point, not far from our destination, we had different Google Maps suggestions on different phones. We followed the one we thought will be better, to end up in no-mans-land on a gravel road that crossed a stream. We had no idea how deep it was, if there were more streams to cross, we were getting tired and hungry, and it was already dark. Or maybe we’re just getting old and less adventurous. Anyway, we turned back. After the bonus 30 minutes sightseeing in the dark, we arrived safely to our destination.
The national park - basic information
Located 150 km north-east of Ho Chi Minh City, the Cat Tien National Park protects an important habitat. It covers approximately 720 km² and contains the largest remaining area of lowland tropical forest in Southern Vietnam. The park has 40 IUCN Red List species and hosts around 30% of Vietnam’s species.
The vegetation is a mix of primary and secondary evergreen and semi-evergreen forest. As a result of wartime defoliation and post-war logging, there are large patches of grassland and bamboo.
In terms of birds, the list of observed species is more than 330. Some sought-after species like Bar-bellied Pitta and Blue-rumped Pitta, Germain’s Peacock-pheasant, Siamese Fireback, Green Peafowl, Grey-faced Tit-babbler or the Golden-crested Myna can be observed here.
The list of reptiles contains species like the critically endangered Siamese Crocodile, the Vietnamese Leaf Turtle and two local endemic species, the Cat Tien Bent-toed Gecko and the Cat Tien Kukri Snake.
You can encounter beautiful butterflies, a large population of leeches and plenty of mosquitos.
During the weekends and public or school holidays, it can get busy with local tourists, but on the weekdays it’s much more relaxed, with fewer visitors.
If you stay outside of the national park, you can buy the entrance ticket near the ferry station (and near the accommodation mentioned below) and then cross the river by ferry. The first one starts at around 6 am, and the last one comes back around 7 or 7:30 pm. Before you take these things for granted, always ask when you are there. Another option is to choose an accommodation inside the national park. It is probably a better choice if you go for some serious birding, but all were full at the time we made our booking.
The entrance ticket cost us 60.000 VND per person (including the ferry both ways), our kids are small enough, didn’t have to buy tickets for them.
Once inside the park, some 150 m from the ferry station (national park side of the river, obviously), there’s a visitor centre. Apart from getting information and booking activities or transport, you can rent bicycles here.
As it is always better to book in advance, ask the staff at your lodge, they will be happy to help and book for you. There are a lot of different activities and guided tours in and around the national park, and you can book most of these at your accommodation.
Since you are in Vietnam, you have good chances to encounter a few surprises here and there, things you wouldn’t necessarily expect, like karaoke in the jungle. Just try to imagine how surreal this is. You are at the edge of the protected area on a weekend night, everything is dark (and generally silent) on the other side of the river, and suddenly karaoke with the volume of a decent-sized rock concert is coming from the jungle.
Accommodation and food in Cat Tien National Park
We chose the Eco Floor Bird Song Lodge, outside the national park, just on the border of the protected area, very close to the park entrance, and booked the place in advance. We arrived very late, after 10 pm. The check-in was smooth, and we were grateful that we could still have dinner.
I would recommend this accommodation to families, couples and solo travellers equally. The reason I recommend this place is beyond the possibility that I can earn a few cents if someone uses my affiliate link.
Local families run this lodge. They live there, are in charge of the bookings, the restaurant, they even sell local produce to the guests. They will book activities for you. You can glimpse into their everyday lives as multiple generations live together on the site.
If you want to give a deeper meaning to your trip and support the local communities, this is the right place to do it. My professional background is in ecotourism, and it really makes me happy when I find local initiatives in sustainable tourism. What made me especially happy here was to see that it works!
The families managing this place put in a lot of work and are dedicated. They maintain a high-quality service, and you can see the results yourself if you stay there. Just check out the reviews they get!
We chose a room right on the waterfront, and it did not disappoint. It was super clean, perfect for a few nights’ stays, the mattresses were comfortable, and our terrace with the hammocks quickly became our favourite spot to hang out. The view was amazing, most of the time there was a pleasant breeze, and in the mornings, we woke up to the singing of the endemic gibbons. If you never heard gibbons before, check out this recording.
