Vietnam Coracle http://vietnamcoracle.com Independent Travel Guides to Vietnam Thu, 14 Dec 2017 07:52:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 Hải Đăng Vegetarian Restaurant, Saigon http://vietnamcoracle.com/hai-dang-vegetarian-restaurant-saigon/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/hai-dang-vegetarian-restaurant-saigon/#respond Fri, 01 Dec 2017 09:38:36 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23896 Continue reading ]]> First published December 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

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I’m lucky enough to live in an area of Saigon where there are a handful of good vegetarian eateries (cơm chay in Vietnamese). But Hải Đăng is my favourite. The main reason for this is the sheer variety of vegetable dishes on offer (not just tofu and ‘fake meat’) and, providing you arrive at the right time of day, the freshness of the food. Since I moved to within a couple of minutes’ walk of Hải Đăng vegetarian restaurant, about three years ago, it has changed my daily diet for the better. Each time I enter its simple, unassuming facade (always a good sign in Vietnam) I’m filled with excitement at the colours and crispness of the dishes, and gratitude for the existence of this little, informal treasure trove of healthy, vegetarian fare so close to my home.

Hai Dang Vegetarian Restaurant, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamHải Đăng vegetarian restaurant has a great range of vegetable dishes, not just tofu & ‘fake meat’

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REVIEW: HẢI ĐĂNG VEGETARIAN EATERY


Address: 131 D1 Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]

Price: 20,000-40,000vnd per meal  | Open: 6.30am-2pm | 4pm-8.30pm (closed two Sundays a month)


MAP:


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Located on the increasingly clogged (and imaginatively named) D1 Street, Hải Đăng vegetarian restaurant is in Binh Thanh District, not far from one of the city’s more recent monoliths, Pearl Plaza. I first started visiting at lunchtimes, after swimming in the nearby pool at Van Thanh Park. Its scruffy exterior belies the richness and colour of the food that awaits you inside. If possible, try to get here between 10am and 12noon, when the food is at its freshest and most colourful. Hải Đăng can get fairly busy during the day, particularly when the lunchtime rush is in full swing. Indeed, the place gets positively swamped on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month, when many Vietnamese partake in a vegetarian diet (a custom which has its routes in Buddhism). However, these are also the days when the spread of dishes is especially large and various.

Hai Dang Vegetarian Restaurant, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamFrom the exterior it’s an unassuming place, just like many great Saigon eateries

As I mentioned in the introduction, one of the most appealing aspects of Hải Đăng is that there are so many vegetable dishes on offer. Many Vietnamese vegetarian eateries specialize in ‘fake meat’. The assumption is that diners would rather be eating meat but are obliged to eat vegetarian food for religious or dietary reasons. Therefore, many vegetarian dishes are made to look and taste as much like meat as possible. Mostly this involves a lot of meat-shaped, meat-textured tofu – which ends up looking like a gallery of tofu sculptures. These are usually pretty tasty, but it’s so sad not to see any vegetables in a vegetarian restaurant. At Hải Đăng, however, there are only a few tofu-sculpture dishes; the vast majority are bright, shiny and crisp vegetables.

Hai Dang Vegetarian Restaurant, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamColour, freshness & choice are what make Hải Đăng stand out from other local vegetarian eateries

At my last visit, I counted 31 different dishes. Take a look at the photo below. This only represents about a third of the dishes on display that day (I couldn’t fit all of them in one photo). Clockwise from top left: shredded white cabbage and carrot, sliced chayote (a kind of green squash-cum-gourd), spicy baby eggplant, fried tofu and lemongrass, sauteed ‘stringy’ mushrooms (I think they might be enokitake mushrooms), sauteed morning glory with garlic, tofu stew with tomato and onions, erm, god knows what the next one is (someone help me, please), stewed aubergine with chilli, beansprouts and chives, banana flower with peanuts (this is amazing), and bitter gourd with egg. Impressive. There are even more options on the menu. These includes vegetarian versions of classic Vietnamese soups, such as mì quảng, bún bò and hủ tiéu.

Hai Dang Vegetarian Restaurant, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamVariety: there can be up to 30 different dishes available each day, most of which are fresh vegetables

Ordering is easy. It’s school dinners-style: point at a dish and it gets put on your plate over rice. The cost is rarely more than 20,000-40,000vnd per person (that’s about $1-$2). Pretty darn good value. Personally, I’ve got into the habit of ordering a bunch of different vegetable dishes without rice and then getting it to take away. Back home (just around the corner), I poach a couple of eggs and serve them on top of the vegetables. This has become my routine for recovery after two hours of tennis in the midday heat. It works a treat.

Hai Dang Vegetarian Restaurant, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThe vegetables are usually served over rice, but I often get them without and then poach an egg on top

Hải Đăng isn’t really a ‘restaurant’, it’s a quán, which is essentially a more informal, less fussy, less-money-spent-on-decor kind of place. I quite like the term ‘eatery’ as a general translation of quán. Often, quán can be a little on the filthy side: even though the food might be fantastic, the furnishings and cleanliness may leave something to be desired, especially in the eyes of many foreign visitors. But Hải Đăng scores pretty high for a quán. It’s got a little, clean, air-conditioned dining room, separated from the ‘serving room’ by a glass partition; wooden tables and chairs laid out on a tiled floor; and the walls are decorated with portraits of Buddha and dozens of famous vegetarian icons throughout history (although I doubt the veracity of some of them). Opening times are a bit weird and I’ve often been disappointed to find the place closed. Generally speaking, it’s open daily from 6.30am-2pm and 4pm-8.30pm; or all day on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month (Google that for the solar equivalent); and it’s closed all day for two Sundays every month.

Hai Dang Vegetarian Restaurant, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamMore an ‘eatery’ than a restaurant, Hải Đăng is adorned with portraits of Buddha & other veggie ‘celebs’

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


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Tomb Rider: Hue to Dong Hoi on Back-Roads http://vietnamcoracle.com/tomb-rider-hue-to-dong-hoi-on-back-roads/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/tomb-rider-hue-to-dong-hoi-on-back-roads/#comments Fri, 24 Nov 2017 11:44:46 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23515 Continue reading ]]> First published November 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Thousands of elaborately decorated traditional Vietnamese tombs are scattered over the landscape along the central coast. Coastal back-roads, covering almost 200km of completely empty beach, lead from the old imperial capital of Hue to the up-and-coming coastal city of Dong Hoi, gateway to the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The coastal region between these two cities is rarely explored by foreign visitors: most people, if they stop here at all, head to war-related sites around the former DMZ, between the coast and the mountains. This has left a barely believable stretch of unbroken beach almost entirely unvisited. While Danang, Nha Trang and other darlings of Vietnam’s booming beach scene become increasingly touristed and built-up, this strip of central coastline remains essentially untouched. Characterized by calm blue sea and long arcs of bright sand where fishermen pull up their svelte-looking wood-and-weave fishing canoes, this road trip takes you on paved and dirt back-roads along an incredible coastline strewn with royal-style tombs.

Tomb Rider: Hue to Dong Hoi on back roads, VietnamThe coast between Hue & Dong Hoi is beautiful, rarely visited & scattered with thousands of tombs

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GUIDE: TOMB RIDER: HUE TO DONG HOI


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 185km one-way | 375km round-trip
  • Duration: 1-2 days
  • Route: one-way or round-trip from Hue to Dong Hoi on coastal back-roads [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: good minor highways, paved back-roads, dirt road sections
  • Scenery: long stretches of empty sand beach, extensive ‘tomb-scapes’, fishing villages


ABOUT THIS ROUTE:

There are several ways to ride this route: as a one-way day/night road trip between Hue and Dong Hoi (185km), or as a loop (375km) by returning on the faster inland roads (see the red line on my map), or as part of the Beach Bum route between Saigon and Hanoi, or as a much larger loop by combining it with the spectacular Western Ho Chi Minh Road for the return leg via Phong Nha, Khe Sanh, and A Luoi. Time of year is important: visit during the spring and summer months (April-September) when the weather is hot and dry (most of the time) and the sea is calm and velvety. During the autumn and winter months (October-March), this region can get surprisingly cold, grey and grim, and winds churn the sea into a Hokusai-esque scene of white froth and towering waves. Also, the wet weather during these months can turn the sections of dirt road into slow-going muddy tracks. There are a few accommodation options on the Tomb Rider route, which I’ve included in the guide below, or if you have a tent, camping is good thanks to miles of isolated sandy beach and coastal casuarina forest.


ROUTE MAP:

Hue to Dong Hoi on back-roads | 185km one-way (375km round-trip)


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Leave the former imperial capital of Hue in the early morning. Hue is a relatively languid city by Vietnamese standards, but it can still get busy and clogged in the morning rush hour. Leaving early will avoid a chaotic start to this road trip. What’s more, the city looks its best in the fresh morning light: illuminating the trees along the Perfume River and the old stone walls of the royal ramparts and palaces and gateways. Hue is still one of the more aesthetically pleasing of Vietnam’s urban centres.

