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Nam Cat Tien National Park is home to some of the world’s rarest, most impressive wildlife in one of the last lowland jungles in Vietnam.

Here live the only surviving Javan rhinos on mainland Asia; tigers; leopards, both common and clouded; rare smaller fishing, leopard, and Asian golden cats; massive gaur and banteng; wild Asian elephants; nearly extinct black-shank douc langurs, nattily attired in varicolored furs of red, brown, gray, black, and white; and hundreds of dazzling birds and butterfly species.

At least 62 mammal species, more than 300 birds and 40 kinds of reptiles have returned to jungles once defoliated and maimed by wartime bombing. Many huge old-growth trees survived and with regrowth, lush orchid-festooned forest now covers 87 percent of this 309-square-mile (800-km2) reserve about 95 miles (150 km) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) off Highway 20, of which almost half is a core “strict protection zone.”

Four kinds of storks—painted, woolly-necked, black-necked, and lesser adjutant—forage and nest with quiet yellow and cinnamon bitterns and stately purple and Chinese pond herons around its many lakes and ponds—some, former bomb craters. They and families of lesser whistling ducks and a few rare white-winged wood ducks—discovered here only recently—keep a wary look-out for cruising Siamese crocodiles and, from above, menacing crested serpent eagles and black-shouldered kites.

KingfisherEurasian kingfishers are a dazzling cobalt-winged blur when bright plumaged males pursue mates with shrill whistles along streambanks where they later nest. Males, able to hold beaksful of fish while still whistling loudly and distinctly, then bring food to tunnels where females incubate round, pinkish-white eggs, sometimes nestled on a litter of fish bones. They are found in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Forest glades conceal rare shy orange-necked partridges, detected most often by plaintive cuckoo-like “tututututu” calls in series sometimes of 60 or more, and equally scarce Germain’s peacock-pheasants cackling noisily. Banded and white-throated kingfishers swoop with rattling cries along streams. Greater flameback, laced, and pale-headed woodpeckers glean tree trunks and brilliant orioles, bee-eaters, and flowerpeckers investigate floral vines with such breathtaking neighbors as Asian emerald and drongo cuckoos, pompadour green pigeons, Asian fairy bluebirds, and stately, iridescent green peafowl.

A joint project by governments of Vietnam and the Netherlands with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) works to protect the reserve by raising public awareness of physical and biological values and generating income-producing jobs for local people in park protection, maintenance, and ecotourism. Their efforts have resulted in excellent lists of the reserve’s birds, mammals and butterflies, marked trails along rivers and through woods and grasslands. There are guides (limited English-speaking) and simple overnight accommodations. Trips with boats and drivers can be arranged for more remote parts of the park’s three sectors, located in three provinces but all managed by the Hanoi Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (rhinos are in the Cat Loc sector, slightly separate from Tay Cat Tien and Nam Cat Tien sectors).

Best times are drier November–April, when wildlife can be easier to spot (though wildlife in dense jungle is never easy to spot).

The park can be reached by public transport from Ho Chi Minh, also through government organized tour groups there—not always effortlessly. Roads can be in poor condition and transport unreliable. This is a wild undeveloped area with the rewards as well as inconveniences that betokens.

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