Vietnam Coracle http://vietnamcoracle.com Independent Travel Guides to Vietnam Fri, 13 Sep 2019 06:09:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.6 Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay: Travel Guide http://vietnamcoracle.com/cat-ba-island-halong-bay-travel-guide/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/cat-ba-island-halong-bay-travel-guide/#respond Fri, 30 Aug 2019 04:06:58 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=29270 An island of dramatic coastlines & jungle-clad limestone pillars, Cat Ba is one of Vietnam's star natural attractions & part of world-famous Halong Bay.... Continue reading

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First published August 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Cat Ba Island, lying in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the northeast coast of Vietnam, is a favourite travel destination for foreign and domestic tourists alike. Roughly equidistant from two of northern Vietnam’s largest industrial cities – Hai Phong (to the west) and Ha Long (to the north) – Cat Ba Island is, nonetheless, one of the country’s star natural attractions, and part of the world-famous Halong Bay. A large, green and rugged island (most of which belongs to a national park), Cat Ba’s interior is a forest of limestone karsts, whose pointed peaks are overlaid with thick jungle, echoing to the sounds of insects and animals; while its dramatic coastline is indented with myriad bays, coves, and cliffs. Cat Ba is a beautiful island and there’s lots to see and do here, but it’s also one of Vietnam’s major tourist hot spots. Cat Ba’s population is around 16,000, but each year the island receives some 2.5 million tourists. With this popularity comes some familiar problems: crowds during peak times, over-development in concentrated areas, pollution, noise, threats to the natural environment. However, Cat Ba is still a great place to explore as an independent traveller, and you can avoid the crowds and tourist paraphernalia if you choose. Below is my full travel guide to Cat Ba Island.

Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Travel Guide, VietnamA large green & rugged island off the northeast coast, Cat Ba is one of Vietnam’s star natural attractions

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GUIDE: CAT BA ISLAND


Below is my full guide to Cat Ba Island, including a detailed map. I’ve divided this guide into several categories, and then sub-sections within each category to make it easier to navigate. The best time of year to visit Cat Ba Island is generally from April to October, when there’s plenty of sunshine and warmth (but also plenty of rain and humidity). Between November and March it can be misty and sometimes surprisingly cold. It’s also advisable to visit on a weekday, and avoid weekends and public holidays, during which the island can get very crowded with tourists, and prices are inflated. Plan to spend between 2-5 days on Cat Ba Island.

Click a category in the contents below for more details:

CONTENTS:

MAP:

Cat Ba Island, Hai Phong Province


View in a LARGER MAP

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Location & Background:

Below I’ve written a description of the location and topography of Cat Ba Island and a little bit of history and background, followed by some information about the current state of the natural environment:

Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba is a beautiful, rugged & green island, characterized by looming limestone karsts


Orientation, Topography & History:

The name ‘Cat Ba’ apparently comes from – as with so many place names in Vietnam – a local legend. During the Tran Dynasty, three women were killed and their bodies washed up one by one on the beaches of the island. Each body was discovered on a different beach (beaches Cat Co 1, 2, 3 today). ‘Cat Ba’ probably means something along the lines of ‘All the Women’. Legend aside, humans have being living on the island for at least 6,000 years; the earliest archaeological evidence being in the southeast, not far from where the main settlement is today. Cat Ba had a sizable Chinese population, but most fled in 1979 during the brief but violent and bitter Sino-Viet War. In the other wars of the 20th century, Cat Ba was strategically important as a look-out point, protecting the north’s main port of Hai Phong. As an island of limestone karsts, Cat Ba’s many caves have long provided shelter and concealment. Hospital Cave, among others, is one such place that visitors can still see today.

*Please note: Historical information in this article is based on my reading of various sources & conversations with people: I am not an historian.

Jungles & limestone karsts, Cat Ba Island National Park, VietnamCat Ba’s jungles, hills & caverns have provided for & sheltered humans for many millennia

An amorphous island (owing to the thousands of tiny islets and rocky outcrops scattered close to its shores), Cat Ba is situated just east of the port of Hai Phong, and, indeed, is part of the municipality of the same name. Geographically, though, Cat Ba is essentially the southernmost extent of the string of limestone islands stretching all the way from the Chinese border near Mong Cai down through Halong Bay. Although Cat Ba is one of the largest islands in Vietnam, because the terrain is so rugged, its population is only around 16,000. However, each year some 2.5 million foreign and domestic tourists descend on the island. This means, of course, that tourism is a big deal on Cat Ba. However, much of the island and surrounding waters are part of the national park and UNESCO Biosphere. This has largely saved Cat Ba (so far) from over-development for tourism and industry. With the exception of Cat Ba town and the surrounding beaches at the southern tip of the island, most of Cat Ba is fairly pristine.

Beach & limestone karst, Cat Ba Island, VietnamDespite its popularity with tourists, much of Cat Ba Island is a national park & relatively pristine

There’s a huge difference in character between the south of the island and the north. As a general rule, the south is developed, touristy, and often busy, while the north is quiet, beautiful, undeveloped and, from my point of view, far more pleasant. Because it’s such a rugged, mountainous island, not much can be grown on Cat Ba. But, on some of the gentler hillsides and the few flat patches of land, fruit trees are planted, providing fresh produce for the markets and vendors. Lychee, banana, papaya, pineapple, passion fruit and mango can all be seen growing around the island and for sale in its markets.

Northern Cat Ba Island is pristine, green & sereneAs a general rule: the south of the island is developed & touristy; the north is quiet & gorgeous

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Environment & Pollution:

As mentioned above, much of Cat Ba Island is part of the national park and UNESCO Biosphere. Although this does seem to have curbed reckless development and industry, there are some very worrying statistics concerning the natural environment. Endemic to the island, the Golden-headed Langur (or Cat Ba Langur) is one of the rarest primates in the world. Once numbering in the thousands, it’s now estimated that the langur population on Cat Ba is lower than 50. Because the langur is a cute and cuddly animal, efforts to raise awareness of the dwindling numbers and garner support for conservation have been fairly successful. But it could well turn out to be all in vain. Think of the last of the rare Javan Rhinos in Cat Tien National Park, poached to death in 2011, despite efforts to prevent it. There are some enormous resort and residential projects underway on the island, many of which call themselves ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’, but, at the construction sites, they look to be anything but. Cat Ba is in a precarious position, in the middle of an industrial triangle: Hai Phong, to the west, is an enormous industrial port, and Cat Hai Island, directly adjacent to Cat Ba, is on the cusp of becoming a major industrial zone thanks to VinFast (Vietnam’s first car manufacturer) opening their factory there; and to the north are the coal mines of Quang Ninh Province.

The industrial lands of Cat Hai Island & Hai Phong, seen from Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba Island is in a precarious position: surrounded by large industrial zones & subject to big developments

Generally, litter on land and in the sea appears – to the naked eye, at least – to be relatively under control, especially when compared to other such islands in Vietnam that have seen tourism booms in recent years. There’s still a crust of trash in the harbours, on the beaches, and at some of the more popular tourist sites, but it’s nothing like as bad as I had feared it would be. Large green trash cans are positioned in the main town and hamlets on the island, and there are government signs everywhere urging locals and visitors alike to dispose of trash responsibly and the treat the island well. Cat Ba town, the main hub for hotels, bars, and restaurants, is a sprawl of high-rise concrete, overcrowded streets, and traffic jams of tourist coaches. If Cat Ba town is a model of development for the rest of the island, it’ll be a disaster.

Construction work on Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba Island already has its share of problems; it’s unclear how things will develop as tourism continues to grow


Cat Ba Town, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba Town, the largest settlement on the island, is not a pretty place, despite its very pretty location

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Things to See & Do:

Cat Ba Island is all about the natural scenery, and there are several ways to see, enjoy and experience it. Motorbiking, hiking, climbing, kayaking and boat tours are all very rewarding ways to get closer to the wonderful landscapes and seascapes of Cat Ba. Click an item below to read more about it:

Exploring Cat Ba Island on two wheelsCat Ba Island is all about the scenery: you can see it on two wheels, on foot, by boat, kayak, or climbing


Beaches & Bays:

Despite being an island, Cat Ba doesn’t have many sandy beaches. To make matters worse, what few beaches there are, are currently being gobbled up by massive construction projects (even though it appears that coastal erosion will soon render the beaches lost anyway). The problem with many of the beaches on Cat Ba Island, especially the ones on the west coast, is that the water is often brown. This is because Cat Ba is directly opposite the mouth of several large rivers. The alluvial runoff turns the water viscous and tea-coloured: fairly uninviting for swimming. In general, the beaches on the island are better to look at than the bathe in. The best beaches for swimming are on the small outlying islands, particularly to the east of Cat Ba, which can be reached by boat from Ben Beo Port. The following beaches are listed in geographical order, from the south of the island to the north:

Double Crescent Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamDespite being an island, good beaches are few on Cat Ba: they’re often very scenic but not great water quality


Cat Co Beaches (1, 2, 3) [MAP]: At the time of writing (August 2019), these three beaches, all just south of Ca Ba Town, separated from each other by limestone bluffs, were in a depressing state of transformation. Traditionally the go-to beaches on the island for visitors, particularly weekending domestic tourists, each one of the coves is now being developed by huge, high-end resorts. At the time of research, access to all three bays was quite restricted: either entered on foot via the building sites, or off limits altogether. The most tragic of all was Cat Co 1, the middle of the three beaches (somewhat illogically). Here, the construction of a multi-storey resort was so close to the water that the building site had to be protected from flooding by a wall of sandbags. Such is the erosion of the beach that the entire project looks in danger of being washed away before it’s even finished. Still, in what I perceived as a rather tragic sight, hundreds of tourists sunbathed, swam, and took boat rides just a couple of feet away from the ongoing construction – squeezing into the last inches of available sand. It was a sad scene (even though, it must be said, everyone appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves), and not one which I wanted to partake in. Soon, I suppose, the resorts will open. But how they are going to prevent the beach erosion, I don’t know. All three of the Cat Co beaches are very scenically positioned, but they are now all stamped with large, fairly expensive resorts. Cat Co 3 is the best of the beaches: a wide wedge of sand bookended by limestone crags. But one big resort is already on it and another is under construction. Plus, because it’s so easily accessible from town, it’s often very crowded indeed.

Cat Co Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamThe Cat Co Beaches, near Cat Ba Town, are in a state of transformation due to big construction projects


Cat Co Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamDespite ongoing major construction, the Cat Co Beaches continue to be popular with domestic visitors

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Storland Beach [MAP]: One bay north of Cat Co 2 is the so-called Storland Beach. Reached via a steep and muddy trail through dense foliage, this is the only undeveloped beach in the south of Cat Ba Island. Although usually completely empty and very picturesque, the water quality is pretty murky and, because it hasn’t been developed, there’s a fair amount of trash around – left on the beach by previous visitors or washed up on the tide. It’s worth coming here for the peace and quiet, and the trek through the jungle, which also affords some good views on side paths. But the swimming isn’t great.

Storland Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamAccessed via a steep & jungled pathway, Storland Beach is quiet & scenic but there’s some trash around

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Tung Thu Beach [MAP]: A new road, blasted through the limestone immediately north of Cat Ba Town’s harboufront, creates easy access to Tung Thu Beach. A wide portion of yellow sand between limestone cliffs, Tung Thu Beach is very scenic. But it’s also very exposed and suffers from muddy waters. However, it’s still a pleasant place to be and there’s a backpacker community growing here. There’s accommodation, including dorms and camping (see Accommodation for details), and water activities, such as kayaking and a giant inflatable obstacle course out in the bay.

Tung Thu Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamJust north of Cat Ba Town, Tung Thu Beach is very attractive & attracts a young, backpacker crowd


Tung Thu Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamTung Thu Beach has a couple of beach bars, hostels & a floating bouncy castle in the bay

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Woodstock Beach [MAP]: I’ve named this beach because of its proximity to the wildly popular Woodstock Beach Camp (see Accommodation for details). The camp’s bar and beach activities take place on the sand nearest to the road, but the beach stretches far beyond this if you’re looking for some solitude. It’s a wide, long, curving bay with excellent views out to sea and limestone karsts dotting the horizon. The water quality is just about good enough for bathing, but, like so many of Cat Ba’s west coast beaches, it’s more for looking at. Backpackers enjoy hanging out here: lazing in the hammocks, propping up Mr Wilson’s Beach Bar (‘Wilson’ as in Tom Hank’s volleyball companion in the movie ‘Castaway’), playing football, cards, smoking and generally having a fine old time.

Woodstock Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamA long, pretty, arcing bay, Woodstock Beach is home to one of the most popular & social hostels on the island

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Double Crescent Beach [MAP]: This amazing location looks like something out of the movie ‘The Beach’. At least, it would, if there weren’t a half-built, possibly abandoned, resort on it. Easily accessed via a side-route from the coastal road, limestone outcrops form a ring around two sandy coves, where the Bayview Resort has started to build its bungalows. The bays are still used by locals to moor little, woven fishing skiffs, and, in the late afternoons, local children come to bathe. The sun sets over the ocean, perfectly framed by the limestone bluffs. Water quality is OK – a bit brown and murky – and the sand is a little messy. But the location is superb. When I visited, it looked as though construction of the resort had stalled (I even considered camping on the resort-to-be’s grounds). But perhaps it was just a lull in the project. Either way, it’s definitely worth stopping by in the late afternoon to check it out.

Double Crescent Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamBy far my favourite beach on the island, Double Crescent Bay is a stunning spot, but in the midst of development


Double Crescent Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamThe sun sets between the limestone karsts of Double Crescent Beach: see it now before it’s built on

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Buddha Beach [MAP]: This is an attractive looking beach on the coast road a few kilometres south of Cai Vieng Port. Wedged between a bend in the road, this sandy cove is lined with tall casuarina trees. It’s pretty, quiet, and undeveloped, but the water is usually quite muddy. There’s a little Buddhist shrine on the opposite side of the road, hence the name.

Buddha Beach, Cat Ba Island, VietnamAn appealing looking wedge of sand, Buddha Beach is pretty but the water quality isn’t that good

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Motorbiking & Biking:

The road network on Cat Ba has greatly improved in recent years, and riding a motorbike for a day or two is a fantastic way to explore the island. Motorbikes are available to rent from most hotels and travel agencies (75,000-150,000vnd per day). But the general quality of the bikes is rather bad: ancient, poorly maintained Yamaha Nouvos. However, as the distances are short, they’re adequate to get you around the island. But ride cautiously: there are many blind corners, steep ascents, gravel on the road (treacherous), and dangerously lackadaisical island riding.

Riding a motorbike around Cat Ba Island, VietnamThe road network on Cat Ba has improved a lot, making much of the coast & interior accessible by bike

There are two ‘main’ roads on the island: Duong Xuyen Dao Cat Ba runs inland from south to north, connecting Cat Ba Town and Gia Luan Port (22km); Duong DT356 runs along the entire west coast, linking Cat Ba Town and Cai Vieng Port (24km). Both roads are extraordinarily scenic to ride, and neither of them take more than an hour to complete. But, because there are lots of opportunities for photographs and places to stop, see, and do along the way, riding these two roads can take a whole day, if not more. There are also several smaller – but no less beautiful – roads linking the inland route with the coastal route. In particular, the paved back road between the National Park HQ and Buddha Beach is especially nice, and so is the dead-end paved lane leading up to Butterfly Valley (Lien Minh). *For information about bike rental and road safety, see Getting Around Cat Ba Island.

Bicycles are also available to rent on Cat Ba, and are a pleasant way to see the island. But bear in mind that the roads (including dirt-tracks) can be quite challenging, especially in the punishing heat and humidity that Cat Ba is famous for.

Cat Ba Island's roads are now mostly very goodAlmost all of the roads on Cat Ba Island are very scenic; twisting between jungled limestone karsts


Riding a motorbike around Cat Ba Island, VietnamSeveral paved back-roads & dirt paths are also fun to explore by motorbike or bicycle

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Hiking, Climbing & View Points:

Because most of Cat Ba Island is a national park, there are quite a lot of opportunities for hiking. Also, as the terrain is so rugged and punctuated by limestone cliffs, outcrops and karsts, climbing is a popular activity on Cat Ba. Even if you’re not a serious climber, there are several wonderful viewing points on Cat Ba, accessed via lanes and steps, offering sweeping vistas over the island’s exotic and mysterious topography. Click an item below for more details:

Walking, hiking, wandering & exploring Cat Ba Island, VietnamHiking & climbing are excellent on Cat Ba Island, and many trails lead to magnificent viewing points


National Park Trails [MAP]: There are two main treks (one long, one short) from the National Park HQ, both of which can be done independently. But be aware that the terrain is quite tough, and, in wet conditions, can be treacherous. Bring water, bug spray, decent footwear (flip-flops aren’t a good idea), and a cell phone. For the ‘google maps generation’, many of whom have lost their sense of direction, don’t forget to take note of your surroundings: it’s surprisingly easy to lose your bearings in the forest of limestone karsts, and you probably won’t get a phone signal. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time (or suitable weather conditions) to complete the longer trek (15km; 6 hours) from National Park HQ across the island to Viet Hai hamlet and on to its port for the return boat (around 300,000vnd) back to Ben Beo Port, near Cat Ba Town. But, in good weather, I’m certain it would be a great, if fairly challenging, day’s hike. Instead, I walked the shorter trail (2km return) from National Park HQ up to Dinh Ngu Lam view point, where a concrete gazebo sits just below the peak (another 10-minute climb), with incredible panoramic views of the limestone outcrops all around the island. Including stops for photos, talking to other walkers, and rests, the round trip from HQ to the peak and back takes between 90 minutes and two hours. This largely depends on your fitness and weather conditions. Some sections are very steep, and the humidity can be extremely punishing. Nonetheless, for most people in good health it’s very doable. But be careful on the rocks: they’re jagged, sharp, and can become very slippery when wet. Refreshments are available at the trailhead and the National Park HQ. The park entrance fee is 80,000vnd, paid at the kiosk at HQ. There’s also accommodation here in the form of Ho Lake Homestay (see Accommodation for details).

View from Ngu Lam Peak, Cat Ba Island National Park, VietnamCat Ba National Park has several good hiking trails, ranging from a couple of hours to a couple of days


View from Ngu Lam Peak, Cat Ba Island National Park, VietnamThe hike up to Ngu Lam Peak is steep but relatively short, and the views are terrific

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Hidden Valley [MAP]: Accessed through the back-streets of Cat Ba Town (which in itself is quite interesting), the Hidden Valley is located at the end of a series of progressively small, steep and slippery paths through the jungle. After 5-10 minutes of walking, the foliage clears to reveal a craterous valley, hemmed in by jagged limestone cliffs, edged with exotic flora. There’s rock climbing here up the limestone crags (get your permit and ask for more information at either Cat Ba Climbing (Mr Zoom Hostel), Langur’s Adventures, or Cat Ba Ventures). But, unless you’re a climber, the Hidden Valley is just a nice (and humid) walk.

Hidden Valley, Cat Ba Island, VietnamHidden Valley is just behind Cat Ba Town; it’s a densely jungled ravine with climbing opportunities


Bird of prey, Hidden Valley, Cat Ba Island, VietnamHidden Valley is lush, rugged, damp, humid & hot; birds of prey circle the limestone crags

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Butterfly Valley [MAP]: Northwest of Cat Ba Town, a steep, paved lane leads deep into the interior of the island. Rising through fruit orchards, eucalyptus plantations and pine trees the lane climbs through a couple of tiny hamlets all the way to Lien Minh. A small settlement at the end of the road, Lien Minh has some old farm houses dotted about gardens of tropical fruit. The peaceful hamlet is on the edge of a wide, grassy valley, bounded on two sides by sheer limestone cliffs. Known as Butterfly Valley, this is a good climbing spot (get your permit and more information at either Cat Ba Climbing (Mr Zoom Hostel), Langur’s Adventures, or Cat Ba Ventures). Even if you don’t climb, it’s a very pretty place to wander for an hour. Bring a picnic, or get food at the parking shack. There’s also a good homestay (see Accommodation for details).

Rock climbing in Butterfly Valley, Cat Ba Island, VietnamButterfly Valley, deep in the island’s interior, is very pretty & one of the best spots for climbing


View of Butterfly Valley, Cat Ba Island, VietnamButterfly Valley is densely forested, peaceful & highly scenic: worth the trip even if you’re not a climber

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Cat Ba War Memorial [MAP]: Accessed via a steep set of stairs at the end of a narrow lane behind Cat Ba Town, this war memorial is best-known for its panoramic views: looking down over the high-rise town, across the harbour – dotted with fishing boats – and out to the limestone islands in the bay. It’s fairly hard to find the access road: if you can’t locate it from my map, try asking the staff at your accommodation in Cat Ba Town.

View of Cat Ba Town from the War Memorial, Cat Ba Island, VietnamThe War Memorial behind Cat Ba Town is a good place for panoramic views of the town & harbour

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Cannon Fort [MAP]: Located up a very steep road behind Cat Ba Town, Cannon Fort is a French colonial-era gun placement which is known today for its stupendous views over Cat Ba Town and the maze of limestone islets surrounding it. Unfortunately, due to ongoing construction of three giant resort towers on the Cat Co beaches, Cannon Fort was closed when I visited in August 2019, and shows no sign of opening soon (nor did anyone I asked, including the construction staff, have any idea when it would reopen). However, I’m told that it will eventually reopen, and when it does I’m sure the views will be every bit as good as they were before.

View from Cannon Fort, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCannon Fort boasts some of the best views on Cat Ba Island, but it’s been temporarily closed for months

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Bayside Temple [MAP]: In the far north of the island, the Bayside Temple is a diminutive Buddhist shrine nestled beneath a limestone cliff as it meets the placid waters of a beautiful inlet. Most of the fun is in getting there: the shrine is accessed via a long wooden and concrete walkway, raised above the water, hugging the rock face. It’s particularly lovely in the mornings and late afternoons.

Bayside temple, Gia Luan Hamlet, Cat Ba Island, VietnamThe diminutive bayside temple near Gia Luan, in the north of the island, is accessed via a wooden bridge

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Caves & Caverns:

The limestone karst landscape of Cat Ba Island is riddled with cave systems, where, over millions of years of erosion, rain and sea water have carved out hollow chambers in the hills and cliffs. Some of these caverns have a human history as well as a natural history:

Entrance to Trung Trang Cave, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba Island is full of caverns, some of which have a human history as well as a geological one


Hospital Cave [MAP]: A few kilometres north of Cat Ba Town on the inland road, Hospital Cave is a fascinating, sobering, and slightly haunting reminder of Vietnam’s great military struggles of the 20th century. That time, thank goodness, is now passed, and I, like much of the rest of the nation, think less and less about the wars which came to define Vietnam for a generation of Westerners (and, of course, Vietnamese). Accessed via a steep set of stairs, Hospital Cave is essentially a concrete military bunker built into a natural cave system. The cave was used during the 1960s and 70s as a hospital and hideout for the North Vietnamese. The jungle-covered limestone karst, into which the cave leads, is a beautiful piece of nature. But, inside, it’s a mixture of man-made antechambers – from communications and meeting rooms, to weapons piles and medical wards – and natural caverns, dripping with stalactites. Some of the rooms feature painted mannequins of soldiers and nurses: glimpsed from the corner of your eye, there’s a brief shock and a disturbing line back to how it might have felt to be in this cave during the war years. I found the juxtaposition of natural wonder and human terror quite rattling. The cave has, presumably, sheltered many people over many millennia. Thousands of years ago, I suppose, the Cai Beo people, who used to inhabit Cat Ba Island, might have sheltered here at night, listening, scared stiff, to the prowling animals outside, feeling the damp chill of the cave in their bones. Just as, some 50 years ago, Vietnamese army personnel and nurses would have stiffened at the sound of crunching leaves – possibly footsteps from outside – and the sound of bombs falling and artillery firing. The chambers, too, must have echoed horribly with the pain of the wounded, carried in on stretchers and operated on inside the cave. The air quality is extraordinarily cool and damp, compared to the heat outside. I enjoyed a deep gulp of fresh air (and freedom) when I exited. (Entrance: 40,000vnd)

Hospital Cave, Cat Ba Island, VietnamHospital Cave was used during the 1960s & 70s as a medical treatment centre & military bunker


Hospital Cave, Cat Ba Island, VietnamIn some rooms in Hospital Cave, mannequins bring history to life

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Trung Trang Cave [MAP]: Just a few minutes further up the road from Hospital Cave, Trung Trang Cave features a labyrinthine walkway through a warren of tight caverns and an obstacle course of stalactites. Accessed through a forest, screaming with midday cicadas, the cave entrance is up a steep flight of stairs. The walk through the cave is a loop, exiting a couple hundred metres back down the road at Trung Trang Resort (see Accommodation for details), where there are refreshments available. The walk only takes 10-15 minutes, but some of the caverns are a tight squeeze. It’s definitely worth stopping for. (Entrance: 80,000vnd) 

Entrance to Trung Trang Cave, Cat Ba Island, VietnamTrung Trang Cave is an impressive cavern full of stalactites & surrounded by lush limestone hills

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Hoa Cuong Cave [MAP]: Near the northern tip of the inland road, just after passing through Gia Luan hamlet, this cavern was locked when I visited; nor was there anyone at the ticket kiosk to open it for me. However, it’s worth taking a look if you’re in the area anyway.

Cat Ba Island, outside Hospital Cave, VietnamHoa Cuong Cave was closed when I visited, but it’s worth checking out if you have the time

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Towns, Villages & Hamlets:

There’s only really one significant settlement on the island: Cat Ba Town. Other communities are little more than hamlets scattered about the island, often near bays:

Cat Ba Town, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba is by far the biggest settlement on the island, but there are several other hamlets & ports


Cat Ba Town [MAP]: Although the setting could hardly be any better – in a perfect natural harbour, surrounded by steep limestone crags – Cat Ba Town is, to be blunt, a touristy dump. On weekends, especially, Cat Ba Town is a busy, gaudy, unappealing mass of hotels, restaurants, bars, brothels, and karaoke clubs. There is relief in the main market, where local life, food, and produce breath life into the otherwise tourist-oriented town. The waterfront road, promenade and park is a beautiful setting, but overshadowed – quite literally – by dozens upon dozens of multi-storey hotels. Throughout the day, Cat Ba Town echoes to sound of hammers and drills. But, of course, you will find everything you ‘need’ here: decent coffee, a variety of restaurants (think pizzas, burgers, bad value Vietnamese food, and impatient, grumpy service), cocktails, beer, happy hours, tons of accommodation options, and tour agents. It’s not a nice town, but most travellers will end up using it as their base – for sleeping, organizing tours, motorbike rental, onward transportation, and for Western ‘comforts’. However, don’t waste too much time lingering in Cat Ba Town: spend the majority of it out of town, around the island, in the green jungles and along the jagged coastline. That, after all, is why you’re here in the first place. One thing Cat Ba Town does offer is great views from its hotel balconies (at least, at some hotels). Note: sadly, during my visit, there were signs of increasing tension between Vietnamese and Western tourists, fueled (on both sides) by too much alcohol.

Cat Ba Town, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba Town’s scenic location belies its rather ugly, seedy & touristy reality


Cat Ba Town, Cat Ba Island, VietnamA tourism-fueled building boom has turned Cat Ba Town into a series of concrete hotels & restaurants

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Ben Beo Port [MAP]: On the eastern side of the southern tip of Cat Ba Island, Ben Beo village is the main port for boats to the outlying islands, including Lan Ha Bay. Although an essential transit point if you’re planning on seeing the smaller islands, Ben Beo is a crowded and disorganized little place, with a lot of hassling, haggling, overcharging and bad tempers. [For more about boat tours, see Getting Around].

Ben Beo Port, Cat Ba Island, VietnamBen Beo is a scruffy hamlet that’s home to the main port for boat tours to Lan Ha Bay

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Gia Luan Hamlet [MAP]: Not much more than a collection of family homes near the northern port, Gia Luan has a few shops and simple snack joints by the roadside, and a decent guest house, which is convenient if you’re catching the early ferry to Tuan Chau the next morning (see Getting There & Around for details).

Gia Lam hamlet & port, Cat Ba Island, VietnamGia Luan, in the north of the island, is a small hamlet & a scenic port from where the ferry to Ha Long leaves

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Xuan Dam Hamlet [MAP]: On a very pretty stretch of the west coast, Xuan Dam is another small hamlet with a couple of gracefully decaying old homes. The setting is lovely: just off the coast road, on the cusp of a wide, flat agricultural plain, with buffalo wading in the mud and women working the fields, all in the shadow of limestone hills. There’s something about this quiet corner of the island, but development is on the way. For now, the area can be enjoyed at several good, budget accommodations, including the excellent Cat Ba Eco-Lodge.

Buffaloes in Xuan Dam Hamlet, Cat Ba Island, VietnamXuan Dam is one of the prettiest parts of the island, especially inland where there’re farms & fields

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Viet Hai Hamlet [MAP]: Inland in the east on Cat Ba Island, Viet Hai is a remote and isolated hamlet. Used primarily as an overnight stop for trekkers from the National Park or visitors on boat tours, Viet Hai have several good homestays at which to soak up the peace and isolation of this part of the island.

Boats in Viet Hai Hamlet, Cat Ba Island, VietnamViet Hai is a small & remote hamlet in the east of Cat Ba Island, typically visited on boat & trekking tours

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Boat Tours:

Most boat tours of the outlying islands (particularly Lan Ha Bay, due southeast of Cat Ba Island) depart from Ben Beo Port. It’s possible to organize and pay for a tour at the port, but it can be fairly chaotic there, so most travellers arrange their boat tours through travel agents in Cat Ba Town. Most boat tours offer 1 day excursions, including cruising through the limestone karsts of Lan Ha Bay, stopping for some kayaking, landing of a couple of sandy beaches, and some food and drink. Another option is to overnight – either on-board the boat or at one of the mini-resorts on the outlying islands. All this usually comes as a (reasonably priced) package. There are lots of operators and agents to choose from. You can start by checking out Langur’s Adventures and Cat Ba Ventures, both of which have offices in Cat Ba Town and websites.

Boat tours from Cat Ba Island, VietnamBoat tours of the outlying islands, including Lan Ha Bay, leave from Ben Beo Port, near Cat Ba Town

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Accommodation:

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: If you use any of the relevant links below to book your accommodation, I make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

If possible, avoid weekends and public holidays, when many of the hotels charge ridiculous rates and don’t offer value for money. Although most of the accommodation on the island is in Cat Ba Town, I would suggest staying anywhere but the town (with the exception of a few good hotels with good balconies and good harbour views). This is because, although Cat Ba Town is great for necessities, such as cafes, stores, restaurants – it’s not a particularly nice place to spend your time. There are several other little clusters of accommodation around Cat Ba Island, all of which will give you a much better impression of the island (and its people) than staying in Cat Ba Town itself. Even just a bit out of town, in Ha Sen, is much quieter, prettier, cleaner, and better value for money than in town. If you do stay in town then try to get a sea view room at one of the places I recommend below:

View from the balcony of a hotel in Cat Ba Town, VietnamAccommodation is spread around the island, but most is in Cat Ba Town: some hotels have good harbour views


Cat Ba Town: The glut of hotels in Cat Ba Town is such that you never really need to book in advance, even on weekends and public holidays (unless, of course, you’re set on a particular place). The general standard is OK for the asking prices, but not great. What you really want is a harbour view, which many of the hotels have, but often charge a premium for. That said, competition drives prices down to reasonable levels, and there’s a good range in both the budget and mid-range price categories. Down the back-streets, particularly Nui Ngoc Street, which curls around behind the harbourfront, is where you’ll find the cheapest digs. The majority of hotels in all price categories are tall, narrow structures, maximizing their room numbers by building up, while keeping the cost of land down. The hostels and hotels listed below are but a tiny selection of the hundreds available. The following are ones I viewed and liked, but there are lots more in Cat Ba Town, many of which you can browse on this page:

• Secret Garden Hostel [MAP]; $7-$10: [BOOK HERE] A classic, chilled out, well-run backpacker hostel in the quieter back-streets of Cat Ba Town. Perks include a social vibe, good dorms, and interesting homemade food, including tasty vegan options.

• Mr Zoom Hostel [MAP]; $5-$10: [BOOK HERE] Nothing special, but rooms are cheap and fine. The main reason to stay here is for Mr Zoom’s island advice, information and tours, including climbing, kayaking and boat trips (but you don’t need to stay here to get that: just pop in and use it as a travel agent).

