A French-era hill station, this national park reaches a peak of 1450m at Bach Ma mountain, only 18km from the coast. The cool climate attracted the French, who built over a hundred villas here. Not surprisingly the Viet Minh tried hard to spoil the holiday – the area saw some heavy fighting in the early 1950s and again during the American War.
The national park, extended in 2008, stretches from the coast to the Annamite mountain range at the Lao border. More than 1400 species of plants, including many rare ferns and orchids, have been discovered in Bach Ma, representing a fifth of the flora of Vietnam. There are 132 kinds of mammals, three of which were only discovered in the 1990s: the antelope-like saola, Truong Son muntjac and the giant muntjac. Nine species of primates are also present, including small numbers of the rare red-shanked Douc langur. It’s hoped wild elephants will return from the Lao side of the border.
As most of the park’s resident mammals are nocturnal, sightings demand a great deal of effort and patience. Bird-watching is fantastic, but you need to be up at dawn for the best chance of glimpsing some of the 358 species logged, including the fabulous crested argus pheasant.
The road to the summit has recently been upgraded. At the visitor centre by the park entrance you'll find a small exhibition on the park’s flora and fauna, and hiking trail booklets.
Of the several hiking trails, the Rhododendron Trail (from Km 10 on the road) leads to the upper reaches of a spectacular waterfall; it's 689 steps down to its base for a dip. The Five Lakes Trail passes pools for swimming before you reach a (much smaller) waterfall. The short Summit Hike takes you to a viewpoint with magnificent views (on a clear day) over the forest, Cau Hai lagoon and coast.
You can book village and bird-watching tours and English- or French-speaking guides (250,000d per day). Unexploded ordnance is still in the area, so stick to the trails. Cars and motorbikes are not permitted inside the national park.
Bach Ma is the wettest place in Vietnam, with the heaviest of the rain falling in October and November (and bringing out the leeches). It’s not out of the question to visit then, but check road conditions first. The best time to visit Bach Ma is from February to September, particularly between March and June.