Holiday to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
17th November 2012 – 9th December 2012
For a list of birds seen on this trip click here
Saturday 17th November 2012.
Depart Norwich airport 09:45 on KLM flight to Amsterdam. Arrive Amsterdam 11:35 am local time. Misty/ foggy.
Depart Amsterdam 17:25 local time.
Sunday 18th November 2012
Arrive Bangkok 10:10 local time (GMT+ 7 hours).
Depart Bangkok 11:20 local time on Vietnam Airways flight, arrive Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) at 12:55 local time. Met on arrival by Bao, our bird guide who we had booked with and who own Wildtours. Then transfer to Hotel Victory for a rest and overnight. Declined a tour of Ho Chi Minh City today as it had been 24 hours travel door to door.
Dry and hot with some cloud in Ho Chi Minh City.
Monday 19th November 2012
Picked up from hotel at 08:30 by Bao and his wife, Wi and their 8 year old son, Toan. Drove 25 km to Cu Chi tunnels. In the heavy traffic this took nearly 2 hours. Had a guided tour of the tunnel systems, built over many years during the American war. We entered a couple – one complete with two bats (?species). Quite claustrophobic but I guess if a B52 is overhead, needs must.
The local guide suggested there were nearly 200km of tunnels dug for the conflict. However Bao suggested the real total was closer to 25km. Impressive nonetheless with the entrance holes being increased in size to allow the average western tourist to enter.
(We discovered that the traffic in Vietnam is dreadful. Thousands of motorbikes carrying anything from 1 to 4 people (on one occasion I counted five – three adults and two children) and a variety of goods including vegetables, sheets of plate glass, a telegraph pole (laid horizontally on the back of the motorbike, being held in place by its on occupant), gas canisters and what appeared to be a new fridge freezer still in its box.)
After this, had a brief walk around the grounds with Bao looking for some birds, then drove back to Ho Chi Minh City, calling at a ‘rural’ restaurant on the way for lunch. Then on to Ho Chi Minh City where we were dropped off outside the grand Post Office (actually a bit of a disappointment) then a walk back to our hotel for a shower before going out with Bao, Wi and Toan, to the Lau Nuong Tan Cang restaurant on the banks of the Saigon river for dinner.
Dry sunny and hot.
Tuesday 20th November 2012
Depart Hotel Victory at 06:00 for Ho Chi Minh City airport, driven by Bao. 07:30 flight to Da Nang, with Vietnamese Airlines. Arrive Da Nang 08:30. Met at airport by our two other bird guides, Quang, Tang (both in their 20s) and Ng (driver). Cancelled planned visit to Hoi An where we were going to buy clothes. Instead drove straight for Kham Duc arriving at Chau Giang hotel at 11:30. Reasonable accommodation. Balcony room overlooking the street. Good food in house. Had lunch then departed 14:00 for Lo Xo pass for some birding – approximately 25 km from hotel. Involved some scrambling up a steep hillside for a Black-crowned Barwing – very slippy. Unsuccessful. Left Lo Xo at 5pm and arrived back at hotel 1 hour later.
Dry, some cloud then mist in evening.
Wednesday 21st November 2012
Early morning start to Lo Xo pass. Depart hotel at 05:00 arriving at pass at 06:00. Failed second attempt to locate Black-crowned Barwing. At Lo Xo until about 09:30 when departed for Mang Den – long, monotonous drive on poor roads with average speed of about 20mph. Numerous pot holes which caused many last minute diversions to avoid. We now had a sense of the driving standards in this country. Vietnam is, apparently, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to drive in and we saw many examples of why – cars, motorcycles buses and lorries as well as pedestrians had a blatant disregard of keeping to their side of the road. It seemed pretty much ‘anything goes’ backed up by the apparent philosophy that whoever tooted their horn the loudest or most frequently had priority as far as motorized transport. Fortunately for us, our driver Ng, was a very cautious one and was very careful. We were very grateful to him for this as he was also very good at keeping an eye on our things when we got out to do some birding or had a meal during the day.
We called at a town for lunch stop. Arrived at Mang Den 15:00. Hotel Hoa Sim. Food / restaurant adequate and food OK but the same could not be said of our room. This hotel was recently built, one of many, supposedly built as a resort to bring in tourists to see a local waterfall – at the expense of deforestation to provide facilities for this. Our room was tiny, and the bathroom was simply the worst we have ever experienced in many years of travel. The floor flooded with clean water every time the toilet was flushed and the shower was useless. Time for brief wander round nearby forest until 5pm then check in to hotel.