• Cat Ba Central Hostel [MAP]; $4-$20: [BOOK HERE] As the name suggests, this hostel is centrally located along the main harbourfront strip, and offers very cheap, clean dorms, and decent value private rooms. There are even glimpses of harbour views. It’s also worth checking out Cat Ba Pod Hostel nearby.

• Le Pont Bungalow Hostel [MAP]; $6-$30: [BOOK HERE] Just out of town (which is a good thing) on a rocky bluff to the south of Cat Ba harbour, Le Pont has very cheap dorms and reasonably priced private bungalows. The position is excellent, with 180 degree views of the harbour and bay. There’s a breezy bar, too.

Secret Garden Hostel, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba Town has plenty of good value hostels: pictured above is Secret Garden, one of the best

• Quang Tung Hotel [MAP]; $25-$50: [BOOK HERE] With a harbourfront location and front rooms with balconies and good views, Quang Tung is one of the better mid-range hotels along the seafront in Cat Ba Town. Clean, tidy and tasteful but by no means luxurious, Quang Tung is about right for the price.

• Cat Ba Central Hotel 2 [MAP]; $20-$30: [BOOK HERE] With a lakeside position, away from the business and tourist razzmatazz of the main harbourfront, Cat Ba Central 2 is well-priced and well-positioned, with tidy, smart and spacious rooms.

• Tung Thu Beach Bungalow [MAP]; $15-$30: [BOOK HERE] On the scenic, sandy beach just north of central Cat Ba Town, Tung Thu Beach Bungalow is one of a couple of budget-oriented places to stay here. Dorms and private rooms are both fine, but it’s the location that most people stay here for.

• Hai Long Hotel [MAP]; $25-$40: [BOOK HERE] Despite its rather drab and dated interior and exterior, Hai Long Hotel is comfortable and clean with sea views. Although it lacks character, it’s centrally located on the seafront road and just about represents value for money.

Quang Tung Hotel, Cat Ba Hotel, VietnamMid-range hotels in Cat Ba Town are pretty decent value, especially if you get a room with a harbour view

• Cat Ba Dream Hotel [MAP]; $10-$25: [BOOK HERE] On the corner of Nui Ngoc Street and the seafront road, Cat Ba Dream is right in the middle of town, surrounded by restaurants, bars and other hotels. Considering its location, and the fact that many of the rooms have harbour views, Cat Ba Dream is very good value for money. Rooms are clean, bright and cosy, but sparsely furnished.

• Hung Long Harbour Hotel [MAP]; $35-$70: [BOOK HERE] An old-style ‘smart’ hotel, Hung Long feels quite dated, but it’s difficult to argue with its position – on the seafront at the southern end of Cat Ba harbour – and the excellent, sweeping sea views from its balconies. When rates are low, its good value for money, but when they go up, it’s far from it.

• Cat Ba Island Resort [MAP]; $65-$100: [BOOK HERE] A large resort aimed at package tourists, with swimming pools, slides, and spacious rooms located on Cat Co 1 Beach, not far from Cat Ba Town. There are currently other high-end resorts under construction on the Cat Co beaches, which will probably be open by the time you read this guide.

Hung Long Harbour Hotel, Cat Ba Island, VietnamThe higher-end hotels in & around Cat Ba Town are fine but not particularly good value for money

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Ha Sen (outer Cat Ba): Just north of Cat Ba Town (not 5 minutes by road), a cluster of good accommodation options centre around a peaceful lake on Ha Sen Street, in the shadow of a limestone karst. It’s much more peaceful here than in Cat Ba Town. There are also a couple of other places to stay nearby at the junction at Hung Son:

• Corner Cat Ba Homestay [MAP]; $30: [BOOK HERE] It’s difficult to fault the simple, tasteful, cosy and bright lakeside bungalows at Corner Cat Ba Homestay. A very relaxing, comfortable, satisfying place to base yourself, and good value for money.

• Central Backpackers Hostel [MAP]; $5-$20: [BOOK HERE] OSimple, social, clean, fun and well-organized, Central Backpackers is one of the go-to hostels on Cat Ba Island. There’s a range of accommodation, from cheap dorms to cosy private rooms and wooden bungalows. There’s a pool, garden, BBQs, games, drinks and more.

• Captain Jack’s Hostel [MAP]; $5-$15: [BOOK HERE] Breezy, spacious, cheap and clean, Captain Jack’s is an easy-going backpacker hostel for budget travellers. Dorms and private rooms are available.

• Cat Ba Mountain View [MAP]; $10-$25: [BOOK HERE] With a handful of wood, thatch and brick huts over several levels on a steep limestone crag, Cat Ba Mountain View has a friendly, communal vibe and good views of the surrounding area. There’s a range of sleeping options available.

• Sweet Potato Homestay [MAP]; $5-$15: [BOOK HERE] A homey atmosphere with cheap and clean but unremarkable rooms, Sweet Potato is best-known for its tasty food and drink, rather than its accommodation. But it’s still a pleasant place to stay.

Good budget accommodation clusters around Ha Sen lake, Cat Ba Island, VietnamHa Sen, just outside of Cat Ba Town, is centered around an attractive lake, with several excellent budget hostels

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Xuan Dam Hamlet: Scattered about the countryside and seafront on the west coast, several good accommodation options around Xuan Dam Hamlet offer a peaceful and relaxing environment in a good location, within easy reach of both Cat Ba Town and the National Park.

• Cat Ba Eco-Lodge [MAP]; $30-$50: [BOOK HERE] In many ways this is one of the best and most atmospheric lodgings on the island. Cat Ba Eco-Lodge is reached via a series of dirt and paved lanes leading through lovely countryside. Sheltered in a beautiful, verdant valley, the Eco-Lodge has dorms in wooden houses raised above the ground on wooden stilts, or private bungalows in wooden cabins under the canopy. There’s a bar, pool table, swimming pool, a friendly vibe, and plenty of outdoor space in which to wallow in the rural tranquility. At night, lanterns line the porches, hanging from the wooden beams.

• Woodstock Beach Camp [MAP]; $5-$20: [BOOK HERE] As the name suggests, this is a sprawling, hippy-inspired, backpacker hang out. Very successful, and very cool in a laid-back, not-trying-too-hard way, Woodstock feels like your university dorms has been transported to a tropical island beach. In other words, it’s very good at what it does. Access to the beach and beach bar is across the road, and that’s the only problem: as Cat Ba gets more and more popular, the coastal road is getting busier with coaches and trucks. This slightly ruins to chill-out vibe, particularly on weekends. Nevertheless, the dorms, tents, and private rooms are all good value for money and it’s a very sociable place to stay.

• Green Valley Camp [MAP]; $5-$25: [BOOK HERE] In a beautiful location, a kilometre or so inland, surrounded by pines and limestone crags, Green Valley Camp is a large and neat campground and activity site. It would be a great place to pitch a tent for a quiet night or two, but when I visited it was closed. It’s worth checking out.

Cat Ba Eco-Lodge, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba Eco-Lodge is one of the best, most atmospheric & peaceful places to stay on the island


Woodstock Beach Camp, Cat Ba Island, VietnamWoodstock Beach Camp is a quintessential backpacker hostel on the beach, with a social, fun vibe

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Tran Chau & Lien Minh Hamlets: As the coast road veers inland some way northwest of Cat Ba Town, several quiet back-roads lead into the lush interior of the island. Here, there are a few, generally quiet, places to stay:

• De Dita Hostel [MAP]; $10-$30: [BOOK HERE] A big, multi-storey hostel on the coast road, with a swimming pool, bar, cafe and lots of crisp-looking rooms, De Dita is good value but oddly positioned: right on the increasingly busy road without direct access to beach or forest. It’s popular with Vietnamese phượt backpackers and families.

• Butterfly Valley Homestay [MAP]; tel: 0983 221 369: On the cusp of a peaceful valley, Butterfly Homestay (also called Lien Minh B&B) is a very good little place if you want to stay in an isolated and beautiful spot, or for climbers who want to get to work on the wall early in the day. Rooms are in an attractive, alpine-style chalet.

• Love House Homestay & Hostel [MAP]; $5-$20: [BOOK HERE] A strange assortment of converted container-style rooms and dorms, as well as brick cabins and nice gardens, Love House Homestay & Hostel is cheap and cheerful. Positioned in a valley near the coast road, it’s a pretty peaceful and intimate place to stay.

Cat Ba de Dita Hostel, Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba de Vita is a large, well-equipped hostel but in a strange location

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National Park, Viet Hai & Gia Luan Hamlets: There are a few places to stay near the National Park HQ and even inside the park. Also, the isolated hamlet of Viet Hai, in the remote east of the island, has several homestay-style accommodations:

• Trung Trang Eco Resort [MAP]; $10-$20: [BOOK HERE] Near the exit of Trung Trang Cave, this lush and simple backpacker resort is set among trees beneath a limestone hill. Outdoor seating under the canopy, dorm rooms in colourfully painted, thatch-roof shacks, a decent bar and restaurant, and reasonable prices, all make Trung Trang Eco Resort quite a good option, especially if you’re planning to start a long trek from the National Park HQ early the next morning.

• Hoi Lake Farmstay [MAP]; $5-$30: [BOOK HERE] More of a mini-resort than a farmstay, Hoi Lake is a large property with attractive, simply furnished, thatched bungalows around an artificial lake inside the National Park boundaries. At the trailhead for both of the park’s main hikes, Hoi Lake is a pleasant enough place to stay and a comfortable base from which to explore the national park. The bar, including cocktails, and lakeside restaurant are particularly inviting after a long day’s trekking in the park.

• Whisper Nature Bungalow: [MAP]; $10-$30: [BOOK HERE] Over in the remote, eastern hamlet of Viet Hai, Whisper Nature Bungalow is one of several accommodations. Here, brick and thatch huts offer comfortable, private lodgings, but there are dorms available too. Over in Gia Lam Hamlet, near the northern tip of Cat Ba Island, there’s a decent little motel that’s convenient if you’re catching an early ferry to Tuan Chau the next morning.

Hoi Lake Farmstay, Cat Ba National Park, VietnamHoi Lake Farmstay is located inside the national park, with attractive bamboo-and-thatch bungalows

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Food & Drink:

Although Cat Ba Town is the main centre for food and drink on the island, most accommodations outside of town have their own restaurant and bar, serving decent food and drink for their guests. Personally, I didn’t find the food scene on Cat Ba Island particularly rewarding compared to the high standards of the rest of Vietnam. However, seafood is often very good and there are some interesting places to sample street food. But, along the touristy seafront in Cat Ba Town, it’s mostly pizzas, burgers, beer and sub-standard Vietnamese food. I’m sure there’s much more to Cat Ba’s food scene that I was able to experience. Try asking locals for their recommendations:

A typical rice lunch, Cat Ba Island, VietnamMost of the island’s food outlets are in Cat Ba Town: seafood, street food & western restaurants


Food: Unsurprisingly, seafood is big on Cat Ba Island. The floating seafood restaurants at the southern end of Cat Ba harbour are a popular place to sample some of Cat Ba’s famous seafood. However, for a more local atmosphere (and more local prices), head to the seafood joints (quán hải sản) across the lake at the northern end of the harbourfront.

On Cat Ba town’s seafront road, most restaurants are fairly overpriced considering the very average quality. However, Phuong Anh is a classic, local-style noodle soup shop, serving up good bowls of phở (beef or chicken noodle soup) in the mornings and evenings. Otherwise, the seafront is mostly burgers and pizzas. For Vietnamese cuisine, try the back-streets, although, even there, I was underwhelmed by what was on offer. Once you get away from the touristy streets, you’ll find some good, cheap, local cơm bình dân (rice eateries) and, in the evenings, thịt nướng (barbecued meat) stalls. Perhaps the best (nay, only) significant concentration of Vietnamese street is in Cat Ba’s central market. Here you’ll find all the dishes and all the local atmosphere that Vietnamese street food is justly famous for (a real relief after the poor food on the seafront).

Buddha Belly is a cute little vegetarian restaurant near the lake at the north end of Cat Ba town. Next to a pretty Buddhist shrine, Buddha Belly serves various vegetarian dishes, including set menus (with English translations) which change each day. Secret Garden has some interesting homemade dishes on a changing menu, such as hummus, guacamole, and vegan friendly options. Green Mango is a favourite for Western dishes: breakfast here is pretty good.

Buddha Belly vegetarian restaurant, Cat Ba Island, VietnamBuddha Belly is a cute vegetarian restaurant near a Buddhist shrine by the lake in Cat Ba Town


A bowl of pho noodle soup at Phuong Anh, Cat Ba Island, VietnamA beautiful bowl of traditional phở gà (chicken noodle soup) at Phuong Anh, on the seafront road in Cat Ba Town

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Drink: Ca Ba Town has plenty of cafes on the harbourfront road where you can get decent espressos and other such Italian-style coffee, as well as Vietnamese-style iced coffee. My Way Cafe and Like Cafe have good coffee and good prices, as well as juices and smoothies – I ordered mine to take out and sat on a bench on the seafront or drank it with a bowl of noodles in the market. Oasis Bar has a long list of drinks – from cocktails to coffees to juices to smoothies – and a good location in the southern corner of Cat Ba seafront. I was told their Happy ‘Hour’ is from 12noon to 8pm. The Big Man Bar & Restaurant is a popular place for an evening tipple on the harbourfront road, watching the world go by. It has a backpacker-expat vibe and all the drinks deals which are required to please that clientele. Hair of the Dog Beach Bar, north of Cat Ba town, on Tung Thu Beach, is a popular backpacker hangout for shots, music and late nights. Secret Garden is a good place for a chilled coffee or juice during the day, or cocktails in the evenings. Green Mango also draws a crowd for drinks at night. And Mr Wilson beach bar, at Woodstock Beach Camp, is a really sociable place to drink.

Big Man Bar, Cat Ba Island, VietnamPouring the drinks at Big Man Bar, one of several popular night spots on the seafront in Cat Ba Town

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Getting There & Around:

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: If you use the links & search boxes below to book your transportation to Cat Ba Island through Baolau.com, I make a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

There are many different ways to get to Cat Ba Island, all of which require a scenic ferry journey (although a cable car is due to open soon, so you won’t technically have to take a ferry). Cat Ba can be reached from the north (via Tuan Chau Island, near Ha Long City) or from the west (via Hai Phong City or Cat Hai Island). From the north, there is only one route to one port; from the west, there are several different routes to several different ports. All of the routes are well-served by regular ferries and onward connections to other destinations. However, approaching from the west is by far the quickest and most efficient of the two. Most travellers arrive/depart Cat Ba on one of the frequent, affordable, and convenient through-tickets, combining multiple transportations to/from major mainland destinations. Examples include: Hanoi→Cat Ba, Ninh Binh→Cat Ba, Sapa→Cat Ba, all of which can be purchased through travel agents in those places or on Baolau.com. On Cat Ba, there’s a limited bus network, and motorbikes/bicycles can be rented to get around the island:

The car ferry to Cat Ba Island, VietnamThere are many ways to reach Cat Ba Island: each one requires a scenic ferry ride


HAI PHONG/CAT HAI ISLAND→CAT BA ISLAND: 

The city of Hai Phong and the nearby island of Cat Hai are the main gateways to Cat Ba Island. Hai Phong has good transportation connections with the rest of Vietnam and direct fast boats to Cat Ba Town. Cat Hai Island is now linked to Hai Phong via a new and impressive causeway, making road travel very fast and convenient. From Cat Hai Island it’s just a short hop on a regular car ferry to Cat Ba, and soon they’ll also be the option to take the cable car over:

The car ferry to Cat Ba Island, VietnamBus-boat combos from Hai Phong City or Cat Hai Island to Cat Ba are the most common ways to arrive


Getting to Hai Phong: Vietnam’s third largest city has good transport connections:

By air: Daily flights serve Hai Phong’s Cat Bi Airport from multiple domestic destinations (including Saigon, Danang, Quy Nhon) and a few international ones, too. [Check flights on Baolau.com]

By bus: There are lots of daily services to most major destinations in the country. [Check bus times on Baolau.com]

By train: There’s a four times daily connection with Hanoi that’s especially convenient for travellers with motorbikes, because you can take your bike on the train with you, thus avoiding the horrible highways in/out of Hanoi. [For details see this guide].

Bus-Boat-Bus Combo: Through tickets on a bus-boat-bus combination between Hanoi-Hai Phong-Cat Ba are operated by several companies and only take 3-4 hours. [Check schedules on Baolau.com].

The Hanoi-Hai Phong train, VietnamHai Phong has good transport connections with the rest of Vietnam, including a regular train to Hanoi

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Hai Phong→Cat Ba Island by Ferry [MAP]: There are direct fast boats between Hai Phong’s Ben Binh Pier (Pha Binh Port) to Cat Ba Pier, in the centre of town, several times a day. The journey only takes 1 hour and ticket prices are a reasonable 220,000vnd ($10). For schedules, times, prices and bookings check Baolau.com or use the search box below:

Search & Book: Type your travel dates below & click ‘Search’ to find current ticket prices & availability for boats between Hai Phong’s Ben Binh Port & Cat Ba Island:


The Hai Phong-Cat Ba Island fast ferry, VietnamFast boats between Hai Phong’s Ben Binh Pier & Cat Ba Town operate several times daily, taking just 1 hour

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Cat Hai Island→Cat Ba Island by Ferry [MAP]: Most bus-boat combinations now use the Cat Hai ferry crossing, at Ben Got Pier, to get to Cat Ba Island. This is because a long, new causeway was recently completed, linking Hai Phong with Cat Hai Island. The ferry from Ben Got Pier runs regularly all day, and can accommodate cars, trucks, coaches, motorbikes, bicycles and passengers. The crossing from Ben Got, at the eastern tip of Cat Hai Island, to Cai Vieng Port, at the northwestern tip of Cat Ba Island, only takes 10 minutes. Ticket prices ranges from 12,000vnd (passenger) to 45,000vnd (motorbike) and upwards depending on the size of the vehicle and the number of passengers travelling. There’s no need to book in advance. Note that Ben Got is also where the new cable car to Cat Ba with be once it’s completed (probably by the time you read this).

The Cat Hai-Cat Ba Island ferry, VietnamCat Hai Island is linked with Hai Phong via a long causeway, and with Cat Ba Island via a regular car ferry

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HA LONG/TUAN CHAU ISLAND→CAT BA ISLAND:

Although Ha Long City is the main gateway for cruises on Ha Long Bay, it’s the secondary gateway for Cat Ba Island, after Hai Phong. The city has decent transport connections with Hanoi, and the daily ferry service from Tuan Chau Port to Cat Ba is one of the most scenic public ferries anywhere in Vietnam:

The Tuan Chau-Cat Ba Island ferry, VietnamThere’s only one public sea route between Ha Long & Cat Ba Island, but it’s an extremely scenic one


Getting to Ha Long: A large city to the north of Cat Ba Island, Ha Long has good transport connections to Hanoi and other northern cities:

By air: Recently opened, Van Don Airport is 50km east of Ha Long City, with daily flights to/from major Vietnamese cities, including Saigon, and some international routes, too. [Check flights on Baolau.com]

By bus: There are lots of daily services to many major destinations in the country, including services throughout the day to Hanoi. [Check bus times on Baolau.com]

By train: There’s a daily train connection with Hanoi that’s especially convenient for travellers with motorbikes, because you can take your bike on the train with you, thus avoiding the horrible highways in/out of Hanoi. However, it’s a very slow service [Check train times on Baolau.com or ask direct at the station].

The Hanoi-Ha Long City train, VietnamThere are lots of transportation options to get to Ha Long City, including the daily slow train to Hanoi

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Tuan Chau→Cat Ba Island by Ferry [MAP]: Probably the most scenic public ferry voyage anywhere in Vietnam, a car ferry plies between Tuan Chau Island (essentially a suburb of Ha Long City) and Cat Ba Island’s northern port, Gia Luan, several times daily. Journey time is roughly 1 hour, and there are 3-5 sailings every day (low/high season). There’s plenty of room for cars, buses and motorbikes, as well as passengers. It’s a simple ferry with lots of open deck space, a toilet, and a rustic on-board ‘snack-shack’. But it’s all about the scenery on the voyage, most of which involves gliding between limestone karsts covered in jungle, poking through the mist as they rise vertically from the calm sea. People pay hundreds of dollars for this sort of experience on smart cruise ships: on the Tuan Chau ferry, it’s only a few dollars (passenger: 80,000vnd | motorbike: 100,000vnd | car: 480,000vnd). Check the schedule at either Tuan Chau or Gia Luan ports for current information, but at the time of writing (August 2019) the sailing times were:

TUAN CHAU PORT (HA LONG)  GIA LUAN POST (CAT BA)

Departures: 7.30am, 9.00am, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3.00pm (daily*)


GIA LUAN PORT (CAT BA) → TUAN CHAU PORT (HA LONG)

Departures: 9.00am, 11.30am, 13.00pm, 3.00pm, 4.00pm (daily*)

*These are high season sailings (April-September). During low season (October-March) there are only three sailings a day in each direction. It’s best to check current times at the ports.

The Tuan Chau-Cat Ba Island ferry, VietnamThe public ferry between Tuan Chau Island & Cat Ba Island runs several times daily & is very scenic indeed

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GETTING AROUND CAT BA ISLAND:

Cat Ba is a large island – the second biggest in Vietnam, as far as I know – and exceptionally rugged. Because of the difficult topography, the road network is limited, but it’s still possible to go by road from south to north through the interior of the island and along the entire west coast – both of which are beautiful drives. Hiking in the national park is excellent, and walking around Cat Ba Town is fine, too. Bicycles, motorbikes, taxis, electric carts, and local buses are all effective ways of getting around the island. Also, boats can get you to more remote parts of Cat Ba, where roads don’t yet lead:

Coast road on Cat Ba Island, VietnamCat Ba’s road network has got a lot better in recent years, making getting around the island much easier


By Motorbike & Bicycle: 

Motorbiking around Cat Ba Island is a great experience and a good way to see the countryside and visit the island’s attractions. Motorbikes are available to rent from most hotels and tour agencies. They’re very inexpensive: 50,000-150,000vnd per day. But the general quality of the bikes is rather bad: ancient, poorly maintained Yamaha Nouvos. However, as the distances are short, they’re adequate to get you around.

Ride cautiously: there are many blind corners, steep ascents, gravel on the road (treacherous), and dangerously lackadaisical local driving. I also saw dozens of foreign riders driving too fast, not wearing helmets, and openly drinking and driving. Don’t be an idiot: you will get injured (I met plenty for travellers who had hurt themselves on bikes on the island), and the police will stop you, especially in Cat Ba Town, where they are out in force. Far too many foreign riders zip around without helmets. Aside from safety, it’s a catalyst for deteriorating foreign-Vietnamese relations. Many Vietnamese people I meet, especially of the younger generation, are sick of seeing foreign visitors and expats behaving as if the rules don’t apply to them, or at least getting away with things that locals can’t. And they’re right: if this was Germany, and in Germany the law stated you must wear your helmet while riding a motorbike (as it does in Vietnam), would foreign visitors abide by that law? Of course they would. Don’t confirm the increasingly negative image of foreigners in Vietnam: wear your helmet and ride responsibly.

Bicycles can also be rented from some places, and are a pleasant way to see the island. But bear in mind that the roads are quite challenging, especially in the heat and humidity that Cat Ba is famous for. [For route and road advice see Motorbiking & Biking].

Riding a motorbike around Cat Ba Island, VietnamMotorbikes & bicycles can be rented & are a great way to explore the island: but ride carefully

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By Taxi & Bus: 

Taxis meet the ferries from the mainland at the ports on Cat Ba Island, or you can ask the staff at your hotel to arrange one for you. Taxis are generally inexpensive (especially when shared) and can to take you to many of the sights around the island. There are also electric buggies (mini-buses, really) that ply short distances between Cat Ba Town, Cannon Fort, and the three Cat Co Beaches. Electric buggies are 10,000vnd per ride, but are generally used for transporting large groups of domestic tourists to and from the above mentioned places.

A convenient public bus system operates on the island, linking Cat Ba Town with Cai Vieng Port and Gia Luan Port via the National Park HQ. Ask the tourist information office at Cat Ba Pier or your hotel staff for times and schedules.

Electric buggies, Cat Ba Island, VietnamThere are plenty of taxis on Cat Ba Island as well as these electric buggies around town

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On Foot:

Cat Ba Town is small enough to manage on foot. Strolling up and down the seafront road is very pleasant. But, in town proper, the streets get very steep and are often clogged with tourist traffic. Elsewhere on the island, there’s good trekking in the National Park (see Hiking, Climbing & View Points for details) and you can even strike out on your own on several jungle tracks that you’ll see winding into the countryside off the island roads. But, obviously, if you choose to do this, you must be very careful.

Walking trails on Cat Ba Island, VietnamWalking on Cat Ba Island can be very rewarding, either on the trails in the national park or along Cat Ba seafront

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By Boat: Boat tours of Cat Ba’s coastline and the outlying islands can be a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. Most boats leave from Ben Beo Port, not far from Cat Ba Town (see Boat Tours for more details).

Boat tours from Cat Ba Island, VietnamBoats can be hired (usually from Ben Beo Port) to get around the island or to outlying islets & beaches

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Weather:

Damp and hot: these are the two adjectives I’d use to describe my experience of Cat Ba Island’s weather. Humidity is a characteristic of Cat Ba, whether in the hot summer months, between April and August, or the cooler (sometimes chilly) autumn and winter months, between September and February. I’ve only ever experienced Cat Ba in the summer months, when the weather is fine: sunny, hot and humid, with tropical downpours and occasional sea mists in the mornings and evenings. According to locals I spoke with, the best time of year is September/October and and March/April. Either way, because Cat Ba is a large island in a big bay with land masses to the north and west, and open sea to the south and east, weather can be very changeable and unpredictable.

Weather over the sea from Cat Ba Island, VietnamWeather is often hot, humid & damp on Cat Ba Island: best times to visit are from April to October


Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this island and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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The Northeast by Motorbike: 5 Routes & Loops http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-northeast-by-motorbike-5-routes-loops/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-northeast-by-motorbike-5-routes-loops/#respond Thu, 15 Aug 2019 06:31:58 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=29299 A bucolic corner of Vietnam, the Northeast is a garden of rice fields, forests, lakes & rivers ambling through limestone corridors. This guide focuses on 5 motorbike loops on meandering back-roads & freshly-sealed highways through three provinces: Cao Bang, Lang Son & Bac Kan... Continue reading

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Last updated August 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

In my opinion, the three northeastern provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Son and Bac Kan currently offer the best on-road motorbiking opportunities anywhere in Vietnam. Why? Because all three northeastern provinces are utterly beautiful – characterized by limestone karsts, unbroken forests, misty mountains, blue rivers, farms, craft villages – and are crisscrossed by a growing network of increasingly good-quality paved back-roads and national highways; tourists are few, traffic is generally very light (with the exception of container trucks plying between remote Chinese border crossings), people are friendly, food is rustic and hearty, opportunities for getting off the beaten path are many, and there’s a real sense of adventure. This guide focuses on five different routes and loops within the three northeastern provinces. Each loop can be ridden separately or stitched together to form a ‘Great Northeast Loop’. Base yourself in Cao Bang, Lang Son, Bac Kan or Ba Be Lake and spend at least a few days exploring these routes by motorbike. The northeast is a great alternative to, or extension of, the Ha Giang Loop, which is now so popular it’s lost some of its magic.

The Northeast by Motorbike: 5 Routes & Loops, VietnamIn my opinion, the northeast currently offers the best on-road motorbiking opportunities in Vietnam

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THE NORTHEAST: 5 ROUTES & LOOPS


In this guide, I’ve mapped, described and illustrated five motorbike loops in the northeastern provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Son and Bac Kan. On the main map, I’ve plotted all five routes in different colours. However, each of the five routes also has its own separate map, which has much more detail, including road conditions, places to stay, see, eat, and drink. Any of these five routes can be mixed and matched and stitched together as and how you like, in order to create longer or shorter loops. All the northeast loops are highly scenic and great fun to ride: I’d recommend spending at least a few days riding them. Weather is best from March to October; it can get cold from November to February. There’s plenty of accommodation in the main northeastern cities and several good homestay areas scattered around (see each separate route map for specific suggestions). For bike rental, QT Motorbikes has a shop in Cao Bang. *[See Related Posts for links to my other motorbike guides in the region]

Click on an item below for more details:

CONTENTS:

MAP:

Northeast by Motorbike: 5 Routes & Loops

Route 1: 165/190km | Route 2: 315km | Route 3: 190km | Route 4: 455kmRoute 5: 285km


View in a LARGER MAP

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ROUTE 1: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: Cao Bang→Ban Gioc Falls→Nguom Ngao Caves (optional return route)
  • Distance: 165/190km
  • Time: 1-2 days
  • Scenery: limestone karsts, minority villages, majestic waterfalls, caves, remote borders
  • Road Conditions: good surface, light traffic (some trucks), rough return route (optional)

ROUTE MAP: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop (165/190km: blue/red route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: Spreading east of Cao Bang City towards the Chinese border and the spectacular Ban Gioc Waterfall, this loop is the most popular of all the northeast routes. Manageable as a (reasonably long) return day-trip from Cao Bang, the Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop is full of wonderful scenery and good riding roads. However, because of ongoing construction and damaged roads caused by juggernauts plying remote routes to isolated Chinese borders, the lower (southerly) half of the Ban Gioc Loop (the red line) is currently in pretty bad repair, and shouldn’t be attempted unless you have a suitable bike or enough riding experience to tackle some tricky off-road, muddy sections. But, this needn’t concern other riders without a suitable bike or off-road experience, because the ride out to Ban Gioc Falls on the on-road route (the blue line) is so good that you won’t mind retracing your tracks back the same way. Or, even better, break the journey by staying a night at one of the atmospheric homestay areas on the route, such as Dam Thuy or Phia Thap, before returning to Cao Bang the next day.

Heading east out of Cao Bang on road QL3, the route passes through lush valleys before ascending the formidable Ma Phuc Pass, which zig-zags up a to a junction where there are marvellous views down over the karst-studded valley. Onward to Quang Uyen, QL3 ploughs through picturesque farmland, where luminous rice paddies fill the flat spaces between limestone pinnacles. Several of the small hamlets specialize in crafts on one kind or another, most noticeably knives, which you’ll see displayed by the roadside. A homestay initiative here, at Phia Thap Village, is worth considering for a night with a local family in a wooden stilt home (try Mr Kim’s Homestay for hospitable hosts, wonderful food, and local knowledge). Quang Uyen, a decent sized town with food and refreshments and a few hotels, is the point at which the route veers north on road DT206, heralding the start of one of the most scenic and enjoyable rides anywhere in Vietnam. All the way between Quang Uyen and Ban Gioc Falls, via the dusty market town of Trung Khanh, the landscape is exceptionally beautiful. Characterized by jagged karst mountains – rising like Daliesque columns from rice paddies and corn fields – and jade-blue rivers flowing past bucolic scenes of wading buffalo, bamboo waterwheels, conical-hatted farmers, stone cottages and wooden cowsheds, the landscape around road DT206 is worthy of any great ink-and-wash Chinese landscape paintings. The road is smooth, easy to ride, and quiet. However, due to soaring trade with China, the peace can be spoiled somewhat by incongruous container trucks struggling up the hairpin bends and squeezing through the tight corners. (A new expressway is currently under construction to address this issue.) It’s also possible to cross the river to the north of DT206 and explore some dusty back-roads.

And then, of course, the star of the show: Ban Gioc Waterfall, one of Vietnam’s greatest natural wonders. It appears suddenly in the corner of your eye, then fills your entire vision. Crashing over multiple levels, filling a wide gap in the tropical foliage, the falls tumble down in white-crested layers, like an iced wedding cake. Framed by stands of giant bamboo and jungle-clad limestone karsts, Ban Gioc Waterfall is a genuinely breathtaking sight to behold. The falls lie right on the Chinese border, and there’s also an impressive cave system nearby, Nguom Ngao, with an illuminated trail through it. The Saigon-Ban Gioc Resort offers mid-range accommodation near the falls, and there’s excellent budget beds in the homestays at Dam Thuy Village (try May Linh and Minh Khanh homestays). Providing you have a suitable motorbike and riding experience, you can continue due south from Ban Gioc Falls on roads DT206/DT207 (the red line) along the Chinese border (at times, literally a stone’s throw away) towards Ha Lang (where there’s a guest house, if you should need it) and all the way back to Quang Uyen. This is the real boonies, and well worth the effort if you have the right wheels. If not, return to Cao Bang on the blue route, which, let’s face it, merits a second ride anyway. *[For much more about the waterfall see my Guide to Ban Gioc Falls].


