For nature lovers
A haven for lovers of nature and outdoor activities, Cat Tien National Park is one of six biosphere reserves recognised by UNESCO in Vietnam. The park protects one of the largest areas of lowland tropical rainforests in Vietnam and is home to many rare fauna and flora, as well as animals including Asian elephants, sun bears, gaur and a variety of smaller mammals.
Around mid-way between Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat -- it covers an area of about 720 square kilometres -- Cat Tien is not on the standard coastal tourist trail but if you’re keen to explore the national parks of Vietnam consider spending a few days here as it’d be hard to get bored in Cat Tien National Park, with many activities on offer.
Treks organised through park headquarters (or speak to your hotel) are a popular choice, with walks from half-day to overnight available. The overnight trek includes a homestay in Dac Lua village. A bear rescue centre, operated by WAR, is located at park headquarters and a primate rescue, rehabilitation and release project is on aptly named Gibbon Island. The other animal-related attraction -- besides the wildlife you will see all around the park -- is Crocodile Lake. Again, aptly named. An entry fee is applied for both.
Bicycles are a good way to get around and can be hired at the HQ and Ta Lai Longhouse. Inside the park it’s all proper roads so if you want more of an adventure you’re best off finding mountain-biking routes outside the park. Ta Lai Longhouse can help with this and can also arrange kayaking excursions if you prefer to travel on water.
Boat trips can also be arranged with the park, for example, from HQ to Ta Lai commune, which is home to S’Tieng and Ma minorities. Other activities on offer include night safaris and bird-watching tours or just relax by the river with a book. It’s a wonderful escape from city life.
Where to stay
Until a few years ago the only option was to stay in the park-run accommodation, but private offerings have sprung up in and around the park and provide a variety of styles and levels of a bed for the night.
It’s just as well, because the park accommodation is uninspiring. That’s a shame, because the concept and the setting -- single level buildings scattered around gardens at the park headquarters -- should be charming, and the location is convenient, but these are government-run and neither the gardens nor the rooms have been kept well. That said, one block -- named Gaur -- has been refurbished, so while still bland the rooms are at least freshly painted. Prices start at 580,000 VND for the smallest rooms, mould included, and go up to just over 1.1 million VND for the rooms in Gaur.
The other option inside the park is Forest Floor Lodge. Forest Floor Lodge was built in 2009 and is run by an Englishman and his Vietnamese wife. It is right in the middle of the secondary forest overlooking the river and is a big leap up from the park accommodation, offering ensuite rooms in wooden houses and permanent tents built on platforms overlooking the river. The setting is a dream for those interested in wildlife and big terraces with loungers have been considerately incorporated into the design of the tents so you can make the most of the view. Other accommodation is in wooden houses. Rooms are spacious and well-equipped with decent bathrooms, minibar and air-con, but they do come at a price: starting from around US$100 in low season (the rainy season, running from around May to September) and running up to around US$200. A restaurant and bar are on site. Forest Floor Lodge is a kilometre from park headquarters.
Outside the main park gate, on the other side of the river, Hamlet 4 has a few options on offer. We checked out Green Bamboo Lodge Resort and found a selection of basic bamboo huts, many with small terraces overlooking the river. Staff were very friendly and welcoming, food is served in the on-site restaurant and a communal deck next to the river would be a great place to relax with a book or some new friends. Prices start at 400,000 VND. If walking towards the boat station, take the last left and walk around 200 metres to reach the resort.
Other places in Hamlet 4 include Green Hope, River Lodge and Cat Tien Jungle Lodge, a bit further from the river. All can be booked on Agoda.
Moving away from the park headquarters, Ta Lai Longhouse is located 13 kilometres away from the main gate, at the end of the national park, and is the result of an eco-tourism initiative to both protect the park and enhance the livelihoods of the locals. Accommodation is in a wooden longhouse on mattresses on the floor underneath mosquito nets, so although screens can be placed between the beds, it’s not a place for those who like their privacy. Very clean shared toilet and shower facilities are in a brick building outside the longhouse. Beds are 450,000 VND per night, including breakfast, so it’s not as cheap as you might expect for shared accommodation, but 150,000 VND of the price goes into a community development fund and the setting and activities on offer count for a lot. Lunch and dinner can be arranged for 150,000 VND per person -- and the food is excellent.
Where to eat
Where you eat will largely depend upon where you stay as you’re likely to eat most of your meals -- dinner at least -- at your hotel or guesthouse. If you are out and about in the national park, you can eat at one of the restaurants at HQ. The Yellow Bamboo Restaurant (Nha Hang Tre Vang) is located next to the information centre and a better option than Dipterocarpus -- don’t ask -- in terms of food and surroundings. The menu consists of reasonably priced Vietnamese rice, noodle, meat and fish dishes – expect to pay around 150,000 VND for a dinner of stir-fried chicken, rice and a vegetable side with a drink, less if you just want noodles or stir-fried rice.
How to get there
Nam Cat Tien National Park is around 160 kilometres northeast of Ho Chi Minh City and 175 kilometres south of Dalat. Coming from Ho Chi Minh City you have two bus options. Either take the Phuong Trang Dalat sleeper bus from 272 De Tham Street to Tan Phu post office and take a taxi or motorbike taxi (xe om) from there, or go to the Mien Dong bus station and jump on a minibus taking you directly to the park gate.
We’d recommend the former option because as uncomfortable as sleeper buses can be for tall or wide people, at least you get your own space and the drivers aren’t quite as crazy or as horn-happy as on the minibuses. The sleeper bus takes around four hours and costs 220,000 VND. The minibus is a cheaper option at around 100,000 VND and you won’t have to pay for a transfer unless you’re staying at Ta Lai Longhouse.
If you take the sleeper, your hotel may be able to arrange a motorbike taxi or taxi to pick you up in Tan Phu, but you’ll likely find xe om drivers waiting by the bus drop off and keen to take you. A fair price to Ta Lai is 100,000 VND and 150,000 VND to the park, but they’ll ask for more so be prepared to negotiate and pay a bit more than that if necessary. You are, after all, stuck without them.
Other options are to go by taxi -- around 2 million VND from HCMC -- or self-drive motorbike. Further details about location can be found on one of the Cat Tien National Park website for those making their own way to the park.