Dry, sunny, hot with variable cloud.
Thursday 22nd November 2012
Birding at Mang Den. Woke at 05:00 then brief breakfast before departing hotel for 20 km drive to some remaining primary forest. Evidence of deforestation everywhere including chain saws and sound of falling trees. Birded from dawn to about 10:30 then return to hotel for lunch and rest. In afternoon from 14:00-16:30 walked forest trail near hotel, which although superficially still intact had evidence of recent tree felling. Night Mang Den.
Dry, sunny and very warm. Cloud later with spots of rain.
Friday 23rd November 2012
Left hotel 05:00 for pre breakfast walk for 3 hours along tracks similar to yesterday morning. Returned to hotel for breakfast then departed 09:30 for another grueling and painfully slow journey of 300km to to what turned out to be the surreal and quite bizarre Yok Dom – the appropriately named Dak Rot resort. En route, we had lunch at the HAGL cement company’s own hotel at Pleiku. (Unfortunately I couldn’t have the porcupine on the menu as it was only done in chilli).
We eventually arrived at the Dak Rot resort at 18:30 – it had been dark for an hour and we believe our driver had got lost briefly in his attempt to find his way in the dark whilst trying to avoid a lot of traffic coming in the wrong direction and many of it without lights on.
We were shown to our room and discovered we were the only guests staying there – a very large site with accommodation for a couple of hundred people at least. On entering our ‘cabin’ (built on stilts) I entered the bedroom first to be confronted by a large mouse / small rat which ran past me, and out of the bedroom never to be seen again. This was, shall we say, a little disconcerting for my wife who sincerely, and remarkably forcefully, expressed her wish to sleep in the minibus. After a great deal of coercion she was persuaded to sleep in the cabin, once all signs of rodent presence had been checked for, and the gap under the bedroom door sealed from any more invaders.
Dry, sunny and hot with variable cloud.
Saturday 24th November 2012
06:00 start wandering around the extensive grounds. In daylight we were able to see the site properly. It gave me the impression of a cross between a North Korean holiday camp, a scene from the series “The Prisoner” and Disneyworld. An enormous amount of money looked to have been spent on it. It was completely empty. A few ‘day trippers’ arrived in the morning. Statues of Buddha and Minnie Mouse stood in close proximity to each other. It even had its own monorail which extended for about 200 yards. There was a large and virtually birdless lake. Piped music accompanied us as we walked around. However the grounds did prove productive for some difficult to find species.
After a good walk we returned to the restaurant area near the lake for breakfast at around 09:30. Then we made a trip out of the park to a nearby temple at Yok Dom. This was situated on a subsidiary of the Mekong river and the rapids here were in full flow as it was the end of the wet season. Main target species here was the Mekong Wagtail which has a limited distribution. We crossed a very rickety bridge over a fast flowing part of the rapid to find one but were unsuccessful. We tried up river near a junction and again were out of luck. We therefore stopped our search and had lunch – by now it was midday and very hot.
After lunch we had one more go and this time were successful, Quang finding a bird over the other side of the river and about 300 yards away. I was grateful I had brought my scope and after getting good views we found another three birds, which then flew up river. It was while looking for the wagtails that we had to move out of the way to let an elephant by – a new experience for me when birding. It was carrying tourists on a short walk along the river bank. Another bonus here was a lovely pair of Collared Falconets. In the afternoon we returned to Dak Rot.
Dry, sunny and hot and humid.
Sunday 25th November 2012
Another early morning walk in the grounds from 06:00 – 09:15. Then depart 10:00 after breakfast for Da Lat, via Dak Lak for lunch stop. Another punishing day’s driving on some poor roads. Arrived at our 4 star hotel (owned by the HAGL company, at 19:00. After our experiences of the last few days it was nice to be in a better standard of accommodation. We were told the hotel was full – but we were the only people eating in the restaurant for the next two nights. On the third night we persuaded our guides to take us to a Vietnamese restaurant in the nearby down town.
Da Lat is a popular tourist resort for Vietnamese people and seems to be a bit of a lover’s paradise – lots of young people come here to stay for a weekend or more. It is at about 5,000 feet which makes it much cooler than any of the other destinations we have been to so far. Certainly we got to like the town and were sorry to move on at the end of our stay here.
Dry sunny and hot but cooler at Da Lat.
