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Vietnam: Sapa and Tam Dao, December 16 – 20, 2006,
We made a birding trip to Sapa and Tam Dao in north / northwest Vietnam in mid-December because both of these locations are notorious for fog and bad weather in most other months. The weather was marginal in Sapa and perfect in Tam Dao, but the birding was slow. In particular, the former best trail at Tam Dao has now been fully degraded into a paved road, and the birding there was poor. It was cold – 5C to 10C – at both locations.
We arrived in Sapa via the overnight Victoria Express train from Hanoi. The train actually stops in Lao Cai, and then there is a one-hour shuttle van to Sapa (many available). Upon arrival in Sapa we were greeted with incredible fog. We literally could not see more than 20 feet. So we took a nap to make up for lack of sleep on the train. By 9AM the weather was a bit better, so we decided to go to the Ham Rong Gardens which are located right in Sapa (location details are given in a later section). However, the fog barely lifted and visibility was mostly limited to about 50 feet, and seeing details of a bird was limited to about 25 feet. Consequently, we did not see much. The fog was so thick that two groups that were lost asked us for directions. The landmark radio tower was completely invisible. The only interesting birds we saw this day were an Orange-sided Bush-robin and a flock of unidentifiable parrotbills.
We awoke the next day to rain. However, this was better than fog because by 9AM the weather was definitely clearing, so we tried Ham Rong Gardens again. Later in the day we had intended to also visit the pass below Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Vietnam which is 15 km from Sapa, but it remained in fog all day even when Sapa town was clear. By noon the weather had completely cleared in Sapa and we could see the surrounding mountains and now we saw how photogenic Sapa can be. We also started to see some interesting birds, including a flock of Ashy-throated Parrotbills, two Little Buntings, one Daurian Redstart and an active flock of Black-headed Greenfinches. An interesting location was scrubland behind the ostrich pens. However, overall the birding was slow, and we only saw a total of 17 species while in Sapa, namely:
Near radio tower:
Blue Rock Thrush; Orange-flanked Bush-robin; Daurian Redstart; Blue-winged Minla; Whiskered Yuhina; Gould’s Sunbird; Common Rosefinch.
Gray Bushchat; Common Stonechat; Sooty-headed Bulbul; Hill Prinia; leaf-warbler sp; Japanese white-eye; Ashy-throated Parrotbill; White-rumped Munia.
Hillside behind ostrich pen:
White-browed Scimitar-babbler (heard only); Black-headed Greenfinch; Little Bunting.
We then took the overnight train back to Hanoi, arriving at 5:30AM, and were picked up by a van from the Mela Hotel in Tam Dao. The hotel had been recommended to me by a visiting birder from Vietnam who had been in Bangkok, and it was a good choice. The operator, Mekki Salah, is an avid birder who knows the best birding spots. The hotel itself is probably the nicest in Tam Dao and is centrally located, but there are many options. The town itself is small enough that the hotel location is not critical. We arrived in Tam Dao at 8:30AM, and immediately Mekki told us of a nearby stake-out site for a Fujian Niltava. We went there and saw it, so we thought that was a good omen for us to see a lot of new birds here. But it turned out to be the only new bird for us for the entire two days in Tam Dao.
We then walked up the 500+ steps to the radio transmission tower. We had a small flock right at the base, which included a Rufous Piculet. A short distance up the steps we encountered a pair of Japanese Thrushes. We heard a few distant calls of Gray Laughingthrushes, but none were close. The rest of the trip up and down the stairs was very quiet. At 1PM we returned to the hotel for lunch.
For the afternoon, Mekki suggested we go along the road that leads from town around the back of the mountain, which has been called the “watertank trail” – not sure why, we did not see a watertank - or Tam Dao trail II. This has often been mentioned as the best birding site in Tam Dao. Unfortunately, it has been destroyed. Mekki neglected to tell us that the trail has been replaced by 8 km of a wide, gravel-paved road bordered by clearcut hills – not a bird to be seen along here. We walked about two hours without reaching the end of the road, and then turned back without seeing anything at all. We did hear some distant Gray Laughingthrushes, but the steepness of the hills made viewing impossible. Upon arriving at the hotel, we visited Mekki’s garden where a Scaly Thrush showed nicely.