The on-site restaurant has a large selection of mouth-watering dishes and awesome smoothies and fresh juices. There is wifi in the restaurant and in the rooms too. However, it’s not the most solid one. Keep in mind that you are in the jungle. You can purchase local produce here, fresh fruit, eggs, tea, cashew nuts, wine, honey and more.
Surprisingly, there were very few mosquitos at the lodge, another huge plus. I’m not sure that this would be the same at the other accommodation sites inside the national park.
Activities with kids
We combined the birding with the family trip, and it turned out great. In the mornings, András went into the national park for some serious birding alone, and in the afternoons we went in together for a light stroll.
I spent a lot of time with the kids on the accommodation grounds. The families working and living here had children, so my kids were surrounded with approximately ten small children most of the time. These kids are growing up in a much more relaxed and nurturing surrounding than most children nowadays, and it was great to see. Karsa and Hanga had a great time playing with them.
Apart from playing at the lodge, we tried to go into the national park with the kids every afternoon. They enjoyed these daily walks, even though it was pretty hot in the jungle and it was raining a lot. We were lucky enough to spot several bird species without even leaving the main trail. See a list of birds below.
One night we took them for a night drive which they enjoyed tremendously. I’ve been on better night drives before, but if you are 4 or 6 years old, driving around in an old converted open-top truck, in the dark, spotting a few deer at the light of the guide’s torch can be loads of fun.
Next time we will surely try other activities too, like a boat ride on the Dong Nai or the gibbon trek.
Tip: As there are a lot of mosquitos in the jungle, bring repellent and long-sleeved clothes for the kids. If you plan to explore the smaller trails too, you’ll need something against the leeches. And raincoats for the rainy days. And hats for the sunny part.
Birding in Cat Tien
The main goal of our visit to Cat Tien was birding. The area is considered one of the best birding sites in Vietnam and very good for observing special species, like the Bar-bellied Pitta, which has relatively small distribution.
Please don’t expect a professional birding trip report here. First, I haven’t been birding actively in the last seven years. Second, I’m a stay-at-home mom. In the previous 6-7 years, I used to speak in baby language even when I was shopping for bread. Now it’s developing, more like “Give me the goddam’ bread until I count to three!”. Ok, it’s just a joke, but you get the point. After such a long time of hibernation, my brain will have to get used to scientific terminology again.
As I mentioned before, the number of observed bird species in the park tops over 330. You can check the species at conservation and ornithology websites like BirdLife International, IBC - The Internet Bird Collection, eBird or iGoTerra. András tends to use eBird these days.
The most sought after species, like the Siamese Fireback, the Blue-rumped and the Bar-bellied Pitta and the Germain’s Peacock-pheasant can be observed from special hides too. These are set up specifically to help birders observe elusive species that otherwise would be quite difficult, or very time-consuming to find. You have to book these in advance with a local tour operator.
All the different sources we checked suggest a good 4-5 days in Cat Tien for birding. For non-birders, this means that you are not doing anything else all day.
We stayed for four days, but our trip was way different compared to a trip dedicated fully to birding. If you skipped the previous paragraphs, András was out birding alone in the National Park in the mornings, then we all went in again in the afternoons.
The afternoon walks were great too, the kids had a good time playing and exploring, and we saw a few remarkable species without having to leave the main road, like one of my personal favourites, the Black-and-red Broadbill.
Some of my best observations were from our terrace. I saw Golden-crested Myna and Oriental Pied Hornbill, and a lot of common species.
If you wish to see what species András managed to observe, click here.
Overall, we had a wonderful time in Cat Tien. I didn’t want to leave. No, seriously, I tried really hard to convince András to stay for a few more days. Or a month…
We were happy with the accommodation, and the food, services in the park were ok, and the surroundings beautiful. We enjoyed staying at the waterfront; it allowed a lot of great observations and came with the extra benefit of a natural cooling breeze.
The birds are magnificent, and the national park is an important protected area. You can choose to explore on your own or take advantage of the expertise of a local guide.
We would go back anytime.