Monday 26th November 2012
This morning we went for a walk to the local highest mountain peak at over 6,000 feet. To do this we drove to the base of the hill and transferred to a four wheel drive jeep which sped us up about 600 feet (leaving us about 800 feet to the top). The first part of the walk was easy going on a flat trail in a pine forest. Later it deteriorated to a narrow slippery steep trail through thick vegetation. We got to about 100m of the summit when we decided we had had enough.
We then retraced our steps and Quang phoned the man in the jeep to come up and collect us from where he dropped us off earlier! Very civilised.
After lunch we visited a Buddhist temple. Later we drove to a lake beyond the chairlift system but unfortunately building for a new lake resort meant not many birds and no access so back to the hotel.
Dry sunny and hot. Breezy on the mountain.
Tuesday 27th November 2012
Pre-breakfast departure 05:30 for bird walk in Tanung valley nearby. Stayed until 11:00 then back to hotel for a break. In early afternoon took trip to the ‘flower garden’ in Da Lat – a place locals go to see flowers / water arrangements etc. At the far end is a pool where waders and egrets congregate.
After this, went out to dinner in Da Lat with our guides at a lakeside restaurant followed by a wander through the night market.
Dry sunny and hot.
Wednesday 28th November 2012
Depart hotel 06:00 pre breakfast for exploration of nearby valley to our hotel. Back for breakfast 08:30 then depart for the drive to Cat Tien national park at 09:30. Lunch and tea / coffee buying stop on the way. Arrive Cat Tien approximately 15:00, crossing the river at the entrance to the park. Checked into our room (Pteridocarpus 3) then began a walk in the park in late afternoon until about 18:00. Our room was pleasant enough, though small. Complete with mosquito net and the essential air conditioning. Two restaurants on site – best was the one nearest where the boat crosses the river. Both had WiFi. This being a research station, facilities were actually better than expected.
Dry, sunny and hot especially at Cat Tien.
Thursday 29th November 2012
06:00 start for walk in Cat Tien taking the route towards the rapids. Return for breakfast at 09:00 then a walk through a tougher narrower trial in search of Pittas. Stop for lunch 11:00 – 15:00. Then drive in jeep, to be dropped off about 5km along the road / track to the grassland. Picked up again about 17:15.
Leeches were a small problem (forest is quite dry now – it’s been a ‘dry’ wet season. However, I was successfully attacked by a couple of leeches – on my chest – we were wearing leech socks.
Dry, sunny and very warm.
Friday 30th November 2012
Cat Tien. Breakfast 06:00 then 7km walk along trail, past the ‘Heaven rapids” and beyond. Quang called the jeep, thankfully, to come and pick us up to drive us back to base – quite a tiring walk in the heat and humidity with lens and tripod to carry! Lunch at noon. Afternoon siesta then another walk from 15:00 – 17:30. Much quieter in the afternoon than the morning session – mainly due to the heat.
Dry, sunny, hot and humid.
Saturday 1st December 2012
Cat Tien to Mekong delta. 05:30 breakfast then another walk. 6km this time – 3km on road then 3km back through forest trail, at which point we saw our only wild snake of the trip – a nondescript brown individual about 2 feet long at the side of our path. Lunch 11:45 then leave Cat Tien 13:00 (Ng returned from Ho Chi Minh City with a Norwegian birder he had picked up after dropping us off at Cat Tien a couple of days ago. The Norwegian birder had seen two Spoon-billed Sandpipers with Bao at the Mekong delta the day before – this was our next destination!).
Drove via Ho Chi Minh City – another long hot drive. Surreally, at one point Ng was pulled over by the traffic police for ‘speeding’. Experience had by now proven to us that not only is Ng one of the safest drivers on the road in Vietnam, he is also one of the slowest. We could not believe he was speeding. However, he could not argue with the police who fined him 1 million Vietnamese dong – about £30 sterling, and equivalent to two weeks wages for him. The poor man was distraught – and so we willingly paid his fine for him. One wonders whose pocket the money ended up in.
Passing through Ho Chi Minh City we picked up Bao and his wife and son as we approached the Mekong, driving to My Tho and arrived at our hotel (Chuong Dong) at 21:00. A pleasant enough hotel right on the banks of the river.
Dry, sunny, hot.
Sunday 2nd December 2012
Due to the tides, we had a lazy morning at the hotel, having a slow breakfast before departing for further down the Mekong river system at 09:30. At 11:00 we arrived where we parked at the shoreline. Here, the tide was out revealing a sea of mud and fisherman’s huts perched on poles. The mud looked like it extended out about a couple of kilometers to sea. In places it was possible for people to ride a motorbike out to their huts.
