A Briton living in Vietnam indulges in his lifelong passion, birdwatching, and calls the country a birders' paradise
Richard Craik (L) with American tourists Robert and Nancy Dean from Florida on a recent
birding tour in Da Lat in the Central Highlands. Richard and his Vietnam Birding tour company offers birdwatching and cultural tours in Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.
Richard Craik, who has been living in Vietnam for 17 years and is now head of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Vietnam Birding tour company, calls Vietnam an extraordinary place to enjoy nature and be a birder.
"I've been interested in birds since I was a child in England. I used to go birdwatching in the countryside around my home in Hertfordshire, 40 km north of London. When I started work I didn't have time for birding and it wasn't until I came to Vietnam that I started becoming interested in birds once again."
Explaining why he chose Vietnam to settle down and start his business, he says of all the countries in mainland Southeast Asia, it has the highest number of bird species found only here and nowhere else - or endemic, in birders' parlance.
"I think it's probably because Vietnam is such a long narrow country, and there are many different habitats for birds."
In the south are the wetlands of the Mekong Delta, then there are the lowlands along the coast, the mountains of the Da Lat plateau and Central Highlands, and the Hoang Lien National Park right up in the far northwest of the country, he lists.
Richard Craik has been working in Vietnam since 1992, mostly doing mainstream, cultural, and popular tours for inbound visitors.
In 2007, he started the Vietnam Birding tour company which offers birdwatching and cultural tours in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.
"I decided it was time for a change. I was in international marketing, traveling overseas to trade shows in Europe, America, and Australia. I wanted to spend more time in Vietnam with my family." He married his
Vietnamese wife, Lan, who also helped him learn Vietnamese.
Richard with his wife Lan and five-year-old daughter Carmen at Bach Ma National Park earlier this year
The park is located in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range in Sa Pa and Than Uyen districts, Lao Cai Province, and includes Southeast Asia's highest peak, Mount Fansipan (3,143 m).
"In this park, you can find many bird species that are usually found only in southern China or the Himalayas," he says.
Craik's favorite birding spots include the Da Lat plateau which has several endemic species and has been recognized by BirdLife International as one of five Endemic Bird Areas in Vietnam.
The other spots are the Hoang Lien Mountains, Cat Tien National Park straddling Dong Nai and Lam Dong provinces which have the largest remaining area of lowland evergreen forest in southern Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta.
One of the things he finds interesting about birding is that it connects with nature and offers "total relaxation."
"Often when you are birding, it will be just you, alone in the forest with the birds and animals. There are no cars, no motorbikes, no telephones, no emails. So you really do get back to nature and away from everything that's involved in our everyday life."
The other factor that makes it interesting for him is the skill birders have to learn to locate birds.
"It is a little like being a detective or a hunter, but instead of hunting, you are using the same skills just for the pleasure of seeing them. So you have to put together all the clues like a detective - you have to think about the habitat, the time of year, the altitude, the weather, and many other factors.
"Birding can be as extreme or as leisurely as you like. But mostly a typical day's birding would involve walking five to 10 kilometers at a very relaxed pace with plenty of stops."
Extinction and protection
Extinction is a real possibility for many endemic species in Vietnam since their numbers are low and the range where they live is very restricted, Craik warns.
"If the forest in the mountains where some of the birds live is cut down, then the birds will disappear. They will become extinct."
Historically the Mekong Delta would also have been of great interest but much of the bird habitat comprising grasslands and mangrove forest has been lost over the years to agriculture and aquaculture and with it many of its unique bird and mammal species, he says.
Forest protection is a problem in Vietnam and even in national parks, it is difficult to protect the forest from poachers and loggers, he explains.