Cat Tien National Park consists of two separate segments:
- Cat Loc to the north and
- Nam Cat Tien - the eastern half of which is most often visited and contains the park headquarters.
The park has an area of about 720 km2 in three provinces: Dong Nai, Lam Dong and Binh Phuoc: approximately 150 km north-east of Ho Chi Minh City. It is one of Vietnam's most important and largest National Parks with now rare lowland woodland, containing areas of old-growth (primary) forest. To add to its conservation value, in the south-west it is contiguous with the Dong Nai Culture and Nature Reserve to the south-west.
There is an archaeological site on the northern bank of the Dong Nai River (just outside Nam Cat Tien, facing in). The site consists of a group of temples, belonging to a previously unknown Hindu civilization which probably inhabited it between the 4th century and 9th century CE (and possibly later). Excavations carried out between 1994 and 2003 have yielded a large number of a number of gold, bronze, ceramic, coloured stone, and glass artefacts, many of which are now in the Da Lat museum.
Cat Tien national park was protected in 1978, then the Cat Loc sector was incorporated in 1992 upon the discovery of a small rhinoceros population (an endemic sub-species of the Javan rhino); it was hunted and was declared extinct in 2011. Although poaching other species remains a serious problem, better protection can be achieved in Nam Cat Tien, which is half surrounded by the Dong Nai River.
The park woodland can be classified as seasonal tropical forest (semi-deciduous mixed jungle characterised by many climbing lianas), with large areas of grassland, bamboo and wetland.
Flora and fauna
Among the many attractions are: primates such as the golden-cheeked gibbon (see things to do), a wide range of birds, butterflies and, of course the forest itself. Spectacular trees include: 'Tung' Tetrameles nudiflora, afzel 'red wood' Afzelia xylocarpa and various Dipterocarps. More information, including species lists, can be found in a website about the Park.
It is possible, but unlikely, to see deer and wild boar during the daytime, when the forest is very quiet. Deer, civet cats and other animals including gaur (wild cows) are more active after dark and can best be seen on night safaris. Rare Siamese crocodiles can be seen at Crocodile Lake: again, best in the late afternoon onward.
Of the larger fauna, only a few wild elephants still survive in remote areas to the south-west of the park.
The area is highly seasonal:
- Mid-December - February is the peak season: deciduous trees lose their leaves and it is becomes increasingly easy to observe birds and other animals; it is also relatively cool.
- March - May can feel the hottest time of year (but remember the forest is much cooler than the city). Many birds are nesting at this time and mammals can be seen leaving cover in search of water.
- Mid-May - June see the start of the rains: this is usually the best time of year to come and see clouds of butterflies and watch the forest green-up after the dry season. Many of the trees flower and start to fruit: food for animals and birds.
- July - September: is the peak rainy season - the river is at its highest, sometimes reaching and flooding the roads. Visitors should be aware that certain paths cannot be negotiated at this time of the year. On the positive side, many trees, shrubs, gingers and orchids are in flower and this is the time to absorb the atmosphere of the 'steaming jungle' (biologists of course will always feel in their element).
- October - early December: with decreasing rains and temperatures, some visitors argue that this is an excellent time to visit Vietnam in general. In the park, the forest is still verdant and the rapids are vigorous.
With road improvements the 150-km journey from Ho Chi Minh City, avoiding the traffic jams in Bien Hoa, has become more reliable: in as little as 3 hours. Plan for at least 4 hours from/to Dalat. The nearest town on the main highway (route 20) is Tan Phu. The 25-km journey between Tan Phu and the ferry crossing into the park, 1 km beyond Nam Cat Tien village, can be problematical for the unprepared (see bus travel).
The first ferry crossing is usually at approximately 6:30AM and the last return trip is at 7PM. Park rules say that night crossings are prohibited, but 'exceptions' may be made. If you want see wildlife: primates and birds (early morning) or go on the night tour, you should stay across the river in the park.
Buses between Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat will drop you off on the highway at the Ta Lai/Nam Cat Tien turn-off or the post office (it is important to specify which one). By far the safest and most comfortable are the orange Futa buses (Tel: (08) 38 309 309) which ply between HCMC - leaving from 272 De Tham St. - and Dalat every hour during the day. The 2-level reclining couchettes are relatively comfortable, even if you are over 6 ft (1.8 m) tall! The price from HCMC to Tan Phu is 220,000 dong (Feb 2016): you may have to wait 1-2 hours for a ticket at peak times.
There are (less comfortable) local direct buses from the tourist office at the park entrance ferry jetty to Ho Chi Minh for around 80 000 dong which takes about 4-5 hours. The first bus leaves about 07:00, then hourly, be at the stop about 15 minutes before the bus leaves. It's best to verify with the officers at the tourist office/park entrance. They are very helpful.
Making prior arrangements with your accommodation for a pick-up from/to the highway at Tan Phu is highly recommended. There are often motorcycle xe om waiting to take tourists to the river that is on the edge of the park, but there have been accidents. Experienced travellers negotiate the price up front, but not booking transport and accommodation can prove to be a false economy (at least one visitor was charged 1 million dong and truly taken for a ride!); the Vietnamese apparently expect to pay 150,000 dong; however, you may have to pay more and are certainly taking a risk with motorcycles.
