In the diverse ecosystems of Vietnam, reptiles are abundant. In fact, there are over 200 confirmed reptilian species, 157 of which are endemic to the country. With habitats ranging from moist montane forests with robust stream systems to lowland marshlands, there are plenty of places for them to not only survive but also thrive.
For wildlife tourists in Vietnam, reptiles are often a marquee observation. The sight of a viper slithering through the brush or the beautifully intricate shell of a pond turtle is part of the adventure. Unfortunately, like most animals in the country, Vietnam’s reptiles face uncertain futures due to illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss.
The challenging terrain and incomplete conservation infrastructure in Vietnam make it difficult to truly census the biodiversity of the lizard, crocodile, turtle, and snake species in Vietnam, meaning there are probably plenty of creatures yet to be discovered.
Lizards in Vietnam
In the winding rivers and riparian ecosystems of Vietnam, lizards have made themselves at home for hundreds of thousands of years. Acting as a buffer between humans and insect-borne diseases, these small to large-sized reptiles can be found throughout the country.
Blue Crested Lizard
The stunningly gorgeous Blue Crested Lizard shines bright in the low canopies of lower montane forests. During the breeding season, these lizards show off their turquoise heads and throats in order to attract mates. In the process, they draw quite a bit of interest from wildlife enthusiasts and locals.
These lizards are adaptable too. They can survive in dense forests, lowland gardens, agricultural settings, and edge habitats as long as there are trees. Species like this always run the risk of being targets for illegal wildlife trade due to their impressive appearances.
We’re sure you’ve seen the video of the monitor that recently stopped into a local Thailand 7-Eleven to pick up some ice-cold Chang Beer. But if you haven’t, these beasts are about as prehistoric as it gets. A Water Monitor can grow up to a whopping 7 feet long and is known for surviving in a wide range of habitats from urban regions to the wilderness.
Size-wise, they pale only in comparison to the mighty Komodo Dragon. Their ability to survive on different prey and substances makes them an on-and-off nuisance for some Vietnamese communities. Nevertheless, there is nothing quite like having breakfast by the Mekong only to have an unexpected scaly guest show up.
Green Pricklenape Lizard
These forest-dwelling mountain lizards are known for their soft green color and large dorsal spines that run down the top half of their backs Earning the nickname “Forest Dragons” or “Green Mountain Dragons”, the Green Pricklenape Lizard is somewhat similar to the Blue Crested Lizard in general appearance, albeit a bit smaller and lacking the bright blue throat.
Nevertheless, this arboreal species is a head-turner. Existing in the dense forests of Cat Tien National Park, they are a rare sight for wildlife observers, but those with a keen eye might catch a glimpse of them as they are moving throughout the lower canopy.
Vietnamese Leopard Gecko
The Vietnamese Leopard Gecko is known, by scientific terms, as the Goniorusaurus araneus, which translates into spider gecko, due to its appearance. Its velvety skin and arachnid-like back legs would make an arachnophobe do a double-take. Drawing from a different realm of the animal kingdom, its leopard patterned skin also lends to its name.
These geckos are small, reaching a maximum length of about 2 centimeters. Up close and personal, you’d noticed that its dorsal scales are protruding from its skin, differentiating it from other look-alike geckos. Unsurprisingly, they inhabit dark, moist regions of Vietnam’s mountains, usually near caves or other prominent rock features.
First and foremost, let us debunk a common misconception about Tokay Geckos: they are not venomous. That being said, their bites are incredibly painful and they do carry some bacteria which could be very dangerous to humans.
There are quite a few things that make this gecko special. Not only is it the second-largest gecko species in the world but also has vibrant coloring which includes blue/gray bodies with bright yellow, orange, and red spotting. Tokay’s got their name because their vocal communication sounds just like, well, that!
Although small, these are territorial reptiles and will certainly defend their space against not only other animals, including those of their own species. Additionally, they have prehensile tails, which means they can use their tails to grasp onto things. When captured by a predator, they can detach their tail in order to escape.
Crocodiles in Vietnam
With thousands of kilometers of tributaries provided by the Mekong and Red Rivers, Vietnam, at one time, had a healthy distribution of crocodiles. Unfortunately, due to the immediate threat they pose to humans, they have been systematically extirpated from Southeast Asia, making spotting one of these prehistoric creatures a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Saltwater Crocodile is perhaps one of the most amazing animals on Planet Earth. Measuring up to 20-feet in length and weighing 2,000-pounds, these river giants have been a centerpiece of Southeast Asian ecology for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years.
Saltwaters predominantly lived in the Mekong Delta and surrounding tributary systems. Unfortunately, current population estimates are not encouraging or even existent. If there are indeed saltwater crocodiles left in Vietnam, there are very few, and observing one in the wild would be absolutely incredible.
Locals in Vietnam generally live without fear of crocodile attacks, indicating that the species has a small or nonexistent presence. Nevertheless, Vietnam is densely vegetated, particularly in riparian regions, where saltwater crocodiles thrive, and thus, there could be one of these dinosaur-like creatures lurking just beneath the surface!
The Siamese Crocodile is one of Vietnam’s most famous species and is the smaller cousin of the Saltwater Crocodile. Average specimens can be around 7 feet in length and weigh about 200-pounds. While it’s not endemic to Vietnam, the country is responsible for a large portion of its historical range.
