Does Cat Tien national park have untapped potential?

By Darren Barnard   March 27, 2024 | 05:06 pm PT
It's only a few hours from Vietnam's biggest city, home to over 1,600 species and recognized by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve zone with numerous endangered animals such as the yellow-cheeked black gibbon.

So why isn't Cat Tien established as a more recognized attraction for foreigners in Vietnam?

In fact, if you look up the national park on the internet, it will likely suggest the frequently-searched question: "Is Cat Tien worth it?" A question travelers rarely consider with popular destinations in Vietnam such as Hoi An, Sa Pa or Ha Long Bay.

The natural area of Cat Tien National Park covers 720 square kilometers and comes to live every morning with the mating call of the endangered gibbons who swing gracefully through the trees at rapid speed as one of the largest remaining populations of the lesser ape roam their natural habitat.

Visitors can reach the park in just a few hours by bus from either Ho Chi Minh City or Da Lat and can also enjoy activities such as a boat tour on crocodile lake, an incredibly-informative primate rescue center, a bear rescue center and of course, a gibbon trek.

Even though there are numerous activities for visitors and a convenient location, the park still does not attract as many visitors as one may expect, especially compared to Cuc Phuong National Park in the north, which benefits from being closely situated to one of the most popular destinations for foreigners, Ninh Binh.

There are more tours available in Cat Tien compared to other national parks in Vietnam such as Yok Don, which is arguably more difficult to reach.

Despite that, many foreigners exclude it from their Vietnam itinerary as their bus travels directly between Da Lat and Ho Chi Minh City.

People working at the park believe there are numerous things the park can do to attract more western guests.

At present there is a dearth of services and amenities that could entice a foreign traveler, particularly if they have become accustomed to them whilst visiting other destinations in Vietnam such as Ninh Binh or Mai Chau in the north, where many accommodations offer a whole range of services.

Low payment to guides is another problem that might prevent the park from attracting enough of these workers, especially high-quality ones that may look elsewhere for a more financially profitable offer.

Currently, a tourist in the park pays VND1.2 million (US$48.71) per person for a trek to encounter the gibbons in their natural habitat, however the guide only receives VND180,000 as payment. Similarly, a night safari for visitors costs VND620,000 per person, although the guide only receives VND50,000 on this trek.

Regarding transportation, foreign visitors enjoy the convenience and cheap fee of only VND150,000 for the bus from Ho Chi Minh City, but less so the cramped environment where guests frequently sit on plastic stools in the aisle of the bus instead of seats, particularly at weekends when it is even busier. There is not an option of a more comfortable, air-conditioned 9-seater limousine-style mini-bus that is very popular for trips from Hanoi to Sa Pa in the north for example.

One may also have anticipated that the 90-day tourist visa available to many foreign visitors since the end of last year would have encouraged more people to visit the park, as they have more time to appreciate the slower, more tranquil destinations in the country. Although, perhaps it is too soon for the park to reap the benefits of this new policy.

Visitors go on a trek through Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam. Photo by Thanh Thu

Visitors go on a trek through Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam. Photo by Thanh Thu

Undoubtedly the park can do more in terms of advertisement. Although it is home to numerous wonderfully rare species such as gibbons, endangered langurs and the adorable pygmy loris, the unpredictable nature of these animals means it is difficult to get the memorable photo for the individual’s Instagram account.

The reality is that it is easier to advertise and attract customers to the extraordinary animals, when you can have a picture holding it in your arms or up-close with it in the way you would at Phu Quoc Safari for example. This is simply impossible with the free-roaming monkeys and nocturnal and incredibly-shy pygmy loris.

The park's true unique selling point is their incredible work with U.K.-based charity, The Endangered Asian Species Trust (EAST) established by Monkey World-Ape Rescue Centre and the Pingtung Rescue Center. The work they are doing to protect these amazing animals, as well as in conjunction with Animals Asia to protect sun and moon bears from many awful atrocities should be justification for any traveler to experience and contribute towards. Unfortunately, like the conservation efforts, there is still so much work to do.

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