Road through an old imperial archway, Hue, VietnamLeave Hue early in the morning and find the streets empty and the city beautiful

Heading due north of the city along the Pho Loi River, the urbanity morphs quickly into semi-rural, riverside scenes. Little allotments and vegetable gardens grow by bodies of water – canals, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, lagoons: the province of Thua Thien Hue is a watery world. In good weather, these scenes are warm and attractive: a benevolent countryside, bountiful and docile. But in the winter months, when typhoons sweep in from the East Sea and lash the low, flat, defenseless coastline, it feels vulnerable, fragile, and cold.

Along the Pho Loi River, Hue, VietnamAlong the Pho Loi River, urbanity quickly turns to rural life just 10 minutes out of Hue

Before reaching Thuan An, road QL49B veers northwest, crossing the Perfume River first and then the Tam Giang Lagoon on new, blade-like bridges. Tombs start to appear by the roadside and waterways. From monochromatic sarcophagi nestled in wet rice paddies, to colourfully-painted monoliths emblazoned with dragons and serpents, shooting up from the wetlands like an exotic crop.

Tombs by the roadside near Hue, VietnamAs the road veers northwest, colourfully-painted tombs start to decorate the roadsides and fields

Once on the peninsular, the road ploughs straight and true, following the shores of the lagoon. Road conditions are excellent, traffic is light, and the vast, flat landscape with billowing clouds hanging above it, casting great blue shadows over the fields, dykes and watering holes, is reminiscent of 17th century Dutch landscape painting. Buffalo and cows populate the plains, while school children, on their way to class dressed in white and blue uniform, flood the sandy pathways and country lanes. From here all the way to Dong Hoi, you’re unlikely to see any other foreign travellers, save for a handful of road-trippers and tour groups visiting the Vinh Moc Tunnels.

Cows on the coastal back-roads near Hue, VietnamThe coastal roads northwest of Hue are quiet, peaceful & rural: there are more cattle than cars

Bear right off QL49B towards the ocean. Here a narrow paved lane stretches all the way to the mouth of the Thach Han River, running parallel to the coast. Although this road can be a little bumpy at times, it’s easily rideable on any motorbike. Threading through shady groves of casuarina and eucalyptus trees, there are little concrete pathways at regular intervals leading off to the beach. Take any of these and you’ll emerge from the trees onto seemingly endless swathes of white sand and sparkling blue sea. Clusters of picturesque fishing canoes, unlike any I’ve seen on the southern beaches, are pulled up onto the sand away from the wash. Occasionally, a tanned, leather-skinned local fishermen will be tending to his boat, or a conical-hatted woman sat on the sand fixing her nets, but in general the entire beach is deserted during the searing midday heat. Take your time, have a swim, and wallow in the quiet and open space.

Empty beaches along the coast road near Hue, VietnamThe beaches along the coastal back-roads are long & empty save for pretty fishing canoes on the sand

On the inland side of the road, the tombs are ever-present and ever more elaborate. Dotting the sand dunes behind the trees, or rising in formation on hillocks like terraced rice fields, the dead far outnumber the living in this dry, salty, sun-drenched region. But these are not ancient tombs; they’re recent. Indeed, dozens are still under construction. Wealthy Vietnamese buy plots of land for their entire families, and commission large mausoleums with intricate carvings and decorative motifs, depicting symbolic stories.

Elaborate tombs near Hue, VietnamThe tombs along the coast road sport elaborate carvings of motifs and stories

One of the most important considerations when choosing a site for a tomb is (as it was for the emperors who commissioned the famous royal tombs outside Hue) the principles of feng shui (or phong thủy in Vietnamese). Meaning literally ‘wind and water’, this is an ancient Chinese system which takes into account the lay of the land and other natural phenomena to assess the best location for a structure, among many other things.

Elaborate tombs near Hue, VietnamThe ancient principles of feng shui dictate where a tomb should be constructed

Just before crossing the Thach Han River as it empties into the sea, the route joins Road DT64. From here on the road conditions are excellent all the way until the dirt road sections, which begin nearer to Dong Hoi. A new bridge spans the estuary, on the other side of which is the small beach settlement of Cua Viet. There are some good seafood restaurants (nhà hàng hải sẳn) along the beach here, and a couple of empty-looking resorts and guest houses. If you fancy staying the night, Nhà Nghỉ Trung Hiêu (0985 740 777) will suit budget travellers, while mid-range riders can stop by at the Sepon Boutique Resort. In good weather, the beach at Cua Viet is fantastic, with yet more picturesque slender fishing canoes and miles of empty sand. There’s also the possibility of taking a boat out to the strangely circular island of Con Co, which has only started to attract attention in recent years (inquire at your accommodation).

Empty beaches near Cua Viet, Quang Tri Province, VietnamThe beach near Cua Viet is fabulous, as are these slender, woven canoes that I rarely see anywhere else

After another 10km of empty ocean road passing under casuarina trees, the road spans a second river mouth, the Ben Hai. A surprisingly painterly estuary with tree-lined banks and flotillas of fishing vessels, there’s a small, slightly scruffy beach resort on the other side, called Cua Tung. There’s a military presence here, a reminder that this river was once one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world, between 1954 and 1975, when it was the dividing line between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (to the north) and the Republic of Vietnam (to the south). Eo Bien Xanh Hotel (0533 823 811) is OK for a night if you need it.

Boats at the Ben Hai River estuary, Quang Tri, VietnamBoats near the mouth of the Ben Hai River, the former dividing line between north & south Vietnam

Just a few kilometres further up the beach, through a particularly lush and lovely stretch of coastline, is another relic of the long and painful wars of the 20th century. The Vinh Moc Tunnels were dug in the late 1960s, allowing local villagers to shelter from intense bombardments from American planes. The tunnels run for 2km at a depth of over 20 metres. They sheltered hundreds of people at any one time, mostly local families, whose children were schooled in the tunnels, and whose mothers gave birth in the tunnels. Vinh Moc is clearly signposted from the road. Entrance is 20,000vnd, including an English-language tour of the tunnels.

Road near Vinh Moc Tunnels, Quang Tri, VietnamVinh Moc is quiet & peaceful now, but the tunnels underneath this road are a reminder of a terrible past

From Vinh Moc, Road DT9 heads inland until it joins Highway QL1A at Ho Xa. Here there are a couple of roadside motels, including Trung Son Hotel (120 Le Duan Street) if you’re running out of daylight hours. From Ho Xa it’s necessary to stay on Highway 1 for a short and easy stint until the turn off back to the coastal back-roads. A few minutes after Highway 1 splits into two branches, turn right (due east) to Le Thuy Beach. From here a small road runs along the coast all the way to Dong Hoi. The road conditions are reasonable: about 60% is paved or concrete, but large portions are red dirt. The latter can cause trouble in very wet weather, but in any other weather (even light rain) it shouldn’t be a problem at all. (If you find road conditions are too bad, then you can always just drop down to Highway 1 and take it all the way to Dong Hoi instead.)

Red dirt coastal back-roads to Dong Hoi, VietnamThe last sections of coastal back-roads to Dong Hoi are red dirt: fine in dry conditions, not in wet

Le Thuy and Hai Ninh beaches both have some seafood shacks by the ocean, and there’s accommodation at Hai Ninh in the form of Song Ngư (0163 365 8686). The road goes through trees most of the way, but there are always little pathways leading to the long beaches, which if anything are even finer than the ones at the beginning of this route.

Hai Ninh beach near Dong Hoi, VietnamLe Thuy & Hai Ninh beaches continue to offer miles & miles of empty white sand & blue surf

Several kilometres before reaching Dong Hoi, the road widens into a new, four-lane expressway (called Vo Nguyen Giap), with no traffic whatsoever. This is Dong Hoi’s beach road, constructed with the future development of gigantic resorts in mind. So far there has been little activity, until you reach the traffic circle at My Canh, where Dong Hoi’s excellent municipal beach can be accessed as well as the sprawling Sun Star Resort. Turn left (due west) at the traffic circle and head across the bridge over the Nhat Le River to Dong Hoi city. (At the time of writing, a second bridge across the Nhat Le River was being constructed a little further downstream. It should be operational by the time you read this).

Fishing boats in Dong Hoi, VietnamThe picturesque Nhat Le River separates Dong Hoi’s municipal beach from the main city

Dong Hoi is a very appealing place to spend a night or two. Its location – on the banks of the river, with easy access to a good beach, and beautiful mountains close by – reminds me of a smaller, more manageable Danang. The riverfront promenade is very pretty, the boulevards are wide and relatively quiet, the back-streets have lots of good street food, and there’s a good range of hotels available. Budget travellers can try the familiar Western backpacker vibes of Buffalo Hostel which enjoys a pleasant riverside location, or the Vietnamese-style backpacker vibes of Van House Homestay, or for beachside budget digs try the Beach House Homestay. Very good mid-range accommodation with city and river views can be found at the Amanda Hotel and the Riverside Hotel. Finally, $50-$70 gets you a large room with city and sea views and access to all the facilities at the Muong Thanh Luxury Nhat Le Hotel. Many famous central Vietnamese dishes can be found on Dong Hoi’s back-streets. Try the bánh nậm and bánh lọc at Hương Hoài (02 Le Thanh Dong Street). For an evening tipple, a game of pool, and backpacker socializing head to Buffalo Pub.