IMAGES: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop

The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamThe scenery on the Ban Gioc Loop is excellent: this is the Quay Son River through a limestone gorge


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamAround Ban Gioc Falls there are opportunities to get off the main route & explore some back roads


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamLooking down the valley from a hairpin bend on the Ma Phuc Pass, halfway between Cao Bang & Ban Gioc


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamBan Gioc Waterfall, seen from above via a steep, treacherous path from the bottom of the falls


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamSituated right on the Chinese border, Ban Gioc Falls are a breathtaking sight, especially in the sunshine


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamCao Bang City, a likable place on the banks of the Bang Giang River, is a perfect base to explore the northeast


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamBamboo waterwheels grace the banks of the Quay Son River, just upstream from Ban Gioc Falls


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamOn a good day, you could spend hours gazing & photographing Ban Gioc Falls from different perspectives


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamAfter the waterfall, Road DT206 follows the Chinese border, burrowing beneath a limestone karst


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamThe alternative route (the red line) is scenic & off the beaten path, but road conditions can be rough


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamAt times, the road on the red route deteriorates into a muddy track – difficult unless you have a suitable bike


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ban Gioc Waterfall Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamAlso close by Ban Gioc Falls, Nguom Ngao Cave is a haunting, mesmerizing sight

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ROUTE 2: Ba Be Lake Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: Cao Bang→Ba Be Lake→Bac Kan on back roads & highways
  • Distance: 315km
  • Time: 2-3 days
  • Scenery: jungles, lakes, mountains, river valleys, minority villages, homestays
  • Road Conditions: paved highways & back roads, very mountainous, rough patches

ROUTE MAP: Ba Be Lake Loop (315km: blue route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: A big, green, mountainous and highly scenic route southwest of Cao Bang, the Ba Be Lake Loop combines snaking national highways with narrow back-roads to create a hugely rewarding ride through jungles, rivers, lakes, and highlands. At 315km, this is a long loop which requires at least one night and two days to complete. However, you can choose to shorten the loop by taking either of the shortcuts (the red lines), effectively cutting the loop in half, and thus making it manageable as a one-day return trip from Cao Bang. But, to really get the most out of this loop, you should spend at least one night at a homestay on the shores of Ba Be Lake, not to mention taking a boat out on the placid water, visiting the caves and sights, and trekking in the countryside. The loop is generally fairly easy to follow and navigate, and road conditions are mostly very good. Two significant exceptions to this are: Road 254 around the eastern and southern shores of Ba Be Lake, and patches of the road leading south from Ba Be Lake to Ban Lanh, both of which have badly potholed sections and suffer from mud after heavy rains.

There are several places to stay on the loop, including guest houses in Cho Ra village, and mini-hotels in Bac Kan, the largest town on the route (try Green Hotel, a reliable budget option). However, the homestays on Ba Be Lake are by far the most atmospheric, good value, and rewarding accommodation in the area. Mostly run by local ethnic minority families, these homestays are usually concrete-and-brick or wood-and-thatch structures on stilts by the water’s edge, with easy access to the lake for swimming, kayaking, boat trips, and hiking in the national park. Thus, these homestays are the main hub for activities and sightseeing on the Ba Be Lake Loop. Mr Linh’s and Hoa Son homestays are good options, but there are dozens of others. *[For more information see my Guide to Ba Be Lake Homestays].

The most scenic sections of the loop are, well, they’re all fantastically scenic: Road QL34 west of Cao Bang to Tinh Tuc mining town is a serpentine ribbon of asphalt burrowing deep into the northern mountains; Road DT212 soars over cold, windy passes beneath the slopes of one of the highest mountains in the region, Pia Oac, before plunging due south past a high-end tea plantation, Kolia, and abandoned, century-old, French colonial-era villas to Cho Ra; all the roads to, from, and around Ba Be Lake are dripping with tropical foliage, rivers oozing out of the jungles from the high peaks of limestone mountains, the entire area heavy with an earthy dampness and a strong, mysterious presence as the landscapes wax and wane behind curtains of mist and rain; and Road QL3 back to Cao Bang is a long and dizzying ride through sublime scenery on a smooth surfaced national highway – one of the best riding roads in Vietnam. The riding is good, the scenery stunning, tourists are few, traffic is light: go now and make the most of it.


IMAGES: Ba Be Lake Loop

The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamThe twisting roads on the Ba Be Lake Loop lead deep into the green mountains of Bac Kan Province


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamDespite the difficult terrain, road conditions are generally pretty good on the Ba Be Lake Loop


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamBa Be Lake is perfect for swimming, relaxing, kayaking, boat rides, and homestays with local families


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamOvernighting at a homestay on the edge of Ba Be Lake is a highlight of the loop: there’re many to choose from


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamBa Ba Lake is an exceptionally scenic area: explore it on two wheels, on foot, or by boat


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamRoad 254 around the lake is rough is places & several narrow suspension bridges lead across the water


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamFood in Bac Kan Province is good, especially the meals served up at the Ba Be Lake homestays


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamIf the weather is cloudy & rainy, simply spend the day on your balcony watching life unfold on the lake


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamThe Ba Be Lake Loop is particularly lush: around August-September the colour of the ripe rice is fantastic


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamTake a longboat ride on Ba Be Lake to visit some of the more remote corners of the national park


The Northeast by Motorbike: Ba Be Lake Loop, Bac Kan, VietnamRoad QL3 between Bac Kan & Cao Bang is a long & windy stretch of tarmac through marvellous mountains

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ROUTE 3: Mau Son MountainBac Son Valley Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: Lang Son→Mau Son Mountain→Dong Dang border→Bac Son Valley
  • Distance: 190km
  • Time: 1-2 days
  • Scenery: misty mountains, limestone karsts, rivers, minority villages, homestays
  • Road Conditions: good, paved surfaces, some rough patches, light traffic

ROUTE MAP: Mau Son Mountain↔Bac Son Valley Loop (190km: blue red route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: Two scenic, mountainous loops connected by a smooth ride along a picturesque river valley, the Mau Son Mountain↔Bac Son Valley Loop is relatively short, fairly easy to navigate, and generally on good, well-made roads. However, there are a couple of rough road sections, which I’ve marked on my map with red lines and roadworks icons. Even these sections should be OK to ride in dry weather, but if wet they can become quite difficult. Start from Lang Son, a city that’s prospered on the back of increased trade with China. A small and friendly place with a pleasant buzz on its streets, Lang Son has lots of food, hotels, several sights and great markets selling all sorts of goods from across the border (see my map for suggestions of all the above).

Head east of the city on Road QL4B, leading through a pleasant valley, to the turnoff for DT237B, which climbs all the way to the summit of Mau Son. The road is narrow and paved, but bumpy, twisting through jungle and pines, high into the clouds. At the top, a collection of restored and faux French colonial villas are all that’s left of an unlikely former hill station. It’s a bizarre and romantic sight. Several of the buildings offer accommodation, food, and drink, including the famous local liquor (ruọu), made special, supposedly, by the purity of the mountain spring water. If the weather is clear, the views are mind-blowing. But, Mau Son is almost permanently wrapped in cloud and mist, giving it an eerie, haunted, ethereal character. Either way, it’s well worth the journey. Just don’t come on a weekend or public holiday, when the crowds are insane; during the week, there’s hardly anyone here. The government intend to turn Mau Son into a tourist attraction on the grand, kitsch scale of Ba Na Hills, near Danang. So if that’s not your thing (it isn’t mine), visit now. From just below the summit it’s possible to loop back to Lang Son via a small mountain road (the red line), heading north to Hai Yen, then connecting with Road DT235. However, parts of this route were still unpaved at the time of research (August 2019). If you don’t feel up to it, retrace your route back to Lang Son: the distance isn’t far and the road is so scenic it’s worth riding again anyway.

Pass back through Lang Son and start heading due west. There are two choices for this: take the smooth but busy Highway QL1A north towards Dong Dang then connect with QL1B heading due south and west (the blue line); or take the more direct but potholed and muddy route (the red line) on Road DT235C west of Lang Son before joining QL1B. Either way, it’s not long before you’re gliding through a pretty valley on QL1B, a fantastic riding road: smooth, clear, scenic and fast, brushing by a clear-flowing river, fragrant rice fields and limestone peaks. In season, the air here is scented with Star Anise, an aromatic spice that’s one of the ‘secret’ ingredients of phở. After Binh Gia village, the road climbs steadily, slicing through a cluster of forested limestone karsts, affording fabulous views down into the valley, where smoke rises from little hamlets of wood-and-tile houses. Bac Son lies at the bottom of the pass, a flat, rice-growing valley enclosed by a cradle of limestone karsts. The town itself is small and unassuming, but on its eastern periphery, where the rice fields are so brightly coloured it’s as if each blade has been charged with an electric current, there’s a homestay initiative, at Quynh Son hamlet. Staying in the wooden stilt houses here with a local ethnic minority family is a rewarding experience. Expect to pay around 200,000vnd for a night in a wooden house, including delicious home-cooked food.

However, before bedding down for the night in a homestay, ride the bucolic loop around Bac Son Valley, by combining roads QL1B with DT241 (note that the latter suffers from potholes). This 60km scenic ride wiggles between limestone pinnacles that break up oceans of rice paddy, bisected by a wide river. If you get hungry, look out for roadside vendors near Nga Hai selling tasty sides of crispy roast pork. Finally, save some energy for the steep climb through thick jungle to the Bac Son View Point, atop a limestone crag behind the town, for stunning views of the entire valley. After a night in a homestay, retrace your route back along the valley on QL1B to Lang Son to complete the double loop. However, it’s worth stopping in the intriguing border town of Dong Dang on the way for an hour, to soak up the strange atmosphere. Dong Dang train station is a fascinating building with an exhibition of Kim Jong-un’s visit in early 2019; Dong Dang Market has lots of Chinese goods; Dong Dang temple is a colourful, multi-storey pagoda; and the Friendship Border Gate is a busy trading post, choked with container trucks.


IMAGES: Mau Son Mountain↔Bac Son Valley Loop

The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamTwo connecting loops in Lang Son Province provide lush scenery, limestone karsts, misty mountains & homestays


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamLang Son, a city thriving from cross-border trade with China, is a good place to base yourself for the loop


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamRoad DT237B climbs steeply, clinging to the side of the valley, all the way up to Mau Son Peak


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamMau Son, an abandoned former French colonial hill station, still has some crumbling villas in the mist


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamBac Son valley is a stunning, almost martian, landscape dotted with limestone karsts


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamIn Bac Son valley, the local homestays in Quynh Son village are a highlight of the loop


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamBrace yourself for a steep but short hike up to the Bac Son View Point, where there are stunning vistas


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamHungry? Look out for delicious spit-roasted pork by the roadside – it’s a local speciality


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamThe roads on the Mau Son Mountain↔Bac Son Valley Loop are mostly in pretty good condition


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamTake the time to stop by at Dong Dang, a border town with a fascinating train station


The Northeast by Motorbike: Mau Son Mountain-Bac Son Valley Loop, Lang Son, VietnamThe landscape on the Mau Son Mountain↔Bac Son Valley Loop is often scented with star anise

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ROUTE 4: Bac Kan Back Roads CrissCross Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: Cao Bang→Bac Kan→Lang Son via a criss-cross of rural back roads
  • Distance: 455km
  • Time: 2-3 days
  • Scenery: deep forests, mountains, sparsely populated river valleys, minority villages
  • Road Conditions: good surfaces, back roads & national highways, light traffic

ROUTE MAP: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop (455km: blue route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: A long, densely forested and sparsely populated route through landscape, and on roads, that most travellers don’t see, the Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop connects the three main northeastern cities (Cao Bang, Lang Son, and Bac Kan) via a series of overlapping back roads, offering a chance to get way off the beaten path while sticking to good, sealed roads. With the exception of Road QL4A between Cao Bang and Lang Son, which forms the eastern flank of this route, the Bac Kan Criss-Cross Loop utilizes several excellent, seldom used back roads that have all recently been resurfaced, providing easy riding and plugging you into isolated areas of thick jungles, rivers, and seemingly endless mountains. Start/end in either Cao Bang or Lang Son (it doesn’t matter which) and take your time eating up the miles on the ‘criss-cross’ of back-roads, meandering through one of the least populated provinces in Vietnam, past countryside rich in revolutionary history. This is the heart of the Việt Bắc region, historically a revolutionary stronghold, not least in the mid-twentieth century, when Ho Chi Minh and his entourage avoided detection from French authorities by taking cover in the tangle of steep valleys and forests. The riding is fabulous, the traffic is light, the scenery pristine, and the distances long but easily manageable in a couple of days, with an overnight stop in Bac Kan (try Green Hotel for a reliable budget option) or one of the local guest houses (nhà nghỉ) in the small villages on the back roads.

To the east of this loop is a long stretch on Highway QL4A. An ambitious, wide, smooth road, facilitating trade with China, QL4A is fun to ride as it curls over passes, along steep valleys, and through pretty farmland punctuated by limestone karsts. However, it’s marred by container trucks plying between Chinese border posts; the juggernauts often stalling as they crawl painfully up the passes. Indeed, a new expressway is under construction to address this issue, but won’t be completed for some time. Nonetheless, it’s still a decent and fast ride, linking two of the northeast’s major cities: Cao Bang and Lang Son. Stop in at Dong Dang, the main Chinese border town, for a look at its market and impressive train station. This is where Kim Jong-un entered Vietnam for his summit with President Trump in February 2019. The station features an exhibition of photographs commemorating the event. There’s also an interesting temple, and it’s worth riding up to the border to have a look at the imposing gates and hundreds of waiting freight vehicles.

Almost exactly in the middle of QL4A, the town of That Khe is the turnoff point for the ‘criss-cross’ of back roads. You can ride the ‘criss-cross’ in any direction, it really doesn’t matter. This is the point where the roads melt into the jungle: a network of connecting back roads twisting and turning through an incredibly lush, fecund, fertile landscape of rivers, jungles, mountains and karsts. All the back roads are now paved, although their condition deteriorates at certain points and, because the terrain is so mountainous, the roads are liable to suffer from landslides after heavy rain. But, in good weather, all riders on all bikes should be able to relax and enjoy these highly scenic, rural back roads. Gas stations are few, but each village has at least one. The same goes for food and accommodation: one or two local guest houses (nhà nghỉ) can be found in the villages marked with a red pin on my map, but it’s best to save your overnight stop for Bac Kan, where there are plenty of small hotels, including Green Hotel & Coffee. Settle into the ride and become pleasantly disorientated in the tropical foliage of Bac Kan Province.


IMAGES: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop

The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamBac Kan is one of the least populated & least visited provinces in Vietnam, yet it is green, forested & beautiful


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamA series of good quality, narrow, paved back roads criss-cross through Bac Kan’s countryside


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamA buffalo bathes in a mountain stream: Bac Kan is riddled with rivers & valleys


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamMost of Bac Kan Province is densely forested: often, the narrow roads are the only sign of human activity


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamAlthough sparsely populated, most of the villages serve refreshments at mealtimes


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamExploring Bac Kan Province on back roads takes you way off the beaten path, but still on good quality roads


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamMost of Bac Kan’s back roads are single-lane, meandering across the lush countryside


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamTraffic is very light, giving you plenty of opportunities to pull over, stop & admire the wide views


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamA daily train runs between Lang Son station & Hanoi, allowing you to take your motorbike on board


The Northeast by Motorbike: Bac Kan Back Roads Criss-Cross Loop, VietnamStop by Dong Dang, on the Chinese border, to soak up the strange atmosphere of this old market town

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ROUTE 5: China Border Crawl Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: Cao Bang→Bao Lac→Pac Bo Cave→Ma Phuc Pass via border back roads
  • Distance: 285km
  • Time: 2-3 days
  • Scenery: mountains, incredible passes, remote borders, rivers, villages, historic sites
  • Road Conditions: decent back roads, bad patches, susceptible to landslides, light traffic

ROUTE MAP: China Border Crawl Loop (285km: blue route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: The most northerly of the five northeast routes, the China Border Crawl Loop is a mountainous circuit from Cao Bang, utilizing remote and extraordinarily steep and twisted roads, often clinging to an isolated section of the Chinese border. Although the China Border Crawl Loop is long and winding, it is possible to ride the entire loop in a long day on the road, providing you leave early and have good weather. However, it’s more enjoyable to take your time, breaking the journey at one of the mini-hotels in Bao Lac for a night. Alternatively, you can cut the loop in half by taking either of the two shortcuts (the red lines) back to Cao Bang. The scenery is fantastic, the roads are astonishing, and the sense of adventure is real and raw.

Heading west from Cao Bang, Road QL34 is a wonderfully knotted ribbon of tarmac, corkscrewing up green mountains of terraced rice fields, soaring over cold, high passes, and plummeting into tight valleys all the way to Bao Lac. A small town at the confluence of several rivers, Bao Lac is a good place to grab refreshments or a bed for a night (I’ve marked several hotels on my map), before riding due east on what is one of the most astonishing roads in the country. Following the Gam River east of Bao Lac, this as yet unnamed road is currently the talk of many riders in Vietnam. Hugging the Chinese border for much of its length, the road passes through some extremely remote landscapes. As if the fabulous scenery weren’t enough, the road itself is quite a sight. The narrow asphalt lane is full of contortions and knots; constantly switching back on itself as it negotiates the difficult terrain. To look at it on the map it’s as if the road were alive: an agitated dragon, shifting violently from left to right, trying to shrug an assailant off its back. One pass, in particular, is breathtaking: Ascending what is essentially a vertical wall of rock, the road passes 14 (by my count) consecutive switchbacks. I’ve taken to calling this the ‘Dragon’s Stairway’ or ‘Roller Coaster Pass’ (I’ve never been able to decide between the two). However, Google Maps has recently named it đèo Mẻ Pia.

At times gravelly and potholed, this border road runs all the way east through Can Yen village until it hits the Ho Chi Minh Road (DT208), just south of Pac Bo Cave. Definitely worth the short detour, Pac Bo is a significant historical site in a highly scenic location. This is where Uncle Ho re-entered Vietnam in 1941, after 30 years of absence, to begin his struggle for an independent nation. (See my Guide to Pac Bo Cave for details.) To continue on the loop, turn east on DT210, a seldom used back road climbing sharply up limestone cliffs and shadowing the Chinese border to Tra Linh. Cutting a huge white gash in the landscape, the narrow road twists through a forest of chalky limestone karsts, passing through remote villages that appear to be stuck in time. Homes are made of packed mud and straw with baked-tile roofs; oxen, buffalo, and horses transport crops, farm equipment, and people from field to village; stone walls divide fields of rice, corn, and soy beans; hay is stacked by children into 20-foot-high pylons, echoing the shape of the limestone hills; and a rocky creek ekes through the valley, providing animals and farmers with a bath after a hard day’s work on the land. At Tra Linh, turn due south onto Road DT205 (perhaps stopping at Thang Hen Lake on the way) and connect up with QL3 at the Ma Phuc Pass, heading all the way back to Cao Bang.


IMAGES: China Border Crawl Loop

The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamHeading west of Cao Bang to Bao Lac, Road QL34 passes Tinh Tuc mining village & vast karst landscapes


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamAlong the road to Bao Lac rice terraces are carved into steep hillsides above the gushing Gam River


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamBao Lac sits at the confluence of several rivers, a pleasant location for a remote little town


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamBao Lac market is a good place to fill up as there are few dining options on the rest of the loop


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamThe Dragon’s Staircase is an extraordinary pass: this photo doesn’t do it justice – but, trust me, it’s spectacular


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamMake time to stop at Pac Bo Cave, an important historical site in a highly scenic location, abutting China


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamThe northernmost extent of the Ho Chi Minh Road gives you the option of cutting this loop in half


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamEast of Pac Bo Cave, Road DT210 climbs into the karst mountains, shadowing the Chinese border


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamTra Linh is a remote outpost near a border crossing into China: it will probably grow in the coming years


The Northeast by Motorbike: China Border Crawl Loop, Cao Bang, VietnamAlong Road QL3 back to Cao Bang City, there’s most gorgeous scenery on the home stretch


Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like these routes and I want my readers to know about them. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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Phong Nha by Motorbike: Routes & Loops http://vietnamcoracle.com/phong-nha-by-motorbike-routes-loops/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/phong-nha-by-motorbike-routes-loops/#comments Thu, 25 Jul 2019 17:25:10 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=29227 Phong Nha has some of the most sublime landscape in Vietnam. These motorbike routes & loops explore all corners of the area's extraordinary natural beauty.... Continue reading

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First published July 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The landscape around Phong Nha, in Central Vietnam’s Quang Binh Province, is some of the most sublime in the country. The limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, whose jagged, jungled peaks extend all the way to the Lao border, provide a quintessentially exotic backdrop to oceans of rice paddies that spread between languid, blue rivers around the village of Phong Nha, on the plains. Over the last few years, the road network through this incredible landscape has improved markedly. Dirt roads have been paved, back-roads widened, old roads upgraded, highways extended, and new roads constructed. It’s ideal for a motorbike road trip. And yet, outside of public holidays and peak times, traffic is still very light, and, although visitor numbers to the area are increasing, most people tend to stick to an established route, leaving the greater Phong Nha area practically deserted and ripe for independent exploration. In this guide, I’ve mapped and described five different routes and loops in the Phong Nha region. Each loop can be ridden separately or stitched together to form a ‘Great Phong Nha Loop’. Providing you have good weather, I don’t see how it’s possible not to fall in love with Phong Nha if you spend a few days riding around on two wheels. I’ve been coming here for 10 years: every time it leaves me breathless.

*My thanks to all the people in Phong Nha who helped me research these routes – too many to mention, but you know who you are.

Phong Nha by Motorbike: 5 Routes & Loops

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PHONG NHA: 5 ROUTES & LOOPS


In this guide, I’ve mapped, described and illustrated five motorbike routes and loops in the Phong Nha area. On the main map, I’ve plotted all five routes in different colours. However, each of the five routes also has its own separate map, which has much more detail, including road conditions, places to see, eat, and drink. Any of these five routes can be mixed and matched and stitched together as and how you like, in order to create longer or shorter loops. Find suitable accommodation in Phong Nha and make it your base for at least a few days while exploring the wider region by motorbike (or bicycle). Ideally, I’d recommend riding all the routes and loops in this guide. What’s more, I’d suggest riding them in the order in which they’re written: starting with Routes 1, 2, and 3, which are gentler rides covering many of the main attractions in Phong Nha, and finishing with Routes 4 and 5, which are longer, wider loops, taking you more off the beaten path. The best time to visit Phong Nha is March to September, when the weather is generally good. October to February can be quite bleak.

CONTENTS:

MAP:

Phong Nha by Motorbike: 5 Routes & Loops

Route 1: 50/90km | Route 2: 40km | Route 3: 15km| Route 4: 290km | Route 5: 190/220km


View in a LARGER MAP

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ROUTE 1: Caves & Country Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: a classic loop of the national park’s main attractions, plus an optional side route 
  • Distance: 50/90km
  • Time: half-day or full-day
  • Scenery: blue rivers, spectacular caves, forest walks, waterfalls, jungle, limestone karsts
  • Road Conditions: good, smooth-surface roads, light traffic

ROUTE MAP: Caves & Country Loop (50/90km: blue/red route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: This is the classic Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park loop: an easy-to-ride, easy-to-navigate, and highly scenic route on good quality roads around many of the main sights, caves, and activities on offer in the area. One day is enough to complete the loop, although if you want to visit and explore all the sights, you might need two days. You can ride the Caves & Country Loop in either direction, but I prefer going clockwise: starting from Phong Nha village and heading due south on Road DT20. The main loop (the blue line) is only 50km, and it’s easy to follow, fun to ride, and packed with things to see and do. I’ve marked many of the sights and activities on my route map. These include: hiking around Nui Doi semi-wild enclosure; scrambling through the jungles and waterfalls of the Botanic Gardens; kayaking and walking the treetops at Ozo Park; exploring the gigantic, cathedral-like subterranean world of Dong Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave; taking the zip-line and swimming in the astonishingly blue water at Nuoc Mooc springs; getting muddy at Hang Toi (Dark) Cave; and settling down to a delicious, local, barbecue dinner at Quan Binh Hoa, before returning to Phong Nha village for rooftop cocktails at Momma D’s.

In addition to the classic loop around the park, I’ve included an optional side route on Road DT562 (the red line), heading due south, deep into the national park, towards a remote Lao border. On this fully paved side route, which ploughs through extraordinarily dense jungle and wonderful scenery, there are a couple of stops, including the Eight Lady Cave (Hang Tam Co) war memorial, Tra Ang Cave, and the isolated minority village of Arem. Even if you don’t stop at any of the possible attractions on the Caves & Country Loop, the riding and the scenery are sublime. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]


IMAGES: Caves & Country Loop

Riding Route DT20, Phong Nha, Vietnam Caves & Country Loop: enjoying the views of jungle & limestone karsts on Road DT20


Waterfall at Botanic Gardens, Phong Nha Ke Bang National ParkCaves & Country Loop: stopping for a refreshing dip in a waterfall in the Botanic Gardens


The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, Phong Nha, VietnamCaves & Country Loop: excellent riding & fabulous scenery on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15)


Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Ke Bang National ParkCaves & Country Loop: the breathtaking, otherworldly shapes & formations in Paradise Cave


The road to Arem Village & the Lao border, Phong NhaCaves & Country Loop: the lonely road to remote Arem minority village, near the Lao border


Warning sign for unexploded bombs, Arem Village, Phong Nha, VietnamCaves & Country Loop: a sign outside Arem village warns of unexploded ordnance


Phong Nha village, VietnamCaves & Country Loop: looking across to Phong Nha village at dusk, from the bridge on Road QL16


BBQ dinner at Quan Binh Hoa, Phong Nha, VietnamCaves & Country Loop: stopping at Quan Binh Hoa for a delicious BBQ dinner on the way home


Limestone karsts, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, VietnamCaves & Country Loop: the sun sets behind the limestone karsts of Phong Nha

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ROUTE 2: Bridges & BackRoads Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: an inner Phong Nha loop on back-roads along the river, local villages & farms
  • Distance: 40km
  • Time: 2-4 hours
  • Scenery: bucolic agricultural river valleys, limestone karsts & local villages
  • Road Conditions: decent paved back-roads, some rough patches, light traffic

ROUTE MAP: Bridges & Back-Roads Loop (40km: blue red route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: A quiet, delightfully scenic circuit on mostly paved back-roads and small lanes with a few rough patches, this loop is a rural, local, and laid-back figure of ‘8’ that can easily be completed in just a couple of hours. However, because there are several good swimming spots, food and drink options, chances to meet local people, and lots of lovely vistas across classic Vietnamese agricultural plains, you could easily fill half a day. The Bridges & Back-Roads route features two connecting loops: one around the river east of Phong Nha village; the other around the river west of Phong Nha village. The figure of ‘8’ can be ridden in either direction: clockwise or anticlockwise, it really doesn’t matter. The distances are short, but the loop focuses mostly on small roads, so riding can be quite slow. Also, navigation can sometimes be tricky, so keep checking the route map. This loop is all about farmland, local hamlets, communities, and local life. It’s the most intimate and personal of all the Phong Nha routes in this guide. The scenery is very pretty, but it’s not on a grand scale. Rather, this route is about slowing down, getting off the beaten path, meeting local people, and seeing behind the scenes.

The Bridges & Back-Roads Loop focuses on the agricultural land on the plains surrounding the river, which is crossed on six separate occasions, including a pontoon bridge, a wooden canoe ferry, and three suspension bridges. The character and road conditions change quite dramatically from one side of the river to the other. South of the river, roads are smooth, wide and paved, and the agricultural landscape is dotted with homestays, bars, cafes, and casual dining. In short, this is part of the travellers’ circuit around Phong Nha. By contrast, north of the river, the roads are sprinkled with potholes, dirt sections, and earthen dykes between rice paddies. It’s a very local area without any tourist infrastructure – no hotels, no boutique cafes, no noodle joints with English menus. This, of course, is the whole point, and the slightly rougher edge north of the river can be a relief if you’ve spent too much time on the touristy main drag in Phong Nha village. Local people (many of whom are Catholic, hence the presence of several large and ostentatious churches) are exceptionally friendly: children, men and women all smile and wave you by. In the villages, some of the homes are beautiful wood-and-brick structures. Cattle linger by the road or tethered to bamboo posts in the fields, and it’s fascinating to observe the agricultural work on the land and in the homes. The river, a beautiful seam of clear, vivid-blue water that bisects this loop, is a constant presence. The idea is to linger on this loop, stopping regularly to soak it up. I’ve marked several places – such as, swimming spots, food and drink options, scenic areas, churches – where you might want to stop. Ideally, aim to end this loop at dusk on the river at Bomb Crater Bar, with a cocktail and some tubing on the water as the sun goes down, making silhouettes of the wooden fishing sampans and the karst mountains behind.

Notes: if you take the very short, boggy, off-road section (the red line), then you don’t have to join QL15 at the west of this loop. But if you don’t have an appropriate motorbike or experience, stick to the main route (the blue line) instead. Also note that the ferry and pontoon crossings on this loop require a small fee. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]


IMAGES: Bridges & Back-Roads Loop

Riding across a suspension bridge, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: this loop features several of these fun, narrow suspension bridges


Fishing sampans on the river, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: picturesque scenes of wooden sampans harvesting reeds on the river


Wooden vehicle ferry across the river, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: this optional ferry crossing is a lot of fun


Beautiful blue river, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: vivid blue rivers are perfect for swimming


Pontoon bridge over the river, Phong NhaBridges & Back-Roads Loop: the pontoon toll bridge across the river


Riding along the river bank, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: riding along the south bank of the river is easy, scenic & quiet


Dirt path through the fields, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: a short optional dirt-road section is fine in dry weather, but muddy if wet


Riding over a suspension bridge, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: one of the many wooden suspension bridges on a scenic back-road


Corn drying on a doorstep, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: corn laid out on a farm porch to dry in the sun


Cattle on the road, Phong Nha, VietnamBridges & Back-Roads Loop: cattle tethered to a wooden stake by the roadside at dusk

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ROUTE 3: Bong Lai Valley Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: a short but activity-filled loop of the scenic Bong Lai river valley
  • Distance: 15km
  • Time: 2 hours to half a day
  • Scenery: mountains, rivers, local cafes, farms, food, walks & community based activities
  • Road Conditions: decent paved lanes & dirt roads, some muddy patches, no traffic

ROUTE MAP: Bong Lai Valley Loop (15km: blue route)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: A scenic and short route leading up and down a lush river valley just east of Phong Nha village, this ride is perfect for a relaxing half-day excursion on two wheels. The Bong Lai Valley lies about 7km east of Phong Nha village. Accessed to the south of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, small roads run along both sides of the valley, connected by the Bong Lai suspension bridge, about 2.5km upstream. This creates a lovely, short loop peppered with great stops for food, drink, sightseeing, swimming, tubing, hiking and even farming, among other community based activities. The distances are short, but the things to see, do and eat are many: take your time, soak it up, and fall head over heels for Vietnam’s agricultural, rural charms. You can ride the loop in either direction, but I prefer going anticlockwise, starting on the west bank of the river, on a dirt lane going upstream, and returning on the east bank along a paved lane going back downstream to the main road. This is because it’s best to do the dirt road in the morning, before the afternoon showers, which, if and when they come, can make road conditions slippery.

