Around Ho Chi Minh City

Cu Chi Tunnels - Tay Ninh - Nui Ba Den - One Pillar Pagoda - Can Gio - Buu Long Mountain -Tri An Falls - Vung Tau - Long Hai - Loc An Beach - Ho Tram Beach - Ho Coc Beach - Binh Chau Hot Springs - Cat Tien National Park - Con Dao Islands


IDD Code: (+84) 61
One of the outstanding gems of the region,the 72,000-hectare Cat Tien National Pane (Tell:fax 669 228; adult/child 50,000/20,000d; 7am-10pm)comprises an amazingly biodiverse region of lowland tropical rain forest. The hiking, mountain biking and bird-watching arc easily the best in Southern Vietnam. Always call ahead for reservations as the park can accommodate only a limited number of visitors. In the 2nd century AD the Cat Tien area was a religious centre of the Funan empire, and ancient Oc-Eo cultural relics have been discovered in the park. Cat Tien was hit hard by defoliants during the American War, but the large old-growth trees survived and the smaller plants have recovered. Just as importantly, the wildlife has made a comeback and in 2001 Unesco added Cat Tien National Park to its list of biosphere reserves. Since then, infrastructure has improved markedly with decent overnight options. It's worth spending at least two full days here, if possible. Fauna in the park include 326 bird species, 100 types of mammal, 79 types of reptile, 41amphibian species, plus an incredible array of insects, including 400-odd species of butterfly. Many of these creatures are listed as rare and endangered, including the Javan rhinoceros. Considered one of the rarest mammals in the world, this unusual rhino exists only in Cat Tien (there are believed to be seven or eight living in the park) and on the island of Java, in Indonesia. Leopards are also believed to live in the park, while another unique creature found here is a type of wild ox called a gaur. Rare birds in the park include the orange-necked partridge, green peafowl and Siamese fireback. There is also a healthy population of monkeys. Leeches are a less desirable member of the local fauna so come prepared, especially during the wet season. Elephants roam the park, but their presence has caused some controversy. In the early 1990s a herd of 10 hungry elephants fell into a bomb crater, created during the American War, just outside of Cat Tien. Local villagers took pity on the elephants and dug out a-imp to rescue them. Tragically, since then 28 villagers have been killed by rampaging elephants. Theoretically, the problem could have been 'solved' by shooting the of the increasing competUion between Viet-nam's wildlife and its growing population for the same living space. Cat Tien also boasts a wide range of evergreen, scmidedduous and bamboo forests; some 1800 species of plants thrive in the park. Cat Tien National Park can be explored on foot, by mountain bike, by 4WD and also by boat along the Dong Nai River. There are many well-established hiking trails in the park, though the catch is you'll need to hire a guide (per half'/full day 60,000/120,000d), as well as transportation to and from the start of the trail (4WDs can also be rented for 120.000d per hour). Unfortunately, guides don't speak much English. Highly recommended is an overnight visit to the Crocodile "Swamp (Bau Sau), which is a 9km drive from the park headquarters and you have to trek the last 4km to the swamp; the walk takes about three hours return. It may be possible for smaller groups (four or less) to spend the night at the ranger's post here. It's a good place to view the wildlife that comes to drink in the swamp. Another evening activity is the night safari (160,000d) that the park offers. Wherever you decide to go, be sure to book a guide in advance and take plenty of insect repellent. The park lies 150km northeast off CMC and 40km south of Buon Ma Thuot and straddles the border of three provinces - Lam Dong, Dong Nai and Binh Phuoc.
Sleeping & Eating
There are simple, all-wooden shacks as well as comfier, concrete bungalows ( Tell 669 228; shack/bungalow 90,000/160,000d; near the park headquarters. The facilities here are new and in good condition; a pool and a tennis court are on hand. You can pitch a tent at the park's campsite (20,000d), though you'll need your own gear. There are also several small restaurants near the park entrance, including a simple thatch-roof canteen (mains 12,000d to 24,000d), which opens from 7am to 10pm, and a more modern shinier affair (mains 12,000d to 38,000d) serving heartier fare just down the path. It's open 7am to 8pm.