View of Dong Hoi city, Quang Binh Province, VietnamDong Hoi is a very likable city with good accommodation options in all ranges & plenty of street food

Where to next? From Dong Hoi you can complete a round trip back to Hue by following the faster return route inland (marked in red on my map), or by riding up to Phong Nha and taking the spectacular Western Ho Chi Minh Road via Khe Sanh and A Luoi. Or, if you’re following the Beach Bum route, continue up to Phong Nha and head north through the mountains all the way up to Hanoi. Dong Hoi is, of course, the gateway to the caves and limestone scenery of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, which is only a 40km ride away on good roads.

The Western Ho Chi Minh Road, VietnamWhere to next? This limestone scenery near Phong Nha on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road is close by…

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Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & Spa http://vietnamcoracle.com/binh-chau-hot-springs-resort/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/binh-chau-hot-springs-resort/#comments Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:11:50 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=22615 Continue reading ]]> First published November 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | REVIEW | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Easily accessible from Saigon, Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & Spa is an interesting mix of very fine, traditional Vietnamese elements, and kitsch, cartoonish adornments. In some ways it’s a good barometer of current Vietnamese trends. The natural hot springs here are famous, and they’ve been turned into a sprawling complex of thermal swimming pools, mud baths, and beauty spas. Binh Chau Hot Springs can be visited as a day trip, but staying overnight is a good option: partly because, these days, the standard of accommodation is very good, and partly because the hot springs are particularly attractive and quiet in the mornings and evenings, after the day-tripping crowds have left. Providing you choose the right room type, a night or two at Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort can be very relaxing; the perfect antidote to the noise and chaos of Saigon, just 2-3 hours away by road. [Average rates are between $45-$70 a night. To check current rates, availability & make a reservation for Binh Chau Hot Spring please BOOK HERE]

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the Agoda links & search boxes on my site, like the ones on this page. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.

Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & SpaA relaxing and easy getaway from Saigon for a night or two in lush, quiet surrounds

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REVIEW: BINH CHAU HOT SPRINGS


Address: Highway 55, Binh Chau, Xuyen Moc, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Vietnam [MAP]

Average Price: $45-$70 | Phone: (+84) 064 387 1131

BOOK HERE


MAP:

View in a LARGER MAP


Binh Chau Hot Springs is located a couple of kilometres inland from Binh Chau fishing village, on the Binh Thuan coast, 120km east of Saigon. The resort and the springs are one and the same: Saigon Tourist effectively owns and runs both, and the swathe of land they control is enormous. Accessed via a good road branching off Highway QL55 and the Ocean Road, the Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & Spa covers many hectares of lush, tropical woodland, where the thermal springs bubble up from primeval-looking pools of dark water. Although a concrete walkway leads around the hot springs in their natural state, most of the hot spring-related activities are heavily commercialized and built-up: don’t expect to be bathing under a natural cascade of steaming water. However, Saigon Tourist has recently revamped the entire complex and things are now looking more attractive than ever. A daytime visit to the springs is a lot of fun (read more about it here), but in this review I focus on the accommodation at Binh Chau rather than the springs themselves.

Map of Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & SpaBinh Chau is an enormous complex of activities & accommodation, as illustrated by this map

Saigon Tourist-run hotels and resorts used to be cheaply-built mid-range accommodations at high-end prices: a facade of luxury masking very average quality. But, in the last few years, Saigon Tourist has been busy improving its facilities, upgrading its building materials, and refining its general aesthetic. This is particularly apparent at Binh Chau Resort & Spa, where even the reception – a handsome little wooden ‘shrine’ at the entrance to the hot springs – is beautifully made with large wooden beams, hanging lanterns, traditional Vietnamese wooden furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and softened by imperial-coloured textiles.

Reception at Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & SpaThe reception is an attractive little ‘shrine’ of a building and handsomely furnished

Upon checking in, guests are issued with a map of the resort and hot springs complex. This is when you begin to understand the size of the grounds: there are over thirty markers on the map, from cafes and restaurants to spas and crocodile enclosures. In general, the resort facilities are all on the left of the main walking avenue that bisects the complex, and the myriad hot spring activities are on the right. One of the most appealing aspects of Binh Chau Hot Springs is the abundance of tropical greenery: pathways winding through the resort are lined with low-growing palms and giant old-growth trees, while the flowerbeds are planted with colourful heliconias and West Indian Jasmine. It’s a peaceful, perfumed (and hot) stroll from reception to the rooms.

Pathways through greenery, Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & SpaBinh Chau is very lush: paved pathways lead around the complex, making for a pleasant stroll

During this 5 minute walk, you’ll pass through a few ‘sections’ of the resort (all marked on your map). The first is an ‘animal garden’ dotted with gaudy models of flamingos, giraffes and such. Immediately after this, the path moves through an attractive collection of wood and tile pavilions, under which handsome traditional furniture is lit by hanging lanterns. Colourful murals of dragons and other Vietnamese symbolism decorate the walls. I found this a particularly atmospheric place to sit and read: a sort of contemplation shrine. The architecture and decor are wonderful, and I’d gladly build my house along similar lines.

Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & Spa, VietnamThe resort gardens are dotted with places to sit or to play: some are kitsch, some elegant

Then you reach the accommodation. Guest rooms are spread over several separate buildings, including long single storey bungalows and private villas under the jungle canopy. However, the best option – and the one you should try to book – is the new Binh Tam Hotel building. This attractive, two storey, white-painted structure is where the Executive Deluxe rooms are housed. Surrounded by impressive tropical foliage and echoing to the sound of birds in the morning and frogs in the evening, the Binh Tam Hotel has good, spacious rooms and a large private swimming pool in its courtyard fed by the hot springs.

Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & Spa, VietnamThe Binh Tam building has an attractive white facade surrounded by lush gardens & a courtyard pool

Whether you get a pool-view or a garden-view, on the ground or the first floor, the rooms are all very agreeable. Plainly but comfortably furnished – including some pretty bamboo tables and chairs – all rooms feature balconies or floor-ceiling opening windows, bathtubs, TVs, decorative tea sets, and all the standard modern conveniences that you’d expect, such as air-con and a minibar.

Guest room at Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & SpaGuest rooms are fairly plain but comfortable and large with pool or garden views

The pool is a great place to relax and good for kids too, because it’s quite shallow. The temperature of the water is not as high as the main hot spring bathing pool (see your resort map) and this is probably a good thing, because the water there is so hot it zaps your energy. The water in both pools is supposed to have curative properties, and many of the guests are older people – grandparents visiting with their extended family – which, I found, creates a pleasant, convivial atmosphere.

The pool at Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & SpaRooms are arranged around the courtyard pool which is fed with warm water from the hot springs

Breakfast is included in the room price. Served in the impressive ‘Forest Flower Restaurant’, the quality of the food does not match the grandeur of the dining room. However, dinner ordered off the à la carte menu is a lot better, especially if you choose from the many Vietnamese dishes available. And this is a good thing, because there are few, if any, other dining options within walking distance of the resort. There is, however, a good cafe opposite the restaurant. With slat windows opening onto the verdant gardens, the cafe serves decent coffee, cakes and snacks, and, once again, is furnished with handsome tables and chairs.

The cafe at Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & SpaThe cafe is an attractive place to while away a couple of hours with a coffee, especially on rainy days

There are many activities on offer at Binh Chau Hot Springs: from spa treatments to golf driving, from fishing to boiling eggs in the hot spring water. However, just ambling through the grounds on a morning or late afternoon is a pleasant enough way to spend your time. What’s more, Binh Chau Hot Springs is paired with Ho Co Beach Resort, just 15 minutes away by road. This beach resort on the Ocean Road is also run by Saigon Tourist, and guests of either receive free entrance to the other. If the weather is good, make sure you take a trip to Ho Coc Beach Resort to wander along their long stretch of sandy beach and swim in their pools.

Saigon-Ho Coc Beach Resort, VietnamGuests of Binh Chau Resort can also use the beach & facilities of the sister resort on Ho Coc Beach

I used to think of Binh Chau Hot Springs as a rather tacky, overpriced destination, aimed mostly at domestic tourists. But now, after recent improvements in facilities and decor, I really enjoy spending a quiet night here among all the greenery, soaking up to the remedial qualities of the hot spring water, and lounging in the large Executive Deluxe rooms. Combined with a night at Leman Cap Resort in Vung Tau and the ferry boat ride from Saigon, Binh Chau Hot Springs can be part of a relaxing and rewarding mid-range city getaway.  [Average rates are between $45-$70 a night. To check current rates, availability & make a reservation for Binh Chau Hot Springs please BOOK HERE].

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the Agoda links & search boxes on my site, like the ones on this page. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.