The scenery is gentle, green, and gorgeous. Unlike the jagged limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, here in the Bong Lai Valley there are rolling hills, fruit trees, crop fields, plantations, and long mountain ridges receding into the distance. The river is clear and good for swimming: join the buffaloes wallowing in the cool water, or rent a tube from the Pub With Cold Beer or Rattan House and float downstream. Take the ride slowly and stop regularly along the way at places like: the Duck Stop, where you can be a farmer for a couple of hours as well as enjoying their bánh xèo (savoury, sizzling pancakes); or the Rattan House, with fine views and a breezy wooden gazebo; or test your nerve (and snap your Instagram photos) on the swings at Nature Farm, which hurl you out over the river valley; or swim in the cool water at O O Lake Silence, among many other potential stopping points. All this should work up a good appetite, which is gloriously satisfied at Moi Moi with a flame-grilled whole chicken, lemongrass pork cooked in a length of bamboo, and bánh lọc – little tapioca dumplings with peanuts steamed in banana leaf. There are also plenty of opportunities for coffee, beer, cocktails, and smoothies: check out the views at East Hill Coffee, or drop into Pepper House Homestay or Lake House Resort for a sundowner. It’s all a lot of fun and the scenery is beautiful. But don’t expect to have it all to yourself: the Bong Lai Valley Loop is a fairly popular and established day-trip for Phong Nha backpackers these days. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]


IMAGES: Bong Lai Valley Loop

River view, the Duck Stop, Bong Lai Valley, Phong NhaBong Lai Valley Loop: gazing out over the river from the hills behind the Duck Stop


Bong Lai Valley, Phong Nha, VietnamBong Lai Valley Loop: looking upriver towards the Bong Lai bridge & church


Suspension bridge, Bong Lai Valley, Phong NhaBong Lai Valley Loop: crossing the metal suspension bridge from west bank to east bank


Hammock with river view, Bong Lai Vally, Phong NhaBong Lai Valley Loop: a hammock with a view looking downriver to forests & mountains


The Pub with Cold Beer, Bong Lai Valley, Phong NhaBong Lai Valley Loop: entering the Pub with Cold Beer, where there’s great food, drink, views & tubing


Farmland, Bong Lai Valley, Phong Nha, VietnamBong Lai Valley Loop: farmland, including cassava, bananas, jackfruit, elephant grass & lemongrass


Nature Swing, Bong Lai Vally, Phong NhaBong Lai Valley Loop: a swing with a view at Swing Nature Farm, the southern end of the loop


Cooking a chicken feast at Moi Moi, Bong Lai Valley, Phong NhaBong Lai Valley Loop: preparing the fire for cooking a delicious grilled chicken at Moi Moi

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ROUTE 4: Ho Chi Minh West is Best Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: a dramatic loop south of Phong Nha on the Western & Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road
  • Distance: 290km
  • Time: 1-2 days
  • Scenery: jungles, mountains, amazing limestone karsts, minority hamlets, blue rivers
  • Road Conditions: good, very mountainous, paved roads, light traffic

ROUTE MAP: Ho Chi Minh West is Best Loop (290km: blue, purplered routes)


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, undoubtedly one of the most spectacular roads in the country, leads south of Phong Nha village through sublime scenery near the Lao border. Of all the sections along the 2,000km length of the Ho Chi Minh Road, the west is best. Soaring over limestone peaks, darting in and out of thick jungle, skirting the edges of blue rivers, and with enough hairpin bends to make you dizzy, the Western Ho Chi Minh Road is a real stunner. And yet, there’s hardly anyone on it.

This loop covers roughly 130km of the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, heading south from Phong Nha all the way to Tang Ky junction. The ride along the Western Ho Chi Minh Road is so good that, if you had no choice but to ride back to Phong Nha on exactly the same route, you’d have no complaints at all. However, in the last few years, the three east-west roads (DT563, DT10, and DT16 – the purple lines) linking the Western (the blue line) and Eastern (the red line) branches of the Ho Chi Minh Road, have been upgraded and fully sealed. This means you can now create a loop (or figure of ‘6’, or figure of ‘8’ – whatever takes your fancy) by utilizing any of these scenic, smooth-surfaced east-west roads and connecting them with the Western and Eastern branches of the Ho Chi Minh Road. I’ve marked all of these roads on my route map, but you can mix and match them however you like, in order to create whichever loop you want from Phong Nha and back. But remember: west is best – it’s all about trying to spend as much time as possible on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road between Phong Nha and Tang Ky.

Although the distances on this loop are quite large, if you start early it is still possible to ride a loop from Phong Nha and back in one (very long) day. However, it’s much more rewarding to spend two days riding this loop, by breaking the journey at the only hotel on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, Duc Tuan Guest House (read more about that here). Also, bear in mind that gas stations are irregular: there’s only really one on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, located in Long Son village. For other gas stations and other guest houses, you’ll need to head down to the Eastern Ho Chi Minh Road. Make sure you start the day with a full tank; bring your camera, bring your swim stuff, and prepare to be well and truly awed by the Western Ho Chi Minh Road. On my route map, I’ve marked several of my favourite swimming spots, and some of the most scenic areas. [*Check out my full Ho Chi Minh Road Guide]


IMAGES: Ho Chi Minh West is Best Loop

The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: the long, weaving, paved route into the jungles south of Phong Nha


Suspension bridge on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: a high suspension bridge over a river near Long Son


The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: threading between two limestone pinnacles


Scenery on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: staring out over the vast jungles & mountains


The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: tropical foliage grows profusely around the road


Scenery on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: the brilliant-blue Long Dai River snaking through the mountains


Scenery on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: looking down the valley to Long Son village & the Duc Tuan Hotel


The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: through the majestic landscape of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park


Riding the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamHo Chi Minh West is Best Loop: excellent riding, extraordinary scenery & hardly any people or traffic

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ROUTE 5: King Kong Loop

DETAILS:

  • Route: a big loop north of Phong Nha on roads less travelled, with dirt-road options
  • Distance: 190km/220km
  • Time: 1-2 days
  • Scenery: rivers, jungle, limestone karsts, King Kong filming locations, beach option
  • Road Conditions: paved back-roads & highways, optional dirt-road sections, light traffic

ROUTE MAP: King Kong Loop (220/190km: blue/red routes) *[red=dirt-roads]


View in a LARGER MAP


DESCRIPTION: A large circuit north of Phong Nha, the King Kong Loop utilizes some small and spectacular back-roads through jaw-dropping karst scenery, as well as some good highways, with several potential detours and optional dirt-road sections. Certain scenes from the Hollywood blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island, were shot in the landscape to the west of this loop. Although the loop can be ridden in either direction, I’d recommend going anti-clockwise, because this leaves the long, smooth section of the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15) back to Phong Nha for last: an easy homecoming after a long day’s ride. The King Kong Loop covers a lot of ground with a great variety of landscapes – lush river valleys, desolate beaches, isolated local villages, dense jungle, and limestone pinnacles – but the distances are nonetheless doable in one day, as long as you start at a decent time in the morning. There are two optional dirt-road sections on this loop (the red lines), both of which should be perfectly manageable in dry conditions. But, if the weather has been wet (and especially if you’re not used to riding on unpaved surfaces), these dirt-roads should probably be avoided in favour of the on-road route (the blue lines). The dirt-road loop is marginally shorter in distance (190km) than the on-road route (220km). But, in terms of duration, they’re about the same. A potential side-route is to continue north up Highway QL1A along the coast to Canh Duong (the green line), where there’s an interesting mural village and a decent, local beach. This extension is good if you’re in need of some surf, but not an essential part of the loop.

I’ve annotated the King Kong route map with scenic areas, swimming spots, good riding sections, and some other sights and activities. Highlights of the loop are: the lovely river valley just northeast of Phong Nha, including Thanh Thuy Catholic Church, where the old bell (in the gardens on the north side of the church) is fashioned from a salvaged bomb shell; the excellent scenery along both DT559B and QL12A, including some good swimming spots; and the last 50km on the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15) back to Phong Nha, which is a glorious ride through terrific scenery, including the steep and spectacular Da Deo Pass. But, best of all, is the ‘mini loop within a loop‘, close to the Tu Lan cave system and the Oxalis Tours drop-off site. Reached via paved roads from the west or dirt roads from the east, this mini-loop winds through an otherworldly landscapes of limestone karsts rising from the floodplains of a river valley. This is where a couple of scenes from 2017 movie, Kong: Skull Island, were shot on-location. In particular, an interrogation scene between the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman, sitting on a wall that is located opposite the Oxalis building. There are a couple of decent cơm-phở (rice and noodle) refreshment shacks nearby this spot. However, bear in mind that, during the wettest months of the year (usually September to November), the entire area can be inaccessible due to flooding. Indeed, households in this valley have two homes: one structure with foundations rooted to the ground; the other lashed to barrels in order to float during the floods. You’ll see the latter waiting patiently in the gardens for the rains to come; at which time the family will move from their home on land to their home on water. *[Check out my guide to Where to Stay in Phong Nha]


IMAGES: King Kong Loop

River & limestone karsts, Road QL12A, VietnamKing Kong Loop: stunning scenery seen from a bridge on Road QL12A


Riding the back-roads, Quang Binh, VietnamKing Kong Loop: a paved country lane – part of the ‘mini-loop within a loop


Riding through a river, Phong Nha, VietnamKing Kong Loop: riding through the river at the point where the road ends & the dirt begins


Riding the back-roads, Quang Binh, VietnamKing Kong Loop: the back-roads on the ‘loop within a loop‘ are remarkably scenic, empty & quiet


Pontoon bridge, Phong Nha, VietnamKing Kong Loop: this wooden pontoon bridge is rickety & fun to ride across


Off-road track, Quang Binh, VietnamKing Kong Loop: the optional dirt-road section is isolated & fun to ride if you’ve got an appropriate bike


River & limestone karsts, Road QL12A, VietnamKing Kong Loop: roads is this region are getting better & pass through superb landscapes (QL12A)


River view, Phong Nha, VietnamKing Kong Loop: passing along the picturesque river valley, just north of Phong Nha


Floating homes with barrels, Quang Binh, VietnamKing Kong Loop: a house for the dry season (left), a house for the wet season (right)


Jade blue river, Ho Chi Minh Road, Quang Binh, VietnamKing Kong Loop: gorgeous blue rivers & perfect natural swimming pools along the Ho Chi Minh Road


Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like these routes and I want my readers to know about them. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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Hanoi to Hai Phong by Train: Passengers & Motorbikes http://vietnamcoracle.com/hanoi-to-hai-phong-by-train-passengers-motorbikes/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/hanoi-to-hai-phong-by-train-passengers-motorbikes/#comments Fri, 12 Jul 2019 15:06:03 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=29262 The Hanoi↔Hai Phong train is a brilliant option for travellers with motorbikes looking to get from the capital city to Cat Ba Island (or vice-versa), without having to negotiate the horrible highways.... Continue reading

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First published July 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The four times daily train between Hanoi and Haiphong is a brilliant option for travellers with motorbikes looking to get from the capital city to Cat Ba Island (or vice-versa), without having to negotiate the horrible highways. This is because the Hanoi↔Haiphong train service allows passengers to take their motorbikes with them on the same train, thus providing a direct, hassle-free route in/out of the busy capital, bypassing the horrendous industrial sprawl along the highways of the Red River Delta, and straight into the heart of Haiphong, from where there’s easy access, by road and ferry, to Cat Ba Island. Haiphong, Vietnam’s third largest city and one of its most important ports, is best known to travellers as the gateway to Cat Ba Island, whose rugged terrain and jungle-clad limestone pinnacles rise up from the Gulf of Tonkin. Although only 120km east of Hanoi, the ride to Haiphong by motorbike involves a dull, traffic-clogged crawl through endless industrial zones. By taking your motorbike on the train, you bypass all the grim factory towns, traffic jams, and carcinogenic air that you would otherwise have to contend with if going by road.

Hanoi to Haiphong by Train: Passengers & MotorbikesThe Hanoi↔Haiphong train is an excellent option for motorbikers bound for Cat Ba Island

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GUIDE: HANOIHAI PHONG BY TRAIN


This is a full guide to taking the Hanoi↔Hai Phong train, for passengers and motorbikes. I’ve written and organized all the information into separate sections below, and plotted the rail route (and connecting road and ferry routes to Cat Ba Island) on my map. As mentioned in the introduction, the Hanoi↔Hai Phong train is an especially convenient option for travellers with motorbikes bound for Cat Ba Island. For travellers without motorbikes, there’s no particular reason to take the train (bus connections between Hanoi, Haiphong, and Cat Ba Island are fast, frequent, and cheap), other than for the pleasure of riding the rails between two of the prettiest French colonial-era train stations in Vietnam. Personally, I’d always choose the train over the bus, because the train is a more rewarding travel experience.

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ROUTE MAP:

Hanoi↔Hai Phong by Train

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SEARCH & BOOK TICKETS:

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: you can search train times, prices, and make bookings directly from this page by using the Baolau.com search boxes & links throughout this guide. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

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Onward Travel to Cat Ba Island:

For many travellers taking the Hanoi↔Hai Phong train, the main purpose will be to continue on to Cat Ba Island, whether going straight through or after a day spent exploring Hai Phong (which is very rewarding, if you have the time). If travelling on foot, take a taxi from Hai Phong Station to Ben Binh Port, from where fast boats leave several times a day to Cat Ba town, in the south of Cat Ba Island. Alternatively, if you’re travelling with your motorbike on the train, ride east out of Hai Phong toward the new Tan Vu-Lach Huyen Causeway, an impressive piece of engineering spanning 5km of open water at the mouth of the Bach Dang River, connecting Hai Phong with Cat Hai Island. Continue on the highway across Cat Hai Island, past the new VinFast car and motorbike factory, to Ben Pha Got ferry pier, at the eastern tip of the island. From here, regular car ferries cross the channel to Cai Vieng Port, on Cat Ba Island. Once on the island, it’s a beautiful 30-minute ride south along the coast road to Cat Ba town. (*For much more information see my complete Cat Ba Island Guide.)

The fast boat between Haiphong & Cat Ba Island, VietnamFrom Haiphong, travellers on foot can take the fast boat direct to Cat Ba Island from Ben Binh pier


The car ferry between Haiphong & Cat Ba Island, VietnamFrom Hai Phong, motorbikers can ride the new bridge to Cat Hai & then take the car ferry to Cat Ba Island

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Train Operators & Contacts:

The Hanoi↔Hai Phong rail service is operated by state-run Vietnam Railways. It’s one of several northern spur lines which fan out from Hanoi, not connected to the main north-south Hanoi-Saigon line, known as the Reunification Express. Apart from the information on this page, more details about times, tickets, prices and availability can be found on the Vietnam Railways website (www.vr.com.vn) and on Baolau.com.

The train between Hanoi & Haiphong, VietnamThe Hanoi↔Hai Phong train is a spur line operated by state-run Vietnam Railways


*Please support Vietnam Coracle: you can search train times, prices, and make bookings directly from this page by using the Baolau.com search boxes & links throughout this guide. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

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Train Times & Schedules:

There are 4 trains in both directions every day between Hanoi and Hai Phong. The general schedule is two trains in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening (see below). Journey time is between 2.00-2.45 hours. There are a few stops along the way, including Hai Duong, an industrial city almost exactly midway. But for most travellers the important stations to note are the three different stops in Hanoi itself. These are: Hanoi Central (on Le Duan Street), Long Bien (on the west bank of the Red River, by the famous bridge of the same name), and Gia Lam (east of the river and the city centre). All three Hanoi stations aren’t much more than a 10-minute taxi ride from most popular areas of the capital, such as the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, and West Lake (Ho Tay). [See Stations for details]

*IMPORTANT NOTE: On weekdays, Hanoi Central Station is only served by the first train of the day (6.00am) to Hai Phong, and the last train of the day (18.40pm) from Hai Phong. All other services arrive/depart from Hanoi’s Long Bien and Gia Lam stations only. However, on weekends and public holidays, all trains do serve Hanoi Central Station. This may seem a bit convoluted, but it works out fine, and if you’re confused just go to Long Bien or Gia Lam stations, where all services, no matter what time or day it is, arrive and depart. However, for travellers with motorbikes, the only station to load and unload your motorbike is Gia Lam (see Sending your Motorbike for details).

The schedule below is accurate at the time of writing (July 2019), but is subject to change. All Hanoi times given below are for Hanoi Central Station: for Long Bien and Gia Lam stations add a few minutes to the times. For example, if the train departs Hanoi Central at 6.00am, it will leave Long Bien at 6.07am and Gia Lam at 6.14am, and so on. For current times you can pick up a copy of the timetable from any of the stations, or check Baolau.com or the Vietnam Railways website (www.vr.com.vn):

HANOI→HAI PHONG:

  • Train HP1: Depart: 6.00amArrive: 8.25am (daily)
  • Train LP3: Depart: 9.17amArrive: 12.00noon (daily)
  • Train LP5: Depart: 3.20pmArrive: 6.00pm (daily)
  • Train LP7: Depart: 6.15pmArrive: 8.55pm (daily)

HAI PHONG→HANOI:

  • Train LP2: Depart: 6.10amArrive: 8.46am (daily) 
  • Train LP6: Depart: 9.05amArrive: 11.40am (daily) 
  • Train LP8: Depart: 3.00pmArrive: 5.38pm (daily) 
  • Train HP2: Depart: 6.40pmArrive: 9.06pm (daily)

The train between Hanoi & Haiphong, VietnamThe Hanoi↔Hai Phong train runs four times daily in both directions: journey time is 2.00-2.45 hours


*Please support Vietnam Coracle: you can search train times, prices, and make bookings directly from this page by using the Baolau.com search boxes & links throughout this guide. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

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Ticket Prices & Booking:

The Hanoi↔Haiphong train is very good value for money. Ticket prices for passengers and motorbikes are reasonable and booking is easy. There are two classes available: air-conditioned soft-seat carriages or fan-cooled hard-seat (wooden bench) carriages. Booking at the stations, at least 30 minutes before departure (preferably more, to avoid travel anxiety), is a straightforward process. Bookings are made at the tickets counters at any of the stations. Staff are very helpful so you shouldn’t have any trouble. If you need orientation, look for the words Phòng Vé (Ticket Office). Alternatively, you can buy tickets online on the Vietnam Railways website (www.vr.com.vn) or Baolau.com. However, if you’re taking your motorbike, you must buy your ticket in person at the station of departure (see Sending your Motorbike for details). The prices below are accurate at the time of writing (July 2019), but are subject to change:

  • Hard seat: 65,000vnd
  • Soft seat: 70,000vnd 
  • Motorbike: 75,000vnd (+25,000vnd handling fee) = 95,000vnd [read this]

Ticket office at Hai Phong train station, VietnamBooking tickets at Hai Phong Train Station is easy & straightforward


Ticket office at Gia Lam train station, Hanoi, VietnamTickets can be booked at any of the three Hanoi stations: Central, Long Bien & Gia Lam (pictured above)


*Please support Vietnam Coracle: you can search train times, prices, and make bookings directly from this page by using the Baolau.com search boxes & links throughout this guide. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

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Sending your Motorbike:

General Information: The Hanoi↔Haiphong train is one of the few rail services in Vietnam which allows passengers to carry their motorbike on the same train (two other significant routes being Hanoi↔Lao Cai and Saigon↔Phan Thiet). This is very convenient, especially for riders heading between Hanoi and Cat Ba Island, which is a popular route but involves negotiating horrendous, traffic-clogged and smog-choked highways to Hai Phong, before continuing by road and ferry to Cat Ba. By travelling with your motorbike on the Hanoi↔Haiphong train, you cut out this horrible road journey, leaving you ready and refreshed to wheel your bike off the train at Hai Phong Station and make your way to the exotic landscapes and seascapes of Cat Ba Island.

The one (minor) drawback to taking your motorbike on the Hanoi↔Hai Phong train is that motorbikes can only be loaded and unloaded at Hanoi’s Gia Lam Station, which is just across the Long Bien Bridge, on the east side of the Red River. But this is hardly a big deal (especially when you’re on a motorbike), because downtown Hanoi is only a 10-minute ride away, across the river.

Ticket Prices: The ticket price for most standard motorbikes is 75,000vnd, plus a 25,000vnd handling fee (larger motorbikes will cost more). Unlike sending your motorbike on north-south trains, you don’t need to empty the gas from your fuel tank. The whole process should be relatively easy to do and generally OK up to half an hour before departure time. However, on weekends and public holidays, try to book your tickets at least an hour in advance.

At Gia Lam Station: To load your motorbike at Gia Lam Station, go to the counter on the left (as your enter the station building) to purchase your passenger and motorbike tickets. Then, 20 minutes before departure, take your motorbike to the North Gate (Cửa Phía Bắc), about 50m further west of the main station building. Ride your bike onto the platform, show your ticket to the staff, wait for the train to arrive, and watch them load it on board.

At Hai Phong Station: To load your motorbike at Hai Phong Station, go to counter No.1 to purchase your passenger and motorbike tickets. Then, ride your motorbike to the right of the station entrance (as you’re facing it from the outside). There’s a sign saying ‘Nơi nhận vận chuyển hành lý, xe đạp, xe máy. Ride along the platform to the freight car at the back of the waiting train. Here, staff will check your ticket and load your motorbike.

Sending a motorbike on the train between Hanoi & Haiphong, VietnamMotorbikes travel on the same train as passengers: it’s cheap, easy & very convenient


Sending a motorbike on the train between Hanoi & Haiphong, VietnamAfter buying your motorbike ticket, ride onto the station platform & wait for staff to load it onto the train


Sending a motorbike on the train between Hanoi & Haiphong, VietnamIn Hanoi, Gia Lam is the only station that allows passengers to load & unload motorbikes

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Departure & Arrival Stations:

There are four stations that travellers need to know in order to take the Hanoi↔Hai Phong train. These are: Hai Phong Station, Hanoi Central, Hanoi Long Bien, and Hanoi Gia Lam. All four are very attractive stations, mostly dating from French colonial times. As for which of the three Hanoi stations you need to go to, that depends on the service, day of the week, time of day, and whether or not you’re travelling with your motorbike (see Train Times & Schedules and Sending your Motorbike for details):

Haiphong Railway Station, VietnamThere are four stations travellers need to know: Hai Phong, Hanoi Central, Long Bien & Gia Lam


Hanoi Stations: You can board/alight at three different stations in Hanoi depending on which train you’re on and whether you’re taking your motorbike with you. Hanoi Central Station is located on Le Duan Street in downtown. At almost 120 years old, it’s the capital’s main station: a large, grand, French colonial building with an incongruous grey concrete box in the middle, like a growth, essentially filling-in the gap where the station was bombed during the war. The station is easy to navigate, there are plenty of ticket offices (Phòng Vé), staff are helpful, and there are refreshments and toilets. Long Bien Station is a lovely, cute little stop, just north of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It stands near the beginning of the famous Long Bien Bridge across the Red River, constructed at the turn of the 20th century. The cosy and cramped station – in fact, the diesel locomotives dwarf the station building – is walking distance from the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. Gia Lam Station (for motorbikes), is located down a side road across the Red River, east of Hanoi’s city centre. An interesting building with Art Decor flourishes and a calm, arched waiting hall, Gia Lam is only a 10-minute ride away from downtown Hanoi.

Gia Lam Railway Station, Hanoi, VietnamThe train serves three different Hanoi Stations: Central, Long Bien & Gia Lam (pictured above)

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Hai Phong Station: A handsome, century-old, French colonial structure right in the centre of the city, Hai Phong Station is exactly the kind of place you want to start/end a good rail journey. The staff are polite and efficient, and the tiled-floor waiting hall and wood-paneled ticket kiosks are atmospheric. Tickets and information are easily obtainable from the helpful staff behind the wooden counters. There are some refreshments available at a kiosk in the waiting hall.

Hai Phong Railway Station, VietnamHai Phong Station is a handsome, grand, century-old, French colonial-era structure in the city centre


*Please support Vietnam Coracle: you can search train times, prices, and make bookings directly from this page by using the Baolau.com search boxes & links throughout this guide. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

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The Trains:

The trains on the Hanoi↔Haiphong service are 6-8 carriages in length (much shorter than the trains that ply the north-south line) and the level of comfort is really rather good. Large windows let lots of natural light in and are great for watching the landscape (or ‘industrialscape’) glide by. There are plenty of toilets and sinks, and the general condition and cleanliness is absolutely fine. The air-conditioned soft-seat carriages are comfy and spacious, the seats are reclinable, and there are some electrical sockets for charging your various gadgets. In the fan-cooled, hard-seat compartment, the carriages are filled with wooden benches, which are actually quite attractive: it feels a bit like how I’d imagine a 19th century steamer crossing the American prairies would – the oak-furnished interiors bathed in an orange glow from the low, dry light of the vast grasslands. Some drinks and snacks are wheeled down the aisle throughout the journey, including steamed dumplings wrapped in banana leaf (would you ever get that on a train in Europe?). There’s really not much to complain about.

The train between Hanoi & Hai Phong, VietnamThe Hanoi↔Hai Phong train is 6-8 carriages long; the journey takes between 2-3 hours


Soft seat class, Hanoi-Haiphong train, VietnamSoft seat class is comfortable, clean & good value for money


Hard seat class, Hanoi-Haiphong train, VietnamHard seat class is fine for such a short journey, and the wooden benches look like an antique carriage


*Please support Vietnam Coracle: you can search train times, prices, and make bookings directly from this page by using the Baolau.com search boxes & links throughout this guide. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

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The Journey:

In terms of scenery, the Hanoi↔Haiphong service isn’t one of Vietnam’s great rail journeys. But it’s still an interesting ride for the 2-3 hours it takes to roll between the capital city and the north’s major port. It’s also a surprisingly bumpy ride. (In fact, swinging and bumping seem to be characteristic of railway journeys in northern Vietnam: the overnight Hanoi↔Lai Cao Express is a similar experience. I can’t think why this would be, except, perhaps, as they’re both spur lines, they’re not as well maintained as the main north-south line.) There’s quite a bit of rattling and squeaking, and the train rides at a pleasant pace of around 40-50km per hour. There are several stops en route at Red River Delta towns, mostly part of the vast industrial belt stretching from Hanoi and Hai Phong. However, between these soot-filled stops, there are acres and acres of rice fields, bisected regularly by earthen dykes and irrigation channels. Stooped farmers – usually women – tend to the rice: harvesting, sowing, spraying, burning. Most of the journey is a play of flat agricultural landscapes disappearing into concrete towns and factories. Rivers and canals are a constant feature, with barges ploughing the thick brown waters. Plantations and allotments grow fruit trees, flowers and vegetables – kumquat, bananas, sweet potatoes, lotus and much more.

Soft seat class on the Hanoi-Haiphong train, VietnamThe journey is comfortable (although a bit bumpy) and interesting, but not particularly scenic


The train between Hanoi & Haiphong, VietnamMuch of the rail journey is through industrial zones, bisected by Red River tributaries & towns


Gia Lam train station, Hanoi, VietnamPulling into Gia Lam railway station in Hanoi after a relaxing 2-hour journey, avoiding riding the horrible highways


*Please support Vietnam Coracle: you can search train times, prices, and make bookings directly from this page by using the Baolau.com search boxes & links throughout this guide. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.


Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this train route and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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Plants, Flowers & Trees of Vietnam http://vietnamcoracle.com/plants-flowers-trees-of-vietnam/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/plants-flowers-trees-of-vietnam/#comments Wed, 03 Jul 2019 10:20:59 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23520 The colours, shapes, sizes, smells & variety of flora in Vietnam is mesmerizing. In this guide I've compiled an illustrated index of some of the flowers, plants & trees I regularly see in Vietnam's countryside & cities.... Continue reading

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First published July 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

I’m no botanist (which, no doubt, will become clear as you read through this article), but I do love flowers, plants, and trees. When I started living in Vietnam and, in particular, when I started making road trips through the countryside, I was mesmerized by the colours, smells, shapes, sizes and variety of the flora I saw. But, for the most part, I couldn’t identify them by name, so I wasn’t able to communicate what I was seeing, whether in conversation, in writing, or in my own thoughts. I wanted to have words for these beautiful things, I wanted to learn the lexicon of nature. So I bought a few illustrated books about tropical foliage – ‘plant-spotting guides’ – and, within a couple of weeks on the road, I’d ticked off 90% of what was in them. This greatly enhanced my experience of nature in Vietnam and helped me engage with, and get closer to, the things I was seeing. On this page, I’ve compiled an informal, illustrated list of some of the flowers, plants and trees I regularly see in Vietnam’s cities and countryside, in the hope this may be something other travellers, road-trippers, and expats may find interesting too. There are two indexes: Flowers & Plants Fruits & Trees

Vietnam's flora: flowers, plants, fruits & trees

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GUIDE: FLOWERS, PLANTS, FRUITS & TREES


The list below is organized into two categories: Flowers & Plants and Fruits & Trees. I know that many of the items technically belong in both categories, but I have simply chosen to put each one in the category that I most associate it with. Other than that, there’s no order to the following list, and I will continue to add to this index regularly. For every flower, plant, fruit and tree in this list, I’ve included images and a brief description. This is in no way a scholarly work and, in most cases, I much prefer using the colloquial names (which are often romantic-sounding and rich with exotic connotations), rather than the less accessible, Latin-based, scientific names. Also, where my limited knowledge allows, I’ve included the Vietnamese names, which are often very poetic, too.

Click an item from the two indexes below: Flowers & Plants | Fruits & Trees:

FLOWERS & PLANTS:

FRUITS & TREES:

MAP:

A General Map of the Geographical Regions of Vietnam


View in a LARGER MAP

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INDEX: FLOWERS & PLANTS


Frangipani:

*Other names: Hoa Sứ (Vietnamese) | Plumeria (Latin)

*Where & when you might see it: south, south-central & central coast, Mekong Delta [MAP]

This milky white flower with a lemon-yellow tinge has a scent that draws me to it like a Siren’s song. I can still remember when I first became aware of it: on the beach at Ho Tram. The perfume is citrusy and sweet; rich and refreshing in the heat of the day or a humid evening. I don’t know why, but its affect on me is profound. Ever since I first smelt it, I felt as though this flower meant something to me. Its name is Italian, and apparently comes from a 16th century duchess who was so enamored of the scent of the flower that she ordered her servants to concoct a perfume from it. Her family name was Frangipani.  In Vietnamese, hoa sứ means ‘porcelain flower’, so-named because of its whiteness. But Frangipani come in other varieties, including smaller flowers in pink and purple. They all carry the same beautiful scent.

Frangipani flower, Vietnam


Frangipani flower, Vietnam

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African Tulip:

*Other names: Spathodea (Latin)

*Where & when you might see it: Mekong Delta, southern & central coasts, dry season months (November-May) [MAP]

This medium-sized tree lives up to its romantic name thanks to the brilliant red-orange flowers which grow at the tip of each branch, looking like lanterns burning along the boughs. I see it most often in coastal resorts on the southern coast or Phu Quoc Island, where African Tulip trees are planted for their aesthetic value.

African Tulip tree, Vietnam

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Lantana:

*Other names: Ngũ sắc (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: coastal regions, particularly south & central [MAP]

This pretty little flower grows on a shrub-like bush, especially by the sea. The flowers are a bouquet of small clusters in many colours: red, yellow, violet, orange, pink. In fact, the Vietnamese name (ngũ sắc) describes them perfectly, meaning ‘five colours’. But the most attractive aspect of Lantana for me, is the textured, slightly serrated, mint-like leaves which, when you rub them, give off an attractive scent that reminds me of essential oils.

Lantana flower, Vietnam

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Hibiscus:

*Other names: Chi râm bụt (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: all over the tropical south: along the coast and in the highlands [MAP]

A beautiful flower which comes is many colours and sizes, hibiscus is as close as you can get to the perfect form of a flower. Shapely, delicate and attractive, but without any scent, hibiscus grow on bushes all over the tropical southern coastal and highland regions. A familiar sight in the grounds of Buddhist temples and beach resorts, hibiscus are often grown as ornamental flowers. But I’ve also heard of a symbolic connection with Buddhism: something about the transience of life represented by the brief blooming of the flower, which closes and withers at dusk.

Hibiscus flower, Vietnam

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Rangoon Creeper:

*Other names: Chinese honeysuckle | Sử quân tử or trang leo (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: coastal and midland regions [MAP]

With an evocative name and a perfume to match, the Rangoon creeper has been a favourite of mine ever since I first caught its scent on the breeze somewhere in Vietnam many years ago. Also known as Chinese honeysuckle, its aroma is seductive and irresistible, attracting all who pass by. Sweet and floral, the scent induces joy and excitement in me. The plant itself is a vine which grows up walls, fences, trellises, and entrances. The delicate flowers grow in little bunches of pink, purple and white. If I ever have my own house in the tropics, the doorway will be framed with a Rangoon creeper.

Rangoon creeper vine, Vietnam


Rangoon creeper vine, Vietnam

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Bougainvillea:

*Other names: Hoa giấy (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: coastal regions of southern & central provinces & Central Highlands [MAP]

The pink, purple and white petals of bougainvillea have always been symbolic of warm climes and blue seas. My first recollection of bougainvillea is in Greece, where the flowers shine out from the white-washed walls over which they grow. In Vietnam, too, bougainvillea has a similar radiance: growing over doorways and entrances to people’s homes by the coast, decorating gardens in the highlands, and showering the porches of al fresco restaurants in fishing villages. Its luminescence is hypnotic, joyful and magnetic: when I see a bougainvillea vine in the sun, I want to be under it, basking in its colour. The Vietnamese name, hoa giấy, means ‘paper flower’, because of the fine, translucence of its petals.

