Somewhere in the middle of the hurly-burly of the Mekong Delta is another Garden of Eden, a little world of untouched beauty where nature is preserved in aspic - Tra Su Cajuput Forest (also known as Tra Su Bird Sanctuary). The Promised Land for wading birds possesses an extraordinarily peaceful and diverse wetland ecosystem typical of the Hau River’s western region, making it a treat for avid birdwatchers, ornithologists, botanists, as well as those enraptured by the waterways and floating life of the Mekong Delta.
The endangered Oriental Darter (Source: Internet)
What better way to take your Chau Doc tour to another level than to pamper your senses with some of the most amazing avifauna around in Tra Su Bird Sanctuary? Birding is not only a beneficial passion but also a rewarding hobby, so it is highly recommended for you and your children.
Tra Su Bird Sanctuary
Situated 10km from the Vietnam-Cambodia border and 22km west of Chau Doc Township, An Giang Province, Tra Su Nature Reserve is considered a quintessential destination of any Chau Doc tour. The 845ha of wilderness is teeming with wildlife, harboring an impressive biodiversity of wetland fauna and flora including 70 species of birds, 11 types of mammals, 23 kinds of fish, and 140 varieties of plants – dominated by cajuput trees (planted by forest wardens in 1983) and water lettuce. Many of them are scientifically important and some are featured on the Red List of Vietnam, notably painted stork, oriental darter, and lesser dog-faced fruit bat.
This nature reverse is open all year round (except for some short dry periods when the water recedes, in order to prevent wildfires), from 6 AM to 5 PM every day. General admission is free but you might want to opt for a guided tour to make the most of your bird expedition. You can rent a bike or bicycle at the main entrance to get to the smaller jetty deep inside the forest (about 5-6km), or you can take a motorboat instead. For further exploration of Tra Su, rent a bicycle and pedal around the surrounding dyke neatly lodged between the cajuput tree lines. Fill your lungs with fresh air and tune in to the sound of nature along the way. The choice is all yours!
List of tour prices (Source: Internet)
It’s best to plan your visit in the high-water season, which runs from September to November. During monsoons, canals are flooded and schools of fish (particularly silver Siamese mud carp) congregate from upper reaches, gleaming like jewels under the sunlight and moving water, brightening up a whole corner. The whole forested wetland is blanketed in its best attire of natural colors and is characterized with a calming sense of earthiness. This is one of those rare tourist destinations in Vietnam that is predominantly free of artificiality and human intervention.
The striking yellow color of Sesbania sesban flowers surging through the canals, together with the omnipresence of pink water lilies and lotuses, transform the picture perfect wetland into a living, floating work of art. Creamy-white, fluffy cajuput flower spikes cast mirror images on the rippling water, and the whole forest is redolent of their sweet, fruity, and slightly medicinal fragrance.
For culture-vultures fascinated by the idea of exploring new dynamics of livelihoods, carve out a little bit of time on your Chau Doc tour and pay a visit to the 645ha buffer zone of Tra Su. This tectonic wetland is laden with the distinctive cultural heritage of the indigenous Khmer people who thrive on ancestral handicrafts such as brocade weaving, palm sugar making, cajuput oil production, and raising honeybees that feed on cajuput flowers.
Endeavor into the grand world of birds
Washing through the water road on a motorboat (Source: Internet)
Every day in Tra Su is full of life and vitality. As the first sunlight bursts through the misty forest and casts a warm glow over it, birds start to rise from their roost and serenade the dawn, sounding like a robust orchestra of percussionists testing castanets. The bird kingdom is busiest from 7-9 AM, with swooping masses of birds whirling over your head and then gradually splitting up and dispersing in search of food. Amid the sweet chirping, listen for the sound of lapping water licking the boat hull and fish flopping ashore, which generally goes unnoticed by non-residents.
Grey-headed purple swamphens (Source: Internet)
As you zip through the velvety carpet of bright lime-green duckweed and the light dull green mat densely woven by rosette water lettuce, glance skywards and remind yourself you are gliding over the famous ‘water road’ of Tra Su and not an actual, sturdy one. While the buzzing sound of the motorboats pierce through the stillness and cause a little commotion among the elusive birds, the bold grey-headed purple swamphens stand in the weeds and search diligently for insects as if completely oblivious to human presence. If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch a glimpse of a mischievous monkey swinging from branch to branch.
A piece of Eden (Source: Internet)
Further into the forest, you will arrive at a smaller jetty lined with paddleboats that will ferry you to the bird kingdom at a slower pace, while not appearing too intrusive for wildlife. Local lady rowers/tour guides are clad in ‘Bà ba’ shirts (traditional silk pajamas worn by the Southerners). Rowing boats are easier for zigzagging through the small canals shaded by the sprawling twisted cajuput branches, and you can actually hear birds piping songs without the engine noise.
Feel the cool water that is just one touch away and look out for the groups of waders relaxing peacefully around the twisted tree trunks, notably the regal looking painted storks (white plumage with a bright pink tinge towards the tail) and the black Indian cormorants. Then, the rowboat lady slows down and paddles more discreetly, letting her passengers know they’re approaching the bird kingdom. Swivel your neck in all directions because you don’t know what you might miss.