If we had known about the 8 km of road, we would have hired motorbikes to take us to the end where there is some existing forest. That is what we did the next day.
We awoke to gale-force winds, but by 7AM they had calmed so we rode the motorbikes to the end of the gravel road, with a local guide recommended by Mekki. The day was sunny and there was little wind inside the forest. We took a trail to the left, which enters a bamboo forest. How long this will last is an open question, because we saw dozens of people hauling loads of freshly-cut bamboo from this forest back to Tam Dao, and the first few hundred meters of the trail was partly cut already. We walked this trail for about three hours before leaving the bamboo and entering a deciduous forest. Soon after, the trail deteriorated so we reversed course. We spent most of the day in the bamboo forest.
At about 8AM we encountered a distant group of Gray Laughingthrushes, so far away that our guide did not even bother to stop but Marlene got a good look at one. This was to be the only flock of these birds we encountered all day, but we did hear some a few times. About 8:15AM, a distant feeding flock of mostly White-bellied Yuhinas and unidentified leaf-warblers contained a single Short-tailed Parrotbill which I picked up but Marlene missed; again, this was to be our only encounter with parrotbills. After 8:15, we saw perhaps another 20 birds in total. The few we did see only approached when we were quietly sitting down on a break, and then they made almost no sound. One flock held a single White-hooded Babbler, which is cited as a sometimes companion of Greater Rufous-headed Parrtobills, but there were none in that flock. Our day-long trip into the bamboo forest was a disappointment, even though this is supposed to be the prime location for two species of parrotbills, two scimitar-babblers, two laughingthrushes, as well as three pittas.
The next morning we had a flight from Hanoi so there was no time for birding.
In our two full days birding in Tam Dao, we saw a total of 15 species, namely:
Orange-bellied Leafbird; Blue Whistling-thrush; Japanese Thrush; Scaly Thrush; Fujian Niltava; Black Bulbul; leaf-warbler sp; Golden Babbler; Gray Laughingthrush; Rufous Piculet; White-hooded Babbler; Short-tailed Parrotbill; White-bellied Yuhina; Olive-backed Pipit; White Wagtail.
Ham Rong Gardens is located in Sapa town. Access is via a series of steps behind the church. An entry ticket must be bought at the booth at the bottom of the stairs. Entrance fee was 20,000 dong/person (approx 16,000 dong per USD). The ticket is collected at the top of the stairs, but you cannot buy the ticket there. You also get a map of the gardens at the entrance gate.
Upon entering the gardens, there is a main paved route up to the Europe Gardens which then leads to the location for the show by the various minority groups (e.g. Black Hmong). There are also side trails that wrap around the hill. If the radio tower at the top of the mountain is visible, it is easy to stay oriented. On a foggy day, it is a bit tricky. Also, the muddy trails and especially the algae-covered paved steps can be very slippery when wet.
We found three places where we saw most of the birds; however, we only had limited time and one day we had almost no visibility so this may not be representative. One location was at the base of the radio tower, where we had a few flocks including one with a Daurian Redstart. The Medicinal Garden below the tower, and the adjacent scrub and fields, held parrotbills, chats, similar open-area birds. But the best location was reached by going up to the ostrich pen (yes, they have a pair of ostriches here). There is a small unmarked trail at the edge of the grassy area at the lower end of the ostrich pen that goes down to a scrub field with a few small conifers. We followed this a few hundred meters until we reached a drainage canal we did not cross. This was the only place we encountered a flock of Black-headed Greenfinches which circled us and posed nicely on the conifers.