We had no such luxury. This was where Bao and the Norwegian had seen their two Spoon-billed Sandpipers a couple of days before. I had already taken the precaution of covering the lower section legs of my Gitzo tripod legs with plastic bags to protect them from the effects of the mud and saltwater.
I changed into my swimming trunks and left my long sleeve shirt on with a hat and applied liberal amounts of suncream. Not accustomed to walking in mud in barefoot, during which you can sink down to almost your knees, I started by wearing a pair of flip flops borrowed from our hotel room. This soon proved useless since as we entered any shallow water I was immediately held back by the suction on the footwear, so I had to carry them most of the time. They did come in handy on those occasions when the mud was firmer under foot, however. For most of the time I was barefoot – a not too pleasant experience.
Bao led the way, carrying my Leica telescope mounted on his Manfrotto tripod (how glad I was that I had brought my own favoured scope). I followed on, carrying my Gitzo with the Canon 1 D Mark IV and Canon 500mm f4 and extenders. In among the Red-necked Stints and Lesser Sandplovers we initially came across were a couple of birds which turned out to be Nordman’s Greenshanks on closer inspection. On any other day, this would have been fantastic, since they are a species in serious decline. However, we had bigger fish to fry so we soon pressed on with our search.
I had wanted to see the Spoon-billed Sandpiper for many years. I had been disappointed when I had visited Hong Kong’s Mai Po reserve a few years ago not to see them. As in many other of their former wintering and stop over migration places now, numbers of this species are critically low and development of their mud habitat is such that they are one of the most threatened birds on the planet. There may be less than 300 hundred left, and I so wanted to see one before they became extinct.
We walked (well, squelched, slithered and slid to be more accurate) further and further from the shore. We had no luck when scanning through several flocks of small shorebirds feeding or resting on the mud. Mainly these were Red-necked Stints with the occasional Temminck’s Stint and a few Terek Sandpipers.
We took some shelter from the piercing sun under one of the fisherman’s huts. There was a fisherman in his hut above us, which surprised both him and us I think. Bao had a conversation with him about what we were doing. It must have sounded ridiculous to the fisherman. Apparently the huts are only occupied at low tide as it is the way the fishermen use to protect their piece of ‘real estate’ from other fishermen.
We were quite tired now after our exertions and the sun was as hot as ever. We had scanned several flocks to no avail. However there was a flock about 300 yards away which we had not yet scanned. I took the scope while Bao had a rest.
At first I only found more Red-necked Stints. I was looking out for any small birds which were paler than the others, or which were feeding in a more rapid manner than the others – both apparently good ways to pick out a Spoon-billed Sandpiper from the Red-necked Stints.
Then, a bird caught my eye. It was in a shallow puddle of water and was bathing, moving around a lot. In the heat haze I thought I saw a beak which was not straight, like the Red-necked Stints, but seemed larger, expanded width ways, towards the tip. I watched it for a few more moments. Yes, indeed! It did seem to have an expanded beak. Not wishing to believe my eyes nor make too much noise, I clicked my fingers to Bao standing about 10 yards away, still speaking to the fisherman to come over and have a look. He hastened to the scope and after a second or two he agreed – this was indeed a Spoon-billed Sandpiper! This was an ambition realised, and I had even found the bird myself!
I set about getting some still images and some video. We were a long way away. I had both a 1.4x and 2.0x converter on the camera but even then the images looked very small on the screen of the camera.
We approached closer. By now the bird had left the puddle and was on mud, slightly closer to us, preening heavily. We walked about 20 yards and stopped for more views and photography. We repeated this, then with no warning, the bird took flight and although I followed it with my binoculars for a while, we both lost it to view. We were both very pleased with ourselves but by now the tide was clearly coming in again so we made our way, carefully, back to the shore. As we got closer to the shore, we came across a couple more Greenshanks – one was an adult Common but the other was a juvenile Nordmans. This time, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper under our belt, we took more time to enjoy this other vulnerable wader. It had been a great couple of hours.
We celebrated with lunch in a beachside restaurant nearby then returned to our hotel, visiting another pagoda in the town of My Tho on the way.
It was after returning to the hotel that I discovered I had got sunburnt feet – I had neglected to apply enough sun cream here – a salutary lesson for any future birder doing the same trip.
Dry, sunny and hot.
