Cat Tien National Park: Why Visit?
Cat Tien National Park is located in the South of Vietnam just a few hours from Saigon. The 72,000 hectares of tropical lowland rainforest make for some amazing hiking, mountain biking and animal spotting. Cat Tien is home to 100s of mammals. Although the larger mammals are rare so don’t expect to spot any tigers or elephants. You can still spot lots of smaller mammals like pangolin, deer, civets, otters and wild pigs. We were lucky enough to witness a Slow Loris climbing in the bamboo at night, which was amazing given our bad experience of seeing them held captive at Damnoen Saduak floating market.
As many of you may already know I am frequently dragged to places where Ben can find snakes. Cat Tien National Park was one of the most recent places we visited from Ho Chi Minh City. Cat Tien is not super touristy yet so is the ideal place to go if you want some adventure away from the tourist traps. But because it’s not yet experienced a full blown tourist boom it can be trickier to get there and there are a few decisions you’ll need to make for your visit.
Where to stay in Cat Tien? Inside or Out?
Whether you decide stay inside or outside the park depends on a few things. It’s probably the most important decision you have to make as it will affect your ability to do certain things and you will need to arrange transport with your accommodation. More on transport in a moment.
What activities you want to participate in
Some of the activities that you can do in the park require you to stay inside the boundaries. Access to the main entrance of the park is by boat that gets you across the river into the park. So you can’t get into the park until just after 6. Activities like the Gibbon Trek start about 4am but the boat only runs from 6am. So if you want to participate in that then you need to be inside the park. Similarly if you’re a nature enthusiast like Ben and want to wander around at night, which is the prime time to spot Slow Loris, Pangolin and loads of reptiles you can’t stay in the park until past 7pm which is the last boat crossing.
Your budget & your standards
If you’re on a small budget and want good quality accommodation, outside the park is best. There are a number of home stays and hotels based outside that can organise activities both outside and inside the park. They’re reasonably priced and good quality with lots of high reviews. Inside the park the options are more limited. There is the private hotel Forest Floor Lodges that charges around £143 a night! Very pricey but high standards. The only other option is to stay in the park owned accommodation which is cheap but very basic and not maintained so well. There is also the option to camp just inside the park near the main entrance but you will need your own tent.
Top tip: if you’re desperate to stay inside the park but can’t afford Forest Floor Lodges email them directly and see if they can do you a deal. We did just that and were able to get a decent discount for a 3 night stay in a really nice bungalow.
How to get to Cat Tien?
As it’s not super touristy getting there can be daunting. But it’s not that difficult and once you have booked accommodation you can email them directly. They will be happy to help you as they know that it’s not the easiest place to get to. Unless you have the budget to book a taxi all the way to your hotel you’re going to need to take the bus.
Bus from HCMC
You’ll need to take the Ho Chi Minh City – Dalat bus operated by FUTA. They are also called Phuong Trang. If you’re staying in HCMC it’s easy to find their offices, look for the bright orange ‘Phuong Trang’ sign. You need to tell the ticket seller that you want to go to ‘Nam Cat Tien’. Although many tourists solely refer to it as ‘Cat Tien’ the vietnamese call it ‘Nam Cat Tien’ so make sure you include that. I copied down the sentence in vietnamese to show to the operator but luckily he spoke very good english and it was no problem. The ticket to Dalat usually costs 210,000 dong but they should put the price down to 190,000 since you’re not going all the way.
Make sure you know where to get the bus from, usually it will be a minibus that takes you to a sleeper bus. There are busses pretty much every hour at 10 past. Make sure you ask what time you need to arrive. Also keep in mind that if you’re staying inside the park you need to arrive before 7pm to be able to get the boat across the river. Once you’re on the bus make sure that the bus driver or assistant knows where you want to get off.
Getting to your accommodation
Getting dropped off can be a little daunting. They will either drop you at the 142km mark or the 125km mark. The 142km mark is literally a petrol station at the side of the road. It’s closer to Cat Tien but there are less likely to be people there that can take you to Cat Tien. The 125km mark is the small town of Tan Phu, it’s more likely there will be taxis and motorbikes around that you can hire to take you to your accommodation.
If you have prearranged a pick up with your accommodation make sure they tell you where to get off, usually it will be at the 142km mark. You can ask them to write it in vietnamese in order to show to the driver. If you haven’t pre-arranged a pick up with your accommodation there will usually be some motorbike taxis (xe om) that can take you where you need to go, but it’s better to get off at the 125km mark.
If you’re staying inside the park you’ll then have to get over the river by using the boat.
Cost of Cat Tien
Fees in Cat Tien are complicated and it’s usually easier if you can arrange some kind of a package deal with your accommodation. The entrance to the national park is 50,000 dong but you will pay extra for everything else. Bringing bikes into the park is 50,000 dong, the boat over the river costs and many of the activities I talk about below all have separate entrance fees. Add that on to guide fees and it can add up. If you’re on a budget like we were be prepared to walk more and do things without a guide.