Like Saltwater Crocodiles, the Siamese has been mostly, if not completely, eradicated from Vietnam. A combination of severe habitat degradation during the Vietnam War, land development, and human population growth have put pressure on communities to remove crocodiles that posed a threat.
While the Siamese Crocodile is still present in other places, its conservation concern has not been focused on in Vietnam and is critically endangered. A reintroduction effort in Cat Tien National Park is underway and researchers are hoping a new population will take hold in the park.
Freshwater Turtles in Vietnam
Incredibly resilient and important to the country’s ecosystems, turtles play an important role in Vietnam. There are around 25 confirmed freshwater turtle species that call this country home, though there are likely more within the dense forests and mountain pond systems.
Freshwater turtle species are often very sensitive to habitat changes and struggle with rapid dispersal like that is needed when a habitat is subjected to logging. Thus, many of Vietnam’s freshwater turtle species are struggling without conservation.
Southern Vietnamese Box Turtle
In the southern mountains of Vietnam, the Southern Vietnamese Box Turtle persists in a handful of unique mountain-based freshwater systems. These turtles provide a very important service to Vietnam’s mountain communities in that they act as water purifiers by consuming large amounts of insects, invasive aquatic crustaceans, and algae.
However, because this species has a particularly special shell, it has been subject to severe pressure from illegal wildlife trafficking. In fact, these turtles have rarely been observed in the wild by researchers. It’s likely that hillside coffee plantations are presenting a specifically significant challenge for these resilient little turtles.
If you happen to observe one on your journey through the southern mountains of Vietnam, contacting a research team interested in their distribution would go a long way!
Vietnamese Pond Turtle
Vietnam is the land of isolated pocket habitats where species exist only in that small region, such as the Vietnamese Pond Turtles. Located in the central coastal lowlands, they have a small and endangered population. This species was on the brink of complete extinction before teams in Europe and the United States successfully designed captive breeding programs to retain genetic diversity.
This kind of project is important should the habitat be deemed suitable for reintroduction. This turtle draws attention because of its distinctly dark brown/green color with bright yellow striping. Like other freshwater turtles in Vietnam, it’s battling increasing pressure from habitat loss and illegal capture.
Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle
The Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle is the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, with an estimated three individuals in existence. With an oddly shaped head and snout, smooth, blandly colored shell and skin, and distinct yellow blotching on their head and neck, they look like something straight out of a sci-fi film.
In 2019, the last remaining female known to researchers passed away removing any hope of conserving the species, but late in 2020, researchers discovered not only another female but also a male living in the same small lake in the north of Vietnam.
Conservation programs are rallying to protect these individuals in the hope that they will successfully reproduce and bring one of Vietnam’s most interesting species back from the brink.
Snakes in Vietnam
With humidity, forests, brush, and all the other kinds of habitats, snakes couldn’t find a better home than in Vietnam. In fact, there are around 200 confirmed snakes in the country, a whopping 25% of which have venomous bites, so make sure to watch your stepping when out for a hike.
Due to a uniquely condensed collection of varying ecosystems and a large population of snakes, bites are common, but to counter this issue, Vietnam has become one of the world leaders in anti-venom serums.
Red River Krait
The Red River Krait is known as one of the most venomous snakes in all of Vietnam. With black scales with white bands from head to tail, this species is easily identifiable compared to others, although sometimes challenging to spot in the dark forest floors that it inhabits.
Very little is know about the Red River Krait except that individuals have been observed measuring up to 1.5 meters or 5 feet in length. Due to lack of scientific observation, population estimates are uncertain, but most researchers think it lives in lower mountain elevations of 1,000-2,000-feet.
Snakes are a challenge to identify sometimes because so many species have evolved to mimic the appearance of more aggressive and dangerous species. The Red-Headed Krait looks very similar to the Malayan Coral Snake or Red-Headed Reed Snake and is sometimes indiscernible without up-close inspection, which we don’t suggest!
Living in the lowland rainforests, and loving a mostly nocturnal life, encounters with this snake are rare. That said, during the night when it partakes in hunting, which occurs on both land and in the water, it is extremely aggressive and a single bite from this snake could prove lethal.
Quang Binh Pit Viper
Perhaps one of Vietnam’s most mysterious species is the Quang Binh Pitviper, also known as the Truong Son Pitviper. It is endemic to a tiny portion of central Vietnam and lives in dense rainforests 500 – 600 meters in elevation. Encounters with humans are rare, but after heavy rainfall, the snakes can occasionally be seen basking.
Their striking appearance makes them look somewhat of a mythological figure. Bright teal blue eyes and soft teal/burgundy down the back of the snake make it stand out against other snake species in Vietnam. They are also venomous, but to what extent remains uncertain.
The King Cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world and is found throughout southeast Asia and India. Playing roles in various ethnographic and pop culture stories, statues of these predators can be seen in the ruins of Khmer cultures throughout Vietnam.
Its appearance is well known: black with a distinctly misshapen disc-like head. The most interesting thing about King Cobra is that its main threat is the mongoose. Mongeese are immune to King Cobra’s venom and are often used as a deterrent. The only issue is that Mongeese are smart, so they’d rather focus on a smorgasbord of aquatic insects than fight a King Cobra.
Hundreds if not thousands of reptilian species make their homes in Vietnam’s forests, mountains, caves, ponds, and lowlands. For those that aren’t afraid of the Indiana Jones snake-pit scene, there is perhaps no better place in the world to find beautiful reptiles in the wild.