Bougainvillea, Vietnam


Bougainvillea, Vietnam

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Sweet Pea:

*Other names: Hoa Hương Đậu (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Southern Central Highlands [MAP]

Delicate purple, white and pink flowers and a glorious fragrance that puts the world’s perfumeries to shame, make Sweet Pea one of the prettiest and most seductive of flowers. But it’s rare: I don’t see Sweet Pea much in Vietnam, but when I do (I can smell it before I see it), it’s usually in the Central Highlands, particularly in the mountain resort city of Dalat, where it adorns some of the former French colonial villas.

Sweet Pea flower, Vietnam


Sweet Pea flower, Vietnam

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Crown Flower:

*Other names: Chi bòng bòng (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Along the southern & central coast & islands [MAP]

A distinctive white and violet, star-shaped flower, the Crown Plant is a common sight all along Vietnam’s coastline. It’s a bush-like plant which appears to grow like a weed along the high-tide mark of sandy beaches. The leaves and flowers are stiff and slightly shiny: almost as if they were made of rubber. In the centre of each star-shaped flower, a five-sided stigma protrudes, looking like a royal crown.

Crown flower, Vietnam

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Spider Lily:

*Other names: Hymenocallis (academic)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal & highland regions [MAP]

Named ‘spider’ because of their spindly tentacles (although the flower only has six ‘legs’, whereas the arachnid has eight), these pretty, highly decorative lilies can be found in gardens along the coast and in the Central Highlands. Their delicate, snow-white flowers have a slight perfume. Although Spider Lilies are used to adorn private and public grounds, I find there’s something a bit sinister about their shape and form: they look like the Martians from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Spider Lily, Vietnam

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Angel’s Trumpet:

*Other names: Datura

*Where & when you might see it: Highlands & coastal regions [MAP]

A remarkable flower with a fittingly romantic name, Angel’s Trumpet is a kind of bush from which hang dozens of large, colourful, tubular flowers. A bush in full bloom is an extravagant sight. It’s not unusual to see Angel’s Trumpets exhibiting their showy flowers in the Central Highlands, particularly during the southern dry season. Some of the more prolific bushes can display over fifty flowers at one time, creating a curtain of blooming ‘trumpets’. Tapering toward the stem and fanning out near the tip, it’s easy to see how they got their name. I’m told that there are several distinct kinds of similar-looking bushes. But for the layman, like me, Angel’s Trumpet is the only name I need.

Angel's Trumpet (Datura) flower, Vietnam


Angel's Trumpet (Datura) flower, Vietnam

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Yellow Mimosa:

*Other names: Acacia | Cây Keo Bạc (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands [MAP]

A medium-sized tree with small leaves that turn a distinctive silver-grey in the sunlight, and bright yellow flowers which grow in clusters along the branches, Mimosa is found mostly in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The popular mountain city of Dalat, for example, is dotted with Mimosa trees, where its pretty appearance has romantic associations: many a hotel, cafe, and park are named after it. When the flowers are in full bloom and in the bright sunlight of a good highlands’ day, the Mimosa’s leaves and flowers glow like candles. The Vietnamese name – Cây Keo Bạc – translates roughly as ‘silver glue tree’ (I think). Which, I’m guessing, is a reference both to its silvery leaves and to its sticky sap which can be used as an adhesive.

Yellow Mimosa (Acacia) flower, Vietnam


Yellow Mimosa (Acacia) flower, Vietnam

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Water Lily:

*Other names: Hoa Súng (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Mekong Delta, Coastal regions [MAP]

On the isolated tropical island of Con Son, a lake of floating water lilies lies between the mountains and the ocean. This was probably not the place where I first laid eyes on water lilies, but it is the most memorable of places I’ve seem them. The flowers have a precision and perfection that’s bewitching: somehow combining geometry and poetry. Now, I’m fortunate enough to live in a country where water lilies are not an unusual sight: indeed, when in Saigon, I have the pleasure of walking by a pond of floating lilies every day, on my way to the pool in Van Thanh Park. In Vietnam, water lilies aren’t only decorative; they’re a source of sustenance, too. Particularly, in one of the Mekong Delta’s finest and most complex noodle soups, bún mắm, the stems of water lilies – slim shoots with a purple shine – are used as a garnish, their honey-combed interior perfect for absorbing the nutritious, flavourful broth.

Purple water lily, Vietnam


Purple water lily, Vietnam

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Flame Vine:

*Other names: Flaming Trumpet | Hoa chùm ớt or hoa rạng đông (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands [MAP]

An animated, bright and playful creeper, the Flame Vine is often seen in the Central Highlands, where it brightens even the grayest, mistiest of days. Thousands of little, tubular, bright orange or red flowers pop out from the green leaves, fraying at their tips. It’s a theatrical, showy plant.

Flame vine, Vietnam


Flame vine, Vietnam

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Madagascar Periwinkle:

*Other names: Dừa cạn (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal regions nationwide [MAP]

A pretty little flower with a suitably dainty name, Madagascar Periwinkles seem to grow like a weed along Vietnam’s coastline. Lining the cusp of sandy beaches, sprouting between the rocks on cliff faces, and reclaiming abandoned resort construction sites, the periwinkle appears to thrive in hot, salty, windy conditions. They’re pretty little things and easy to spot.

Madagascar Periwinkles, Vietnam

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Yellow Oleander:

*Other names: Chi Thông Thiên (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal regions & Central Highlands [MAP]

Neat, bell-shaped flowers on a small tree with skinny, grey-green leaves, Yellow Oleander grow in gardens in the Central Highlands, or are planted as decorative vegetation along highway partitions in some southern, coastal cities. Although they’re pretty enough, Yellow Oleander are apparently toxic to animals and humans. So don’t go eating them.

Yellow Oleander flower, Vietnam

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Orchid Tree:

*Other names: Purple bauhinia | móng bò tím & hoa ban (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands & coastal regions [MAP]

I always associate the Orchid Tree with cool, clear days in Dalat, in the Central Highlands, during the dry season months of November to February. The pink-purple flowers against the clear blue highland skies seem fresh, clean and new. But Orchid Trees are also found on the tropical coast, decorating gardens and resorts. Although I’m not really a fan of orchids, the flowers of the Orchid Tree are fuller and more shapely than the potted varieties you find in nurseries, which are far too complex and showy for my taste.

Orchid Tree, Vietnam

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Ixora:

*Other names: Jungle geranium | chi trang or cẩm tú cầu (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands & coastal regions [MAP]

Very neat and decorative, Ixora is a bush that I usually see growing in the Central Highlands, either by the side of the road or in gardens. The flowers grow in large clusters of one colour, but there are many varieties and many different colours: from deep red to sky blue. The flowers are so neatly presented in bunches that they look like cheerleaders’ pompoms. 

Ixora flower, Vietnam

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Lipstick Tree:

*Other names: Annatto | điều màu (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands, northern highlands [MAP]

A fairly ordinary looking bush, the Lipstick Tree is recognizable by its diamond-shaped pods, which grow in clusters of about a dozen on the thin branches. The pods turn bright red when ripe and their seeds have been used as a dye for hundreds of years. Known as annatto, the dye is red-pink. It’s used to colour food all over the world. In Vietnam, broths may contain annatto, giving them a deep red tone. The mì quảng noodle shop that I go to in Saigon, for example, has a small pan of annatto constantly on the boil in order to colour the broth. And even my home country, the UK, uses annatto: Red Leicester cheese gets its colour from the seeds of the Lipstick Tree, presumably an exotic addition made possible by the expanding trade routes of empire. Indeed, the plant’s name in Vietnamese, nhuộm, means ‘dye.

Lipstick Tree, Vietnam

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Morning Glory:

*Other names: Convolvulus | hoa rau muống (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal & river delta regions nationwide [MAP]

Growing by the beaches and rivers throughout Vietnam, Morning Glory is a common name given to this weed-like plant with pretty flowers. There are hundreds of species of convolvulus, but most of them grow by the water in horizontal vines, straddling sandy beaches, muddy riverbanks, cliffs and lakeshores. The flowers are small and delicate with a papery texture. They grow in white, pink, purple and blue. One of the most common vegetable dishes in Vietnam is rau muống xào tỏi – stir-fried morning glory in garlic. However, this is usually just one type of morning glory: the one with elongated, diamond-shaped leaves. Another common name for Morning Glory is bindweed.

Convolvulus, morning glory flower, Vietnam

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Golden Shower:

*Other names: Cassia fistula | hoa hoàng yến & cây Osaka (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal & midland regions, flowering March-June [MAP]

Appropriately named, the Golden Shower tree blooms in coastal regions of Vietnam between March and June. During these months the colour is so vibrant and striking that the trees are like chandeliers of candles lining the streets. A medium-sized tree with delicate green leaves, for most of the year you don’t really notice it; only when the flowers bloom does the magic of the Golden Shower tree become clear. And it really is magic.

Golden Shower tree, Vietnam


Golden Shower tree, Vietnam

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Peacock Flower:

*Other names: hoa kim phượng or hoa phượng (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal & midland regions [MAP]

Fairly common in the tropical south and central regions of Vietnam, the Peacock Flower is a shrub with small green leaves and bright red flowers with a yellow tinge, and long, protruding stamens. It grows on lowland plains, river deltas, coastal areas, and in cities. The Peacock Flower is a lively splash of colour in city parks and gardens in the bright, tropical sunshine.

Peacock Flower, Vietnam

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Rose Myrtle:

*Other names: Hoa sim (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands, forests [MAP]

A dark green bush which grows in many places in Vietnam, but particularly in the Central Highlands, the Rose Myrtle has very pretty, violet flowers. In Vietnam, the Rose Myrtle bush is most well-known for its dark berries, which are used to make a potent, flowery-flavoured liquor, called rượu sim – rose myrtle wine. You’ll find it around Dalat and on Phu Quoc Island.

Rose Myrtle Flower, Vietnam

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Poinsettia:

*Other names: Christmas Star hoa trạng nguyên

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands [MAP]

Easily recognizable by its blood-red leaves, poinsettias grow in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Essentially a small, green tree with bursts of red leaves, Poinsettias are a fairly common sight in and around Dalat, where temperatures are around 10 degrees cooler than lowland areas. The Poinsettia is a common Christmas flower in most Western countries, which accounts for its popular name, the Christmas Star.

Poinsettia Flower, Vietnam

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Heliconia:

*Other names: Lobster claws Chi chuối pháo

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands & coastal regions [MAP]

A highly decorative and distinctive looking plant, Heliconia come in many varieties, all of which are very colourful. Often used in resort gardens as ornamental plants, Heliconia usually have broad, stiff, green leaves and storky stems which burst open at the tips in a cascade of colourful, beak-like flowers. The two varieties of Heliconia most commonly seen in Vietnam are pictured below: one is often called false bird-of-paradise (because of its resemblance to the birds’ ostentatious plumage), and the other is known as Lobster Claw, for obvious reasons. Both are very attractive and otherworldly: they wouldn’t look out of place on planet Pandora, in the film Avatar.

Heliconia flower, Vietnam


Heliconia flower, Vietnam

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Yellow Mai Flower:

*Other names: Apricot blossom, Tet flower Hoa mai vàng

*Where & when you might see it: Southern regions during Lunar New Year, flowering January-March [MAP]

Known primarily as the ‘Tet Flower’, the Yellow Mai is a bright, papery and pretty little bush that adorns almost every household in southern Vietnam during Lunar New Year (Tet). Yellow is the colour of prosperity, so the flower brings the promise of good fortune for the coming year. The Yellow Mai is also referred to as Apricot Blossom, but, as far as I know, this is a misnomer. The flowers are so delicate that, just a couple of days after the New Year celebrations, it starts to shed its petals, which fall to the ground creating a yellow carpet.

Yellow Mai Flower, Tet Lunar New Year flower, Vietnam


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Adenium:

*Other names: Desert rose Sứ sa mạc

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal regions [MAP]

A pink, tubular flower on a stark bush, Adenium is often found in gardens and temple grounds as a potted plant. Apparently, Adenium is related to the Frangipani, and, like the latter, its sap is highly poisonous. But you’d never guess it from its pleasing appearance.

Adenium flower, Desert Rose, Vietnam

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Lotus Flower:

*Other names: Sacred Lotus Hoa Sen (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Freshwater ponds & lakes nationwide, particularly the Mekong Delta [MAP]

The national flower of Vietnam, the Lotus grows in freshwater ponds and lakes throughout the country. The Lotus is a sacred flower for Buddhists and Hindus alike: in Buddhist temples throughout Vietnam, Bodhisattvas and deities, such as Quan Am (the Goddess of Mercy), are portrayed standing on a lotus, hovering above the petals, or emerging from the flower. It’s not at all difficult to see how the Lotus came to be so loved and used in religious iconography: it’s a beautiful, broad flower, with pink and white petals opening and closing into a bulb with the coming and going of the day and night; the flower sits atop a delicate stem rising out of the water from wide, green pads floating on the surface. What’s more, the Lotus is also a practical flower. Every part of the Lotus is eaten or used in some way in Vietnam: the seeds, which have a wonderful, flowery flavour, are candied or used in desserts; the stems are used in soups to absorb the broth and add crunch; the roots can be sliced, battered and fried for a crunchy snack; the leaves are used to wrap and steam foods, imparting a subtle flavour, such as in lotus-steamed rice; and all parts, including the flower itself, can be used to make Lotus tea. In Saigon, I was lucky enough to live next to an urban swamp that was filled with Lotus flowers; until the water was drained and the swamp filled-in with trash and hardcore: the foundations of a future construction project. A great place to be among the Lotuses is the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, in the homestays on the Lotus fields.

Lotus Flower, Vietnam

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INDEX: FRUITS & TREES


Flame Tree:

*Other names: Phượng Vĩ (Vietnamese) | Delonix Regia (Latin)

*Where & when you might see it: coastal regions throughout Vietnam; blooming from late spring to early summer: April-June [MAP]

A popular and poetic icon of Vietnam, especially in the southern and central provinces, I’ve always had a visceral response to the Flame Tree. The combination of its bright red flowers against a clear blue sky on a dry, hot day on the south-central coast moves me: an intuitive response that manifests itself in much the same way as when you hear a piece of music you love. I first learned the name in Vietnamese when wandering the great stone courtyard, gardens, and grottoes of Phat Diem Cathedral, in the northern Red River Delta province of Ninh Binh. A local man took a fallen branch and sketched the name ‘Phượng Vĩ’ in the gravel. I usually see the Flame Tree in full, glorious bloom on the south and south-central coast from late spring to early summer (April-June). But the Flame Tree is found all over Vietnam, with the possible exceptions of higher mountainous regions, such as the northwest.

Flame tree, Vietnam


Flame tree, Vietnam

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Jackfruit Tree:

*Other names: Cây mít (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: coast & midlands of south & central provinces [MAP]

One of the first fruit trees I can remember seeing regularly in Vietnam, jackfruit is a medium-sized, fairly tall and slender tree, with dark green leaves. But it’s the fruit that stands out the most. Jackfruit is an enormous, bulbous fruit with a light green, textured skin that often grows near the trunk of the tree. Weighing in at over 50kg, it’s the largest tree-borne fruit in the world. You’ll see jackfruit all over the southern and central coast and the Central Highlands, and they seem to be almost always bearing fruit. There’s a distinctive odour to jackfruit, particularly when the fruits have overripened on the tree: sweet and pungent; right on the edge of pleasant and revolting. The fruit is widely eaten in Vietnam: fresh or cooked. It’s very refreshing with a rubbery texture, or, when served in a cold salad (gỏi mít), it’s sutle, delicate, and delightful. A great, and underrated fruit.

Jackfruit tree, Vietnam

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Copperpod Tree:

*Other names: Yellow Flame Tree

*Where & when you might see it: lining streets & parks in cities & towns nationwide; blooming March-April [MAP]

The copperpod is a common tree in Vietnamese towns and cities. These medium-sized trees often line main streets and boulevards, or dot parks and opens spaces. The copperpod is named after the shiny brown seedpods which hang from the branches. The trees have small, delicate leaves that grow in clusters. But it’s their yellow flowers that make copperpods most recognizable: they bloom in springtime and light up the city streets. And, when the flowers fall, they create pools of yellow on the pavements, like ‘flower shadows’. It’s a pretty sight.

Copperpod tree, Vietnam


Copperpod tree, Vietnam

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Teak Tree:

*Other names: Cây tếch | gía ty (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: in the Central Highlands & northern mountains [MAP]

The quintessential, exotic, tropical hardwood tree, teak is found in pockets throughout Vietnam’s highlands. With strikingly straight trunks – like a ship’s mast (which I presume they were used for at some point in time) – the leaves of the teak tree are very large. Teak is a valuable wood – it’s often used to make expensive furniture – so much of it has been cut down in the jungles of Vietnam. But new teak plantations can be found on the mountainsides, and older stands of teak can still be seen here and there. Like many large, old trees, there’s an atmosphere whenever you stand beneath them. Strangely, the teak trees that I’ve come across are often in eerie or significant places, such as dotting Hill A1 in Dien Bien Phu, the remote northwestern corner of Vietnam where the bloody final battle of the Franco-Vietnam war took place in 1954.

Teak tree, Vietnam


Teak trees, Vietnam

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Coconut Palm:

*Other names: Cây dừa (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: all over southern and central coastal region, year-round [MAP]

The unofficial global symbol of the tropics, the coconut palm grows all over the southern and central provinces. In particular, the Mekong Delta, southern islands, and south-central coast are blanketed with these spindly palms, growing on beaches, hillsides, riverbanks, canals, and fields. You can’t not love the coconut palm. It’s somehow benevolent, calming, and reassuring: with it comes the promise of warm weather, sea breezes, salty air, tropical storms. And abundance: rarely do you see a palm without a healthy cluster of coconuts – green, brown, or red – clinging to the top of its long, tall trunk. Coconut water (nước dừa) – drank straight from the nut – is a daily drink for millions of Vietnamese. And the flesh is often made into candy (mứt dừa or kẹo dừa), among other things. Its leaves are like sails, rustling hypnotically in the wind; it’s trunks are both malleable and immovable: shaped and bent by the prevailing winds but never yielding to it.

Coconut palm tree, Vietnam


Coconut palm tree, Vietnam

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Tropical Almond Tree:

*Other names: Umbrella tree | Cây bàng (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: all coastal regions [MAP]

Seen all across coastal regions of Vietnam, the tropical almond can be a short, stocky and almost bush-like tree, or a giant, old, gnarled, grandfather tree. The leaves are shapely and thick: a satisfyingly plump heart-shape. They’re a deep green which blends with the sea and the sand of the beaches where they usually grow. But, the tropical almond is deciduous, and when the leaves fall they’re crispy and rigid, and a brilliant, shiny bronze colour. The branches tend to grow horizontally, creating a wide pool of shade beneath the canopy. This has made it popular as a shade tree throughout the world: I remember seeing an age-old local market in rural northern Ethiopia taking place in the shade of an age-old tropical almond tree. Hence another of its colloquial names: the umbrella tree. The nut is delicious when roasted. In particular, the large, century-old tropical almond trees on Con Son Island are famous for their nuts.

Tropical almond tree (Umbrella tree), Vietnam


Tropical almond tree (Umbrella tree), Vietnam

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Indian Milkwood Pine:

*Other names: Devil tree | Cây Hoa Sữa (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Plains, lowlands & cities; blooming in October [MAP]

A fairly ordinary looking tree, the Indian Milkwood is best-known for its white flowers, which grow in clusters and release an intoxicating aroma. Around October, you’ll catch the spicy scent of the Milkwood on an evening breeze in the cities or the countryside. The perfume transports you to an ancient spice house or herb merchant’s: cinnamon, cardamon, vanilla, cumin, clove – they’re all in there. For me, the smell encapsulates all things Asian and exotic, but some of my Vietnamese friends tell me that many people are allergic to it. Fortunately, I’m not one of them. 

Indian Milkwood tree, cây hoa sữa, Vietnam


Indian Milkwood tree, cây hoa sữa, Vietnam

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Tamarind Tree:

*Other names: Indian date | Cây me (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coast, lowland plains & midlands, especially southern & central regions [MAP]

I like to think the tamarind is to Vietnam what the olive is to Greece: ancient and gnarly, bearing precious fruit, and thriving in sunny, hot, arid conditions. Tamarinds can be centuries old. Many a time in the Vietnamese countryside, you’ll come across an old, stately tamarind, branches spread wide, protecting a huddled group of cattle or goats or shepherds from the blazing sun. They’ve long been used as shade trees in Vietnam. But their fruit, too, holds a special place in Vietnamese culinary culture. The copper-coloured pods reveal a sticky collection of sour-sweet seeds which can be eaten raw, or candied, or used as a flavouring for any number of delicious marinades, soups, stews and dipping sauces. It’s a special tree and there’s always an aura radiating from an old tamarind. Find one, and you’ll feel it too. 

Tamarind tree, Vietnam


Tamarind tree, Vietnam

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Prickly Pear Cactus:

*Other names: Xương Rồng (Vietnamese) | Opuntia (academic)

*Where & when you might see it: South-central coast & plains [MAP]

Found in the dry, arid, stark and beautiful coastal plains of the south-central provinces, the Prickly Pear Cactus is a plant that perhaps you wouldn’t expect to find in Vietnam. But in the attractive, desert-like areas of the provinces of Binh Thuan, Ninh Thuan, Khanh Hoa, Phu Yen and Binh Dinh, cactus are not an unusual sight. I don’t know much about cactus but, well, they’re green, thorny and exotic; they bear pinkish fruit (or are they flowers); and they seem to grow on rocky, sandy, windswept terrain. Apparently, there are all sorts of usages and folk stories surrounding cactus, especially in the Americas. And, in Vietnam, too, cactus are linked to myth and legend. In Vietnamese, the name for cactus – Xương Rồng – means ‘Dragon Bones’. There’s an area between Phan Rang and Ca Na, in Ninh Thuan Province, known as the Dragons’ Graveyard. It’s one of the hottest, driest places in the country. Arid and barren, but beautiful and covered in Prickly Pear Cactus, the story goes that this is where dragons came to die, and the earth scorched itself in grief.

Prickly Pear Cactus, Vietnam


Prickly Pear Cactus, Vietnam

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Star Apple:

*Other names: Milk Fruit | Vú Sữa (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coast, plains & highlands [MAP]

The Star Apple is quite a common and much-loved tropical fruit in the south of Vietnam, where it’s found along the coast, midlands and highlands. The tree is quite small and unremarkable, with thick, often crispy leaves. The fruit, however, is almost perfectly spherical; the skin glossy and smooth; the colour an attractive blend of green and purple. These’s something almost celestial about its appearance: it looks like it could be one of Jupiter’s many moons. In Vietnamese, the fruit is called vú sữa, meaning ‘breast milk’ or ‘milky breast’. This is partly to do with its shapely form from the outside, but more to do with the milky flesh on the inside. The fruit is juicy, sticky, refreshing, slightly unctuous, rich and delicious – everything that a tropical fruit should be.

Star Apple (Vú Sữa) fruit, Vietnam


Star Apple (Vú Sữa) fruit, Vietnam

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Kapok Tree:

*Other names: Silk Cotton Tree | Cây Gòn (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Southern & central plains & coast [MAP]

When I first saw a Kapok, I thought it very striking. A fairly large tree with buttressed roots, the canopy is sparse, but the branches are laden with long, gourd-shaped seedpods. In season, the pods – hundreds of them – burst open to reveal a cotton-like material. The ‘cotton’ is harvested and used for making bedding, insulating homes, and spinning clothes, among other things. A Kapok Tree in full bloom, covered in silvery ‘hair’, is a surreal sight to behold. In Vietnam, I generally see Kapoks in midland regions – between the coast, the plains, and the mountains. Kapoks, while striking, are not especially beautiful. Perhaps this is why they often appear to be associated with the devil or evil spirits in folklore. I read a Vietnamese proverb once (although I can’t find it anywhere now, and no one else seems to have heard it) that goes: Đền cây đa, ma cây gòn: The spirits live in the Banyan tree, the ghosts in the Kapok.

Kapok tree, Vietnam


Kapok tree, Vietnam

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Papaya Tree:

*Other names: Pawpaw | Cây Đu Đủ (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coast, plains & highlands nationwide [MAP]

A slender tree with a burst of star-shaped leaves at the top, the Papaya looks a bit like a composite of a coconut palm and a fig tree. Clinging to its spindly trunk are clusters of bulging, breast-shaped fruit. To me, the Papaya is a quintessentially exotic, tropical fruit. Colourful, perfumed, juicy, and full of little black seeds, it’s been a staple of my breakfast in Vietnam for years. Papaya trees grow in abundance all over the country: I’ve seen them in the cool highlands, the hot, arid plains, and they’re prolific on the tropical coast, especially in the southern provinces. Papaya is used in dozens of Vietnamese dishes. Several salads use green, unripe papaya for crunch, texture, and colour; and the fruit is used for refreshing smoothies and sweet desserts. Papaya is also supposed to be very healthy.

Papaya tree, Vietnam


Papaya tree, Vietnam

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Traveller’s Palm:

*Other names: Ravenala | Chuối Quạt (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal & delta regions nationwide [MAP]

Exotic and almost prehistoric in appearance, I can easily imagine the Traveller’s Palm dotting the landscapes in which dinosaurs used to roam. Apparently originating from Madagascar, the Traveller’s Palm is a favourite decorative tree in Vietnam. From resorts to villas to compounds to farmhouses, the elaborate fan of the Traveller’s Palm’s green sails adorns and enlivens many an urban and rural scene. The leaves resemble that of the banana plant, and the Vietnamese name – chuối quạt – means ‘banana fan’. Its English name is a good story: The long, grooved stems of this tree bring rainwater down from the leaves to the trunk. So effective are they at catching and storing rainwater, that there’s almost always a reservoir of water at the base of the stems. Thirsty travellers can always rely on a fresh water supply whenever these trees are around: hence the name, Traveller’s Palm. If I ever have a garden of my own in Vietnam, I’d want a couple of Traveller’s Palms in it. Apart from their distinctive and attractive appearance, I find there’s something comforting about them.

Traveller's Palm, Vietnam


Traveller's Palm, Vietnam

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Persimmon Tree:

*Other names: Qủa Hồng (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central Highlands [MAP]

I always associate persimmons with autumnal weather. This is because I usually see the spindly trees in the cool, crisp air of the Central Highlands, around Dalat, in the months November to February, when they bear fruit. Hanging like decorative balls on a Christmas tree, persimmons are large, shapely, orange-red fruit, which are eaten raw or dried, squashed and candied. The latter is an excellent accompaniment to hot green tea in the cool highland climate. Personally, I’ve only seen persimmon trees in the Central Highlands, but I imagine they grow in the north, too, during the cold winters.

Persimmon fruit tree, Vietnam


Persimmon fruit tree, Vietnam

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Grape Vine:

*Other names: Vitis Chi Nho (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central coastal plains [MAP]

The main grape growing region in Vietnam is along the arid coast and dry, inland plains of Ninh Thuan, a south-central province. Ninh Thuan has a strikingly stark and non-tropical landscape – indeed, it looks more like southern Spain than Southeast Asia. So it seems fitting that this is where Vietnam’s grapes are grown. The vines are wound around wooden trellises, growing about 5-feet above ground. Introduced by the colonial French in the 19th and 20th centuries, Vietnam continues to grow grapes for wine production, honey, raisins and candies. Despite the grapes being grown in Ninh Thuan, the wine they produce is generally called Dalat Wine. I’m not a connoisseur, but it doesn’t taste great to me. However, the grapes themselves are delicious, as is the honey, the raisins and the fruit. If you ride along the scenic Nui Chua Coast Road in Ninh Thuan Province, you’ll see signs for grape farms where you can buy all grape products: look for vườn nho.

Grapes, Ninh Thuan Province, Vietnam


Grape vine, Ninh Thuan Province, Vietnam

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Casuarina Tree:

*Other names: Cây Phi Lao (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal regions nationwide [MAP]

All along Vietnam’s long and meandering coastline are found large stands of Casuarina trees. An evergreen, pine-like tree with a flaky bark and slender green-grey needles, the Casuarina was one of the first trees whose names I learned while in Vietnam. That was on my first trips to the southeastern coast, where Casuarinas grow in the brackish water between the beach and the ocean. They’re tall, whispering trees with a silver glow when wet after a tropical shower. Handsome, strong, and ‘friendly’ trees, there’s also something mildly haunting about Casuarinas: perhaps it’s their ghost-like pallor and the diaphanous quality of their canopy. Over the years, it’s been sad to see many thousands of Casuarinas along Vietnam’s coast being cut down to make way for multi-storey resort complexes. These were trees that, being native to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, had grown there for centuries, greeting all who came and went on the beaches over generations. In some exceptional and admiral cases, resorts have chosen to build around the trees, incorporating them into the design, such as at Ho Tram Beach Boutique.

Casuarina Tree, Vietnam


Casuarina Tree, Vietnam

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Dragon Fruit Tree:

*Other names: Pitaya | Thanh Long (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: South-central coast [MAP]

Often seen in dry southern coastal regions, Dragon Fruit is famous as one of the most exotic-looking and colourful tropical fruits. One area in particular is known for it: Binh Thuan, sometimes referred to as Dragon Fruit Province. The fruit is bright pink with green tips at the end of several flame-like ‘fins’. Inside, the flesh is white (or red or purple in some cases) with little black seeds. The fruit is refreshing and watery but surprisingly tasteless. Peeling the fruit is half the fun: the skin is thick and waxy, and comes off in a satisfying way. The Dragon Fruit tree is a kind of cactus, growing in slim, spiky shoots. In Vietnam, several strands of the cactus are grafted to a concrete post and encouraged to grow up the pillar. At night, the plantations are illuminated by naked light bulbs, resulting in a patchwork of yellow-glowing fields in the blackness, like the scene of a UFO landing site in the X-Files. Dragon Fruit trees are a strange and distinctive arrangement that remind me of Sideshow Bob’s hair-do in the Simpsons. The trees look very dramatic when bearing fruit, and they also have an impressive white flower. You’ll see lots of Dragon Fruit plantations on the Ocean Road between Saigon and Mui Ne.

Dragon Fruit, Vietnam


Dragon Fruit Tree, Vietnam

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Chilli Pepper:

*Other names: Ớt (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: South & central coast [MAP]

Red chillies are added to many dishes in Vietnamese cuisine: either in the cooking process or as a condiment. In general, the most commonly used and grown chillies in Vietnam as small, red peppers, sometimes no bigger than a fingernail. These are very spicy but also have a wonderful, flowery aroma. Indeed, I enjoy the smell of red chillies more than the flavour. Most of the chillies I see in Vietnam are grown in the hotter, drier regions, such as the south and central coast. The chilli plants are small and delicate, with the little red peppers dotted all over the bush like drops of blood.

Chilli Pepper bush, Vietnam

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Banyan Tree:

*Other names: Strangler fig Cây Đa (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Jungle & forest regions nationwide [MAP]

To my mind, the king of trees in Asia, the Banyan is grand, exotic, heroic, mysterious and majestic. But it also has a dark side. Certain Banyan trees in Vietnam are worshiped – either for the tree spirits that are said to dwell in them or for historic events which took place beneath their great, splayed branches. It’s not difficult to understand how the Banyan became sacred: its size, beauty and majesty exude presence and a noble, timeless aura. They are the cathedrals of the forest. Banyans can grow to enormous sizes and live many centuries, sometimes over a thousand years. A saying I read once (but have never heard again since) goes: Đền cây đa, ma cây gòn: The spirits live in the Banyan tree, the ghosts in the Kapok. This implies the Banyan has a benevolent nature; a sentiment I’m inclined to agree with. But the genesis of a Banyan tree is very much at odds with this image. Banyans are ‘stranglers’, meaning they feed upon a host tree by wrapping vines around its trunk and branches then sending tentacles down to the forest floor to get nutrients from the soil. Slowly, the host tree dies and, over time, rots away completely, leaving a hollow void where once the original tree stood. This is why many Banyans have impressive empty arches at their base. To me, this is a rather sinister beginning to the life of one of the world’s greatest trees. Because of their size, Banyans have been used as shade trees and meeting points in Vietnam, and elsewhere, for thousands of years. Many famous meetings and events have taken place under Banyans. Indeed, the word ‘Banyan’ is said to originate from the name of an itinerant group of traders in India, who traveled from place to place selling their wares, always setting up shop under a Banyan tree. When I travelled in northern Ethiopia, most markets in small, rural towns still set up under big, old Banyans. (A good, easily accessible place to see impressive, old Banyans in the forest is on Son Tra Peninsular).

