Apart from the birding, Vietnam also has a very rich culture, a wide diversity of people, and great scenery, making it worthwhile to visit for both birders and non-birders alike.
Regrettably, many people still associate Vietnam with war and hardship. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Vietnam today is a fast-developing country with good infrastructure, extremely friendly people, and cheap to boot. Apart from the birding, Vietnam also has a very rich culture, a wide diversity of people, and great scenery, making it worthwhile to visit for both birders and non-birders alike.
Vietnam, being 1,600 km long, with over 3,000 km of coastline, has a wide variety of habitats and seasons. There is really no best time to visit Vietnam, it will almost always rain in one part of the country, and be hot and dry in another part. In the very north, it can get quite cool; it even snows occasionally, in winter, whereas the south is hot and humid year-round. However, from a birding point of view, winter is probably best for such specialties as Black-faced Spoonbill, Sarus Crane, and Spoon-billed Sandpiper, amongst others.
Although much of the forest that used to cover Vietnam has been destroyed, there is still excellent birding to be done here. However, due to excessive hunting, the best birding is confined to the numerous national parks in Vietnam. There are a number of tour operators who specialize in nature and birding trips, but the country can easily be explored independently. Although English is not much spoken outside the cities, patience, sign language and a good sense of humor will get you anywhere. With ten endemics, the largest number in mainland SE Asia, and a total of 826 species, Vietnam must rank as one of the prime countries in Asia for bird watching. Visiting Cat Tien, Da Lat, Bach Ma, Cuc Phuong, Xuan Thuy and Sapa during a 3-week trip should easily net 200+ species.
Vietnam is a very safe country to travel (apart from the traffic); with crime being primarily confined to pick-pocketing, especially in Saigon. One word of warning though: Parts of Vietnam were heavily bombed and mined during the wars, certain areas, especially along the old DMZ are still no-go areas. Do stick to well-trodden paths in those regions.
Cat Tien National Park
Cat Tien National Park is one of the top birding spots in Vietnam, but enough has been written about it elsewhere to need mention here, anyone making the trip to Da Lat should visit Cat Tien en route.
Cuc Phuong National Park
This National Park was established in 1962, making it the first National Park in Vietnam. Only 120km South-West of Hanoi, it can be reached in less than three hours. The main entrance is accessible with public transport; the best place to stay though is Bong substation, a further 16km into the park. Try and avoid weekends, as it can get very busy and noisy, Cuc Phuong is a popular day trip for school classes out of Hanoi. With 307 species of birds counted so far, you should plan at least a couple of night's stay. Silver Pheasant are easy to see on the road between the main gate and the substation. Other birds of note are Pied Falconet, Red-collared Woodpecker, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Blue-rumped and Bar-bellied Pittas (common on the trails around the substation); and Limestone Wren-Babbler in the valley to the Silver-cloudy Top.
Da Lat Plateau
One of the three Endemic Bird Areas identified by BirdLife International in Vietnam, the plateau is home to such endemics and near-endemics as Collared Laughingthrush, Vietnamese Greenfinch, and Grey-crowned Crocias. The best places to bird are Tuyen Lam Lake, close to the town of Da Lat, and Mount Lang Bien. Once again, accommodation is plentiful, Da Lat is a must with newly-wed Vietnamese, and transportation can easily be arranged locally. About 300km from Saigon the road trip takes about 5-6 hours, and there are daily flights.
Located in the far North-west of Vietnam, near the Chinese border, Sapa is located close to Mount Fan Si Pan (the highest peak in SE Asia at 3,142 meters) and the Hoang Lien Nature Reserve. The location and altitude mean seeing birds that will be hard to see elsewhere in Vietnam. Sapa can easily be reached from Hanoi by night train, there is plenty of accommodation in all price ranges, and excursions can easily be organized locally. Ham Rong Botanical Garden in Sapa is well worth checking out early in the morning for Blue Whistling Thrush, Blue and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Flycatchers, Bulbuls and Parrotbills. The road between the Silver Waterfall and the Pass of Clouds a few kilometers out of Sapa makes for some excellent birding, the only place in Vietnam where Little Forktail has regularly been seen.
Tra Su Cajuput Forest
This is a privately owned Mangrove Forest about one hours drive from Chau Doc, near the Cambodian Border. Whilst commercially used, the enormous heronry at the core is protected. It can only be reached by boat, arrangements can be made at the entrance (be ready for herons expelling various body fluids on you). The heronry holds hundreds, if not thousands, of Little Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Javan Pond Herons. Darters are also common, as are Lesser Whistling-ducks and Spot-billed Ducks.
This is the Red River Delta, about 120km South-East of Hanoi. A Ramsar site, it is best visited in winter for specialties like Black-faced Spoonbill, Nordman's Greenshank, Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Saunder's Gull. A word of advice: not only is Xuan Thuy extremely hard to find if you don't speak Vietnamese, it is also inside a military area, as I found out in person, the soldiers are very suspicious of birders, loaded with optics, that have not made prior arrangements. It is advisable to make prior arrangements for a permit and accommodation through, for example, the BirdLife International office in Hanoi. Accommodation is just more than basic, the food is horrible, and the boat trip to the mud flats (a must) a real rip-off, but the quality of birds more than makes up for it.