Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cat Tien National Park: An Outdoor Adventure in South Vietnam

Finally able to use some of my accumulated frequent flyer miles (40,000 on Asiana), I scheduled an impromptu flight down to Ho Chi Minh City to see my girlfriend for the second time in a month. Needless to say, she was excited, and she planned an adventurous weekend in Cat Tien National Park, about 150km from Saigon.

Excited to see real primates!

A traveler to Vietnam must understand that the “highways” in the country are quite slow, and distances take much longer to travel than in more developed countries. For us, this journey took about 3.5 to 4 hours each way, meaning we were only traveling about 40km/hr.

We meant to depart early from Saigon but we had an oh-so-nice! boutique hotel (I Am Vietnam — highly recommend) and we wanted a little extra time to enjoy the room and the lavish breakfast. By the time we finally reached the bus depot we had missed the direct 10:30am passenger van to Cat Tien (no A/C, I am told), so my girlfriend quickly improvised and found an 11am air-conditioned van traveling north that could drop us off about 25km from the park. The rest of the journey we would complete by taxi (400,000 VND). This is not something that an English-speaking tourist would be able to figure out, though. The journey was crammed full of people in a van that inconceivably kept picking up passengers en route, even though by all appearances it was quite full. Definitely not a luxurious mode of transport — I don’t know how one could do this without A/C.

We finally reached our lodging at about 3pm, the overpriced and uninspiring Forest Floor Lodge, about 1.5km from the park headquarters (thankfully there was a golf cart to transport us). We had missed our planned tour for the afternoon so we borrowed a couple bicycles and rode back to the HQ area for an early dinner, while a late shower burst outside. Our Night Safari tour at 6pm was “rain or shine”, so we bought some ponchos and sat on the top of a van that drove us out a bit into the wilderness. An extravagant adventure full of exotic animals it was not — we saw one snake and several packs of deer. The Vietnamese were fascinated by the deer … such common animals they are in American suburbs, but in Vietnam these are a real rural treat!

The hiking trail in the forest was a little difficult to bike on!

The second day was our big outdoor day. We woke up early (the power returned to life at 6:30am), ate a quick breakfast and took a boat to the Dao Tien Primate Rescue Center. This is an educational reserve where golden-cheek gibbons and other primates are placed after being rescued from illegal captivity in Vietnam or other countries. These animals need to be returned to full health and need to learn the skills to survive in the wild.

Later in the morning we rented bicycles and drove to the Crocodile Lake — 10km on a rocky road and 4km on a difficult and narrow trail in the forest… we hiked the last 1km to the lake. I was already exhausted, sweaty and hot after reaching the lake, which had no crocodiles or birds to see during the mid-day sun. Some men who were filming a wildlife documentary cooked us pork and we rejuvenated ourselves for the long ride back to Park HQ. My girlfriend and I sang songs to lift our spirits in the empty woods, and after a scary short boat ride and a scary 25km on the back of a speeding motorbike through the rural roads near Cat Tien, we finally reached the comfort of a sleeper bus that drove us the rest of the slow way back to Ho Chi Minh City. We watched American action movies like “Expendables 3” and Vietnamese-American music videos, and it was great to lay down flat to catch a nap.

Already exhausted, and we're not even all the way to Crocodile Lake yet

A lazy Monday in Ho Chi Minh City capped off my trip, and I slept as best I could on the red-eye back to Seoul for Tuesday morning. Someday I hope to be rid of those red-eye flights!


  1. Cat Tien national park was hit hard by defoliants during the American War, but the large old-growth trees survived and the smaller plants have recovered. In 2001 UNESCO added Cat Tien National Park to its list of biosphere reserves. As there are good overnight options, it’s worth spending at least two full days here, if possible include it to your vietnam tours

  2. What will you do if you have 4 days in myanmar ? Don’t forget to drop by Yangon, the city is located in the south of Burma. Come to the city, the first place you should go is Shwedagon Paya. This temple is the largest golden temple in Myanmar. If you want to deep into the beauty of nature, why don’t you visit Inle Lake, this place is the best to see the sunset at the end of the day. Stop in Inle Lake, let come to the traditional village in this area, you will have a chance to see how the locals use the filament from lotus stalks to weave.