Things to do in Cat Tien
Cat Tien has lots of different trails that you can do without a guide. The Park HQ are notoriously useless so there’s not much point asking them for information, but you can try. Usually your accommodation should be able to give you some tips but if not it’s really easy to wander around and follow signs for trails such as the botanical trail. Once you’re in the park across the river just follow the concrete path to the right and you’ll pass Forest Floor Lodges, further up there are signs for some trails. You can also use maps.me which shows some of the footpaths.
If you’re hiking without a guide like we did make sure you have a working, fully charged GPS. Cat Tien is a jungle and you would be surprised how easy it can be to get lost even on the smaller trails. If you want to do some of the longer trails, it is still possible to do without a guide but you should never attempt them unless you’re experienced in the jungle, know the wildlife and have a GPS. Luckily I have Ben, who has all of these qualities.
One of the main attractions at Cat Tien is the Crocodile Lake, Bau Sau. Loads of tours go here and usually you will be driven 9km to that start of a 5km jungle trail to the Crocodile Lake. As we were on a budget we decided that we would just walk all the way. It can be done without a guide but beware. It is long. We seriously began to question why we decided to inflict this endless hike on ourselves. If you’re experienced hikers and are happy to trek for over 3 hours each way then go ahead. I will never do it again.
Your other option is to cycle up to the 5km mark and then walk. But as stated bringing bikes into the part costs 50,000 dong. You can also hire them. Entrance to the Crocodile Lake is 200,000 dong. You are told that you need to pay at the park entrance but we were told that you can also pay there. We did this without any problems.
At the Lake you have the chance to spot Siamese crocodiles and lots of other birdlife. There are viewing platforms and a shack where you can ask for them to prepare freshly caught fish for you for a price. The best time to see the crocodiles is around dusk at 5pm when they start getting active in the water. But bear in mind you won’t see a lot, the best thing to do is use a torch to catch their eye shine. That’s how you know there’s a crocodile there!
It’s also possible to stay at the Crocodile Lake in very basic accommodation if you want to see the sunrise. Your accommodation can arrange this for you. Bear in mind you will have to pay extra for a bathroom.
Early Morning Gibbon Trek
As stated previously you need to stay inside the park over the river to be able to do the early morning gibbon trek. It’s fairly pricey at $60 per person in a maximum group of four, but it means that you stay in a small group. This is your chance to hear the dawn chorus of the gibbons marking their territory. If you’re not lucky enough to spot gibbons on the first morning they usually offer a free second chance to see them.
If you’re not staying inside the park it is possible to stay one night at the park accommodation. But be warned the standard is extremely low. If you’re not comfortable sharing your room with creepy crawlies avoid it and go to Forest Floor Lodges.
Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre
This is often included as part of the gibbon trek. Otherwise you have to book a visit in advance which costs 300,000 dong. In order to get to the centre you need to take a boat from Park HQ which only operates twice a day. The centre specialises in rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing endangered primates from the region which have been victims of the illegal animal trade. They have a website where you can find more information.
Cat Tien Bear Rescue Centre
The bear rescue centre charges 150,000 dong for entrance. You will need a guide to visit so arrange this with your accommodation. It’s another rescue centre that cares for bears who have been a victim of the illegal bear bile trade. You can view the bears in a semi wild area from a viewing platform. In the early afternoon they return to their cages so a morning visit is best.
Wildlife & landscape at Cat Tien
I’ve already mentioned most of the wildlife found in Cat Tien. It’s generally safe to walk around with mostly small mammals and reptiles inhabiting most of the park. If you see any snakes that you’re not familiar with steer clear, don’t disturb them and let them go on their way. Cat Tien is home to many venomous species including Kraits (we found two) and cobras. Snake bites are rare only usually occurring when inexperienced people are handling them or if they are accidentally stepped on. Watch your footing and you’ll be fine.
The worst thing you’ll probably encounter are mosquitoes and leeches. Most tour operators will give you leech covers to stop them but make sure you’re also wearing DEET to deter both them and the mosquitoes. Use a mosquito net at night and cover up as much as you can.
The landscape in Cat Tien is beautiful, with some amazing view of the river and Ben Cu rapids from the rooftop restaurant at Forest Floor Lodges. It’s also relatively flat meaning it’s easy to hike, but the heat and humidity can be very draining. Make sure you have snacks and lots of water.
Of course you’re also going to need to leave Cat Tien at some point. Unless you go by car you’re going to need to get a bus. The easiest places to get to are wither Dalat or HCMC. We opted for Dalat. There is a local bus service that picks you up right by the park entrance over the river. The first bus leaves at 6:30am. Beware that this local bus also doubles up as a delivery van. Expect to share the cramped minibus with boxes of fruit, merchandise and even chickens piled up to the ceiling.
Your other option is to go back to Tan Phu, where you were dropped off and hail down a bigger bus going to Dalat. From Dalat you can arrange onward transport by bus to places like Nha Trang.
So that everything you need to know to plan a visit to Cat Tien! If you have any more questions or any advice to add leave a comment.
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