Binh Chau Hot Springs Resort & Spa, VietnamBinh Chau Hot Springs has improved a lot in recent years: it’s now a satisfying & easy retreat from Saigon

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

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Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Motorbike Loop http://vietnamcoracle.com/sapa-y-ty-scenic-motorbike-loop/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/sapa-y-ty-scenic-motorbike-loop/#comments Thu, 09 Nov 2017 02:43:16 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23637 Continue reading ]]> First published November 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | MORE POSTS

North of Sapa, the dramatic mountainous landscape which you can see (on a good day) from your Sapa hotel window, continues all the way to the Chinese border. Several small roads penetrate deep into steep, terraced valleys and climb high above ferocious rivers, swollen with cold mountain water, to remote minority villages, where a handful of homestays offer basic accommodation for a night. Creating a scenic loop, starting and ending in Sapa via the hilltop hamlet of Y Ty, this short, easily-navigable road trip is a great escape from the increasingly grim and touristy mountain town of Sapa. Either bathed in a warm, sharp highland light, shimmering over the ripe rice terraces like a halo, or covered in a cold, haunting, Dickensian fog, so thick it induces feelings of claustrophobia, the Sapa-Y Ty Loop is a rewarding way to spend a day or two in the saddle, especially as an extension of, or alternative to, the Sapa-Sin Ho Loop.

Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Motorbike Loop, VietnamA scenic loop on back-roads north of Sapa through mountains & rice terraces dotted with homestays

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GUIDE: SAPAY TY SCENIC LOOP


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 195km
  • Duration: 1-2 days
  • Route: a mountainous loop north of Sapa via Y Ty & the Chinese border [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: paved back-roads, some extended bad sections, light traffic
  • Scenery: mountains, rivers, rice terraces, minority villages, remote borderlands


ROUTE MAP:

The Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Loop | 195km

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ABOUT THIS ROUTE:

For experienced riders (and with an early start), the Sapa-Y Ty loop can be completed in one day. However, two days is much more comfortable and also gives you a chance to stay at one of the several homestays along the way. Although it’s possible to ride this route in either direction, I recommend going clockwise on the loop, starting from Sapa. There are two ways to complete the Sapa-Y Ty Loop. Either as a literal ‘loop’ (see the blue line on my map), coming back via Lao Cai on road QL4D, or as a ‘P’-shaped loop, coming back via road DT158 from Bản Vược to Bản Xèo (see the red line on my map) and then retracing your outward route back to Sapa on road DT155 and QL4D. Whichever you choose, the total distance is as near as makes no difference 195km. 

Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Motorbike Loop, VietnamThe Sapa-Y Ty Loop can be completed in one (long) day, but two days is ideal

Bear in mind that this is a very mountainous route, and, like all highland regions in the north, the roads are subject to landslides, especially after heavy rains. At the time of writing (November 2017), about 70% of the roads were in good condition. But a 40-50km section, starting from at least 10km south of Y Ty and continuing all the way A Mu Sung, was pretty rough, but passable (see map). However, this section is in the process of being upgraded, so I expect conditions to improve within a year. Just after passing through Muong Ham the road is often flooded by the river, so it may be necessary to take the short alternative route (marked in red on my map) to go around it. Motorbikes can be easily hired in Sapa; try asking at your accommodation to begin with. Weather is always difficult to predict in this region, but spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October) are probably the best months for warmth, light, and colour.

Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Motorbike Loop, VietnamRoad conditions are fine for most of the loop, except for a 40-50km section & a regularly flooded road

There are at least half a dozen different homestays (often with the local ethnic minority group, the Dao) on roads DT155 and DT158 between the turn off from QL4D all the way to Y Ty. (Be warned that north of Y Ty until Bản Vược there is no official accommodation at all.) Most of the homestays can be seen, or are signposted, from the road. In general, the homestays on this route offer simple bedding (mattresses on a wooden floor under mosquito nets in a communal dorm room) and home-cooked meals. Prices for sleeping are rarely more than a few dollars (100,000vnd) per person, and meals usually run between 100,000-200,000vnd per person. In addition, many of the homestays offer ethnic Dao herbal baths (tắm lá thuốc người Dao). For the names, locations and contact details of some of the homestays on the Y Ty Loop see the markers on my map.

Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Motorbike Loop, VietnamSeveral homestays line the route, many with excellent views, but visibility can be poor due to thick mists

If you’re lucky and the weather is good, then the scenery on the Y Ty Loop is fabulous. The grandeur and scale of the mountains and valleys of the northwest is unmatched anywhere in Vietnam. The rice terraces are higher, steeper, more dramatic, and less crowded (if you avoid weekends) than the more famous terraces of Mu Cang Chai. However, such is the weather in this region, that you may find it difficult to see more than a few metres in front of you. But, even in the mist, cold and rain, there’s still a sublime bleakness and majesty up on the high passes. North and east of Y Ty, the road is much less-travelled, following the Chinese border (formed by the Red River) for much of the way. The large border city of Lao Cai is a much more interesting place, with a far more local atmosphere, than Sapa, although it does lack the mountain vistas of the latter. There are lots of budget accommodation options around the train station (including the spotless Kim Cuong Hotel), or good-value mid-range hotels, such as the Sapaly (right next to the China border gate), or Lao Cai’s newest, fanciest hotel, the Aristo International.

Sapa-Y Ty Scenic Motorbike Loop, VietnamThe scale & grandeur of the landscape in this region is unmatched anywhere in Vietnam

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Saigon to Hanoi: A Food Diary http://vietnamcoracle.com/saigon-to-hanoi-a-food-diary/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/saigon-to-hanoi-a-food-diary/#respond Fri, 03 Nov 2017 02:24:06 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23518 Continue reading ]]> First published November 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | MORE POSTS

Food is a daily pleasure when visiting or living in Vietnam. Vietnamese food is fantastic, and the variety is astonishing. This is partly to do with the ingenuity and creativity of Vietnamese cooks over the centuries, and partly to do with cultural and culinary influences over its long and interesting history. But it’s also because of the country’s geography, terrain and climate: for a relatively small country, Vietnam experiences dramatic changes in weather and landscape. This is never more apparent than when travelling the length of the country by bus, train or motorbike. I’ve written at length about some of the changes I notice when travelling south to north by motorbike, but, on a recent road trip between Saigon and Hanoi, I made a record of some of the meals I ate along the way, to try and illustrate the variety of food available, and what a delight it is to eat your way from one end of the country to the other.

Saigon to Hanoi: A Food DiaryAn illustrated record of 11 meals as I travel from the south of the country to the north

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FOOD DIARY: SAIGON TO HANOI


Below I’ve illustrated 11 dishes in geographical order as I ate them from south to north. I’ve written a brief description of each one, including the addresses, and marked every meal on my map. During my trip, I made no attempt to eat dishes I thought represented each region, nor did I research the places I ate at: when I was hungry, I simply looked around for a place to eat (not a difficult thing to do in Vietnam). Even so, the dishes on this page do reflect some of the culinary changes from south to north and showcase the variety and richness of the cuisine. I have not made a record of the prices for each meal, but all of the dishes below were not more than a couple of dollars each.

Click an item below to read more about it:

MAP:

11 of my meals between Saigon & Hanoi


View in a LARGER MAP

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Phở (beef noodle soup):

*Location: The dining car on the train between Saigon & Phan Thiet [MAP]

Vietnam’s most famous dish, I ate this bowl of phở at 6:30am as the train was pulling out of Saigon station, with the city’s alleyways and shopfronts rolling by in the sharp dawn light. As with many meals in Vietnam, location is a big part of the dining experience: it wasn’t the best bowl of beef noodle soup I’ve had, but it was pretty darn good for the buffet car of a moving train (certainly better than anything I could ever hope to get on a British train). The broth was ‘real’ – a large cauldron of boiling beef bones and spices in the dining car kitchen – and flavoursome. Of course, phở is famously a northern dish, but it’s available all over the country.

A bowl of phở beef noodles on the trainA bowl of phở on the train as it left Saigon station, bound for Phan Thiet

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Bánh Căn (rice flour ‘sponges’):

*Location: Bánh Căn Nhà Chung; 01 Nhà Chung Street, Dalat, Lam Dong Province [MAP]

In Dalat, after a long day, I’d intended to go to bed early. But then I stumbled upon the street food stalls on Nhà Chung Street, near the French colonial church. I spent a good couple of hours eating bánh căn followed by fetal duck egg, surrounded by chattering students and locals, all dressed in coats and hats to keep warm in the mountain air. A couple of very friendly ladies served the bánh căn; little spongy pancake things cooked in tiny pots over a flame and served with a dipping sauce with sour mango, fried shallots and spring onions. The pancakes, made of rice flour and quail eggs, soak up the sauce perfectly. Bánh căn are very popular in Dalat, but more commonly found in coastal regions between Vung Tau and Phan Rang. For dessert I had several boiling-hot fetal duck eggs (which are always much tastier in highland and rural areas, away from the big cities) to fortify me against the cold night.

Bánh căn in Dalat, VietnamA plate of bánh căn near the old French colonial church in Dalat

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Bún Thịt Nướng & Gỏi Cuốn (rice noodles & fresh spring rolls):

*Location: Nameless eatery; 103 Ngô Mây Street, Quy Nhơn, Binh Dinh Province [MAP]

After a rewarding day of riding the coastal back-roads south of Quy Nhơn, I arrived in the city late and went straight to Ngô Mây Street for a cheap, filling and easy dinner. A nameless eatery (no more than a shopfront) sold a good, fresh, crisp and cooling bowl of bún thịt nướng; a cold rice noodle salad with chopped cucumber, grilled marinated pork, shredded green papaya, mint, and crumbled rice crackers. As I was hungry (I always am), I also ordered a couple of gỏi cuốn; fresh (cold, not fried) spring rolls filled with shrimp, herbs, and rice noodles. This is a pretty common street-side meal in central coastal regions and the Mekong Delta.