Banyan Tree, Strangler Fig, Vietnam


Banyan Tree, Strangler Fig, Vietnam


Banyan Tree, Strangler Fig, Vietnam

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Bodhi Tree:

*Other names: Ficus religiosa, Sacred Fig Cây Bồ Đề(Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Outside Buddhist temples nationwide [MAP]

Famous as the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and thus became the Buddha, the Bodhi Tree, which means ‘perfect knowledge’, has strong spiritual associations and is found in most temple grounds in Vietnam. Also known as the Sacred Fig, the Bodhi is recognizable by its heart-shaped leaves, its distinctive canopy which flares out horizontally, and the multiple vines which grow around its thick trunk like veins. Vietnam is one of the countries to which the Bodhi is native, and they can be found across the nation. The Bodhi is extraordinarily long-lived, sometimes exceeding 2,000 years. Bodhi trees are often planted in Buddhist temple grounds in Vietnam, or religious sanctuaries constructed around the sacred tree in situ. And, in the wild, little spirit houses are sometimes placed at the base of the trunk or in the canopy of the Bodhi Tree.

Bodhi Tree, Vietnam


Bodhi Tree, Vietnam

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Peanut:

*Other names: Monkey nut đậu phộng or lạc (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central & northern coastal plains [MAP]

A low, shrub-like plant, peanuts are grown in fields between homes and on farmland. For example, in the little back-lanes around Hoi An it’s common to find rows of peanut bushes growing in the alluvial soil near the Thu Bon River. Because the peanut plant is so small, and because the nuts grow underground, it’s easy to pass by without noticing it. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that a friend of mine pointed out the peanut crops all over the place as we travelled through Central Vietnam. The plants are green with small leaves that look like a herb bush. The nuts, which come in pods, are commonly used in Vietnamese cuisine as a garnish, to add crunch and flavour to a dish. For example, crushed peanuts are sprinkled on shellfish, or in noodle soups. 

Peanut plant, Vietnam


Peanuts, Vietnam

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Cannonball Tree:

*Other names: Đầu lân (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: tropical forest regions, gardens [MAP]

The large, brown, spherical fruit of this medium-sized tropical tree is where it gets its name. The ‘cannonballs’ hang off the branches on vines, dangling close to the trunk from top to bottom; almost as though they were frozen while tumbling through the canopy. But, although it’s the cannonballs that give the tree its name, it’s the flowers that most appeal to me. Growing in clusters on the vine, the flowers are large, wide, and open. The petals are cream yellow on the outside and deep red on the inside, with pink and yellow stamens. The flower has a rubbery but fragile texture and the scent is glorious. Fortunately for me, there’s a blooming Cannonball Tree in the park where I swim in Saigon. (I’ve rarely seen one in the wild.) As far as I know, the name in Vietnamese means something like ‘Dragon Head’, which I think is referring to the flowers’ resemblance to the head of the dragons in New Year dances.

Cannonball Tree, Vietnam


Cannonball Tree, Vietnam

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Bamboo:

*Other names: Tre (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Rivers, hills & mountains nationwide [MAP]

Bamboo has poetic and romantic associations in Vietnamese culture, but it’s also a hugely practical plant. From homes to piping to food and utensils, Bamboo has long been one of the most useful, versatile and strong plants in the world. Bamboo apparently has the same tensile strength as steel – indeed, much scaffolding in Vietnam is bamboo. There are thousands of varieties of bamboo, of which you’ll see many as you travel through Vietnam, especially by the rivers and in the hills of the central and northern provinces. From spindly, delicate bamboo that look like a Chinese ink and water painting, to thick, sturdy columns that look like the pillars of a palace wall, Bamboo comes in all sizes and colours. And it grows profusely: at up to a metre a day, bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. A particularly good place to see bamboo is on the back-roads of Thanh Hoa Province, where the hills and valleys are blanketed is a soft green bamboo canopy.

Bamboo in Vietnam


Bamboo in Vietnam

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Cashew Tree:

*Other names: Cây điều, Đào lộn hột (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coastal & midland regions, especially south-central provinces [MAP]

Found in large open orchards in coastal and lowland regions in the south-central provinces, the Cashew is an attractive tree bearing the famous nut and a less well-known, juicy fruit. Cashew nuts grow in a surprising manner: they are attached to the bottom of the Cashew apple, which is an aromatic, thick skinned, red and yellow fruit. Once ripe, the fruit spoils quickly and its rotting remains fill the air was a pungent, but not unpleasant, smell. Indeed, along the Ocean Road you can usually smell a cashew tree long before you can see it. Vietnam is among the largest producers of cashew nuts in the world. Cashews are one of the more expensive nuts, but they can also be processed to make vegan-friendly dairy products, such as cashew cheese and butter. I’ve always liked the Cashew tree: it has low branches that grow out horizontally, creating an easily climbable ladder into the canopy. Because of their splayed branches and thick leaves, Cashews are also great shade trees: during the southern dry season, farmers, travellers, and cattle alike sit out the hottest hours of the day in the pool of cool shade beneath the Cashews.

Cashew fruit & nut, Vietnam


Cashew Tree, Vietnam

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Mango Tree:

*Other names: Cây xoài (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coast, lowlands, deltas, midlands & some highlands nationwide [MAP]

Surely one of the most loved tropical fruits, Mangoes are available all over Vietnam, although slightly less so in the more temperate climate of the northern provinces. In south and central provinces, however, Mango Trees grow in people’s gardens, by the roadsides, in orchards, and on hillsides. Mango Trees have a pleasing symmetry to their canopy, splaying out near the base and rounding off nicely at the top. Some Mango Trees can be very tall and old with thick, knobbly trunks. There are dozens of varieties of Mango. In Vietnam, green, unripe mangoes are a popular snack or are finely shredded to use in salads. Unripe mangoes are crisp, sour, crunchy and refreshing, with a beautiful, floral smell and flavour. Ripe, orange and yellow mangoes are sweet, juicy, soft, luscious, and sticky. They’re used in smoothies and desserts.


Mango Tree, Vietnam

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Coffee Bush:

*Other names: Chi cà phê (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Central & northern highlands & midlands [MAP]

As one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of coffee, parts of the Vietnamese countryside are completely blanketed in coffee bushes. Growing to a height of about 1-4 metres, coffee bushes are squat, glossy-green-leafed shrubs. In Vietnam, since the 1980s and 90s, coffee production has soared. The Central Highlands region, in particular between Bao Loc, Dalat and Buon Ma Thuot, underwent huge transformation to accommodate the profitable cash crop. When travelling to Dalat by road, for example, vast swathes of forest have been cut down, replaced by coffee bushes as far as the eye can see. Amazingly, most of the coffee farms are smallholds, often harvested by one family. During harvest time, between October and January, the berries (each of which contains two coffee beans) are picked by hand and dried on the roadside or in the yards of farmer’s homes, before being processed and sold to middlemen. The majority of Vietnam’s coffee is Robusta, which is a tough, high-yield, but poor quality variety. Most of this crop is sold to instant coffee giants, such as Nestle. Increasingly, however, farmers are turning to the Arabica variety, which only grows at high altitude and is quite delicate, but brings a much higher price. The area around Khe Sanh, in the central province of Quang Binh, produces some of the best Arabica coffee I’ve ever tasted. What’s more, Vietnamese coffee culture is becoming more and more sophisticated, trendy and, hopefully, environmentally conscientious. One aspect of the coffee plant that gets overlooked is the white, star-shaped blossom, whose beautiful aroma fills the highlands when in bloom. Coffee blossom tea and honey are justifiably gaining a reputation.

Coffee plant, Vietnam


Coffee plant, Vietnam


Coffee plant, Vietnam

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Breadfruit Tree:

*Other names: Cây sa kê (Vietnamese)

*Where & when you might see it: Coast & lowlands in southern & central provinces [MAP]

A handsome, medium-sized tree with large, green, coarsely textured, serrated leaves, the Breadfruit is quite common in Vietnam as an ornamental tree on city streets and in gardens. The big, green-yellow fruit (similar in appearance to Jackfruit) is used in some dishes as a starchy alternative to any kind of potato. Breadfruit is particularly good when sliced, battered and lightly fried in oil to produce a crispy, flat chip (or fry), which is great for dipping in a sauce. I’ve heard two stories about the origin of its name. The first is that the fruit’s texture, when cooked, resembles freshly baked bread. The second is rather more chilling. The British Empire was in need of a cheap, fast growing, high-yielding, high energy food source to feed its population of slaves on plantations in the Caribbean, on the backs of whose labour so much money was made and some many people depended. The Breadfruit, which is high in carbohydrates, was discovered in another British colonial realm, the South Pacific. Its potential as a ‘slave feed’ was quickly realized and the tree was soon exported and grown on the Caribbean islands. As the staple of the slaves diet, it became know as ‘Breadfruit’.

Breadfruit tree, Vietnam


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Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this article because I want to: I like flora and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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Hoi An→Danang→Hue by Motorbike: Routes & Loops http://vietnamcoracle.com/hoi-an-danang-hue-by-motorbike-routes-loops/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/hoi-an-danang-hue-by-motorbike-routes-loops/#respond Fri, 28 Jun 2019 05:39:35 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=29133 There are now four different routes between these three cities in Central Vietnam. Each route has something different to offer: choose between The Coast, The River, The Mountains, or The Tunnel..... Continue reading

The post Hoi An→Danang→Hue by Motorbike: Routes & Loops appeared first on Vietnam Coracle.

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First published June 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Thanks to several big engineering projects over the years, and the economic and tourism boom of Hoi An, Danang and Hue, there are now four different, highly scenic routes to take between these three great cities in Central Vietnam. Because it’s nearly impossible to choose between each route, I’d recommend taking at least two of them, thus creating a loop (or, even better, take all four of them and turn it into a figure of ‘8’). Whether it’s a one-day, one-way road trip, or a week-long, full-on exploration of all the routes in this guide, riding between Hoi An, Danang and Hue is hugely rewarding, relatively easy to navigate, and a joy to ride. The topography between Danang and Hue is characterized by an east-west spur of the Truong Son Mountain Range. Branching off from its north-south course along almost the entire length of the country, this mountainous spur drives a wedge between Danang and Hue, creating a dramatic barrier, both physical and climatic. As the spur ploughs eastward, it looms over the gentle farmland and river valleys of the coastal plains, before plunging to the sea. Within a relatively small area, the landscapes are incredibly diverse and very beautiful: from towering, mist-shrouded peaks cloaked in thick jungle, to serene, pretty fishing villages sprawled along sandbars spreading into the East Sea.

Hoi An-Danang-Hue: 4 Motorbike Routes & LoopsThere are 4 routes between Hoi An, Danang & Hue: the Coast, the River, the Mountains & the Tunnel

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GUIDE: HOI ANDANANGHUE BY MOTORBIKE


This guide is a short introduction to four different routes between Hoi An, Danang and Hue. All four routes can be ridden in either direction, and any of them can easily be stitched together to form a loop or a figure of ‘8’. Thus, you can create a round-trip between Hoi An, Danang and Hue without having to backtrack on the same roads. I’ve named each of the four routes, written a brief description of each one, and plotted them all on my colour-coded map. Weather conditions during the months November through February can be quite bleak. Therefore, try to ride these routes between March and October. As mentioned, you could spend as little as one day or as long as one week riding these routes. On my map, I’ve marked some places of interest along the way, and all of the places marked with a red pin have at least some form of accommodation. (For more ideas about how to extend any of these four routes, take a look at the Related Posts.)

Click an item below for more details:

CONTENTS:

MAP:

Hoi An→Danang→Hue:

Coast 135km | River 125km | Mountains 270km | Tunnel 95km


View in a LARGER MAP

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ROUTE 1: The Coast

 Blue line [MAP]:

  • Route: the classic Hai Van Pass ‘Top Gear’ route
  • Distance: 135km (Danang→Hue)
  • Time: 3-5 hours
  • Scenery: ocean vistas, the Hai Van Pass, forests, lakes, fishing scenes
  • Road Conditions: good surface, few rough patches, light traffic

Description: This route uses the Hai Van Pass (known to many as “one of the best coast roads in the world”, thanks to Jeremy Clarkson’s words in the 2008 BBC Top Gear Vietnam episode) to bridge the mountainous spur separating Danang and Hue. The pass is spectacular and the views are excellent. But this is only part of a much longer, scenic, coastal route, which continues after the pass on several quiet, paved, pretty back-roads through farmland and fishing villages, along coastlines, lake shores and lagoons. After the multiple twists and turns of the lofty Hai Van Pass, the route descends to Lang Co Beach and immediately turns off onto a back-road skirting Lap An Lagoon, then crossing the highway out to Chan May bay, before briefly joining Highway QL1A and quickly turning off onto yet more back-roads, this time leading around Cau Hai Lagoon. From here, the route cuts through agricultural landscapes dotted with wading buffalo and conical-hatted farmers, and mile upon mile of traditional cemeteries in the Hue imperial style. Finally, at Thuan An beach, the route heads south to the centre of Hue. (For full details on this route see my Hai Van Pass Guide.) [MAP]

Images of the Coast Route:

Hoi An-Danang-Hue, coastal route via Hai Van Pass


Hoi An-Danang-Hue, coastal route via Hai Van Pass


Hoi An-Danang-Hue, coastal route via Hai Van Pass


Hoi An-Danang-Hue, coastal route via Hai Van Pass


Hoi An-Danang-Hue, coastal route via Hai Van Pass


Hoi An-Danang-Hue, coastal route via Hai Van Pass

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ROUTE 2: The River

 Orange line [MAP]:

  • Route: the new, ‘middle’ route, leading behind Bach Ma National Park
  • Distance: 125km (Danang→Hue)
  • Time: 2-3 hours
  • Scenery: green valleys, clear rivers, jungle, mountains, crop fields
  • Road Conditions: brand new surface, smooth, light traffic*

*IMPORTANT NOTE: There’s speculation that this brand new road may ban two-wheel traffic in the future. As of June 2019, motorbikes & bicycles are allowed, but check before you go.

Description: Recently completed, this new route is both scenic and fast. By taking a westerly course, going inland behind Bach Ma National Park, the new road bypasses both the Hai Van Pass and the Hai Van Tunnel. Smooth, wide, and newly surfaced, this route follows the Cu De River valley, before going under the mountains of Bach Ma National Park (by way of the Mui Trau Tunnel), and out the other side through crops and tree plantations, then dropping down to the coastal plains and joining Highway 1 for a brief stint into Hue. This route is so new that, at the time of writing (June 2019), much of the central section wasn’t yet shown on Google Maps (I’ve drawn it on my map as best I can). This brand new ‘middle way’ – between the mountains of the Ho Chi Minh Road to the west and the coastline of the Hai Van Pass to the east – has opened up a whole new swathe of countryside. At the time of writing, the entry ramp for the new road (at this junction with Highway QL1A) was unfinished, but motorbikes could easily skirt up the short dirt ramp instead. [MAP]

Images of the River Route:

Danang to Hue via the new Cu De River road


Danang to Hue via the new Cu De River road


Danang to Hue via the new Cu De River road


Danang to Hue via the new Cu De River road


Danang to Hue via the new Cu De River road

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ROUTE 3: The Mountains

 Red line [MAP]:

  • Route: the spectacular, off-the-beaten-path route via the Ho Chi Minh Road
  • Distance: 270km (Danang→Hue)
  • Time: 1-2 days
  • Scenery: big mountains, rainforest, valleys, minority villages
  • Road Conditions: good, paved surface, some concrete slab sections, light traffic

Description: The longest, most scenic, and most deserted of all the routes between Hoi An, Danang and Hue, the Ho Chi Minh Road is a spectacular, mountainous ride through some of the best scenery, and on some of the best roads, Vietnam has to offer. From the pretty, coastal plains and the agricultural valleys at the foothills of the Truong Son Mountain Range, to the thick, steamy jungles and soaring peaks along the Lao border, this route is bound to leave you gawping by the roadside, staring in disbelief at what you’re seeing. What’s more, for some unfathomable reason, hardly anyone else is there to see it. It’s best to ride this route over two days (or even three), breaking the journey in Prao for a night. You could potentially ride it all in one day, but you’d have to start very early, ride many hours, and have plenty of riding stamina to do so. Road conditions are generally good, even though the terrain is exceptionally mountainous. Heading west of Hoi An or Danang, there are a couple of different route options: The southerly route skirts a picturesque river valley along road QL14B before joining the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL14) at Thanh My; the northerly route follows road QL14G around the back of Ba Na Hills all the way up to the Ho Chi Minh Road at Prao, thus cutting out the section of the Ho Chi Minh Road between Thanh My and Prao. Both are excellent routes, so which you decide to take will be based on how much time you have. Either way, as you head west of Hoi An and Danang the gentle valleys quickly morph into wild nature and lofty heights as you approach the Ho Chi Minh Road. The section between Thanh My, Prao, and A Luoi offers superb riding and scenery, and you’re likely to have the road practically all to yourself. In short, this is the rider’s route, the nature lover’s route, the epic route: this is the route you shouldn’t miss. (For more details about this route, see section 4 of my Ho Chi Minh Road Guide.) [MAP]

Images of the Mountains Route:

Hoi An-Danang-Hue via the Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam


Hoi An-Danang-Hue via the Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam


Hoi An-Danang-Hue via the Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam


Hoi An-Danang-Hue via the Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam


Hoi An-Danang-Hue via the Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam


Hoi An-Danang-Hue via the Ho Chi Minh Road, Vietnam

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ROUTE 4: The Tunnel

 Brown line [MAP]:

  • Route: the direct route on Highway QL1A via the Hai Van Tunnel
  • Distance: 95km (Danang→Hue)
  • Time: 2-3 hours
  • Scenery: mountains, coastal plains, highways
  • Road Conditions: good surface, fairly heavy traffic

Description: By far the shortest but least interesting and most traffic-filled of all the possible routes between Danang and Hue, riding Highway QL1A is easy, straightforward and quick. The main feature on this route is the 6.3km-long Hai Van Tunnel, the longest in Southeast Asia. Completed in 2005, the tunnel was an essential engineering project to reduce travel time and traffic between Danang and Hue, all of which previously had to crawl over the Hai Van Pass. At only 95km, Highway QL1A is the fastest link between the two major cities on the central coast. With a journey time of just a couple of hours, this direct route is convenient but not especially scenic. There’s still a bit of eye candy (especially between Lang Co Beach and Cau Hai Lagoon), but compared with the other route options in this guide, it’s nothing remarkable. Highway QL1A is the route that most trucks, buses, private cars, and business vehicles take: anyone whose main purpose is simply getting from A to B as quick as possible, and for whom the journey isn’t the goal. For motorbikers this route does have a major inconvenience: two-wheeled vehicles (as well as petrol tankers) aren’t allowed through the Hai Van Tunnel. However, there is a regular shuttle truck which takes motorbikes and bicycles through the tunnel for a fee of around 30,000vnd (just over $1). The shuttle operates throughout the day (and, on a reduced schedule, at night) and is apparently very efficient, but I’ve never taken it myself, so I can’t vouch for it. One more thing to note is that the tunnel closes daily for 30 minutes between 1.15-1.45pm for maintenance. [MAP]

Images of the Tunnel Route:

Danang to Hue on Highway QL1A via the Hai Van Tunnel


Danang to Hue on Highway QL1A via the Hai Van Tunnel


Danang to Hue on Highway QL1A via the Hai Van Tunnel


Danang to Hue on Highway QL1A via the Hai Van Tunnel


Danang to Hue on Highway QL1A via the Hai Van Tunnel


Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like these routes and I want my readers to know about them. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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Where to Stay in Phong Nha: A Guide http://vietnamcoracle.com/where-to-stay-in-phong-nha-a-guide/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/where-to-stay-in-phong-nha-a-guide/#respond Wed, 19 Jun 2019 08:29:38 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=29229 Backpacker dorms, family homestays, boutique farmstays & luxurious lakeside bungalows: here's my independent guide to accommodation in & around Phong Nha.... Continue reading

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First published June 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Accommodation in Phong Nha ranges from dirt-cheap dorms in backpacker hostels to intimate rooms in family homestays; from boutique farmstays among the rice paddies to high-end lakeside bungalows. Phong Nha is gateway to the incredible cave systems, bucolic landscapes, and stunning limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. It’s one of Vietnam’s star attractions. But, although widely known, tourism is still relatively new to Phong Nha. However, over the last few years, the range and number of accommodations available in Phong Nha has boomed. The area is flooded with hostels, guesthouses, hotels and homestays. Competition has driven prices right down, and almost all accommodation in Phong Nha is excellent value for money. Indeed, prices are so low that many places are struggling to make a profit, and an ongoing ‘price war’ is currently the talk of the town. For many travellers (including myself), the choice of accommodation in Phong Nha is overwhelming. That’s why, in this guide, I’ve listed and reviewed a selection of places to stay (for all budgets) in and around Phong Nha that I’m particularly fond of, so that other travellers can get more of an idea of what’s available.

Where to Stay in Phong Nha: A Guide AThis guide features 22 illustrated independent reviews of accommodations for all budgets in Phong Nha

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WHERE TO STAY IN PHONG NHA


On this page I’ve listed and reviewed 22 different accommodations in and around the Phong Nha area. I’ve categorized the places to stay into ‘High-end’, ‘Mid-range’, and ‘Budget’. For each accommodation I’ve included the general room rates, contact details, photos, and links to check availability and make bookings. All the places to stay in this guide are plotted on my map. Bear in mind that things can change quickly in Phong Nha: new accommodations open, old ones close, and, at the time of research, there were concerns about pricing, as competition had driven rates so low that many places were no longer profitable. Expect significant changes to rates over the next year or two. Click an item from the contents below to read more:

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: All my reviews are independently researched & paid for. I never receive freebies of any sort in exchange for positive reviews or listings. If you use the relevant links below to book your accommodation, I make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

CONTENTS:

MAP:

Key: High-end | Mid-range | Budget


View in a LARGER MAP

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HIGH-END: Resorts & Farmstays:

Despite its growing reputation as a travel destination, none of the domestic or international high-end hotel and resort chains have entered Phong Nha’s accommodation market yet, choosing instead to focus their attention on the beach near Dong Hoi, 45km southeast. And this is a good thing, because instead of their brand of bland, business-like luxury on a vast scale, Phong Nha’s high-end scene is more intimate, characterful, tasteful and local. The level of luxury, comfort and style at Phong Nha’s higher-end accommodations is very good, but don’t expect facilities on a level with the gigantic beach resorts on Vietnam’s coast. Phong Nha’s high-end options are more about atmosphere than amenities, and prices reflect this: they are generally very good value for money:

Boats on the river, Phong Nha, Vietnam


• Victory Road Villas [MAP]; $80-$150 [BOOK HERE]:

On the banks of the river, a little west of Phong Nha village’s main drag, Victory Road Villas (www.victoryroadvillas.com) is currently the most luxurious accommodation in the Phong Nha area. Often referred to simply as ‘The Villas’, this property is the pride of the ‘Farmstay Fleet’, which also includes Easy Tiger and Shambalaa hostels, as well as the Farmstay itself. Recently opened, The Villas is contemporary in design but with traditional Vietnamese flourishes here and there. However, the general structure is reminiscent of a half-timbered English country cottage, with exposed wooden beams bisecting white walls. Entering from the riverside road, the terrace bar and restaurant is a great place for a sunset drink and a meal. Inside, the guest rooms are arranged around a central swimming pool – by far the biggest in Phong Nha – with loungers on the patio, hanging tarps to keep the sun off, and a picturesque limestone crag looming up behind. There are only a handful of rooms, all of which are duplexes offering carefully considered interior decor, including tiled floors, kitchenette, beautiful outside bathtubs, large beds on wooden platforms, balconies, swings, and corners of greenery. (As with the Farmstay, some of the bedroom artwork seems at odds with the general style of the place.) Apart from the gigantic three-bedroom apartment, all rooms are doubles. The entire property is tasteful and classy, yet unpretentious and friendly. A drawback is that some of the rooms don’t really have views (although they are enormous and there’s plenty of natural light), but this is counterbalanced by the large outdoor space around the pool and the excellent vistas over the river and mountains from the terrace bar and restaurant [BOOK HERE]

Victory Road Villas, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Victory Road Villas, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Victory Road Villas, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Victory Road Villas, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Phong Nha Lake House Resort [MAP]; $40-$80 [BOOK HERE]:

A few kilometres east of Phong Nha village, the Lake House (www.phongnhalakehouse.com) is a large property just off the Ho Chi Minh Highway as it passes between wooded hills. Entered via the restaurant and bar overlooking the resort’s swimming pool, the Lake House is spread around the shores of a freshwater lake, which is clean and swimmable. Guest rooms are mostly in lakeside bungalows with terraces overlooking the water and hills. Rooms are neat and brightly furnished with sliding doors onto the balconies. There are mosquito nets over the beds and, because the terrace doors have bug screens, you can leave the doors open for the breeze without worrying about letting the mosquitoes into your room (trust me, this is very smart, and it’s remarkable how few other accommodations in Vietnam do it). At the time of research, the resort was just about to open a new wing. The new rooms are even more spacious, with a nice blend of modern design and traditional motifs, all with great lake views. New rooms also have large, stone bathtubs, and outside showers. Prices are about right for the standard of accommodation available. The pool is too small for swimming laps, but the lake is a good substitute for this, and kayaking is also fun. Note that during the dry months – usually March through June – the water level in the lake drops significantly. Although there’s still plenty of water to swim and boat, it changes the aesthetics of the resort: when the lake’s full, the water reaches to just below the terraces of the rooms and, at night, the lights are reflected in the lake; when the water level is low, there’s a stony beach – a kind of no man’s land – between the rooms and the lake, which isn’t quite as attractive [BOOK HERE]

Phong Nha Lake House Resort, Vietnam


Phong Nha Lake House Resort, Vietnam


Phong Nha Lake House Resort, Vietnam


Phong Nha Lake House Resort, Vietnam

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• Phong Nha Farmstay [MAP]; $40-$70 [BOOK HERE]:

Apart from the caves, it was the Farmstay (www.phong-nha-cave.com) that helped put Phong Nha on the map. Located among the rice paddies and corn fields of Khuong Ha village, 10 kilometres east of Phong Nha town, the Farmstay is an attractive complex of two-storey structures spread either side of a corner on a country lane. There are plenty of guest rooms and lots of terrace space with loungers, hammocks and chairs to sprawl out on, relax, and enjoy the sweeping views of farmland, cattle, water buffalo, and clouds rolling in from the distant mountains. All rooms are simply but tastefully furnished, with floral bed sheets, lamps, wooden-frame mosquito nets, white walls, and tiled floors (although some of the artwork verges on the kitsch). The grounds are spacious and shaded by trellised vines, tropical trees and flowers. Downstairs, the communal areas are all inside-outside: open to the breezes off the rices fields and sunlight through the trees. The bar is cozy and well-stocked (including plenty of imported beers, ciders and wines); the new swimming pool is set on the edge of the rice fields with cows coming close enough to touch; there’s a sauna and gym, bicycles and motorbikes with sidecars, and a restaurant with all sorts of tempting local and international dishes. All this is great, but perhaps the most impressive and endearing aspect of the Farmstay is the character and ambience of the place: it feels like a family home. Indeed, it is. Owners Ben (Australian) and Bích (Vietnamese) live here with their extended family. But the feeling runs through the staff (mostly local) and guests, too. One gets the impression that everybody feels comfortable here. I’m not quite sure how this is achieved, but it is most impressive. What’s more, knowledge of the local area and history is unmatched: there are maps, talks, books, tours, advice and information. The Farmstay is informal and friendly, yet also well-organized and well-run; comfortable and convenient, yet also very much part of its natural surrounds and landscape. [BOOK HERE]

Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam


Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam


Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam


Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam

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• Chay Lap Farmstay & Resort [MAP]; $50-$100 [BOOK HERE]:

Run by Oxalis, the Chay Lap Farmstay & Resort (www.chaylapfarmstay.com) is a large complex west of the river, not far from Dark Cave (Hang Tối). Chay Lap has lots of rooms spread around a large garden beneath limestone mountains. There are three types of accommodation: rooms in a two storey building, private bungalows, or wooden ‘tube huts’. The latter are the most popular and the most atmospheric of the room types. Made from pine wood, the barn-like huts look like something out of Tolkien’s Shire: squat, round, and vaguely like a Hobbit’s home. Inside, the wooden paneling and curved roof and walls are very attractive. The other rooms are perfectly comfortable, spacious, clean and well-appointed, but fairly characterless, especially considering the price. There’s a vegetable and herb garden, a decent sized swimming pool, bar and restaurant. Chay Lap is very much a resort: it’s on its own, far from any local life or activity. But the setting is very scenic and most guests use it as a base for their Oxalis-led caving expeditions [BOOK HERE]

Chay Lap Farmstay & Resort, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Chay Lap Farmstay & Resort, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Chay Lap Farmstay & Resort, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Chay Lap Farmstay & Resort, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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MID-RANGE: Homestays & Hotels:

In Phong Nha, accommodation in the mid-range price bracket is numerous. These take the form of homestays, bungalows, guesthouses, mini-hotels and resorts. The following accommodations are spread around the Phong Nha area, and the price range is generally between $15-$35 a night. Mid-range value for money is extremely good, but this is partly because of an explosion in local homestays, which is now beginning to drive prices so low that businesses are no longer profitable. At the time of writing, the general feeling is that something has to be done about this. Therefore, expect some changes in rates in the near future. The places below are in no particular order: if they’re on this list, then they are, by definition, recommended:

Boats on the river, Phong Nha, Vietnam


• Nguyen Shack Eco Resort [MAP]; $30-$60 [BOOK HERE]:

A couple of kilometres east of Phong Nha village, Nguyen Shack Eco Resort (www.nguyenshack.com) is hidden down a series of meandering country lanes. A large, lakeside property, Nguyen Shack uses natural, local materials (where possible) to build its collection of huts, bungalows, and cabins. Nestled on the bank between a tree plantation and the lake, Nguyen Shack tries to be as sustainable as possible. Accommodation comes in two styles: cosy, A-frame huts set back from the lake, and large, light and spacious cabins right on the lake. Both are made from local pine and eucalyptus wood, as well as recycled composite materials, such as the roofing of the huts, which is made from old tyres and fibers. The beds in the A-frames are raised on a mezzanine platform with a window looking out across the trees. The cabins boast so much light and space that it feels as if they’re open-air. Vegetables are grown in the garden, local people are employed and trained as staff, and the owners play a positive role in the local community. Quiet, secluded and rural, Nguyen Shack caters to flashpacking couples, mid-range travellers, and families. There’s loads of space to walk around, including the local farming community. Lots of animals wander freely around the property, including cats and dogs and pigs and turtles. The atmosphere is relaxed, informal, and friendly. The lakeside bar and restaurant are great in the mornings and evenings, and the open kitchen offers cooking classes for guests. There’s a large pool by the lake, which is long enough to swim. The pool’s external structure is shaped like a Vietnamese fishing boat, complete with concrete bow, mast and sail. It’s very distinctive but slightly at odds with the tone of the rest of the resort. One slight concern if you have kids, are the sharp bits and pieces, like splintered wood and nails, protruding from some of the woodwork [BOOK HERE]

Nguyen Shack Eco Resort, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Nguyen Shack Eco Resort, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Nguyen Shack Eco Resort, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Pepper House Homestay [MAP]; $350-$55 [BOOK HERE]:

About 7km east of Phong Nha village, and just south of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, Pepper House (www.pepperhouse-homestay.com) is a boutique-style homestay with only four rooms, all beautifully appointed around an L-shaped pool. Run by a Vietnamese-Australian couple, the land has been in the wife’s family for generations. Formerly a banana plantation, the property is still bursting with tropical fruit trees, including papaya, pepper, jackfruit, peanuts and banana. Set down a track off a paved back-road, Pepper House has farmland on all sides, including rice paddies and wandering cattle. The handsome, squat structure is painted ochre yellow with red-tiled roofs. Lantern-lit terraces open onto the pool with bamboo loungers. Inside, the rooms are tastefully furnished with cool concrete floors, wooden window frames, and bright bedclothes. Pepper House has an innovative compost system for its bathrooms, using sawdust instead of water and, eventually, after 10 years, selling the compost to local farmers as fertilizer. It’s worth remembering that Pepper House is popular and there’s only a few rooms, so it pays to book ahead [BOOK HERE]

Pepper House Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Pepper House Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Rice Field Homestay [MAP]; $15-$20 [BOOK HERE]:

A small, new homestay with only two rooms, Rice Field is located down a paved lane with a back garden boasting stunning views across the rice fields and wading buffalo over to jungle-clad limestone mountains. Rooms are very clean and attractive, with plenty of space, and modestly furnished. There’s a little restaurant in front, but it’s all about the back garden, which is a large, landscaped terrace overlooking the landscape. Not much English is spoken but Hằng, a 13 year-old relative of the owner, might be there to help out – in fact, she appears to practically run the place. Rice Field is a good, interesting alternative to the better known mid-range homestays. It’s also good for kids, because of all the space [BOOK HERE]