Painted Stork and Indian Cormorants (Source: Internet)
It’s an immense visual delight to be surrounded by the avifauna’s colorful plumage: white, black, metallic emerald, striped, freckled, etc. High up the canopy that is several houses tall are the white Asian openbill storks soaring in the air to loaf atop the tall bare trees then quickly descending to the lower twigs. Striated herons, which stand still as a statue on the branches, suddenly plunge towards the waterlogged field and come back with some unfortunate fish in their beaks. Gaze upwards and you’ll spot the large flying foxes hanging upside down, holding the branches in their claws – resting yet ready to take off at any time.
Asian openbill storks elegant in flight (Source: Internet)
Bird’s nests, ranging from simple to elaborate, are tucked upon the forks of the tall branches. Inside are nestlings cheeping their heads off, begging their parents to bring them food. As if on cue, a mother bird appears with food in her beak, ready to feed her young.
A stealthy bird (Source: Internet)
Perched on lower hanging branches are lovebirds immersed in their own little world, snuggling and preening each other affectionately. White storks dance between the water lilies and lotuses, stretching their wing muscles way up high and showcasing some fancy footwork. In your peripheral vision, flashes of white play peek-a-boo near the herons and little black cormorants that are busy fighting over territory. It’s easy to miss the stealthy waterfowl camouflaging themselves behind the gnarled trunks if you don’t pay close attention.
Observation deck (Source: Internet)
Soon you will deposit yourself in the heart of the forested wetland, where an observation deck equipped with telescopes available for rent is located. This 25m watchtower affords excellent vistas of the expansive wetland, including some of the mountains in the Thất Sơn Mountain Range, such as Anh Vũ Sơn Mountain and the giant Buddha statue of 33.6m situated on Thiên Cấm Sơn Mountain. The concrete-paved footpaths near the observatory are perfect for a nature walk. If you crave a white-knuckle experience, try balancing yourself on the ‘monkey’ bridges crossing the canals.
A monkey bridge (Source: Internet)
At around 5-6 PM, as the reddish-orange hue of the sky deepens and dusk creeps over the horizon, hundreds of thousands of birds gather together under the fading sunlight, forming a solid black carpet in the sky and inciting a hymn praising the beauty of nature – foreign yet familar at the same time, paradoxically. Climb the watchtower for an aerial image of the entire forest at sunset and you’ll be able to witness how a giant area of the evergreen forest turns to white as little egrets fly back home to roost after their daily hunt.
Tra Su doesn’t offer overnight accommodation in order to minimize intrusion into the sensitive habitat of the wildlife. Thus, you should take full advantage of the sunset and early morning viewing hours then head back to your Chau Doc homestay or hotel afterwards. However, you can try your luck and contact the forest wardens to ask for an overnight stay on the viewing platform.
What does Tra Su offer other than birding?
Restaurant on stilts (Source: Internet)
Next to the observation deck are rickety looking thatched-roof eateries built on stilts, serving an array of exotic regional delicacies typical of the southwestern region at reasonable prices. Notably, there is an absolute absence of poultry (aside from chicken) as this avian sanctuary is strictly preserved for the protection of birds. The goal is to raise greater public awareness about the protection of birds and their habitats.
Backyard garden chickens are exposed to the natural elements so they are sweeter in taste and have a lot more texture to their flesh. Sesbania sesban flowers taste as good as they look. Their leathery petals can be made into delectable delicacies such as sweet and sour soup, hot pot with Sesbania sesban flowers and Siamese mud carp, Sesbania sesban flower salad, etc. Striped snakeheads grilled over a cajuput wood or straw fire have a succulent flavor and aroma, and are wrapped in rice paper along with greens and vermicelli. Treat yourself to a cup of fresh palm sugar juice – one of the most popular specialties of An Giang - the land of palm sugar.
Field rat meat (Source: Internet)
Daring foodies might find themselves wanting to try barbecued field rats. Field rats are caught in surrounding rice paddies and only feed on rice, unlike city rats that eat… who knows what. If you can overcome the initial prejudice, you’ll realize that it’s actually good and tastes nothing like what you would expect. There may be many questions going through your mind as you eat, and you shouldn’t answer any of them. Grilled rat meat has an appetizing appeal (and aroma) like BBQ chicken, with golden brown crispy skin and white meat, not at all gamey but rich and tender like pig meat.
Tips for birding in Tra Su:
Honey for sale (Source: Internet)
- Rummage for souvenirs – some of the highlights of Chau Doc tourism: cajuput oil; organic honey made from bees that feed on cajuput flowers; handicraft products made from cajuput trees; local delicacies such as sauces, Thai tamarind, palm sugar, etc.
- Don’t forget to arm yourself (both exposed skin and/or clothing) with mosquito repellent; wear a hat, preferably a conical palm hat to shield yourself from unfortunate ‘mishaps’; and get yourself a pair of binoculars for the best birding experience.
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