Bún thịt nướng in Quy Nhon, VietnamA bowl of bún thịt nướng and a plate of gỏi cuốn in Quy Nhon

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Bún Chả Cá (fish noodle soup):

*Location: Ngoc Lien; 379 Nguyen Hue Street, Quy Nhơn, Binh Dinh Province [MAP]

I love Quy Nhon (everyone does). As a coastal city, it’s famous for its seafood. In particular, Quy Nhon is known for bún chả cá; rice noodles in a spicy broth with fish cakes. For breakfast, on a typically sunny, salty and bright morning, I headed to Ngoc Lien, one of the more established bún cá joints in town. They churn out hundreds of fresh, light, fishy and spicy bowls of noodles here each morning, as locals and Vietnamese tourists come to dine on this famous central coast dish. The broth was clean and clear, the fish was fresh, and the spice was invigorating.

Bún chả cá in Quy Nhon, VietnamA bowl of bún chả cá on a bright and sunny morning in Quy Nhon

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Cơm Bình Dân (common rice lunch):

*Location: Quán Long Liên; Cat Khanh District, Binh Dinh Province [MAP]

On a sweltering noon I stopped for lunch at a classic rice shack in a dusty village along one of the coastal back-roads leading north of Quy Nhon. This is the kind of place and food that I love: unassuming, cheap, delicious and, because they rarely look appealing from the outside, unexpected. Cơm bình dân are ‘common’ or ‘affordable’ lunch eateries. Found all over the country, they cater to anyone, but generally you find the local working classes – labourers, fishermen, farmers – tucking into food at low plastic tables. At Quán Long Liên, a lovely proprietress served my lunch of steamed white rice, pork belly stew with wood ear mushrooms and bamboo, bitter melon soup, and a plate of fresh leaves for dipping in the salty, locally-produced fish sauce. These are the meals, and these are the moments (of which there are many), that make me happy I’ve chosen to live in Vietnam.

Cơm bình dân rice lunch in Cat Khanh District, VietnamA classic ‘common’ rice lunch (cơm bình dân) in a hot & dusty district called Cat Khanh

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Mì Quảng (central style noodles):

*Location: Nameless eatery; 789 Phan Chu (Chau) Trinh Street, Tam Ky, Quang Nam Province [MAP]

A brief stop in the hot and dusty town of Tam Ky for a bowl of the famous and much-loved mì quảng; flat rice noodles in a shallow broth. I often have this dish in Saigon, but it’s never as good as having it in its home province of Quảng Nam. This fairly basic noodle shop was just finishing up its lunch service when I stopped by. The noodles were good and thick, the broth (it’s a sauce really) was salty and sour (after a squeeze of lime), and the bowl was full of goodies, such as shrimp, grilled pork, quail eggs, mint, coriander, peanuts, chilli, and crumbled rice crackers with sesame seeds. A many-textured and satisfying bowl of noodles.

Mì quảng in Tam Ky, VietnamA beautiful bowl (they always are) of mì quảng in the town of Tam Ky, Central Vietnam

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Lòng Xào Nghệ (fried pig intestines with turmeric):

*Location: Outside No.64 Nguyen Truong To Street, Hoi An, Quang Nam Province [MAP]

It might not sound very appetizing, but this was one of the tastiest and most unexpected street eats on my ride between Saigon and Hanoi. Within sight of Hoi An’s Tan An Market I spotted a lady serving something orange and delicious-looking out of a big metallic bowl. It turned out to be lòng xào nghệ; pig intestines fried in turmeric, garlic and chives and eaten on a crunchy sesame seed rice cracker. The colour, of course, comes from the turmeric, the flavour from the garlic and chives, and there’s a classic Vietnamese interplay of textures: chewy from the intestines and crunchy from the rice crackers. It was rich and light at the same time, but the turmeric stained my teeth for the next 24 hours. I was glad to find such a local dish in such close proximity to Hoi An’s old quarter where, because of the volume of international visitors, it can be hard to find local eateries aimed at local people.

Lòng xào nghệ in Hoi An, VietnamA plate of lòng xào nghệ in Hoi An, a dish I’d never come across before

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Heo Quay (spit-roasted pork):

*Location: Lò Quay Thanh Trung; by the bridge at the intersection of QL49 & DT2, Hue, Thua Thien Hue Province [MAP]

Rolling into Hue on a beautiful evening, I passed a smokey roadside BBQ. Rotating over hot coals were sides of pork belly and ribs, and whole chickens and ducks. The smell of the smoke was mouth-watering as it drifted in clouds over the road, blinding drivers as the early evening traffic scooted by. I love a good hunk of roasted meat, so I ordered a box of heo quay to go. The lady was jovial and warm, and some kids stopped by on their bicycles to say ‘hello’ a dozens times before cycling off into the smokey dusk. Barbecued meat stalls are found all over the nation, but the ones on the outskirts of towns and cities are always better than the ones actually in large built-up areas. The reason for this, I suppose, is because the meat is fresher.

Heo quay in Hue, VietnamChicken, duck and pork barbecuing over coals just outside of Hue on a sunny evening

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Bánh Nậm (steamed rice flour parcels):

*Location: Hương Hoài; 2 Le Thanh Dong Street, Dong Hoi, Quang Binh Province [MAP]

Dong Hoi is a great little city: a mini Danang or Nha Trang, with a long riverfront promenade, wide boulevards, a municipal beach, and plenty of food. Particularly numerous are eateries specializing in bánh nậm; steamed rice flour parcels wrapped in banana leaf and filled with ground pork, dipped in a slightly sweet fish sauce. There appear to be dozens of bánh nậm joints on every street in Dong Hoi, but I settled on Hương Hoài, because it was teeming with customers, all sat at low tables, peeling open their banana leaf parcels under the bright fluorescent lights. There’s something warm and comforting about the soft-textured steamed dumpling inside the banana leaf. They’re very addictive. Bánh nậm can be found all over central Vietnam, especially between Hue and Dong Hoi.

Bánh nậm in Dong Hoi, VietnamA plate of bánh nậm in Dong Hoi, where they sell these little banana leaf-wrapped parcels on every street

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Bún Chả (rice noodles & grilled pork patties):

*Location: Liên Phương; intersection of QL8A & Đường 71, Pho Chau, Ha Tinh Province [MAP]

A sure sign of getting closer to the north, bún chả is a favourite of northern cuisine, and, incidentally, the dish that President Obama and Anthony Bourdain sat down to eat in Hanoi, during the presidential visit of May 2016. The town of Pho Chau is not my favourite place in Vietnam; rather it is a convenient stop on the Ho Chi Minh Road. But this late evening bowl of bún chả was pretty good: the noodles fresh and bouncy, the herbs (including my favourite, perilla leaf) crunchy and full of flavour, and the pork patties salty and chewy (which is a good thing). It was a quiet night, but the proprietors kept me company by quizzing me on my marital status. Vietnamese food, and the people who serve it, have a way of brightening up even the drabbest of places.

Bún chả in Pho Chau, VietnamA pretty good bowl of bún chả in Pho Chau: a sign of getting closer to the north

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Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice rolls):

*Location: Hanh Trọc; QL217 high street, Cam Thuy, Thanh Hoa Province [MAP]

Now, you may have heard or read (possibly even on this website) that phở is the breakfast of the north. Well, in Hanoi that may be true (although bún chả must come in a close second). But outside of the capital, bánh cuốn is by far the most common dish available in the mornings across the northern provinces. Indeed, I’ve occasionally spent weeks travelling across the mountainous northern regions and had trouble finding anything for breakfast other than bánh cuốn. And so, when I sat down in Cam Thuy, 125km south of Hanoi, for my first plate of bánh cuốn of the trip, I knew I was finally in the north proper. Delicate rice flour rolls, steamed with much grace and skill by the (always female) cooks, bánh cuốn are easy to like. The rolls are lightly filled with a mixture of minced pork and wood ear mushrooms, sprinkled with roasted shallots, served with a couple of chopped pork sausages, and dipped in a salty-sweet broth. I’d been to this particular eatery before, on a similar trip in 2014, and the only thing that had changed in the three years since I was last there, was that the woman serving me looked even younger and even prettier. 


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Liberty Central Hotel, Nha Trang http://vietnamcoracle.com/liberty-central-hotel-nha-trang/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/liberty-central-hotel-nha-trang/#comments Sat, 30 Sep 2017 14:12:21 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23295 Continue reading ]]> First published October 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | REVIEW | MAP | MORE POSTS

Liberty Central Nha Trang is a contemporary, stylish, high-rise hotel just a block from the city’s famous seafront. Liberty hotels across Vietnam are modern, well-equipped, 21st century accommodations: there’s no harking back to traditional Vietnam or nostalgia for French colonial decor. Liberty is all about modernity and the present: sleek, minimalist design, slender, elegant furnishings, crisp, clean facilities, and high-end ambience. Liberty Central Nha Trang’s most attractive features are its large bright rooms with extraordinary ocean views, its own section of private beach, rooftop bar and open-air swimming pool. I stayed at the Liberty Central Nha Trang to ‘reward’ myself after a busy week of research on the road. [Average rates are around $100 a night. To check current rates, availability & make a reservation for Liberty Central Nha Trang please BOOK HERE]

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the Agoda links & search boxes on my site, like the ones on this page. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.

