In places like Cuc Phuong National Park, illegal wildlife trading and logging have caused many species to vanish, however, the lush forests have become home to booming populations of butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Cuc Phuong, specifically, is Vietnam’s most famous butterfly-watching region, however, the country is home to over 250 species, many of which are endemic or nearly endemic.
The general diversity of butterfly species between Vietnam’s moist mountain forests and humid lowlands is well observed. In addition to Cuc Phuong‘s springtime butterfly madness, Ba Be National Park, Ma Da Forest, Cat Tien National Park, and regions in the Central Highlands provide visitors and locals with the magic of butterflies.
And, it’s not just butterflies that will have you snapping photos like a National Geographic photographer. In Vietnam, there are numerous moth species that glow with rich color and are important aspects of their ecosystems. Additionally, being a land of waterways, there are ample environments where dragonflies can thrive.
So, if beautiful, colorful flying insects are your thing, here are a few that are worth looking out for.
Despite challenges faced by the Vietnamese people from wildlife trafficking and natural resource extraction, many Vietnamese people still retain close and spiritual relationships with the nation’s wildlife. Creatures like butterflies seem to often draw this kind of spiritual connection.
In Vietnam, butterflies are sometimes characterized as possessing supernatural powers, like the Giant Thistle Butterfly whose wingspan can reach upwards of half a meter. If you’ve ever sat in the silence of nature and seen a butterfly as it frolics through the air, you know very well the peacefulness that they can bring!
White Dragontail Butterfly – Lamproptera curius
Like something out of Avatar, the White Dragontail Butterfly is pure magic. It has soft black wings with transparent panels and white striping down its tails. Its long dual tails reach far behind it as it skillfully navigates the air above flowers and other foliage.
These butterflies aren’t known for their social nature, at least not with other species. If you’re near a river or stream, they are likely nearby, but you won’t find them sharing puddles or watering holes with other butterflies or insects. Instead, they’ll opt for a bit of distance. They might even fool you into thinking they are a dragonfly as they hover above the river.
Red Base Jezebel Butterfly – Delias pasithoe
The Red Base Jezebels are a work of art as they seem as if they’ve been painted onto a canvas. They have black wings with bright red, yellow, and white markings on the wing’s underside. In the warmer months, these butterflies are hard to come by but, during winter, they become an everyday sight (even around the metropolis of Hanoi).
With a wingspan of 4-7 cm, it’s considered a medium-sized butterfly, nevertheless, it would certainly be large enough to catch your eye if it happens to cross your path. In areas where there is constant human movement and there is a myriad of small collections of water, these butterflies will congregate in big groups, so keep your eyes peeled!
Glassy Tiger Butterfly – Parantica aglea
If an impressionist painter were to create the basis for a butterfly, this might be one of them. Intricately geometric patterns emblazon this species wings which can grow up to 10 cm in length. The Glassy Tigers aren’t much for the altitude and thus are more frequently observed in the lowlands or shrublands of Vietnam.
They’re also not year-round residents and use Vietnam as a stopping point for their migrations. During the breeding season, the males will express small but vibrantly colored yellow hairs from their backs to attract potential mates.
Common Cruiser – Vindula erota
The Common Cruiser would stand out like a redwood in a meadow if surrounded by the Glassy Tiger or Red Base Jezebel. The males of this species are almost entirely rusty orange with small but detailed black patterns on the top side of the wings. Females lack this vibrant orange color and are far less flashy, sporting a soft black base with white and minimal orange highlighting.
These butterflies prefer dense forests for their homes where they can flutter from tree to tree and often use forest roads as movement corridors. The females however prefer to lay their eggs up in the mountains and thus, you’ll find Common Cruisers in both the foothills and higher elevations of Vietnam’s moist mountain rainforests.
Unfortunately, the males of this species are targeted for collection due to their vibrant orange/yellow colors.
Red Lacewing Butterfly – Cethosia biblis
It’d be hard to find a species capable of one-upping the appearance that the Common Cruisers show off, but, the Red Lacewing does just that. Powerful combinations of orange, white, black, and yellow make up this species’ hieroglyphic-looking wing patterns. These butterflies love their niche and thus all throughout southeast Asia, they have evolved to look just a little different from their cousins.
In Vietnam, species often show more white lining on their wings than in other surrounding regions. While sunlight surely brings these butterflies out, if you’re observationally keen, you can find them resting under fallen foliage after or during rainfall waiting for the next burst of Vitamin D.
In Vietnam, moths are also known for competing with butterflies as some of the most beautiful species in all of southeast Asia. No doubt, there are many moth species in Vietnam with the typical moth-like appearance: dark, brown, uninspiring. But, if you keep an open mind, there are also moths in Vietnam that will have you second-guessing hanging up that insect lamp on the front porch.
Tiger Moth – Arctiinae
There are enough subspecies of Tiger Moths to fill this page with tens of thousands of words. But the most commonly observed Tiger Moth in Vietnam looks just as the name suggests, like a small flying tiger hopping from plant to plant. Tiger Moths adapt to their surroundings and their colors and patterns often reflect the potential predators they are avoiding.
Thus, in one region of Vietnam, Tiger Moths might have bright orange and black colors while in another, a subspecies will be black with purple lining. Interestingly enough, these moths can be somewhat dangerous to humans if you ingest scales or fluids from the moth.
Climate change has allowed for many moth species, Tiger Moths included, to increase their populations throughout Southeast Asia, and regional outbreaks of sickness from ingesting particulates with Tiger Moth substance have been recorded.
Plume Moth – Pterophoridae
Netflix recently aired a series called Alien Worlds in which we explored fabricated but potentially realistic alien climates and the organisms that might live there. Plume Moths, with their elongated bodies, stark white coloring, and feathery wings look like the star of an episode of that program.
These sci-fi-looking moths are quite common throughout Vietnam so it’s likely you’ll get to see them one way or another. And while they aren’t rare they are certainly unique.
Dragonflies and Damselflies
Dragonflies might just be one of the most interesting insects in the world. While they have captured the imaginations of kids and scientists alike, most importantly, dragonflies are known for controlling the mosquito population in Vietnam. These winged critters are vital in cleaning Vietnam’s thousands of ponds and bodies of water of their mosquito (and other insects) infestations.
Surprisingly, there is very little information on the different dragonfly species in Vietnam, however, an incredible array of dragonflies exist in the country. Many of them are likely endemic to a very particular habitat within Vietnam as most dragonflies do not migrate. Species like Libellago lineata, Chlorogompus sachiyoae, and Pseudagrion spencei could make any observer a fan of insects.
It’s worth reiterating the cultural importance of dragonflies in Vietnam as well. Villagers will craft bamboo dragonflies to sell to tourists, dragonflies are often associated with hope and regeneration and most of all dragonflies embody the color, breadth of life, and incredible biodiversity of the Vietnamese.
Violet Dropwing Dragonfly – Trithemis annulata
A personal favorite of mine on this list, the Violet Dropwing Dragonfly is one of the only species of dragonfly in Vietnam studied well enough to have earned itself a nickname (i.e. Violet Dropwing). It is a creature of pure beauty colored with strikingly purple, violet, and pink colors.
While it’s not endemic to Vietnam and can be found in other southeast Asian countries, its color is truly representative of Vietnam’s incredible culture.
Known for their stunning colors, different shapes, and range of sizes, Vietnam’s butterflies, moths, and dragonflies are truly magnificent to see. Easily spotted while in the forests, a park, or simply in town, you are sure to witness a few of these flying marvels during your stay.