Rice Field Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Rice Field Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Sy’s Homestay [MAP]; $20-$30 [BOOK HERE]:

Set among the rice fields to the east of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, Sy’s Homestay (www.sy-homestay.com) is scenically located with a homey vibe, a pool, and good mid-range value rooms. Sy’s is on a quiet, paved back-road in the countryside. Recently expanded, Sy’s now has two types of rooms: concrete bungalows raised on concrete stilts above the fields, and a block of rooms off a communal terrace on the second floor of the main building. Structurally, Sy’s isn’t much to look at. But it’s all about the location out on the rice paddies, and the views west over towards the limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Sy’s is quiet and efficiently run by a nice local family. It’s pretty much outgrown its ‘homestay’ status, but nonetheless retains a homey, intimate atmosphere. Rooms are nicely presented but without any fancy stuff – there’s lots of wood, plenty of space, and large bathrooms with a skylight above the shower. The pool is good for a cooling dip, but not big enough for swimming laps. Before the two annual harvests (May and August) the colours of the rice fields surrounding the homestay are extraordinary [BOOK HERE]

Sy's Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Sy's Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Sy's Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Hung Phat Bungalow [MAP]; $20-$30 [BOOK HERE]:

Just across the road from Sy’s, Hung Phat (www.facebook.com/hungphatbungalow) is accessed via the riverside road east of Phong Nha village. New, clean, and neat, Hung Phat has several A-frame bungalows raised on stilts with a pool at the front and rice fields at the back. Each bungalow is simply but comfortably furnished and, although it’s by no means spacious, the rooms don’t feel too cramped. The views from the back are glorious: a sweeping vista over the rice paddies and limestone karsts. Each room has a big window opposite the bed for sunrise views and a balcony with a little bench. Beneath the bungalows there are benches for relaxing, lit by lanterns in the evenings. The pool is compact with loungers dotted around the sides. Because it’s small and family-run, there’s an appealing sense of intimacy. Hung Phat is very good mid-range value [BOOK HERE]

Hung Phat Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Hung Phat Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Greenfield Ecostay [MAP]; $10-$30 [BOOK HERE]:

Right in the middle of an ocean of rice paddies, Greenfield (www.greenfieldecostay.com) is a big accommodation a few kilometres east of Phong Nha village. With plenty of rooms in a big, barn-like wooden structure and separate bungalows, Greenfield is an island among acres of crop fields. From the benches, loungers and swings in its manicured gardens, the views over the glowing rice paddies, buffalo, conical-hatted farmers, and over towards the sinister silhouettes of the karsts in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park are very evocative. Rooms are comfortable, clean, and stylishly sparse. This is yet another excellent mid-range place to stay in Phong Nha [BOOK HERE]

Greenfield Ecostay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Greenfield Ecostay, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Funny Monkeys Homestay [MAP]; $20-$30 [BOOK HERE]:

Recently renamed (formerly Ruby Homestay) and under new management, Funny Monkeys (www.facebook.com/funnymonekyshomestay) is one of several very good riverside accommodations spreading south along the east bank of the river. A three storey concrete building right on the water’s edge, Funny Monkeys has 6 very large, bright rooms. But it’s all about getting one of the river facing rooms, which have fantastic views and huge balconies to sit out on and take it all in. The terrace bar and restaurant along the riverbank is a great place for breakfast, and swimming is possible straight off the bank. Rooms are plain but neat and comfortable, and you really don’t need to do that much in terms of decor when you’ve got all that space and those river views [BOOK HERE]

Funny Monkeys Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Funny Monkeys Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Funny Monkeys Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Areca Bungalow [MAP]; $20-$30 [BOOK HERE]:

A little further up river, Areca (www.facebook.com/arecabungalow) is a small and attractive property with a handful of tube-like bungalows set in a garden right on the river. Rooms are nice, simple and tastefully appointed. All rooms are raised above the ground with front terraces and large windows to let the light in. The riverside tables are a beautiful place to watch the sun go down behind the limestone mountains, setting on the figures fishing and rowing on the river. There’s even a sandy beach for swimming off, and kayaks to paddle down the river. Delightful [BOOK HERE]

Areca Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Areca Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Areca Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Carambola Bungalow [MAP]; $20-$30 [BOOK HERE]:

Another collection of riverside, A-frame bungalows, Carambola (www.carambolabungalow.com) is peaceful, green and good value. The property has a large slice of ‘river beach’ with loungers, tables, chairs, and kayaks. The views are excellent, but the rooms and the bungalows themselves aren’t quite as attractive as others in this list. Nonetheless, it’s a popular, friendly place, and  very good value for money [BOOK HERE]

Carambola Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Carambola Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Carambola Bungalow, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Son River House [MAP]; $20-$30 [BOOK HERE]:

Down a narrow paved alley near where Road 20 veers east into the national park, Son River House (094 263 1451) is a small, cheap, chilled, and simple guest house by the water. On the riverfront walkway, Son River House has a wood-and-tile restaurant in the middle of its gardens, around which several brick bungalows sit. The rooms are very clean, well-kept and sparsely furnished. Walking (or swimming) by the river is nice and peaceful here, as it’s far from the busier end of Phong Nha town [BOOK HERE]

Son River House, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Son River House, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Ho Khanh’s Homestay [MAP]; $25-$35 [BOOK HERE]:

Home of the man who brought Son Doong Cave to the attention of the world, Ho Khanh’s Homestay (www.facebook.com/hokhanhshomestay) is a quiet, little collection of private bungalows in a garden, and separate rooms in a wooden stilt home. Of the two, the latter are the more atmospheric, with wooden paneling and furniture in a more traditional Vietnamese mountain style than the concrete bungalows. As an accommodation, it’s a bit plain for the price, but the prospect of meeting the man himself is enough to make you want to stay. Plus there’s easy access to the river for swimming and the waterside cafe is great for breakfast and a sunset drink [BOOK HERE]

Ho Khanh's Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Ho Khanh's Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Lucky Homes [MAP]; $25-$35 [BOOK HERE]:

On a good stretch of the riverfront, Lucky Homes (www.facebook.com/lehaxiem) is a popular place with mid-range travellers. Set just across the road from the river, Lucky Homes has lots of rooms on two levels arranged around a central swimming pool. Over the road, there’s riverside loungers and seats, popular in the late afternoons for sunset, when the views across to the limestone mountains are fantastic. Rooms are excellent value for money: large, spacious, very clean, comfortable, made to a decent standard, with windows and balconies. Again, it’s fairly plain, but does everything it needs to for the price. Most travellers who stay here are very happy with their choice [BOOK HERE]

Lucky Homes, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Lucky Homes, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Jungle Boss Homestay [MAP]; $30-$40 [BOOK HERE]:

Tucked away in the back streets of Phong Nha, Jungle Boss Homestay (www.jungle-boss.com) is a good option if you’re looking to really explore the national park while you’re in the area. This is because the homestay is run by Jungle Boss, a well-respected local tour company who know the area inside-out. The homestay itself is cosy and intimate, with two types of accommodation: rooms in a brick and bamboo building or wood-paneled bungalows raised above the gardens. Both types are thoughtfully appointed and comfortable places to be, but the latter have more light and space, with windows and a terrace to enjoy the fresh air and views. There’s a small pool and a restaurant where travellers can sit, chat, and plan the various excursions that Jungle Boss offer. English is spoken and there’s lots of local knowledge here. With the competition now available in Phong Nha, prices at Jungle Boss Homestay are a little high for the standard of accommodation offered. But you’ll be well looked after and it’s a great base from which to explore Phong Nha-Ke Bang [BOOK HERE]

Jungle Boss Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Jungle Boss Homestay, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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BUDGET: Hostels & Guest Houses:

These days, Phong Nha is quite a big backpacker destination. In fact, most of the travellers you see in Phong Nha appear to be Western backpackers, and many of the businesses, especially on the main street in town, are geared towards them. As such, there are several hostels with very cheap, dorm-style accommodation available in Phong Nha, as well as dozens of low-price mini-hotels and guest houses. Hostels and guest houses tend to cluster along the main drag, just east of the Phong Nha tourist boat pier. Again, competition keeps prices extraordinarily low. In fact, at the time of research, one hostel was offering rooms for free. [Note: in the following list, one significant hostel is not represented: Central Backpackers. This is because the manager refused me entrance or permission to write about or photograph the property]:

Boats on the river, Phong Nha, Vietnam


• Easy Tiger Hostel [MAP]; $5-$7 [BOOK HERE]:

Despite some decent competition, one hostel rises above the rest: Easy Tiger. The Platonic ideal of a backpacker hostel, Easy Tiger (www.easytigerhostel.com) is the place that almost all young, sociable budget travellers gravitate. It’s an extraordinary hostel and an amazing success. Under the same ownership as the Farmstay and The Villas (but about as different in style and atmosphere as conceivably possible), Easy Tiger ticks just about every box on the list of necessary criteria for a great hostel. Fun, informal, social, international, cool, relaxed, young, efficient, cheap, comfortable, entertaining, convenient, clean, well-organized: check. A bar, a cafe, international food, tours, promotions, happy hours, pool, foosball, chill-out area, swimming pool, outdoor communal space, great local information, maps, motorbikes, bicycles, events, live music: check. Perhaps the only thing Easy Tiger doesn’t have is a view of the surrounding landscape, although it does have a limestone karst looming above its pool. But even if this were an issue, no one cares, and no one notices, because everyone is too busy having a good time, enjoying each other’s company, the food, the drink, the games, and, of course, exploring the national park. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that Easy Tiger put Phong Nha on the backpacker map. You might think that creating this kind of hostel with this kind of atmosphere is a natural result of getting a bunch of excited, eager, young travellers together in a good, cheap space. But it’s not. It is, in fact, the result of extremely good, subtle, farsighted management. This is an exceptional hostel; possibly the best in Vietnam. But it’s almost always full, so make sure you book ahead [BOOK HERE]

Easy Tiger Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Easy Tiger Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Easy Tiger Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Gecko Hostel [MAP]; $3-$10 [BOOK HERE]:

Although Gecko (www.phongnhageckohostel.com) is a very good hostel in its own right, it is essentially the overflow for backpackers whenever Easy Tiger is full. But don’t worry, Gecko has many of the attributes of Easy Tiger and most travellers will be happy enough here. Dorm rooms are cheap and clean, but there are also good value private rooms with bathrooms, if you feel like ‘splashing out’ for a night. Most things a budget traveller requires – laundry service, pool table, lots of cheap alcohol, fast food, and cosy spaces to meet other backpackers – Gecko offers. In fact, some travellers choose to stay at Gecko and simply dip in and out of Easy Tiger, a few doors down the road, for the social life [BOOK HERE]

Gecko Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Gecko Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Nguyen Shack Hostel [MAP]; $4-$7 [BOOK HERE]:

With a much lower-key, down-to-earth vibe, Nguyen Shack (www.nguyenshack.com) is distinguishable from the other hostels lining the main street in Phong Nha because it’s made largely of wood (most of the other hostels are converted concrete-and-brick townhouses behind colourful signage). Nguyen Shack has a mini-chain of accommodations up and down Vietnam, all of which have an emphasis on natural materials and natural surrounds. Nguyen Shack Phong Nha follows this concept with its wood-plank floors, doors, bunk beds, and sinks. The dorms and private rooms are the most atmospheric of all the hostels: simple but tasteful little wooden cabins, screened off from the main corridor by curtains. However, Nguyen Shack doesn’t have the entertainment and socializing areas that Easy Tiger and Gecko do. But, once again, many backpackers choose to stay at Nguyen Shack, and socialize at Easy [BOOK HERE]

Nguyen Shack Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Nguyen Shack Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• Shambalaa Hostel [MAP]; $4-$7 [BOOK HERE]:

The (little) sister hostel of Easy Tiger, Shambalaa (www.shambalaa.com) is a smaller, more chilled, and more ‘psychedelic’ hostel than its bigger, badder, older sibling. The dorms here are newer and perhaps more comfortable than Easy Tiger. But the space is quite limited and fairly compact. However, this isn’t a problem because Shambalaa guests get free use of all the facilities at Easy, which is just across the street. The decor is pretty ‘groovy’, with colourful murals of trippy patterns and shapes painted on white-washed walls, windows covered with funky drapes, and shisha pipes available [BOOK HERE]

Shambalaa Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Shambalaa Hostel, Phong Nha, Vietnam

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• An Binh Hotel [MAP]; $8-$14 [BOOK HERE]:

Just back from the main drag (which can be quite a relief) in Phong Nha town, An Binh is a classic, good value Vietnamese mini-hotel. A not-too-ugly, four-storey lump of bricks and concrete softened by lots of balconies and wooden-shuttered windows, An Binh is a great option for budget travellers who would rather stay in a private room with a private bathroom and a private balcony than a multi-bed dorm with shared facilities. Rooms are super clean, with some wooden furniture and balconies overlooking Phong Nha town and the surrounding limestone karsts. At $10 a night for double occupancy, it’s great value for travelling couples. An Binh is run by a friendly local family [BOOK HERE]

An Binh Hotel, Phong Nha, Vietnam


Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like Phong Nha and I want my readers to know about its accommodation. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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Ly Son Island: Travel Guide http://vietnamcoracle.com/ly-son-island-travel-guide/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/ly-son-island-travel-guide/#comments Thu, 13 Jun 2019 12:31:28 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=28626 A volcanic island surrounded by a ring of reefs, Ly Son is a striking, stark & geologically fascinating destination. Easily reached by regular fast ferries, Ly Son Island is located off the coast of central Vietnam.... Continue reading

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First published June 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

A volcanic island surrounded by a ring of reefs, Ly Son is a striking, stark, and geologically fascinating destination, off the coast of central Vietnam. Three large, extinct volcanic craters dominate Ly Son. Inland, the island is barren, dry, and sandy, its flat patchwork of fields rising violently to dramatic cliffs that plunge to the brilliant-blue sea. The water quality around Ly Son Island is among the best in Vietnam. But this isn’t your typical tropical island: Ly Son doesn’t have long, sandy beaches, brushed by coconut palms. What it does have are coral reefs, crystal-clear seas, twisted rock formations, black cliffs, mesmerizing crater-top views, and one of the most dramatically situated beaches in Vietnam. Easily reached by regular, 30-minute, fast boat ferries from Sa Ky Port, in Quang Ngai Province, Ly Son Island has fired the imagination of young, Vietnamese backpackers for several years. But foreign travellers have yet to arrive in numbers. Famous for its seafood and garlic, which grows in the island’s rich, volcanic soil, the time is right to visit Ly Son Island. Accommodation is plentiful and cheap, and there are lots of things to keep you busy, including hiking the island’s volcanic craters, riding a motorbike along the coastal roads, swimming in the blue ocean, snorkeling the reefs, and taking a boat to Dao Be Island, which is an absolute gem.

Ly Son Island, travel guide, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLy Son is a volcanic island in the East Sea off the coast of Central Vietnam, in Quang Ngai Province

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GUIDE: LY SON ISLAND


Below is my full guide to Ly Son Island. I’ve divided this guide into several categories, and then sub-sections within each category. The best time of year to visit Ly Son is from March to September, when the weather is generally dry and bright, rainfall is light, and seas are mostly calm. It’s also best to visit on a weekday, avoiding weekends and public holidays, during which Ly Son gets very crowded with domestic tourists. Plan to spend at least two nights on Ly Son, if not more. In many ways, Ly Son is like a bigger, more developed, version of Phu Quy Island. It’s also much easier to get to: up to a dozen sailings each day connect Ly Son with the mainland; no permit is required to visit the island; and there are ATMs, hotels, and other tourist infrastructure. Known as the Garlic Kingdom, Ly Son is a fascinating island: an over-sized reef that the waves couldn’t overcome.

Click on a category in the contents below for more details:

CONTENTS:

MAP:

Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province


View in a LARGER MAP

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Location & Background:

Below I’ve written a description of the location and topography of Ly Son Island and a little bit of history and background, followed by some information about the current state of the natural environment:

Beach, Dao Be Island, Ly Son, VietnamLy Son is a volcanic island in the East Sea, characterized by extinct craters & white coral beaches


Orientation & Topography & History:

Formerly known as Cù Lao Ré, Ly Son Island is a district within Quang Ngai, a central province which generally escapes the notice of most travellers (with the exception of My Lai, the site of the 1968 massacre). The district comprises two main islands, Ly Son (also known as Đảo Lớn – Big Island) and Đảo Bé (Small Island), both of which are permanently inhabited, with a population of around 20,000. Ly Son Island is divided into two ‘communes’. These are: An Vĩnh (the western half of the island) and An Hải (the eastern half). Đảo Bé (Small Island) is also a separate ‘commune’, called An Bình. On Ly Son Island, both An Vĩnh and An Hải communes are further divided into two villages: Thôn Tây (western village) and Thôn Đông (eastern village). Ly Son Island is essentially a spread of volcanic craters rising from the ocean. Three large craters (and two smaller ones) were formed some 25-30 million years ago. The extinct craters rise from the villages and patchwork of fields that make up the rest of the island’s topography. (For a dramatic introduction to Ly Son’s topography, take at look at the island on Google Maps satellite view, where the craters are clearly visible and, rather disturbingly, bring to mind the bird’s-eye photographs of wartime Vietnam, pockmarked by heavy bombing.) There’s a constant rumble wherever you are on Ly Son island. Like peals of distant thunder, this is the sound of waves breaking out on the reef that encircles the entire island, like a natural sea wall, protecting Ly Son from direct hits.

Hang Cau Cliffs, Ly Son Island, VietnamAt points on the island where the craters meet the ocean, Ly Son’s topography is very striking & stark


Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamThe extinct craters give way to flat land where fields of garlic, corn & shallots grow in the rich soil

As is often the case with lesser-travelled destinations in Vietnam, I found it difficult to find much information about the history of Ly Son*. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Sa Huynh artifacts and settlements on the island. Sa Huynh was a iron age culture that flourished along the central coast during in the first millennia BC. The indianized kingdom of Champa was active on the island before succumbing to the Vietnamese who swept in from the north, eventually setting up a colony on the island from the 17th century. From Cham times, the Xo La Well, on the south coast, was used to supply passing ships with mineral-rich freshwater. During the Reunification War, the US used the island as a radar base. Whale worship has been a fundamental aspect of local culture. As with many Vietnamese fishing communities, whales were (and are) seen as deities of the ocean and protectors of sailors. There are several ‘whale temples’ on Ly Son (see Temples & Pagodas for details). There’s a military presence on the island, partly because most islands in Vietnam are considered border areas, but also partly due to the ongoing longstanding dispute with China over the Paracel and Spratly islands, which lie to the east of Ly Son. Seafood, garlic and other alliums (onions, shallots etc.) are the islands’ main industry. Indeed, as you travel around Ly Son, you’ll notice that the island actually smells like garlic (from the fields and the markets) and seaweed (drying by the roadside). However, tourism increasingly accounts for a significant proportion of the local economy and will surely be the main employer and earner in the not too distant future. There’s a fair amount of construction going on, including new embankments, hotels, and a large new port, so expect some major changes in the coming years. When I was on Ly Son, I noticed that peoples faces were different from the mainland – more angular, with stronger features. And, like many islands, the accent is quite unique.

*Please note: Historical information in this article is based on my reading of various sources & conversations with people: I am not an historian.

Nui Thoi Loi Crater, Ly Son Island, VietnamThere are spectacular views of the island from Ly Son’s volcanic craters, some of which are off limits

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Environment & Pollution:

Apparently sand erosion, caused by the large quantities of sand taken from the beaches to use as protection and cover for the hundreds of little fields of garlic, shallots and onions, is starting to weaken Ly Son’s coastline. However, it’s hard to see how this practice can continue anyway, since almost the entire circumference of Ly Son is being walled by an enormous embankment project, currently under construction.

Garlic fields, Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLy Son Island’s main crop is garlic: the quantities of sand used to protect the crop is responsible for beach erosion

Trash, of course, is a big problem, and many of the beaches are spoiled by litter, especially plastic. It’s a national (and international) problem and one that’s exacerbated on Ly Son by the sudden influx of travellers (like me), who consume large amounts of single-use plastic and, sadly, many neglect to dispose of their trash responsibly. It’s a worrying situation that appears to be getting worse, although the issue is now widely acknowledged and discussed. Opinions about litter and how to get rid of it are changing, but actual practices are not keeping pace. A couple of examples: when I boarded the ferry to the mainland, each ticket was inspected and then simply ripped up and thrown in the sea, leaving a white trail in the ocean next to the boat; one informal garbage dump (in a fishing marina) was right below a notice saying ‘Don’t litter. Protect our environment. If caught you face a fine of up to 500,000vnd each time’. This had not deterred anyone from using the ‘informal dump’ rather than the green wheelie bins by the roadside.

Trash on Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamTrash is a problem on Ly Son Island, as elsewhere in Vietnam, although it’s not as bad as other islands

There’s a large trash facility in the north of the island. It seems as though a daily garbage collection – trash trucks and carts – arrives here to dump its load, where it’s then separated and incinerated. The smoke from the tall chimneys wafts over the island, carrying with it a nasty smell. It makes you realize that even when trash is disposed of responsibly (into bins) and collected by a waste management team, we still don’t have a good long-term solution for what to do with it. There’s also at least one recycling centre on Ly Son Island. However, there are reasons to be optimistic…..

Trash incinerator, Ly Son Island, VietnamThere’s a daily trash collection on Ly Son Island: some of it is recycled; much ends up at this trash incinerator

On nearby Đảo Bé Island, just a 10-minute boat ride north of Ly Son, plastic trash on the island (a mixture of local litter and flotsam and jetsam washed up on its beaches) is being collected and recycled in some creative and exciting ways. Plastic bottles, for example, are filled with sand and arranged in lines held together by cement in place of bricks. Plastic bottle walls can now been seen in the little hamlet on Đảo Bé Island. Old fishing buoys are being re-purposed as hanging flower pots, among other creative uses for the garbage that once stained the beautiful beaches of this tiny island. It’s only a start and there’s a long way to go, but already the effect is obvious: the beaches are much cleaner than they were just a year or two ago.

Recycled plastic bottle wall, Ly Son Island, VietnamThere’re some encouraging signs, especially on Dao Be Island, where bottles are recycled as building materials


A wall made entirely from recycled plastic bottles collected from the beaches of Dao Be Island

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Things to See & Do:

There’s lots to keep you busy on Ly Son Island for at least a couple of days. In order to avoid the crowds, follow these two general rules: 1) don’t travel to Ly Son on weekends or public holidays, when the island gets busy; 2) do your sightseeing between 10am and 3pm, when most of the beaches, mountains, temples and other sights are empty. This is because Vietnamese travellers (who make up the vast majority of visitors to Ly Son) tend to prefer the mornings and late afternoons, when temperatures are cooler. A lot of domestic tourism on Ly Son Island is straightforward selfie-taking: groups go on a circuit of the island, ticking off each sight with a bunch of posed selfies, then moving on to the next one. The drawbacks of following the two rules above are, of course, the intense heat in the middle of the day, and the light (which isn’t as good for photography):

The road, bay & cliffs at Hang Cau, Ly Son Island, VietnamThere’s lots to see & do on Ly Son Island, including hiking the volcanic craters & riding the coast roads


Riding, Hiking & Motorbiking:

All of the places mentioned in this guide can be reached by motorbike or on foot: both are pleasant ways of getting around the island. Ly Son is relatively small, but obviously walking takes a lot longer than motorbiking. However, if you’re a hiker, it’s totally feasible to walk all around Ly Son Island, just remember to take the phone number of a taxi company with you (see Getting Around for details). Additionally, walking around Dao Be Island, just a short boat ride north of Ly Son, is a joy (see Dao Be Island for details). Cycling would be good too, but sadly I didn’t see any bikes for rent.

Motorbiking the coast roads, Ly Son Island, VietnamMotorbiking the coastal & inland roads is great fun & a rewarding way to see Ly Son Island

Motorbikes are available from many of the island’s accommodations for 100,000-150,000vnd per day. Ly Son’s roads are generally quiet and OK quality, and the distances are short. However, the roads can be narrow, sandy, and rough in places, so ride carefully (see Getting Around for details). There are lots of roads to choose from, and getting lost is part of the fun. Even so, you can easily ride pretty much every road and lane on the entire island within a day or two. The road network leads all around the western, southern, and parts of the eastern and northern coasts. Inland, several roads lead through the rural interior, where fields of garlic dominate the landscape. At the time of writing, a new seafront road had opened (but was not yet shown on Google Maps) linking the port at Thôn Tây with Tò Vò rock arch. Also, it’s now possible to stay on the coast road all the way around the southeastern tip of the island, going from Mu Cu marina and continuing to Hang Cau cliffs. Although the whole area, and the road itself, is undergoing heavy construction, it is possible to get through. Given the amount of work on upgrading infrastructure on the island, things are bound to change by the time you read this guide, but I’ve done my best to draw on some of the access roads that Google Maps doesn’t yet show. When riding around Ly Son, bear in mind that some of the roads and areas on the island are restricted access. This is because they are controlled by the military, particularly the volcanic craters. I’ve marked some of the restricted areas on my map with a ‘police icon’.

Riding coast roads, Ly Son Island, VietnamCoast roads: This new embankment road just north of Thong Tay port is great for riding & sea views

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Mountains, Craters, Volcanoes & Viewing Points:

Ly Son Island consists of at least five extinct volcanic craters of varying sizes. Signs of volcanic activity are everywhere – from the tortured weave of the cliffs to the black rocks partitioning the fields. The extinct volcanoes make for a dramatic and striking landscape, offering beautiful, short hikes, and fantastic views. In addition to the craters, there are several other excellent viewing points on the island, both natural and made-made. Click below for details:

Hang Cau Cliffs, Thoi Loi Mountain, Ly Son IslandLy Son Island has several extinct volcanic craters, some of which have roads & hiking trails


Nui Thoi Loi Crater [MAP]: The highest of the volcanic peaks on the island, Nui Thoi Loi is a giant, gaping crater in the east of Ly Son. From near the top, the views over the island are superb. A paved road snakes perilously close to the cliffs along the north edge up to the Ly Son Flagpole. Continuing further up is off-limits, but from here you can hike along the cliff-edge for a while in both directions. The views are wonderful: south back to Thon Dong village and the garlic fields, and west over the ridge to the Nui Gieng Tien Crater. However, the best views are actually from the road up to the flagpole, particularly at the lay-by and the lookout post. Stunning at any time of day, the views are best from 4pm, when the fields of garlic glow in the low light and the sea appears smooth and soft as velvet. But, if you thought these were breathtaking vistas, wait until you take the slip-road around the southern edge of the crater and up to Ho Thoi Loi. The paved lane is very steep and ends at a concrete hut. A pathway leads along the ledge beneath a freestanding boulder which is perhaps the best photo spot on the entire island. Up here, you’re standing on the edge of a giant volcanic crater: just imagine it 25 million years ago, spouting fire and ash, oozing lava, bellowing with each eruption, literally changing the topography in this violent moment; until the sea water cooled the lava and ash, and the eruption solidified into pretty much what you see today. Casuarina trees grow around the rim of the crater which has filled with rain to become a freshwater lake, long-used as a reservoir for the inhabitants of Ly Son Island.

Nui Thoi Loi volcanic crater, Ly Son Island, VietnamThe views from the top of Thoi Loi Crater are excellent, taking in the entire island


Nui Thoi Loi volcanic crater, Ly Son Island, VietnamThe bulky bulge of Thoi Loi Crater rising from the garlic fields, seen from the top of Ly Son Lighthouse

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Nui Gieng Tien Crater [MAP]: Accessed via a stairway behind the giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy, it’s only possible to climb part of the way up this crater, because the top, which is an expansive meadow, is restricted access. But the views down over the western side of Ly Son, over to Dao Be Island, and out to sea are absolutely brilliant. The rock formations and volcanic hills around Nui Gieng Tien are twisted and tortured, as if they were moulded in extreme heat, which, of course, they were.

Nui Gieng Tien Mountain volcanic crater, Ly Son IslandA stairway leads behind the statue of the Goddess of Mercy towards the top of Nui Gieng Tien Crater

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Other Craters: In the south of the island, near Thon Tay, is Nui Hon Vung, a small crater with a war martyrs’ cemetery on its slopes. Nui Hon Soi is a large crater near the center of the island. On its northeastern slopes is Ly Son’s neat, new cemetery (from where there are good views), but the rest of the crater is off limits and tightly controlled. Nui Hon Tai is another small crater in the west of the island. It’s covered in terraced crops fields. Attractive and serene but not spectacular, some dirt lanes lead around it.

The slopes of volcanic craters on Ly Son Island, VietnamThere are several other, smaller volcanic mounts scattered about Ly Son Island, affording good views

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To Vo Rock Arch [MAP]: A small headland of volcanic rock sticking out into the shallow blue sea in the northwest of the island, To Vo ‘rock arch’ is one of the most photographed places on Ly Son Island. The reason for this is not its scale (or necessarily its natural beauty), but because erosion has formed an arch in the rock in which you can, at the opportune time of day, frame the sun and a silhouette of yourself. It’s definitely worth stopping by because it’s a pretty sight, although much smaller than you’d imagine (the arch is only a couple of metres high), and it’s best to avoid sunrise and sunset, where the place gets ridiculously busy with selfie-stick-wielding tourists.

To Vo Rock Arch, Ly Son Island, VietnamTo Vo is popular with local tourists, who come at dawn & dusk to photograph the sun framed by the arch

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Ly Son Lighthouse [MAP]: Originally constructed during French colonial times, this lighthouse was rebuilt in the 21st century. Resembling a grey rocket, the modern lighthouse is accessed through the original French structure in front of it, a handsome, wide, ochre-yellow building. It’s a steep climb up over 150 wooden steps to the top, but well worth it, because the views are exquisite. You can see the whole of the south and east of Ly Son Island: from the steep walls of Nui Thoi Loi Crater to Hang Cau Cliffs, Thon Dong marina, and across the fields of garlic to Thong Tay village.

View from Ly Son Lighthouse, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLy Son Lighthouse offers fantastic views from the top, looking over garlic fields to Nui Thoi Loi Crater


View from Ly Son Lighthouse, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLooking straight down from the top to the lighthouse entrance, a handsome building in a garden

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Beaches & Islands:

Ly Son isn’t replete with quintessential tropical island beaches, but the beaches it does have are very striking indeed. In fact, Ly Son and nearby Dao Be Island are home to one or two of the most dramatically situated beaches in Vietnam. The water quality is generally fantastic: very clear and turquoise-blue. However, swimming isn’t that easy because of reefs, surf and rocks. It’s fine for experienced sea swimmers, but for those who aren’t too comfortable in the ocean, it might be better to look at than to bathe in. But snorkeling is great and Ly Son is probably one of the best untapped surf and kite-surf locations in the country (although you’ll need to bring your own equipment, as there’s none for hire on the island yet):

Surf breaking on reefs around Ly Son Island, VietnamLy Son’s ocean is blue & clean: the island doesn’t have many beaches, but those it does are very striking


Hang Cau Beach & Cliffs [MAP]: Quite possibly one of the most dramatically situated and photogenic beaches in Vietnam, Hang Cau is a seam of white-coral sand swept between the giant, swirling contours of an arch-like cliff-cave. In the northeast of the island, the surf at Hang Cau breaks about 100m offshore, where a line of reefs protects the beach from large rollers. The sea is crystal clear and the air always has a slight mist caused by the spray of the surf drifting up from the ocean and into the cave. It’s incredibly atmospheric and very striking. If possible, try to visit on a weekday, preferably before 4pm, so that you have the chance of getting it all to yourself.

Hang Cau Beach, Ly Son Island, VietnamHang Cau is one of the most spectacularly situated beaches in Vietnam, lodged beneath these cliffs


Hang Cau Beach, Ly Son Island, VietnamHang Cau Beach gets fairly busy in the late afternoons but is practically empty during the day

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Chua Duc Beach [MAP]: Below the tortured cliffs where the colossal statue of the Goddess of Mercy stands, a long, coral-bleached beach stretches for a kilometre or so. The sea is very clear and a beautiful colour. The break is constant thanks to a long reef lying offshore. It’s a barren, exposed and striking coastline that’s fine for swimming and snorkeling. However, litter spoils the sand (but not the water).

