Cat Tien National Park

Viper - Cat Tien
Photo: Piyush Chauhan

By Steve White

It’s just getting light as I walk out the front gate of the Forest Floor Lodge. I’m set on exploring but not sure in which direction yet. I pause and become aware of a hum, rising and falling. It sounds electrical yet there are no wires overhead. I do a 360˚. It’s coming from the ground and I stoop to see a thick vein of thousands of insects crawling busily: termites. I am listening to the pulsing of their nest.

I’m roughly halfway between Ho Chi Minh and Dalat, in Cat Tien National Park, an important refuge for forest species that have been hounded out of much of their territory elsewhere in Vietnam.

There are lodges outside the park but I’ve chosen to stay at the Forest Floor Lodge, started by passionate naturalist Dr Roy Bateman and his wife, Mai. Sat by the Ben Cu rapids (below), where the river looks like the delicious blending of condensed milk and coffee in a classic cà phê sua dá, the resort is rustic rather than refined. You are here for the animals after all, not for creature comforts. It’s the sort of place where dinner is interrupted several times each night as something interesting lands on the table or is brought over by one of the enthusiastic resident guides.

The jungle is scarcely held at bay by the four walls of my room. A mosquito net takes care of the biggest night-time nuisance but I have to watch it while walking around barefoot in case of marauding millipedes and centipedes.

With no tigers or dangerous predators in Cat Tien, it’s just things that crawl and slither you need to watch out for on the trail too: snakes and scorpions, as well as many-footed insects.

I have just two days to get a taste of what Cat Tien offers: the bare minimum given what there is to see. As usual in a jungle environment, maximising your chances of seeing stuff means going out at both ends of the day, so I rise with the sun, siesta after lunch and head out again in late afternoon.

Cat Tien river
Photo: Steve White

Evenings are perfect for pedalling out on one of the resort’s mountain bikes to Crocodile Lake, or the watchtowers along the road beyond the headquarters to sit and watch. A mother sambar and her fawn came within yards of my tower one evening, then later, in the last of the light, out came a whole herd of gaur, a large indigenous species of wild cattle. I watched for 30 minutes as they fed, inching closer to me until eventually I had to make an intentionally noisy departure, or else be stuck in the tower in the dark with gaur all around.

Mornings, as the forest awakes, are about more than just birds, for there are five types of monkey here, as well as slow loris and an ape: the endangered yellow-cheeked gibbon. The gibbon is a particular focus of the park’s Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre, located across the river.

More conveniently, a group of gibbons are often to be found in a stand of especially large trees close to the park headquarters. They’re famously hard to spot until they start their mesmerising song. A whooping sound, like a looped special effect from a sci-fi movie, it rises to an incredible crescendo. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never mistake if for anything else.