© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
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Cat Tien National Park, Dong Nai: rare primates and more

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Despite its relative proximity to Saigon and the inevitable hordes of domestic tourists on holidays, Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai province remains a great place to observe wildlife. The protected forest is not only full of animals - seemingly sufficient protection measures keep them relaxed an easy to see. Even the extremely rare Javan rhinos have been sighted in the past, but those are now believed to be extinct. The main attraction of Cat Tien, arguably, is its primates, particularly the endemic yellow-cheeked gibbon. But there is much, much more.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

The main zone

Most easily accessible areas of the park are covered in thick tropical forest, mainly secondary. Dominance of deciduous trees means that during the dry season a lot of the foliage is shed, exposing the higher canopy levels and making gibbons very easy to see. You can always locate them by their shrilling, yapping call - they usually sing in the morning. Another interesting primate species is black-shanked douc langur, also pretty common. Surprisingly, macaques, those ubiquitous pests, although present in Cat Tien, are shy and few in numbers. So are silvered langurs - you would be better off seeking them in Thailand. Night walks allow to spot slow loris, palm civets and porcupines. For those with less patience, such as local tourists, the park highlights a few exceptionally big trees as attractions: a good background for selfies, apparently.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Other areas

One extremely worthy excursion is a visit to the Crocodile Lake,  about 13 km from the headquarters. This can be done entirely on foot, or else one can cycle or take a canter truck for the first nine km or so. The lake is predictably full of big Siamese crocodiles, who float near the surface with the snout sticking out and seem to ignore all terrestrial animals, including humans, with great aloofness. If you are lucky, you may catch one of them busking on the shore, or witness a hunting scene - a frightened fish leaping out of the water, followed by a gaping crocodile maw. The swampy shores give temporary shelter to migratory storks. There are two rehabilitation centers in the park, both looking more like zoos. Considering the entrance fee, they can be skipped in favor of more wildlife watching and jungle hiking. River rapids attract Vietnamese picnickers, but are not particularly spectacular. Other parts of the riverbank are difficult to approach because of thick bamboo and swamp palm growths but may yield a sighting of a fishing owl or, at night, a leopard cat.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Cat Tien National Park is very easy to reach from Saigon: direct buses depart roughly hourly from Mien Dong Bus Station. One bus a day also connects it with Dalat. For other destinations, you would first have to get to Phuong Lam - a stop on the highway traversing Dong Nai province. The distance is 19 km - unless you are cycling, you will have to walk, hitchhike or take a motorbike taxi. The park is separated from the namesake village by a river - note that the ferry across it runs officially from 06:00 till 20:30 (21:30 in dry season), but in reality the boatman leaves around 19:00. Two accommodation options inside the national park are great if you want to see rare wildlife right from your porch, but cost much more than the guesthouses in the villages. Bicycles can be rented at the headquarters to explore the forest roads, but your best chance to see gibbons and other primates is to walk on lesser trails, some designated with blue markings on tree trunks, some not at all. It goes without saying that a hike like this requires at least a bit of experience, proper footwear, and either a reliable GPS or a compass. In case you have not done it before - eyes are almost useless in the jungle. Use your ears.

Cat Tien National Park, Dong Nai
Cat Tien National Park, Dong Nai
Cat Tien National Park, Tân Phú, Đồng Nai, Vietnam

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The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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