Vietnam stretches over 1500km in a compressed “S” shape on the eastern fringe of the Indochinese peninsula. Much of the country is mountainous, with the wild and lengthy Truong Son (Annamite) mountains forming the main backbone on Vietnam’s border with Laos. The far north of Vietnam is bisected by the Hoang Lien Son, a subrange of the Himalayas, and rises to Vietnam’s highest point on Fan Si Pan (3140 m asl). Towards the tail-end of the Truong Son is Tay Nguyen (Western Highlands), on which sit the Kon-Tum and Dalat Plateaus, before giving way to the flatlands of the vast Mekong Delta in the Southern Vietnam. Vietnam’s montane and karst forests are rich in birds, and besides supporting 12 endemics, have been the scene of the new discoveries, most recently the Limestone Leaf Warbler.
Despite being ravaged by two decades of war, Vietnam has emerged in the past three decades to become a regional economic powerhouse. However, this rapid economic growth has been double-edged sword in relation to biodiversity conservation. Many of Vietnam’s national parks have become more accessible than ever due to an ever-improving road network, but improving infrastructure and standards of living have also accelerated habitat destruction and widespread exploitation of biodiversity, particularly in the trade I bush meat and wildlife-derived products. Birdwatching in Vietnam is challenging in many areas, as due to generation of hunting the remaining wildlife is extremely wary and seldom allow close approach. However, there has been an increasing awareness (and appreciation) of nature and the need for conservation in recent years. With a good variety of country endemics and Indochinese specialties on offer, Vietnam is a necessary destination for any discerning birdwatcher visiting Southeast Asia.
Like its neighbors, Vietnam experiences a predominantly tropical monsoon climate, with distinct wet and dry seasons. The vast majority of annual rainfall falls during the south-west monsoon between May-September. The north-east monsoon between November-April is associated with the driest and coolest time of year, during which the northern mountains in the Hoang Lien Son (like Sapa) may even experience sub-zero overnight temperatures.
More detail about Vietnam birding Weather Summary
There are three main international airports in Vietnam – Hanoi in the north, Da Nang in the central, and Ho Chi Minh (Sai Gon) in the south. Most foreign nationals requires a tourist visa to enter Vietnam, and it is recommended that such a visa be obtained (via a local tour agency) before arrival in the country. Transport infrastructure is generally well developed, but note that international driving licenses are not accepted in Vietnam, and renting a car implies paying for the associated local driver as well. A cheaper way to commute, especially where short distance are involved (for instance within cities) is to rent a motorcycle. English is taught as part of the education system, so many young Vietnamese are able to communicate in English.
Vaccinations for hepatitis A, B and typhoid are recommended for visiting birdwatchers. Malaria is prevalent in the remote areas and prophylaxis should be taken, although this is less of a problem in the dry season when most birdwatcher visit. Other mosquito-borne viruses like dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis are present and appropriate precaution should be taken.
Leeches and ticks occur in lowland and sub-montane forests. While ticks are more likely to be encountered during the dry season when most birdwatchers visit, leeches are in greater abundance during the wetter months of the year.
On a comprehensive three-week tour covering sites across Vietnam, one can expect to see upwards of 300 species, including most of the country Endemics and regional specialties. The majority of Vietnam’s endemics can be found in the highlands in the south, and the city of Dalat provides a comfortable base from which to search for them. Pride of place goes to the endangered Grey-crowned Crocias, which was rediscovered in the montane forests in nearby Chu Yang Sin 1994. There is also a host of other charismatic endemics, including both Collared and Orange-breasted Laughingthrushes, Vietnamese Cutia and Vietnamese Greenfinch. The nearby Cat Tien National park in the lowlands north of Ho Chi Minh City Partridge.
Moving north, central Vietnam’s extensive mountains hold several recent discoveries, including the endemic Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush and near endemic Black-crowned Barwing, both of which were described as recently as 1999. Seeing many of these highly localized species was once-challenging, but better roads on to Kom Tum plateau have made things easier, many birdwatchers nowadays visit Mang Den to see the endemics. In addition, the limestone forests of Central Vietnam are home to highly localized species like the sooty babbler and limestone leaf warbler. Once in northern Vietnam the birdlife become increasingly similar to that of southern China’s subtropical evergreen forests, though regional specialties including the short-tailed Parrotbill and White-eared Night-heron are easier to see here. A good variety of eastern Himalayan species can be seen in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains of North Vietnam, including sought-after species like the slender-billed scimitar babbler and Red-winged Laughingthrush.
(Source: Yong Ding Li & Low Bing Wen, The 100 Best Birdwatching sites in Southeast Asia, 2016)