Almost everyone travels to Sapa by train because the roads are apparently terrible. Even the train takes 8 hours to cover the 300 km from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and then it is a one-hour ride from Lao Cai to Sapa. The train has several types of cars, and both day and evening departures. The most common sleeping car is a six-person car with two sets of three berths which look very tight and of course offer no privacy. The Victoria Express train, which we took, has both 4-person and 2-person sleeping cars. The Victoria Express service has recently increased to include daily trips. The time of the departures varies, and not all trips have a dining car. The train itself is a noisy and bouncy affair, and it is not likely that anyone gets a good night’s sleep, but it is surely much better than the crowded 6-person cars. The non-sleeping option is to schedule a daytime train; apparently the scenery is very nice, but this does take up one potential birding day to travel.
The best hotel in town is the Victoria Hotel, but it is also expensive at USD 145 / night during our trip (and it appeared to be full). They tie in the train service so only hotel guests can take the Victoria Express train, but hotel guests are not required to take it. There appear to be several other hotels in Sapa over a wide price range.
We walked to the Ham Rong Gardens as they are right in town. The other birding locations mentioned, which we did not visit, are around the pass below Fansipan. Upon arrival we asked about hiring a car to take us there, but the hotel was unable to arrange this (just as well, as the weather did not cooperate). However, others have written they went there by motorcycle or jeep so it is certainly possible.
The main issue at Sapa is weather. We had read trip reports from April that talked of severe fog. December seemed to be a good bet, but we also had one full day and a partial day of fog. We asked several locals and there was no agreement on the best time to visit. Photographers apparently like September, when the rice is being harvested and the countryside is colorful. But this is also the middle of the rainy season. Another person suggested May had the clearest weather, but is hot. This is also not consistent with the reports that trips in April have had terrible fog. Another factor is where the fog is. On the one day we had clear weather in Sapa, we could see the clouds sitting below Fansipan and below the pass, so a clear day in Sapa does not mean good birding at the pass or higher up. Our suggestion is to allocate several extra days and assume some days will be lost to fog or rain at almost any time of year.
Sapa is the home to several “minority” groups, what we refer to as hill tribes in Thailand. As in Thailand, they are mostly descendants of southern China groups who settled in SEAsia 100+ years ago. Collectively know as the Montegnards, they proudly wear their distinctive tribal costumes even when working in the fields. After a short time it is easy to identify the members of various tribes from their dress. A trip to the Bac Ha market on a Sunday is a great way to see a great mix of colorful costumes, led by the “Flower Hmong”, so named because of their colorful costumes. There are other markets held on other days, but the Sunday market is the biggest and tours there are easily arranged from Sapa. The various groups also hold music and dancing shows, one of which unfortunately is at Ham Rong Gardens daily and results in loud music blasting from 9AM onwards. There is also a local market in Sapa, but it is simply a local market and does not draw in members of surrounding groups as the larger, once-a-week markets do. A visit to one of the markets is a cultural aspect of northwest Vietnam that should be experienced.
Tam Dao is a small hill station resort north of Hanoi. The trip from downtown Hanoi takes about 2.5 hours, and about 2 hours from the airport. Most of the trip is through lowland before reaching the mountain ranges. Tam Dao is a popular retreat for Hanoi residents because it is much cooler due to its altitude, but in December there were few visitors because it was not cool but cold – close to freezing at night. The first night, we were the only guests at our hotel. Taxis can be arranged from Hanoi to Tam Dao but we had a van from the hotel meet us at the Hanoi train station.
Like Sapa, Tam Dao also has weather issues. It averages 190 days of rain per year, and when it is not rainy it can be very windy. Despite the cold, we had two clear days, although one started out windy. On the other hand, we did not see many birds so perhaps the cold is a negative for birding.
The town itself is small, and the two main birding sites are walking distance from town. The first goes up the 500+ steps leading to the radio tower. The steps are in good condition, making this a relatively easy walk despite the many steps. The entrance to the steps is a bit tricky to find. It is located about 50 meters to the right of the large watertank, when facing the watertank, and starts out next to a small stand that sells water and snacks. A short way up on the left is an entrance to a temple, and this shorter stretch of steps should also hold the same birds as the main steps. We had all of our birds within the first 100 meters of the steps. This could have been due to the cold weather pushing birds down. The ravine on the right, while walking up, had several interesting birds, with Japanese and Blue Whistling Thrushes, plus a few others that got away. We also had a nice flock right at the base. One great advantage of this site is that you look straight into the canopy on the way down.