Chua Duc Beach, Ly Son Island, VietnamChua Duc Beach is bleached coral & volcanic rock, set beneath the tortured cliffs of Gieng Tien Crater

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Chua Hang Beach [MAP]: Neatly set in a cove in front of Chua Hang Cave and Shrine, this beach, in the north of the island, is very photogenic, but not that great for swimming. White – blindingly white – sand from eroded coral and large slabs of volcanic rock form the beach, creating a patchwork of textures and colours. Under the perfectly clear water, reefs whip up the surf. It’s good for snorkeling and paddling, but not really deep or calm enough for swimming.

Chua Hang Beach, Ly Son Island, VietnamChua Hang Beach is a colourful cove of sand & rock in front of an ancient cave temple

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Mu Cu (former) Islet [MAP]: Once a tiny islet, this rocky reef is now the eastern-most tip of Ly Son Island, thanks to a newly completed sea wall linking it to Thong Dong marina. The red- and white-striped lighthouse is a decent viewing spot, and walking (or riding) up and down the sea wall is good fun.

Mu Cu Lighthouse, Ly Son Island, VietnamFormerly a rocky islet, Mu Cu is now connected to Ly Son Island by a concrete causeway to its lighthouse

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Dao Be Island [MAP]: An enchanting little island just to the north of Ly Son, Dao Be is a real treat. A 10-minute fast boat whisks visitors to Dao Be each morning (see Getting Around for details). The island is small, flat, very beautiful and charming. Little buggies meet the boats to take visitors around the island, but because Dao Be is so small, it’s much better to go on foot. Utilizing the narrow paved lanes, it’s possible to hike the entire circumference of the island (and the interior, too) within an hour or two. Boats leave after three hours which gives you enough time to explore the island and stop for a swim and a drink. However, if you have the time, I highly recommend staying overnight on Dao Be Island at one of a handful of rustic, cheap and cheerful ‘homestays’ (see Accommodation for details). Inland, the island is portioned into rectangular plots, partitioned and terraced by volcanic rocks walls. Garlic and peanuts are the main crops, but tropical fruit trees, such as coconut palms, banana plants, and screwpines grow in clusters here and there. There’s only one settlement on the island, a tiny hamlet of squat, angular concrete homes bisected by sandy alleyways on the south coast, where the boat pier is. Many of the houses have colourful murals painted on their external walls, which makes strolling around the hamlet an interesting experience.

Beach on Dao Be Island, Ly Son, VietnamDao Be Island is a real treat: a tiny disc of land in the ocean, the sea is clean & the beaches beautiful

For sandy beaches, bathing and palm fringed water, stick to the south side of the island. The little beach stretching east of the pier to the volcanic cliff is stunning, especially when viewed from the cliffs themselves. The sand is bright white, the water bright blue, and the palms bright green. The east coast is mostly black volcanic rock and can be quite rough. At the northern tip the rocks coalesce to for a series of jagged cliffs and coves. One of these coves hides a white sand beach dotted with colourful fishing coracles. The surf is perfect blue as it washes up on the white beach under the black cliffs. The west coast has equal parts rocky and sandy beach, but there’s a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam on this side of the island.

Beach on Dao Be Island, Ly Son, VietnamThe combination of black volcanic rock, bright white sand & blue sea are fabulous

In the past, trash has been a big problem on the island. But, although it is still an issue, it has been directly addressed in the last couple of years. Plastic bottles, cans, containers and other reusable waste that’s washed up on the beaches or discarded by tourists and locals is now being collected for recycling. One form of this is using plastic bottles as a building material to makes household walls. The bottles are filled with sand and used in place of bricks to build walls in some recent dwellings in the hamlet. This is very encouraging, indeed. Although litter is still a problem, a lot of it is now collected, and local and visitor practices are better than before. In fact, much of  the garbage now on Dao Be is only flotsam and jetsam, washed up and caught in the jagged volcanic shoreline from the wider ocean, particularly polystyrene boxes and fishing equipment. What’s been done on Dao Be Island, in a short space of time, is very encouraging, and a good example for other such areas in Vietnam, particularly islands.

Recycled plastic bottle wall, Dao Be Island, Ly Son, VietnamDao Be Island’s trash problem is now under control thanks to recycling, such as this plastic bottle wall

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Temples, Pagodas & Architecture:

Ly Son has dozens of temples, pagodas, shrines and other places of worship. Below I’ve listed only a few. Much of the architecture on the island is now quite new (many old buildings having been knocked down within the last few years), but in the back streets there are still some intriguing older structures:

Temples on Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamAs is the case with most islands in Vietnam, Ly Son has dozens of colourful temples, shrines & places of worship


Quan Am Statue, Phat Mau Temple & Cemetery [MAP]: Near the northwestern tip of Ly Son Island, a colossal statue stands at the foot of impressive, stratified cliffs. Depicting Quan Am – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – the statue is pure white and stands around 50m tall. The goddess presides over a tremendous ocean vista. At her feet are the graves of islanders and plots of sandy land reserved for Ly Son’s special crop: garlic. Climb the stairs behind the statue to reach Gieng Tien Mountain. On the road to the statue, behind the decorative facade of Phat Mau Temple, are hundreds of bright tombs scattered over the lower slopes of Mount Gieng Tien. It’s an interesting sight, especially seen from afar on the new seawall road.

Colossal statue of Quan Am, Ly Son Island, VietnamQuan Am statue rises above a cemetery on the slopes of Gieng Tien Crater, presiding over the open sea

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Ly Son Cemetery [MAP]: Sprawling beneath the crater of Nui Hon Soi Mountain, this cemetery is the largest on the island. The focal point, accessed by many wide steps, doubles as a good viewing platform, with vistas over thousands of tombs and much of the island’s garlic fields. Unfortunately, the cemetery also overlooks Ly Son’s trash facility, which billows bad-smelling smoke into the air (from incinerating trash) and tends to blow over to the tombs.

Ly Son Island Cemetery, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLy Son Cemetery covers the slopes of Nui Hon Soi Crater, with hundreds of scattered, decorative tombs

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Chua Hang Cave Temple [MAP]: A spectacular location for a very atmospheric shrine, Chua Hang is at one of the most northerly points on the island. It’s a popular attraction, so be prepared for light crowds, a few trinket stalls and the like. Steps lead around a rocky cape to a gorgeous cove of white sand, book-ended by stratified cliffs. The colours are glorious, and in the middle of the beach a serene sculpture of Goddess Quan Am pokes up from frangipani trees, looking out to sea. But the real shrine is behind the goddess, under the cliffs. A short stairway leads down beneath the cliff face and opens into a wide but low cave. Filled with incense, this cave has been used for many centuries for worship, dating back to Cham times. Several shrines, tombs, and altars haunt the eaves of the cave. Light some incense and watch the smoked curl around the cave in the shafts of sunlight from outside. You must remove your shoes before walking on the cave floor.

Chua Hang temple, Ly Son Island, VietnamThis serene statue of the Goddess of Mercy stands outside the entrance to Chua Hang cave temple


Chua Hang cave temple, Ly Son Island, VietnamInside the cave, several altars, tombs & temples emerge from the clouds of drifting incense & sea vapour

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Old Temples & Church [MAP]: On a shady, quiet stretch of coast between Thon Tay and Thon Dong villages, this collection of temples, shrines and old communal village hall is very atmospheric. There’s a church just behind, too.

Old temple, Ly Son Island, VietnamThis collection of old temples & communal houses on the south coast is very attractive & atmospheric

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Whale Temple [MAP]: Noticeably small for a whale temple, this colourful, squat temple houses the bones of many sea mammals, including whales and dolphins. But, unlike whale temples elsewhere in the country, the bones here are dumped in a corner. I imagine they’ll be assembled into a coherent skeleton sometime soon.

Whale temple, Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLy Son’s whale temple is quite small with a collection of whale & dolphin bones piled in a corner

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Villages & Communes:

Ly Son Island is divided into two ‘communes’, which are probably better to think of as ‘districts’. These are: An Vĩnh (the western half of the island) and An Hải (the eastern half). A little confusingly, both An Vĩnh and An Hải communes are further divided into two identically named villages: Thôn Tây (western village) and Thôn Đông (eastern village). Thus, there’s a Thôn Tây and a Thôn Đông village in both An Vinh and An Hai communes:

Fishing village, Ly Son Island, VietnamLy Son Island is divided into two communes (like districts), each of which consists of two villages


An Vinh Commune: The main port, where the fast boats from the mainland dock, is in An Vinh’s Thon Tay village. This is the commercial and tourist centre of Ly Son Island. The small streets are tightly packed with hotels, cafes, seafood restaurants, street food vendors, and shops. As such, Thon Tay is the most bustling of Ly Son’s villages. Although it’s nice enough on the seafront or on the back streets, Thon Tay lacks charm, and there’s quite a lot of touting for hotels and sightseeing. However, the village makes up for it with conveniences and the typical life and energy of Vietnamese urban areas. Separated from Thon Tay by a pleasant stretch of coast road, An Vinh’s Thon Dong village is generally quieter and less touristy than Thon Tay. This is where you’ll find Ly Son’s main market (chợ Lý Sơn). However, things look set to change with the construction of a large new port, in front of the Muong Thanh Hotel, that’s due to open sometime this year.

The port at Thong Tay village, An Vinh Commune, Ly Son IslandThong Tay village in An Vinh Commune is Ly Son’s main port for fast boats to/from the mainland


An old structure in Thon Dong village, An Vinh commune, Ly Son IslandA beautiful, highly decorative old home in Thong Dong village, An Vinh Commune

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An Hai Commune: An Hai’s Thon Tay village is essentially just a continuation of An Vinh’s Thon Dong village, sprawling along the coast. However, An Hai’s Thon Dong village, in the southeastern corner of Ly Son Island, has a distinctive character all its own. Spreading along a crescent bay and clustering beneath the crater of Thoi Loi Mountain, Thong Dong is quiet and attractive, although it lacks variety when it comes to dining and accommodation options. The fishing port at Thong Dong is currently being shored up with sea walls protecting it from the high seas. At the time of writing, the marina and harbourfront were a bit of a mess because of the building work, but it won’t be long before it’s finished, after which it will be a nice place to be. The fishing fleet – surprisingly small by Vietnamese standards – moors in the marina, along with a couple of rusting tugs. Take the time to get lost in the back-streets of Thong Dong, where diminutive homes with little courtyards with garlic and shallots drying in the sun, green hedges and bougainvillea are very charming indeed.

Thong Dong village, An Hai commune, Ly Son Island, VietnamA view of Thong Dong village in An Hai Commune, the eastern-most settlement on Ly Son Island


Old house, An Hai Commune, Thon Dong Village, Ly Son IslandAn old home on the charming, quiet, narrow back-streets of Thong Dong village, An Hai Commune

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Accommodation:

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: If you use any of the relevant links below to book your accommodation, I make a small commission (at no extra cost to you). All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

Because many travellers will need to spend a night on the mainland, near Sa Ky Port, before taking the boat across to Ly Son Island, I’ve included accommodation options in nearby Quang Ngai, My Khe Beach and Sa Ky Port, as well as hotels and guest houses on the island itself:

Muong Thanh Hotel, Ly Son Island, VietnamThere’s plenty of accommodation on Ly Son Island & the mainland near Sa Ky Port & Quang Ngai city


Quang Ngai, My Khe & Sa Ky Hotels: If you want or need to stay a night on the mainland before catching the ferry to Ly Son Island, there are several different areas to stay. Quang Ngai is the nearest city, and has plenty of accommodation options; My Khe is the nearest beach, where there are a couple of OK places to stay; and Sa Ky Port has a few simple guest houses that are very convenient if your boat leaves early the next morning. See below for details:

Sao Mai Motel, Sa Ky Port, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamIf you need to spend a night near the port, there are hotels in Quang Ngai, My Khe beach & Sa Ky Port


Quang Ngai Hotels: The provincial capital, Quang Ngai city is 20km east of Sa Ky Port. It’s the transport hub for the region, so many travellers might find themselves staying here for a night on the way to or from Ly Son Island. Quang Ngai is quite small for a provincial capital, but it’s pleasantly situated on the banks of the Tra Khuc River with the Truong Son Mountains looming behind, and there are plenty of comfortable places to stay. Excellent budgets digs, including dorms, can be found at Min’s House [BOOK HERE]; good value private rooms and a quiet location are at the attractive Hana Riverside Villa [BOOK HERE]; the centrally located King Hotel [BOOK HERE] is good for flashpackers; and finally, Thien An Riverside [BOOK HERE] and My Tra Riverside [BOOK HERE] hotels are both good options for mid-range lodgings with wonderful river views. [For more accommodation options in and around Quang Ngai take a look at this list on Agoda.com]

Sunset over the Tra Khuc River, Quang Ngai, VietnamQuang Ngai, a small, seldom visited but pleasantly situated city, has plenty of accommodation options

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My Khe Beach Hotels: My Khe Beach is just a 10-minute drive south of Sa Ky Port, and 15km east of Quang Ngai city. A lovely stretch of sand lined with casuarina trees, the surf at My Khe is shallow and good for swimming. The beach has been marked for tourism for years (at least a decade, since I first visited), but still nothing has really happened. A string of good, informal seafood restaurants cluster around the central section, as do a couple of sad looking hotels. My Khe Hotel ($20-$30) looks pretty soulless from the outside, but the rooms are actually good value, considering their size and location near the beach [BOOK HERE]. Otherwise, the mini-hotels along the main road are cheaper options, such as Dong Tien (tel: 0962 630 545; 200,000vnd) and Anh Tuong [BOOK HERE] guest houses.

My Khe beach, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamMy Khe, just a 10-minute ride south of Sa Ky Port, is a beautiful stretch of sandy beach & blue surf


Anh Tuong Hotel, My Khe Beach, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamThere are a couple hotels along the beach, but the guest houses on the road behind are better

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Sa Ky Port Hotels: Sprawling along the banks at the confluence of two rivers before they flow into the sea, Sa Ky is a scruffy port and village. This is where all the boats to Ly Son Island depart from, so you may find it convenient to stay here for a night, particularly if your boat leaves early in the morning. A couple of decent guest houses line the bankside road leading to Sa Ky boat terminal. Sao Mai Motel (tel: 038 581 9177: 150,000-250,000vnd) has clean, simple, perfectly acceptable rooms for a night, some with views over the river and rice fields behind. Dai Thanh Motel [BOOK HERE], a little further up the road, is another option of similar quality. Both are just a few minutes’ walk from the boat terminal, and both can arrange tickets (see Getting to Ly Son Island for details).

Sao Mai Motel, Sa Ky Port, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamSa Ky Port has some decent guest houses, which are very convenient it you’re catching an early boat

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Ly Son Island Hotels:

Almost all of the current accommodation options on Ly Son Island are in the budget price bracket. There are dozens of guest houses and mini-hotels on the island, a couple of backpacker-style hostels, and one or two mid-range hotels, too. Accommodation is spread around the island, but the greatest concentration is in Thôn Tây village, around the port in An Vinh commune, in the west of the island. Tiny Dao Be Island also has a couple of homestay-style hostels. During the week, it shouldn’t be necessary to book in advance, but on weekends and public holidays, it’s essential. Click an area below to read my recommendations [For a full list of accommodation on Ly Son check this list on Agoda.com]:

Ly Son Bungalow Hostel, Dao Be Island, VietnamOf the dozens of hotels & guest houses on Ly Son Island, the vast majority are in the budget price-range


West Coast Hotels [MAP]: Dozens of guest houses and mini-hotels cluster around the port area on the west coast. This part of the island is known as Thôn Tây, in An Vĩnh Commune. The seafront and the backstreets opposite the harbour are crammed with accommodation. It can feel a bit touristy during high season, but get a sea-view room at one of the hotels on the front and you’ll be happy for a night or two, plus it’s very convenient for boats to Dao Be Island and back to the mainland. There are lots to choose from: the back streets are usually cheaper than the front, but the general price-range is from 200,000-500,000vnd a night depending on the amount of guests/beds. Here are some I liked:

• Binh Yen Motel [MAP]; $10-$20: [BOOK HERE] This excellent mini-hotel is right on the embankment road, just on your left as you disembark the ferry from the mainland. Binh Yen Motel is good value for money, with very clean rooms, hot showers, air-con, windows (some with little balconies looking over the harbour), comfy beds and fresh linen. Family-run, relaxed but well-organized, Binh Yen is a solid choice if you’re staying in the port area. Staff can also arrange all number of island excursions and activities, including the boat to Dao Be Island.

Binh Yen Motel, Ly Son Island, VietnamBinh Yen Motel is a solid choice, with good rooms, sea views and reasonable prices

• Dai Duong Hotel [MAP]; 300,000-500,000vnd | tel: 0977 205 818: Right next door to Binh Yen, this hotel is a good option if the former is full. Good, clean rooms, some with sea-views, and a terrace cafe overlooking the port make Dai Duong a comfortable mini-hotel. On the corner as you exit the port, Ly Thien Hotel is also a good budget option in a central location.

• Hiep Si Hotel [MAP]; $15-$20: [BOOK HERE] Hidden down a narrow back street behind the port, and not far from An Vinh Market, Hiep Si Hotel has typically clean, bright, and inexpensive rooms is a quiet location.

Hiep Si Hotel, Ly Son Island, VietnamHiep Si is a good, cheap hotel in a quieter location on a back street near An Vinh Market

• Thanh Tran Guest House [MAP]; $10-$15: [BOOK HERE] A couple of minutes north of the port area, Thanh Tran is a classic little townhouse mini-hotel. Decent rooms with windows and easy access to the embankment promenade are very cheap, especially if sharing between 2-4 people.

• Central Ly Son Hotel [MAP]; $40-$50: [BOOK HERE] Despite its prime location – right opposite the port – and mid-range pretensions, Central Ly Son Hotel is ludicrously overpriced for the standard of accommodation available. Having said that, it’s a bit plusher and smarter than the mini-hotels, the rooms are spacious, and the views are good.

• Khai Hoan Hotel [MAP]; 250,000-500,000 tel: 0906 496 860: A few minutes out of town, Khai Hoan is a big new hotel in the back streets. It’s a pleasant, quiet, leafy area, and the hotel has good rooms with everything you need and expect from a budget Vietnamese accommodation of this kind.

Mini-hotel, Ly Son Island, VietnamMost mini-hotels & guest houses on Ly Son offer good value for money: clean, comfortable but sparse

• Quynh Anh Guest House [MAP]; 200,000-400,000 tel: 01699 353 868: A kilometre or two east of the port, Quynh Anh is a typical Vietnamese guest house. The area is more local than the port – not so touristy – and it’s near Ly Son Market, a block back from the seafront. Rooms are clean, bright and fine.

• Homestays [MAP]; $5-$10: There are quite a few homestays in the narrow streets just north of the port. You’ll see signs for some of these around town, and some are also marked on Google Maps. However, I found it a bit difficult to work out how to get a room. My feeling is that they mostly cater to young Vietnamese backpackers, but I’m sure it’s possible for foreign travellers to stay, too. Ask around.

Homestays on Ly Son Island, VietnamSome homestays, especially in the narrow lanes north of the port, are worth checking out

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South Coast Hotels [MAP]: The largest settlement on the south coast is Thôn Tây in An Hải Commune (not to be confused with Thôn Tây in An Vĩnh Commune, on the west coast of the island: see above). A fairly modest village at the moment, this area looks set to become the island’s major town, thanks to the new port which is currently under construction here. Therefore, expect some big changes in the next year or two. For now, there’s a spattering of decent mini-hotels and the island’s smartest accommodation to date:

• Ba Thanh Guest House [MAP]; 200,000-450,000vnd | tel: 0165 750 2151: Just a little east of the main village, Ba Thanh Guest House has a pleasant location right on the seafront promenade. The guest house is much bigger than it first appears, and the rooms are clean, bright and comfortable for the price. The area is quiet and you can swim in the sea off the rocks by the embankment road.

Ba Thanh Guest House, Ly Son Island, VietnamBa Thanh Guest House has a good, quiet location on the seafront road & comfortable rooms

• Quang Vinh Guest House [MAP]; 250,000-450,000 | tel: 01679 064 776: On the main road as it passes through town, Quang Vinh Guest House is a well-kept place with good-sized rooms; the ones at the back are quietest and you can even see the sea from some of them.

• Mini-Hotels [MAP]; $10-$20: A block inland from the embankment road, several mini-hotels are clustered together. Anh Duong and Tuong Vy are both decent value for money with simple, clean, bright rooms.

• Muong Thanh Holiday Hotel [MAP]; $45-$65: [BOOK HERE] The island’s only upscale accommodation, Muong Thanh is part of a large Vietnamese hotel chain. The rooms are spacious, comfy and bright, with big windows and sea-views (but no balconies), and there’s a swimming pool out front. When rates are low(-ish) it’s decent value, but as a building it’s hardly sympathetic to its surroundings. The hotel has very little style or character, but it’ll do if you don’t like guest houses or are in need of some facilities, like a pool and gym.

Muong Thanh Holiday Hotel, Ly Son Island, VietnamMuong Thanh is a conspicuous lump of concrete: the fanciest hotel on the island, but rather soulless

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East Coast Hotels [MAP]: The main settlement on the east coast is Thôn Đông, in An Hải Commune. A quiet, likable little place, Thôn Đông fronts a fishing harbour, and is backed by the dramatic cliffs of the Thoi Loi volcanic crater. A handful of good guest houses dot the village, most of them cluster near the harbourfront, but others are tucked away in the narrow, leafy back-streets. However, the most atmospheric accommodation on the entire island can be found at Hang Cau, in a giant cavern next to the ocean, where camping is available. See below for details:

• Phuoc Loc Guest House [MAP]; $10: [BOOK HERE] A family-run guest house in a quiet setting, Phuoc Loc has a homey ambience, good, simple rooms, some greenery, and balconies.

Phuoc Loc Guest House, Ly Son Island, VietnamPhuoc Loc is a nice family-run guest house in the quiet surrounds of Thon Dong, An Hai commune

• Hoa Bien Hotel [MAP]; 200,000-300,000vnd | Tel: 098 386 75 22: Just across from Phuoc Loc, Hoa Bien is a good mini-hotel. Rooms are nice, the price is cheap, and there’s easy access to the fishing harbour. Minh Thanh Guest House (tel: 097 260 5035) is a bit further up the road and also has decent rooms.

• Song Binh Motel [MAP]; 200,000-350,000vnd | Tel: 098 992 89 94: This surprisingly large hotel sits incongruously in a network of charming, narrow back-streets, lined with attractive little homes.

• Hang Cau Cave Camping & Huts: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0988 880 8186: In a glorious position on the white coral beach beneath the extraordinary cliffs of Thoi Loi crater, there are two accommodation options. Rooms in a cramped A-frame bungalow sleep up to 5 people: 100,000vnd per person. But the real attraction is camping on the beach under the cliff. Rented tents with blankets and pillows sleep up to four people: 130,000vnd per person; or you can pitch your own tent for just 50,000vnd. It really is a dramatic location for camping. However, foreigners aren’t really allowed to stay here (yawn), because it’s kind of a sea border, and kind of sensitive. But with a little perseverance, patience, Vietnamese language, and charm you might just be able to swing it. But don’t count on it. Also note that during busy times the camp site can get a bit rowdy, beer-soaked, and robbed of peace by karaoke machines.

Hang Cau Cliffs Camping, Ly Son Island, VietnamCamping under the cliffs at Hang Cau is spectacular, however, foreigners aren’t really allowed to camp


Hang Cau Cliffs Camping, Ly Son Island, VietnamTents are arranged on the beach beneath the Hang Cau cliffs: it’s a great location for a campsite

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Dao Be Island: Homestays & Camping [MAP]: A 10-minute boat ride north of Ly Son, Dao Be Island is a gem (details here). If you have time, you really should spend a night on this tiny islet: it’s magical. However, try to overnight on a weekday (not a weekend), when it should be almost deserted at night. All the places listed below have shared bathrooms and showers, and food and drink is available, but limited. There are only a handful of simple but charming places to choose from: perfect for budget travellers:

• Gio Bien Homestay & Camping: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0888 920 107: On the south coast, Gio Bien Homestay & Camping is the best place to stay on Dao Be Island. An attractive setup of wooden huts, hammocks, and tents right next to the best beach on the island, Gio Bien is an excellent and friendly place to be. There’s limited capacity, so grab a space here as soon as you get off the boat from Ly Son Island. At Gio Bien you can stay in the attractive wooden beach hut on a mattress on the floor with a fan for 100,000vnd per person. The same goes with the room in the concrete house behind. Both rooms sleep up to 4 people so, unless you’re in a group, you may be sharing the floor with someone else. Tents are available to rent and can be pitched right on the beach or on the bank under the trees (for shelter) for 130,000vnd. Each tent sleeps up to three people. It’s a gorgeous location and dirt-cheap. Even better, bring your own tent and pitch it here for free.

Gio Bien Homestay & Camping, Dao Be Island, Ly Son, VietnamGio Bien Homestay & Camping is a superb little budget place to stay on an excellent stretch of beach

• Alabin Homestay: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0165 745 2175: In the east of the island, Alabin has several rooms to choose from, all of which are fan-cooled and quite hot. A mixture of diminutive wooden huts and concrete villas, the rooms are tasteful, cute, and comfortable, especially considering the price. Alabin isn’t on the beach, but it’s only a 30-second walk to the seafront.

Alabin Homestay, Dao Be Island, Ly Son, VietnamAlabin Homestay has a selection of small, cutesy but tasteful rooms: they’re a bit hot, but good value

• Ly Son Bungalow Hostel: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0981 749 535: With only two, fan-cooled rooms sleeping up to 10 people, Ly Son Bungalow Hostel can get quite crowded. But it’s cheap, bright, cheerful, and social. The pastel tones, wall murals and relaxed vibe are all indications that this is a classic, tasteful, Instagrammable, young Vietnamese hangout. The rocky beach is just a stroll away.

Other Homestays [MAP]: In the hamlet by the boat pier, a few, simple homestays operate. Consisting of fan-cooled rooms, some with en-suite bathrooms, these homestays are OK, and you get to be part of the village for a night.

Ly Son Bungalow Hostel, Dao Be Island, VietnamLy Son Bungalow has a bright, colourful, young & social vibe: a classic 21st century Vietnamese hostel

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Food & Drink:

Below I’ve written some recommendations of where to eat and drink on Ly Son Island and on the mainland, in Quang Ngai, Sa Ky and My Khe, where most travellers will need to pass through on their way to catch the ferry to the island:

Bún bó beef noodle soup, Ly Son Island, VietnamLy Son is famous for its seafood & garlic, but there’s also street food available on the island & mainland


Mainland Food & Drink: Quang Ngai | Sa Ky Port | My Khe Beach [MAP]: All these locations have decent street food options – Central Vietnam has a lot to offer the travelling foodie. Quang Ngai is famous for cơm gà (chicken rice). You’ll see signs for it all over the region, but Nhung 2 is a good place to start: it’s one the city’s ‘famous’ restaurants. There are lots of decent coffee shops in Quang Ngai, too, especially along Phan Dinh Phung and Nguyen Nghiem streets [MAP], which are also good for street food. The waterside promenade on the banks of the Tra Khuc River is packed in the evenings with seafood and beer joints. In Sa Ky Port, the little, scruffy village is brightened by street food vendors in the mornings and evenings. On My Khe Beach, the central sections offers dozens of tightly packed quán hải sản – seafood restaurants overlooking the surf.

Com Ga (chicken rice) at Nhung 2, Quang Ngai, VietnamQuang Ngai Province is known for cơm gà (chicken rice), which can be found all across the province

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Ly Son Island Food: It’s no surprise that seafood and garlic are the main features in Ly Son’s local cuisine, which is no bad thing. But some street food and a surprising amount of fruit are also available. When visiting Ly Son, it’s a good idea to know the Vietnamese for seafood (hải sản) and garlic (tỏi). Both are island specialities and both are available in many forms at reasonable prices across the island – garlic honey, garlic liquor (yep!), giant lobsters, sea urchins, and rock crabs. Other dishes include central Vietnamese staples, such as bánh xèo (sizzling, rice flour pancakes), bánh ít (savoury dumplings made from glutinous sticky rice), and bún bò Huế (Hue-style spicy beef noodle soup). The largest concentration of restaurants and food stalls is in Thôn Tây village in An Vĩnh commune, in the west of the island, near the port. See below for specific recommendations:

Seafood on Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLy Son Island has plenty of places to eat & drink, including fresh seafood, street food, and some cafes


Street Food: Thôn Tây village, on the west coast, is the centre for street food vendors on the island, particularly on the back-streets (one block from the seafront) and along the boat pier where there’s a night food market. However, the variety isn’t anything like what you get in Vietnamese towns on the mainland. Expect to find a few bánh xèo (savoury crepes with fresh herbs), noodle joints, and rice eateries. I’ve marked several such places that I enjoyed on my map (see the knife and fork icons), but there are many more besides. Banh Xeo Cay Bang is a popular place with locals in the evening, where dozens of little savoury pancakes sizzle together over a wood-fired stove. And Quan Phuong Chau is a nice, simple, rice eatery for a quick, cheap lunch. Over on the south coast, another good line of food vendors is along the road just before Muong Thanh Hotel. Also nearby, Quan Tuyet Vy has lots of good noodle dishes: try the mì quảng – a much loved central dish with thick yellow noodles. Breakfast options include the ubiquitous bánh mì (filled baguettes) and lots of bún (rice noodles) soup stalls. Some are pretty ordinary but some are exceptionally good, like Van Phi, where the freshness and lightness of the lemongrass, garlic, herbs and vegetables are superb. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, because this is central Vietnam, one of the best regions for food in the country. You’ll see the famous Ly Son garlic for sale by the roadside all over the island. It’s cheap and very good quality. For all things garlic, head to Dori Toi Den Garlic Shop.

Mì quảng noodles, Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamThere’s some decent street food on Ly Son Island: this is mì quảng noodles at Quan Tuyet Vi


Bánh xèo pancakes, Ly Son Islands, VietnamBanh Xeo Cay Bang is a popular place among locals for these tasty little sizzling savoury pancakes


Rice lunch, Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamQuan Phuong Chau is a classic, simple, little rice eatery offering good, fresh, cheap lunches

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Seafood: Thôn Tây, in the west of the island near the port, has several very good seafood restaurants geared towards Vietnamese visitors from the mainland. The food is fresh, reasonably priced, and delicious. The day’s catch is displayed out front of the restaurants, including lobster, crab, shellfish, and myriad types of fish and crustaceans. At night, more informal seafood stalls line up along the boat pier. There are other clusters of seafood restaurants around the island, especially along the embankment road on the south coast. Two other good spots, away from the villages, are Hon Ngoc floating restaurant, a few minutes north of the port and very atmospheric at night, and Son Thuy Restaurant, way in the north of the island, beautiful at sunset overlooking the ocean.

Seafood on Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province, VietnamLy Son’s seafood is famous for freshness & variety: check out the seafood stalls & restaurants in Thon Tay


Famous Ly Son garlic & shallots, Quang Ngai, VietnamGarlic & shallots blanket Ly Son Island & they can be bought on the roadside anywhere

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Ly Son Island Drinks: In the evenings, sinh tố (smoothie stalls) set up along the road leading down to the port. Almost every restaurant, eatery, or local shop sells cold, local beer: the regional favourite is Dung Quat, named after the oil refinery over on the mainland, where it’s brewed. Cafes are scattered here and there, but the coffee is only OK quality. However, a street-side coffee vendor, named Thanh Tai, at an intersection on the south coast, operates her very own espresso machine. She’ll click the buttons and pull the leavers to brew you up a fresh cup of real coffee for just 10,000vnd. There’s another roadside coffee machine opposite Muong Thanh Hotel, at Xanh Cafe, also 10,000vnd. Great value, and very enterprising. If you’re curious to try the island brew – rượu tỏi (garlic liquor) – you can find it at most restaurants or buy a bottle at Dori Toi Den Garlic Shop.

Xanh Cafe with espresso machine, Ly Son Island, VietnamA couple of enterprising locals have set up street stalls with espresso machines for good coffee

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Getting There & Around:

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: If you use the links & search boxes below to book your transportation to Ly Son Island through Baolau.com, I make a small commission. All my earnings go straight back into this website. Thank you.

Ly Son Island can only be reached by boat from Sa Ky, a small, scruffy port on the coast of Quang Ngai, a central province roughly 150km south of Danang. Fast boats between Sa Ky Port and Ly Son Island sail multiple times daily, and journey time is only 30-45 minutes. The nearest transport hub to Sa Ky Port is Quang Ngai City, which has good rail and road connections to most major cities. The nearest airport is Chu Lai, 40km north of Sa Ky, which has daily flights to Hanoi and Saigon. Once on Ly Son, the island is best navigated by hired motorbike, but there are also taxis, electric cars, and boat tours to Dao Be Island. See