RegisSt Louis
Sometimes Vietnam gets a bad rap from travellers. After spending a few days in HCMC or Hanoi, the offers of motorbike and cyclo rides, invitations to dine here or come meet beautiful ladies over there can seem a constant stream of tiresome background noise. A few unfortunate events -suffering petty theft, getting grossly overcharged - can even lead to cynicism. The Vietnamese are only after my money,' one jaded traveller told me. Although there are undeniably opportunists in Vietnam - as there are anywhere in the world -these are a small (but unfortunately highly visible) faction. Meanwhile, benevolent, golden-hearted souls go about their days largely invisible to travellers. Sometimes it takes misfortune to bring them out into the open. During research for this book, I had my own minor crisis while motorbiking a lovely but totally empty stretch of road between Vung Tau and Ho Coc, south of HCMC. I was at least 10 km from the nearest town and an hour's ride from my hotel when my bike sputtered and died. It was late in the day and the sun was setting. After a few moments of feeling sorry for myself and some fruitless tinkering with the silent engine, I began pushing the bike. I covered about 500m when a young couple pulled up next to me and offered help. Although the two spoke little English, the man explained that he would push me - his foot against the back peg of my bike as he drove along, the two of us balanced closely together. He guided me to a shop of his friend, who was unable to fix it, and then he insisted on pushing me the rest of the way to Vung Tau. When we finally arrived, in darkness after a rather gruelling journey, he refused any payment. Instead he invited me out for a drink, and even then he wouldn't let me pay. It was a humbling encounter, meeting such a generous soul who was willing to put himself out for a stranger. It's just one of the reasons why travelling in Vietnam is so rewarding: it's less about seeing the sights than mingling with a truly great people.
Langa Lave
The HCMC-Dalat road (Hwy 20} spans this reservoir, which is crossed by a bridge. Lots of floating houses, where families harvest the fish underneath, can be seen here. It's a very scenic spot for photography, and most tourist vehicles on the HCMC-Dalat road make a short pit-stop here.
Volcanic Craters
Near Dinh Quan on Hwy 20 there are three-volcanoes-now extinct, but nonetheless very impressive. The craters date from the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago. You'll have to do a little walking to see the crater. One is on the left-hand side of the road, about 2km south of Dinh Quan, and another on the right-hand side about 8km beyond Dinh Quan, towards Dalat.
Underground Lava Tubes
A bit beyond the volcanic craters, towards Drtlat, are underground lava tubes. These rare caves were formed as the surface lava cooled and solidified, while the hotter underground lava continued to flow, leaving a hollow space. Lava tubes differ sharply in appearance from limestone caves (the latter are formed by underground springs). While limestone caves have abundant stalactites and stalagmites, the walls of lava caves are smooth. The easiest way to find the lava tubes is to first find the teak forest on Hwy 20 between the Km120 and Kml 24 markers. The children who live around the forest can point you to the entrance of the tava tubes. However, you are strong Sy advised not to go into the tubes by yourself. It's best to have a guide and, furthermore, inform someone responsible where you are going. You definitely need to take a torch (flashlight). For more information on the waterfalls and other attractions along Hwy 20, see the Central Highlands chapter .
Getting There & Away
Whichever way you come. you'll be dropped off at the park office, 100m before the ferry across the Dong Nai River to park headquarters. Buy your entrance ticket from the park office, which will include the price of the ferry crossing. The most common approach to the park is from Hwy 20, which connects Dalat with HCMC. To reach the park, follow the narrow 24km road, which branches west from Hwy 20 at Talai junction (Nga Ban Talai). 125km north of HCMC and 175km south of Dalat The road to the park is signposted at the junc-tion, and with your own wheels getting there shouldn't be a hassle. By bus, take any Dalat-bound service (35,000d, four hours) and tell the driver to let you off at Vuong Quoc Gia Cat Tien. From this junction, you can hire a motorbike (they're always around) to take you the remaining 25km to the park (around 40,000d). Another approach to Cat Tien National Park is to take a boat across Langa Lake and then go by foot from there. Dalat Holidays/Phat Tire Ventures is a reputable ecotour operator in Dalat and is a good place to inquire about this and other access options from the central highlands area (including mountain-hiking to the park from Dalat). Although many travel agencies from HCMC operate tours to the park, we've received mixed reviews from the budget agencies. For a reputable customised birding, bike or hiking tour, contact Sinhbalo Adventures.