Liberty Central Hotel, Nha TrangContemporary & stylish, the Liberty Central Nha Trang’s greatest asset is the extraordinary ocean views

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REVIEW: LIBERTY CENTRAL NHA TRANG


Address: 9 Biet Thu Street, Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam [MAP]

Average Price: $100 | Phone: (+84) 0258 3529 555

BOOK HERE


MAP:

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Shooting up from a city corner, just a block away from Nha Trang’s excellent Municipal Beach, the Liberty Central is a white-painted high-rise like many others that clutter the city’s skyline these days. From the outside, it’s a fairly functional-looking, unremarkable modern tower block. But one thing is very clear: the building has been designed so that all the windows face east. This can mean only one thing: ocean views. Indeed, once you’re in your room or on the rooftop bar, you’ll forget all about the hotel’s bland exterior, because you’ll be concentrating on the expansive vistas of sand and sea.

Liberty Central Nha Trang, hotel exteriorNot pretty but built to make the most of the sea views: all rooms face east towards the ocean

The lobby is squeaky-clean: polished, sterile and anodyne to the point that it feels like entering the reception of an enormous private dental practice. However, it still somehow manages to feel welcoming – partly because of the well-mannered and personable staff, and partly because of all the natural light that comes streaming in through the tall windows. Also on the ground floor is the hotel’s cafe opening onto the street, and the neatly adorned restaurant, which floats above the lobby on a mezzanine floor.

Liberty Central Nha Trang, hotel restaurantThe neat & shiny hotel restaurant is on a mezzanine floor above the lobby & concierge

The Liberty Central is twenty-something floors high, served by a couple of rapid elevators. Obviously, the higher your room, the better the sea view. The top few floors feature the Executive and Signature rooms, which you might expect to be much more expensive than the ‘normal’ rooms (or ‘Premier’ in the hotel’s jargon). But, providing you stay during the week and not on a public holiday, these Executive and Signature rooms can be extremely good value for money, averaging $90-$110 a night. Apart from the astonishing ocean views, masses of space (including your own living room), contemporary furnishings, all mod-cons, and excellent bathrooms, you also get access to the ‘Club Lounge’. This is essentially a business-class-style bar and restaurant on the 20th floor, where guests are treated to complimentary afternoon tea and cakes, buffet breakfast, and (best of all) cocktails at dusk.

Liberty Central Nha Trang Hotel, guest roomGuest rooms are stylishly furnished, well-equipped & spacious, including great bathrooms

However, one rather irritating drawback with rooms on the ‘executive floor’ is that the hotel’s Above Sky Bar is located, well, above the rooms. Unfortunately, the Above Sky Bar lays down some pretty heavy (and loud) beats from sunset till late, which will disturb the sleep of any of the ‘executive guests’. The Sky Bar is pretty fancy, surprisingly large, and clearly decked out as a proper night spot. The views are panoramic, taking in the entire bay of Nha Trang, its surrounding mountains, and the city skyline. Come here for a sunset drink (before the music starts).

Liberty Central Nha Trang Hotel, rooftop barThe Above Sky Bar is very stylish with panoramic views, but the music disturbs the ‘Executive floor’

Even if you end up slumming it in the Premier rooms, you won’t be disappointed. The rooms, the windows and the views are all smaller, but the styling, quality, and comfort is the same. You’ll also save $10-$20 a night, and won’t have to listen to the music from the Above Sky Bar. It’s worth noting that, even though the ocean views are fantastic through a pane of glass, none of the rooms at Liberty Central Nha Trang have balconies. For fresh air, you’ll need to go up to the rooftop bar.

Liberty Central Nha Trang Hotel, guest roomEven though the ‘Premier rooms’ are smaller, they’re still very comfortable with great city & sea views

Another feature that the cheaper rooms don’t include, are the enormous freestanding bathtubs with expansive views of the city and the ocean. Looking like space pods awaiting a passenger, these bathtubs are positioned right next to the window. However, the Liberty Central is not the only high-rise hotel in the vicinity: other monoliths grow up all around, with windows looking straight into your bathroom. There are blackout blinds, but that would defeat the point of an ocean view bathtub. However, I would guess that, like me, if you book into a room with one of these tubs, you’ll lose any sense of ‘natural modesty’ that you thought you had, and opt for a bath-with-blinds-open-and-sea-view.

Liberty Central Nha Trang Hotel, freestanding bathtubA signature of the ‘executive rooms’ are the spectacular bathtubs with sea views

The buffet breakfast (included in the room price) is pretty good, but the standard is not quite as high as you can find at some other hundred-dollar-a-night hotels on Vietnam’s coast, such as The Grand Ho Tram. Another area where the Liberty Central Nha Trang loses points is its swimming pool. Located on the fourth floor, the pool occupies a small section of a nice wooden deck overlooking the street below. The pool is fine, it’s just too small. There’s a good bar and comfy loungers, but the whole setup would have been so much better if they’d used the rest of the (empty) space to extend the pool to at least twice its size. It’s not really anything more than an oversized plunge pool: you can’t actually swim. It’s great for kids; not so good for grown-ups.

Liberty Central Nha Trang Hotel, swimming poolThe pool at the Liberty Central is too small for swimming but fine for kids or as a plunge pool

However, the pool’s shortcomings are not a big issue, thanks to the Liberty Central’s excellent patch of private beach. A mere 90 second stroll from the hotel’s lobby, the Liberty has a couple dozen loungers and parasols dotted on a wide section of beachfront. Nha Trang’s beach and seafront park are beautifully maintained and, it seems, no matter how much the city changes, the beach remains as lovely as ever. A kiosk on the sand provides towels for hotel guests.

Liberty Central Nha Trang hotel's beach Liberty Central has its own dedicated patch of beach, with loungers, parasols & towels provided

The Liberty Central is in the middle of Nha Trang’s ‘hotel district’, which means that it’s not particularly well-positioned for local life. Restaurants serving international food, bars, and tour companies fill the nearby streets. But, walk 5-10 minutes northwest of the Liberty, and the tourist town starts to give way to real Nha Trang, which is still a very agreeable city with shady side streets lined with good local food outlets. For a comparatively affordable slice of contemporary luxury with excellent sea views, the Liberty Central is a solid choice for a couple of nights at Vietnam’s most popular beach destination. [Average rates are around $100 a night. To check current rates, availability & make a reservation for Liberty Central Nha Trang please BOOK HERE].

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the Agoda links & search boxes on my site, like the ones on this page. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.

Liberty Central Nha Trang Hotel, bathroomThe Liberty Central Nha Trang is all about the ocean views, even from the toilet

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

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Ha Tien: Jewel of the Mekong Delta http://vietnamcoracle.com/ha-tien-jewel-of-the-mekong-delta/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/ha-tien-jewel-of-the-mekong-delta/#comments Wed, 23 Aug 2017 12:37:21 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=21722 Continue reading ]]> First published September 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | MORE POSTS

Occupying a perfect position – a feng shui masterpiece of land, water, and wind – in the southwestern corner of the country, Ha Tien is the most attractive place to be in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. Among its many charms, Ha Tien receives a cooling breeze off the sea, river, and hills throughout the day. Its irresistible combination of bustling markets and languid backstreets, crumbling shophouses and forested hills, delicious street food and local temples, promenading pedestrians and river traffic, twittering swiftlets and chiming pagoda gongs, makes Ha Tien the ‘Jewel of the Delta’. Already a popular transit point for beach bums travelling between Phu Quoc Island and the Cambodian coast, Ha Tien should be a destination in its own right. This is my complete Guide to Ha Tien.

Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien has real charm: it’s the best place to be in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region

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GUIDE: HA TIEN, MEKONG DELTA


As Phu Quoc (only 90 minutes away by boat) has plunged headlong into development, I’ve found myself spending more and more time in Ha Tien, soaking up all that this little rivertown has to offer (and all that Phu Quoc has left behind). Its physical location – nestled between limestone hills on the banks of a river just before flowing into the sea – is only part of its appeal. Ha Tien has real charm and character, especially along its quiet, shady backstreets and bustling waterfront. There’s also a lot of history, culture, food, accommodation, markets, excursions, and an interesting ethnic mix, in and around Ha Tien. Most travellers only stop by for a day and a night at most, but Ha Tien deserves at least two full days of exploration. This little corner is by far the most attractive part of the entire area south and west of Saigon: Ha Tien is a much more rewarding way to experience Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region than the more popular destinations of Ben Tre and Can Tho, for example. Transport connections to Saigon, Phu Quoc, Cambodia, and other Mekong towns are good, and the weather is best during the dry season (November-May), although a visit at any time of year is worthwhile.