Monday 3rd December 2012
My Tho back to Ho Chi Minh City. In the morning we took a boat from outside the hotel to a small island community and then on to another island (Phoenix) and saw some of the products produced by the islanders – mainly lots of things made from coconuts, as well as listening to some local music played on traditional instruments. Returned to hotel at 11:00 then drove to Bao’s in-laws for a lovely lunch made more enjoyable by their most generous hospitality at inviting us, two strangers, into their family home. Made very welcome. Then drove back to Ho Chi Minh City to Victory Hotel overnight, arriving 16:30.
Dry, sunny, hot and humid. Some afternoon cloud.
Tuesday 4th December 2012
Ho Chi Minh City to Siam Reap. 06:00 met by Bao at Victory Hotel for short drive to botanical gardens. Bizarre rule that the gardens (enclosing the city zoo as well) are open to all from 05:00 to 07:00, then everyone is turfed out and then on access is by payment. On our arrival lots of people in the park – mainly involved in some form of exercise – badminton, running, walking, stretching, Tai Chi, and ball games. Quite interesting but very few people looking at the animals in the zoo – including Gibbons, Giraffes, Pythons and African Antelope.
After short walk around, returned to hotel for breakfast. Then visit to the American war remnant museum, more or less next door to the hotel. A very moving experience. It was, interestingly, very busy with people from many nationalities.
Then, transfer to airport for flight to Siam Reap, arriving there at 17:00 and transfer to Aspar Holiday Hotel – a rather nice place complete with nice room and outdoor swimming pool. Meal in hotel opposite as our restaurant was empty and had a poor menu.
Dry, sunny and hot.
Wednesday 5th December 2012
Full day’s exploration of Angkor Tom and Angkor Wat. Siam Reap has a population of 1 million and receives 2.5 million visitors per annum. We had the luxury of a personal guide throughout, and chauffer driven air conditioned car. Depart hotel 08:30. The site was a huge and impressive structure. There was an inevitable lot of walking round but we covered most of the important areas, finishing with the reflection of the Angkor Wat temple in the lake on the west side.
Returned to hotel late afternoon in time for another brief swim. Then got tuc-tuc to town to authentic Cambodian restaurant recommended by our excellent guide. Meal was also excellent and the transport surprisingly comfortable!
Dry sunny hot and humid.
Thursday 6th December 2012
Siam Reap then flight to Hanoi. 08:30 left hotel for boat trip to floating village. Rather ‘touristy’ but interesting nonetheless. Main interest provided by seeing the village basketball pitch being towed along the waterway. Return to hotel for lunch then brief visit to temple, market and sight of the killing fields related to Siam Reap – another moving experience as many of our guide’s family had been murdered by Pol Pot.
Depart Siam Reap 16:00 for Hanoi. Arrived Hanoi about 18:30 then 40km taxi ride to our hotel – the Dolphin in Hanoi (ex Manor). Pleasant enough though in a busy part of Hanoi. We were on the 6th floor, which gave some protection from the constant din from ground level.
Dry, sunny and hot in Cambodia.
Friday 7th December 2012
Depart hotel 08:15 for the three and half hour journey to Ha Long Bay to meet with our boat (Bahia Classic 1) for an overnight cruise around Ha Long Bay. We joined 6 others in our taxi, and the boat had approximately 30 pax on board. We left the quay shortly after 1pm and made our way to an excursion to a floating village complete with school and craft shops. Lunch was served en route after a comprehensive safety briefing.
A lovely afternoon and evening spent on the quiet waters of the bay. Numerous other tourist boats as well as several ocean going bulk carriers and even an oil tanker. Also two distant cruise liners. Accommodation on the vessel was excellent –we had one of the two suites which gave us our own balcony looking forward. Complimentary Tattinger champagne.
Only disappointment was the weather which was dull grey and still. However, we were fortunate that Cyclone Bopha had not arrived in the north China Sea after devastating parts of the Phillipines.
Saturday 8th December 2012
Morning cruise continued. Called at limestone cave and I did some birding here till time to rejoin the boat’s tender back to the vessel. Then a leisurely brunch before arriving back in port about 10:30. Disembarked and rejoined taxi for return journey to Dolphin hotel where we picked up two of our bags left overnight. Then taxi for two to Hanoi airport. Mid evening flight to Bangkok for overnight at Novotel, Bangkok, arriving about 22:15.
Dull grey and calm again in Ha Long Bay.
Sunday 9th December 2012
Early morning wander around grassland in front of Novotel Hotel. Then depart KLM flight to Amsterdam, departing 12:20 local time, arrive Amsterdam 18:00 local time. Then depart Amsterdam 21:20 local time, arrive Norwich 20:55 local time.