EXPERIENCE AN EPIC SAFARI IN VIETNAM
“Good morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test. This is rock and roll. Time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ!” Robin Williams’ wake-up call for the troops in the iconic Eighties movie, Good Morning Vietnam is cinema gold. Here at TAG Safari, we’d like to give it our own personal treatment. “It’s time to rock it on safari from the hill-tribe valleys to the staggering natural wilderness of this easternmost country of the Indochina Peninsula!” Commence packing. YOU ARE NOW HERE Hot and moist Vietnam has China as its northern neighbor, with Laos and Cambodia to the west. As for its maritime borders, it shares those with Thailand via the Gulf of Thailand, and the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia via the South China Sea. Travel from the majestic triangular Red River Delta in the north to the low-level plains of the Mekong River Delta in the south. Here, a string of rivers and canals escort massive amounts of sediment, so much so that the delta advances up to 80 m (262 ft) into the sea every year! Down south, it’s coastal lowland country, as well as the home of the Annamite mountain range and sprawling forests. Up north there is the majestic Fansipan mountain range (also known as Phan Xi Păng), located in the Lào Cai Province. It’s the highest mountain in Vietnam, reaching 3,143 m (10,312 ft) high. Then all along Vietnam, from the north to south, islands dot the way. Phú Quốc is the largest. The Hang Sơn Đoòng Cave, only discovered as recently as 2009, holds the title of the largest (and most spectacular!) cave passage in the world, while the Ba Bể Lake takes gold in the lake department. Then, there’s the Mekong River, Vietnam’s king of rivers. Are you up for intrepid exploring? HEY! WHO ARE YOU? The range of Vietnam’s habitats is extensive. Equatorial lowlands, high plateaus, and ridiculously photogenic alpine peaks make up the mix. And who roams around these parts? Just imagine, 275 species of mammals, 800 bird species, 180 different reptiles, a robust 80 amphibian species and hundreds of species of fish, then multiply that by 10 and that’s how many species of invertebrates there are. What’s so beautiful is that every so often a new species rears its ears, tentacles, gills or paws to baffle scientists and safari-goers alike. Elephants, bears, tigers, leopards, crocodiles, and, of course, a good number of mischievous monkeys, snakes and lizards will criss-cross your path. A SAFARI? A TRIP TO A WILDLIFE PARK? HEADING FOR THE RAINFOREST? Choose from between 20 wildlife parks, national parks, game parks, wildlife sanctuaries, state parks, and wildlife reserves. Is that enough to make your toes curl in your safari boots? Even if you’re not an animal-Einstein, your safari guide will know the best path to follow and the road to take to get you closer to the fauna. THAT’S NOT JUST ANY BEAR; IT’S A SUN BEAR… How lovely is that name? They’re also known as ‘honey bears.’ It’s because of a sweet, sticky goo that constitutes many of their diets. Talk about being a sucker for a piece of honeycomb. Look out for a characteristic crescent-shaped patch on their chests. They’re usually jet-black, but there are some with reddish or gray-colored fur. They’re considered one of the smallest bears on earth. They are short and sleek, and only 120 to 150 cm (47 to 59 in) in length. This is by no means a reason to underestimate them (their size does not imply a perpetual serenity). These guys can react quite aggressively if they’re surprised. When feeding, the sun bears’ unusually long tongue – 20 to 25 cm (8 to 10 in) – comes into play to surprise little insects and gather as much honey as possible. Their teeth are quite imposing, especially the canines. Sun bears will open tropical hardwood trees with those powerful jaws and claws in pursuit of, yes, you guessed it, insects, honey and larvae. The sun bear's head is gigantic, broad and heavy in relation to its body and their palate is wide in proportion to the skull. Overall, our sun bear uses its inward-turned front feet, its flattened chest and powerful forelimbs with imposing claws, to climb the day away. VIETNAM’S FINEST FAUNA Here’s a quick reference of authentic Vietnamese animals and where you’re bound to see them: In the hill-like, old-growth forests throughout the whole of the country: The red-shanked douc (the Vietnamese word for ‘torch’) is a canopy dweller. If you spot one, you can be sure there are another four to fifteen nearby. You can spot these more specifically in the Central Highlands from Pleiku in the south to Vinh heading northwards. With a prominent, almost helmet-shaped, casque