CONTENTS:

Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien occupies a fantastic position: by a river, a lake, the sea, and limestone hills

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MAP:

Ha Tien & surrounds, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta

View in a LARGER MAP

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LOCATION & BACKGROUND:


Ha Tien lies on the west bank of the Giang Thanh River, whose waters, north of the town, effectively form the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. Tucked away in the southwestern-most corner of the country, Ha Tien is bounded by lush, limestone hills to the east and west, on either side on the river. Before entering Ha Tien, the Giang Thanh River forms a body of brackish water surrounded by dense mangrove forest, called Dong Ho Lake. After flowing through town, the river empties into the glassy waters of the Gulf of Thailand. On a clear day, the high ridges of Phu Quoc Island can be seen across the glistening sea and, further to the west, the Cambodian mountains rise in a heat haze above Kampot. It’s a fabulous position for a town, with water on three sides – the lake, the river, and the sea – and hills on two.

Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien seen from across the Giang Thanh River, with Cambodia in the distance

The Xa Xia border gate to Cambodia is just a few kilometres west of Ha Tien, and the nearest major Mekong Delta cities are Rach Gia and Chau Doc (80km/90km southeast/northeast respectively). Saigon is 300km to the east. The vast majority of the Mekong Delta is flat and heavily farmed, so the hills and forests of Ha Tien are a great relief to travellers desperate for some variation in the scenery. But, more than that, the physical position of Ha Tien has an energy, a pull: it feels like the perfect location for an ancient trading post; like there always was, or always should have been, a town here. In fact, there probably was a trading post here from at least the early centuries C.E., when the area was an important stop on the maritime trade route between the Middle East, India, and China.* Indeed, even its name suggests that, over the centuries, people have felt the mysterious force of this location: Ha Tien (Hà Tiên in Vietnamese) means River Spirit, named after the protecting nymphs that are said to dwell in Dong Ho Lake, dancing and bathing in the water under the light of full moons.
*Historical information in this article is based on my reading of various sources & conversations with local people.

Sunset, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien’s position on the Gulf of Thailand makes it a good trading post; and it gets terrific sunsets

Whatever its ancient roots, the history of modern Ha Tien is usually traced back to Mac Cuu in the late 17th century. A political refugee of sorts, Mac Cuu was a Chinese immigrant fleeing the Middle Kingdom after the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. He founded a Chinese community in Ha Tien at the invitation of the Khmer rulers, only to switch allegiance to the Vietnamese Nguyen Lords in 1708, after which he ruled Ha Tien as a vassal state. As the region prospered (despite attacks from the Thais), Mac Cuu’s descendants (known as the Mac Dynasty) continued to rule Ha Tien for about a hundred years, until the area came under direct Vietnamese control in the late 18th century. The colonial French took over in the 19th century, then, during the ‘Vietnam War’, Ha Tien became a base for boat operations along the river following the Cambodian border, and, in the 1970s, the area was subject to cross-border raids by the Khmer Rouge. Today, Ha Tien is prospering from cross-border trade with Cambodia and as a transit point between the two countries and the popular beaches of Phu Quoc Island. Many interesting remnants and enigmatic traces of Ha Tien’s past can be found in and around the town, and there’s still a healthy population of Chinese and Khmer living here.

Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien has an interesting past & is now prospering from cross-border trade & tourism

Despite a recent surge in visitor numbers and investment in major infrastructure projects, including a bridge over the Giang Thanh River and reclaimed land along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, Ha Tien remains a relatively peaceful (certainly by the standards of other Mekong Delta towns), calm, charming and extremely likable little place. The early mornings are busy along the waterfront, where the markets are located, and the cool evenings encourage promenading and a lot of outdoor dining. But, during the middle of the day, the streets of Ha Tien are sleepy and quiet, save only for the rustling of leaves and the twittering of thousands swifts nesting in the rooftops, where their saliva-built nests are harvested for their medicinal properties. Indeed, during the hottest hours of the day, Ha Tien puts me in mind of Con Son, the tiny, sleepy, crumbling, seafront village on the Con Dao Islands, way out in the East Sea. It may have an appealingly soporific air, but Ha Tien certainly isn’t boring: there’s a lot to see and do in and around the town, and it’s just the right size to be able to get to grips with during your stay. There’s a good balance of the new and the old, the charming and the raw, the natural and the urban, the left alone and the developed.

Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien remains a relatively calm and peaceful town with old shophouses and temples

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SEE & DO:


There are plenty of things to see and do in and around Ha Tien: from the bustling to the serene, the strenuous to the relaxing, by foot or on two wheels. I’ve organized the following things to see and do into several categories:

Walking:

Ha Tien is excellent for walking. Its small, manageable size, riverside location, and quiet, shady backstreets make Ha Tien easily and comfortably navigable on foot (very rare in Vietnamese towns and cities). Strolling along the length of the waterfront road and then looping back through the grid of smaller streets, is a great way to get your bearings and appreciate the town’s layout. From the lively riverfront, where Ha Tien’s main markets are, to the breezy lakeside promenade (Dong Ho Street), and the sleepy but charming backstreets, exploring Ha Tien on foot is rewarding and fun. With the exception of the beaches, caves and Ngoc Tien Monastery, all sights in Ha Tien are walkable. Although it can be very hot and humid during the middle of the day, Ha Tien generally receives a breeze; either off the river, the hills, or the sea. Ha Tien would also be perfect for cycling, and I’d hope to see some of the hotels start renting bicycles to guests in the near future.

Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien’s leafy, shady & quiet streets are great for walking: this is rare in Vietnam

Apart from Tran Phu and Mac Thien Tich streets, which are relatively busy and unpleasant, walking on any of the streets between the To Chau Bridge to the west and Dong Ho Street to the east is good. Walking from your hotel to any of the temples and pagodas, stopping at some of the places to eat and drink along the way, is an excellent way to spend a half or whole day in Ha Tien. What’s more, walking increases the chances of random encounters and ‘discoveries’: striking up conversation with a local when asking for directions, finding a hidden cafe during the heat of the day, stopping at a streetside food vendor for a snack, spying a crumbling colonial relic, ducking into the shade of a obscure temple – these are all experiences likely to come as a result of exploring Ha Tien on foot.

Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamWalking is a great way to soak up Ha Tien’s atmosphere & admire some of its old architecture

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Markets:

Ha Tien’s ‘market zone‘ is a destination in itself. Recently relocated to near the riverfront, the ‘market zone’ is home to several different markets in four large, hanger-like structures, all of which are teeming with people and produce. There’s a dry goods market (Chợ Bách Hóa), a night market (Chợ Đêm), and three separate wet markets: one for vegetables and meat (Chợ Rau-Thịt), one for fish (Chợ Cá) and one for cooked food, flowers and fruits (Chợ Ăn Uống-Hoa-Trái Cây). Each of these markets has its own building or zone. The markets are arranged in a T-shape with the riverfront to the south, Tran Phu Street to the north, and the To Chau Bridge to the west. The dry goods and wet markets are at their best in the early mornings, between 5am-9am, when the produce is fresh and the customers numerous. The night market gets going from dusk (around 5.30pm) until 10pm.

Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamSeveral different markets occupy Ha Tien’s ‘market zone’, located near the riverfront

The fish market (Chợ Cá) is right on the riverfront, where many of Ha Tien’s fishing boats unload their catch in the early mornings. Fish and shellfish of all varieties – from the rivers and the sea – are transferred from the boats to the quay and then organized for sale in the market building: gutted, chopped, washed, and displayed for the customers to bargain over and buy. Get here before dawn to watch the scene unfold. It’s a fascinating spectacle and the produce is remarkably fresh.

The vegetable & meat (Chợ Rau-Thịt) and flower & fruit (Chợ Hoa-Trái Cây) markets are on either side of the fish market. Again, the produce looks fresh and clean. Browsing the colourful tropical fruits and trying to identify the myriad kinds of herbs and spices is a reminder of how fertile the Mekong Delta is. I particularly like the cooked food section, where you can try some of the region’s famous noodle soups, such as bún mắm.

Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamThe meat, fish & vegetable markets are busiest during the mornings, when produce is fresh

Between the fish market and the dry goods market, an open-air piazza of sorts is where the night market (Chợ Đêm) takes place. The majority of stalls, protected from the elements by marquees, sell trinkets, clothes, and various tourist tat. But it’s worth having a look around; for a souvenir perhaps. Along the periphery of the night market are some excellent street food outlets. But, unlike the wet markets, the night market is definitely aimed at tourists – foreign and domestic – which means, sadly, that overcharging is common: make sure you bargain (politely but firmly). Another part of the night market is located by the riverside, in front of the fish market, where seafood stalls set up around dusk.

The dry goods market faces onto Tran Phu Street. It’s a graceless building and the most enclosed of all the markets. But inside it’s cool and calm; a labyrinth or clothes and cuddly toys, among other things.

Street food, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamThere are some excellent street food stalls around Ha Tien’s night market

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Temples & Pagodas:

Given the mysterious force of Ha Tien’s fabulous location, it’s perhaps not surprising that the surrounding hills, and the town itself, are covered in temples, shrines, and pagodas. From hilltop Buddhist monasteries to the Chinese-style tombs of the Mac Dynasty, Ha Tien has a host of interesting religious buildings to visit, which reflect the town’s history.