Taxi and train travel
Even if travelling on a budget, arranging transport as a group of 2-4 in a hired car can be a safe and fairly cost-effective option, unless you are lucky (or well informed) enough to find a mini-bus into Nam Cat Tien village (see onwards); it can be tricky to find the bus station (it's not marked). Typical prices are (Feb 2016):
- 500,000 dong from Tan Phu
- 2,000,000 dong from Ho Chi Minh city
- 3,000,000 dong from Dalat, Phan Thiet, etc. (4-hour journeys)
The nearest railway station is Long Khanh, which is more of a halt, on the main Hanoi - Hue - Ho Chi Minh City line. From Long Khanh to the park is a 2-hour taxi or car journey which is best to book in advance: prices in the region of 1,500,000 dong (Feb 2016).
Fees and permits
The fee scheme is a bit complicated and each trip will involve several layers of fees including separate items for (additional) entrance fees, tour guide and transport.
There is a 50,000 dong entrance fee (Feb 2016) which only seems to get you as far at the Park Headquarters. Expect to pay 'extra for everything', unless you have booked a 'package deal' with a hotel or tour company: which is easier and can often work out cheaper in the long run.
The fee for the guides is of questionable value. Most of the guides either don't speak much English, or don't have a lot of local expertise to offer. Make sure you talk to your guide before engaging them and don't feel guilty about doing a self-guided tour along the safer trails (marked green on the park map).
Around the accommodation areas, there a number of local walks possible, but only the Lagerstroemia trail, botanic gardens and heaven rapids should be attempted without a guide (see staying safe). A guide is not really necessary for the Crocodile Lake walk (below), although they can be helpful for spotting animals and birds. The park provides a trail map, but this can be misleading: at least two of the trails described as "medium difficulty" definitely require a guide and should never be attempted alone. Longer walks (in the dry season only) include:
- the Ecological Trail (5-8 km through the forest, depending on the route taken)
- through the forest to Crocodile Lake
- through the forest to Ta Lai
- through the forest to Nui Tuong (elephant) hills
- from the road at Nui Tuong through the forest to Crocodile Lake
- from Crocodile lake through the forest to Ta Lai.
A problem with many of these can be finding an English-speaking guide who is prepared to accompany you: especially on the longer walks through the forest. Staff at Forest Floor Lodge (see below) are also knowledgeable about the more adventurous trails through the park.
Bicycles can be rented. If you bring your own bicycle to the park, there is another 50,000 dong charge for bringing it into the park.
If not going to Crocodile Lake, a 45-minute night safari can be done. This involves trundling around on the top of a jeep, looking hopefully for wildlife that probably heard the ancient engine coming 10 minutes ago and has long since run away. On the upside, it's relatively cheap.
Go East - a British ape charity - have a gibbon sanctuary just outside the park, and have helped the park organise a Wild Gibbon Trek. The guides seem to take pride in their work, even if they aren't always able to speak English, and following (truly wild) gibbons around the jungle is cool. The tour includes a trip to the Go East sanctuary with an English-speaking guide.
There's also a National Park-run gibbon and bear sanctuary near the park headquarters. It's overcrowded because of limited funds (and lots of rescued bears), although there will be a new, larger Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary constructed soon; it is interesting to compare the approaches taken by Go East and the National Park.
There are two restaurants at the park headquarters. The more pleasant one ('Yellow bamboo') is behind the main office of the park headquarters. It is cafe-style with good, reasonably priced food, and a view to the river. The second restaurant ('Dipterocarpus') is around 100 m south.
The Forest Floor lodge offers pricier but better food to non-residents. It's about a mile away from the park headquarters, so bring a torch if you're staying in the park and walking up there.
At Crocodile Lake, expect to eat freshly caught fish from the lake at a reasonable price.
Drinks are available at the restaurants at the Park Headquarters and at the 'Hornbill bar' in Forest Floor Lodge (so called because it is one of the best places to observe Oriental-pied and greater hornbills as they cross the Ben Cu rapids, in the morning and just before sunset).
Beer and water can be bought when staying out at Crocodile Lake at a slight premium. Expect the beer to be warm, so you might want to consider carrying your own in. Filtered water from the lake is free.
Lodging in the park
There are various levels of accommodation around the park headquarters, although most is rather dated and expensive for the standard.
At Crocodile Lake simple accommodation is available. You'll pay extra for a bathroom.
There an eco-tourism lodge, Forest Floor Lodge which provides high-end accommodation and contributes financially to Park activities.
Tai Lai longhouse is a community-owned but professionally-managed lodge outside the park but on the same side of the river.
Lodging at the Nam Cat Tien side of the River
Various decent and cheaper options are on the other side of the river from the park, but staying here means you won't be able to get to the park in time to do the Gibbon Trek or bird-watching early in the morning, or the night safari. These include:
- Forest Call Lodge
- Green Bamboo Lodge
- Green Hope Lodge
- Jungle Lodge
If you bring your own tent, you can camp on a field adjacent to the headquarters for a fee; camping at Crocodile Lake is no longer permitted.
Make sure you bring mosquito repellent and cover up at night.
Leeches are common on the trail to Crocodile Lake and will happily bite through socks and light shoes. Leech socks can be rented for 20,000 dong a day (Feb 2016) at Park HQ, or provided free when staying in up-market accommodation.
Possibly the greatest danger when walking in the forest is getting lost. Apart from the clearly marked paths near the headquarters, Forest Floor Lodge and the botanical gardens area, you should either use a guide, or take a GPS.
There are two local mini-buses a day at 06:30 and 11:30 that will take you from the ferry crossing to Dalat for 120,000 dong (Feb 2016). After 07:00, hourly buses go to HCMC for 80,000 dong until 17:00 (Feb 2016). Expect them to cruise around the village for more than an hour to fill up the bus; after that, it is around 4 hours to reach the Ho Chi Minh Bus Terminal.