on its beak, the Great Hornbill is one bizarre-looking bird. It appears to be nearly animated. The thing is, this protrusion has no purpose really. Scientists reckon it's merely a result of sexual selection. In the mountain forests of Northern Vietnam, quite close to the Chinese border: To catch a glimpse of a snub-nosed monkey, you’ll need to head up north. These guys live in groups of up to 600, dispatching into smaller groups during the winter season. (A heads-up in the audio department… their vocal range is extensive and piercing – perfect to scare off anything that would be interested in dining on a snub nose.) Straight ahead towards Đắk Lắk Province: Smaller in size than their African counterparts, Indian elephants’ numbers are minimal, but they are protected in reserves and sanctuaries. Simply everywhere in Vietnam, with the Mekong Delta being the only exception: The comical Pygmy slow loris has a large set of eyes and it crawls along at a casual pace at night, looking for insects, fruits, sap and nectar for dessert. They extract the sap in trees by drilling a hole in the bark with their razor-sharp teeth. Talk about DIY. When threatened, they simply go into freeze mode, which is amusing to witness. Its effectiveness is doubtful, though, as it makes for an easy target. In Northern Vietnam, on jungle cliffs and in caves: Vietnam is filled with frogs, but we’d like to point out the Vietnamese mossy frog in particular. It has the strangest appearance because of the texture and appearance of its skin – a green body with black spots resembling a clump of moss. Expect a safari badge when you spot them because they are camouflage kings. In South and Southeast Asia: Large Asian water monitor lizards live near water and can grow up to 2 m (6.5 ft) long. Some are, well, city dwellers, as they’re seen near Ho Chi Minh City, skulking around the canals and rivers in search of rodents, fish, crabs, and birds to prey on. Their powerful tails make them accomplished swimmers, but they also use them to whip anything and everything that’s threatening. In most rural areas in the country: Water buffaloes are the strongmen of Vietnam; they are workhorses really. They help to till rice paddies and haul heavy wagons filled with supplies in rural areas. This magnificent beast plays a significant part in Vietnamese folklore and tradition. For many children, looking after water buffalo falls on their shoulders, and in Vietnam, there are three million of them – water buffaloes, not children. Hopefully not at your feet, but in most of South and Southeast Asia: Yes, Burmese pythons are to be found in Vietnam... Before this sends chills down your spine, they are afraid of people so they generally keep their distance’ preferring watery areas where they dine on small mammals and birds. I’M IN A HUT… Vietnam is staggeringly beautiful. The Cat Tien National Park is a wondrous protected area and lies conveniently halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat. The safari-goer is spoilt for choice, what with trekking, cycling, and wildlife spotting all offered. Lounge in comfortable huts on stilts as you watch gibbons and langurs go about their business in the natural environment of this primate center. Ba Be National Park, on the other hand, is perfect for adventurous safari-goers with its majestic limestone mountains, deep valleys, and evergreen forests. Expect waterfalls, caves, and lakes, along with 550 different species of flora and an abundance of birds and animal species. Observe its abundant wildlife by boat, via trekking or, if you want to work those muscles, on a mountain-biking excursion. The local Tay community is renowned for their sublime hospitality. I’M IN THE SURF… Maybe you’d also like to make a note in your itinerary of the heavenly destination that is the Con Dao Islands, with its magical beaches, pristine diving sites, and wildlife-infused rain forests. What better place is there to give that new bathing suit with the neon pineapples of yours a proper baptism. WHEN SHOULD I HEAD NORTH, TO THE CENTRAL REGION AND SOUTH? The best time to go on safari in the north is between March and May, and from September to November – you’ll be spared the incessant summer heat and the cold winter downpours. Vietnam’s central region has more of a coastal climate. Between January and August is your best bet – heavy rains do fall in October and November, while May and August crank up the heat. If you head south, December until April is just the time. Unlike up north, the south experiences consistently warm and ambient temperatures all year round. So, choose a date and head to the heart of Vietnam with its staggering natural beauty.