The other site is the one that has been degraded. I read that it has been called the “watertank trail” but it is not close to the watertank mentioned in connection with the steps to the radio tower. Instead, this trail winds around the mountain and is the only other way out of town other than the road from Hanoi. Apparently, at one time this road turned into an excellent birding trail very close to town. It has now been cleared and widened into a gravel road that stretches about 8 km. There were no birds along this road, but plenty of motorcycles and workers. At the end of the road is a large pile of rocks, and we took a trail that went to the left just after this pile. The trail is easy to follow and flat as it goes through bamboo forest. The bamboo ends after about 3 km and the trail then goes into a deciduous forest. Soon after, the trail deteriorates, requiring scrambling over rocks and fallen trees, so we did not venture farther. The bamboo forest is nice, but the birds appeared to be scarce and/or wary. There was little evidence of the parrotbills, babblers, and pittas that are the prime attractions of this forest. The wholesale cutting of bamboo and reputed capturing of birds may have something to do with this.
There are no birds along the gravel road, so it makes sense to hire someone to take you directly to the end of the road. During our visit, a bridge along the road was under repair, so only motorcycles could get through. Once the repair is completed, it should be possible to take a van or car to the end of the road; unless the road is muddy, a 4WD should not be necessary. We brought lunch and had someone drop us off and pick us up at the end of the day.
We also had a local guide with us for the bamboo forest trip, because the previous day we did not know about the long stretch of gravel road so we were uncertain of what to expect. In fact, a guide is not necessary because the path is easy to follow and fewer people on the trail should improve the odds of seeing skittish birds. Our guide was a nice fellow but spoke little English, and had no special knowledge of bird calls or where certain birds could be found.
Information on the visa requirements for Vietnam is available on the internet, as is a visa application form. We were able to secure a visa from the Vietnam Embassy in Bangkok in two days for US 50 per person (US passport – several countries do not require visas).
Although Vietnam is a friendly country, the people there are a bit more aggressive and rude compared to other SEAsia countries. Several times we had people overcharge us and then chuckle when we pointed it out, and when at the Sunday Bac Ha market I had a number of people bump in to me in an obvious pickpocket effort. Also, once at Ham Rong Gardens, we were harassed by a possibly drunk visitor who aggressively demanded to look through our binoculars.
Victoria Hotel and Victoria Express train: http://www.victoriahotels-asia.com
Mr. Mekki Salah, General Manager of Mela Hotel, Tam Dao: tel: 0211-824321; fax: 0211-824352; mobile: 084-9124-41401; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Vietnamese birder we met at Ham Rong Gardens was: M. Sc. Le Manh Hung, Ornithologist, Zoology Museum Dept., National Center for National Science and Technology: member of the small (to date) Vietnam Birding Club, e-mail: email@example.com
Nice little restaurant near Lao Cai train station: Restaurant Hiep Van, 342 Nguyen Hue, Lao Cai
The bird book for Vietnam is Robson’s Birds of Thailand and Southeast Asia, available in several versions, which illustrates all the Vietnam birds. There is also a Vietnamese language bird book that was somewhat useful when trying to explain what birds we wanted to see to our guide, but it did not have the Tam Dao specialties in it.
I want to thank Mr Toon DeBruyn who provided information on both sites and contact info for Mekki.
RELATED TRIP REPORTS
H. Hendriks, March 2006: http://www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/vietnam/vietnam-10/vietnam-march-2006.htm
D. Teece, March 2005: www.surfbirds.com/trip_report.php?id=717
G. Roberts, December 2003 – January 2005: www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/vietnam/viet4/viet-jan04.htm
R. Holland, January 2002: www.birdtours.co.uk/tripreports/vietnam/viet3/viet-jan-02.htm
All trip reports have good information about travel, hotels, etc., but the later ones are better for birding details because of the changing conditions.