Tam Bao Temple, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien has dozens of temples, pagodas, churches and other places of worship


The Hill of Tombs [MAP]: Dedicated to the dynasty of Chinese immigrants who ruled Ha Tien for most of the 18th century, this lush hillside to the west of town is the site of dozens of tombs of the Mac family. A stone pathway, under a canopy of tropical trees, leads between all the tombs, including that of Mac Cuu, the founder of the dynasty. His tomb, constructed in 1809 at the behest of Vietnamese Emperor Gia Long, is a circular platform cut into the hillside and decorated with figurines and stone dragons. While not particularly impressive, the Hill of Tombs is a very atmospheric and peaceful place to be. Even if you’re not interested in the history of Ha Tien it still makes for a pleasant walk among the trees. At the bottom of the hill, near the entrance, an attractive temple to the Mac Dynasty, built in 1846, is worth a look. Inside, the incense-filled shrine is decorated with various regalia and some delicate Chinese-style wall paintings. If you continue on the pathway through the tombs, it leads up and over the hill and down the other side to the back of Phu Dung Pagoda. During my visit this complex was being revamped, but it includes several tombs and fine sculptures. Entrance to the hill and temple is free: they can be reached on foot from most Ha Tien hotels.

Hill of Tombs, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamA statue atop the tomb of Mac Cuu (1655-1735) on the lush & peaceful Hill of Tombs


Tam Bao Pagoda [MAP]: A block east of the Hill of Tombs, Tam Bao Pagoda is said to have been founded by Mac Cuu in 1730, although its immaculate condition suggests many renovations and additions over the years. The gardens and chambers are attractive and highly decorated with statues of the Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy, and famous monks. This is Technicolor Buddhism, with garish pinks and yellows and elaborate statuary, so don’t come here expecting a sense of history and times passed. Behind the main temple are the tombs of 16 monks in a peaceful garden. Like many temples in Vietnam, the atmosphere of calm and quiet within the temple complex belies the excessive kitschness of the ornamentation.

Tam Bao temple, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamTechnicolor Buddhism: a bright and garish altar inside Tam Bao pagoda


Local Temples: Ha Tien is dotted with small and intriguing local temples. Most are still active places of worship, but some, particularly on the outskirts of town, have been left to decay; taken over by moss and tropical foliage, their walls and roofs caving in, their purpose forgotten, even by local people. As you walk around town, you’ll notice these little temples – on a corner in the shade of a tree, squeezed between two new townhouses, or crumbling in a field of herbs and elephant grass. I couldn’t find much information about the few abandoned temples around town; local people simply said they were very old, dating from before French colonial times, but couldn’t offer any more details. However, the sight of these old temples adds a sense of mystery to Ha Tien, which I very much like. I haven’t marked them on my map, but you’ll notice these temple if you pass by.

Abandoned temple, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamAn abandoned, overgrown local temple on the outskirts of Ha Tien


Of the other small, active temples in town, Chùa Bà Mã Châu and Chùa Ông Bổn are worth popping into. The former is a small, bright place with pretty, decorative roof tiles, and wooden columns and beams; the latter dates from 1880 (according to the lovely old man who looks after it) and is filled with elaborate relief sculptures and wall paintings, including one of the ship that carried Mac Cuu from China to Ha Tien in 17th century. There are many other temples, shrines and pagodas on the streets of Ha Tien. What they may lack in grandeur and size, they make up for in atmosphere and colour – all of them are serene, cool, fragrant spaces filled with painted surfaces and flowers. All the temples are walking distance from most hotels. Entrance is free.

Ba Ma Chau temple, Ha Tien, VietnamLooking out from Chua Ba Ma Chau temple on the quiet streets of Ha Tien


Ngoc Tien Monastery [MAP]: On the south bank of the Giang Thanh River, Ngoc Tien Monastery occupies a commanding position on the slopes of To Chau hill, looking down over Ha Tien and the confluence of the river, lake and canal. Painted yellow and red, this sprawling Buddhist monastery is visible from almost every street in Ha Tien, across the river. Accessed via a narrow alleyway and a long, steep staircase winding up the hill and through the monastery chambers, Ngoc Tien is not remarkable for its architecture or decoration, but for its panoramic views of Ha Tien and the surrounding area. Follow the stairs right to the top where a series of terraced concrete steps make a perfect viewing platform. Mornings or late afternoons are the best times to see the views, which stretch over Ha Tien and upriver to Cambodia. From here you get a real sense of how Ha Tien fits into the landscape: hugging the banks of the Giang Thanh River and Dong Ho Lake, protected and hidden by the limestone hills to the north and south, with easy access to the sea to the west. The pathway up to the monastery is off Nam Ho Street, signposted down an alley: ‘Tịnh Xá Ngọc Tiên. You can walk or take a taxi from most hotels in Ha Tien. Entrance is free.

Ngoc Tien Monastery, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamView over Dong Ho Lake & the Giang Thanh River from the top of Ngoc Tien Monastery

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Caves:

Just north of Ha Tien, the limestone hills straddling the Cambodian border are riddled with caves. Many of these are considered sacred and act as shrines to spirits and deities. Paved roads lead from Ha Tien and around the base of the limestone pinnacles. It’s a very short but scenic road trip by rented motorbike out to the caves of Thach Dong and Nui Da Dung. Inside, the caves are decorated with statues, and offer welcome respite from the heat of the day. Away from QL80, the main road to the Cambodian border gate, it’s very quiet and the scenery is some of the loveliest in the Mekong Delta region: limestone hills rise from green rice paddies where grey buffalo bathe eye-deep in muddy pools, behind which the stupa-topped hills of Cambodia are just a stone’s throw away. The caves of Thach Dong and Nui Da Dung are set up for visitors to walk around and can be visited as part of a loop, including Mui Nai beach, making a very worthwhile day or half day excursion from Ha Tien.

Buffalo in rice fields, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamA trip out of Ha Tien to the caves is a good way to experience the local countryside

Heading north on Road QL80 out of Ha Tien, Thach Dong is a few kilometres on the right (entrance 10,000vnd; open dawn til dusk). In 1978, the Khmer Rouge, in one of their many cross-border raids, massacred 130 people here; a plaque by the entrance to the caves commemorates this event. The caves are inside a limestone crag. Despite being a popular domestic tourist attraction there’s not that much to hold your interest here, although the caves do have an eerie atmosphere and are adorned with statues of the Taoist Jade Emperor and Goddess of Mercy. But the next cave system is far more rewarding. Bear right (due northeast) at the base of Thach Dong along a beautiful back road (signposted to Da Dung) lined with Lontar palms and leading close to the Cambodia border until it reaches a wall of limestone: this is Nui Da Dung.

Back road, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamScenic back roads link Thach Dong Cave with Nui Da Dung limestone hill

The imposing, jungle-clad hill is honeycombed with cavities, all of which are linked via a long, winding, and beautiful walkway. It’s an impressive (and surprisingly hot and strenuous) trek through all 14 of the hill’s caverns. Many of the caves house religious statues, altars, and shrines, with burning incense spiraling up through shafts of light, adding a fragrant aroma to the smells of damp and bat guano that permeate the caverns. Entrance is 10,000vnd and there’s a map of the walkway with each cave marked on it at the start of the climb (watch out for the ‘child guides’ at the beginning of the pathway, who will expect money in return for their information).

Nui Da Dung Cave, Ha Tien, VietnamNui Da Dung is riddled with caves that can be accessed via a steep & scenic walkway

When I visited, I was the only person there: it was great fun clambering up the steps and through the caves, stopping on stone balconies, hewn out of the rock, to take in the fabulous views over the flooded rice fields of Cambodia, north towards the Cardamon Mountains and west to the Gulf of Thailand. At one point on the walk, you are essentially in Cambodia. Indeed, my phone sent a roaming message: ‘Welcome to Cambodia’. However, on the evidence of the carelessly discarded trash on the walkway, I’d guess that, during weekends and public holidays, the caves are popular with domestic tour groups. Try to visit during the middle of the day on a weekday to avoid potential crowds. Remember to bring water and a flashlight, because some of the caves are dimly (but attractively) lit and the walkway is occasionally treacherous and tight.

View of rice fields from Da Dung Mountain, Ha Tien, Mekong DeltaFrom Nui Da Dung there are excellent views over to the Cambodian rice fields & hills

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Beaches:

Just west of Ha Tien, a hilly, forested promontory sticks out into the Gulf of Thailand: this is known as Mui Nai. Popular with domestic tourists on weekends and holidays, but wonderfully deserted on most other days, Mui Nai is essentially Ha Tien’s beach. It’s easy to take a taxi from Ha Tien to the beach, but a hired motorbike is a lot more fun (see Transportation for details). Follow Số 6 Street west from the junction at the end of the To Chau Bridge. This takes you through a newly developed plot of reclaimed land at the mouth of the Giang Thanh River. Follow Số 6 to its end and turn left, continuing west until you hit Núi Đèn Street. Turn left and follow this road as it leads along the seafront, all the way around the tip of the promontory, and north to two pretty bays: this is Mui Nai beach. It’s a very scenic ride on good, quiet roads.

Road to Mui Nai Beach, Ha Tien, VietnamNui Den Street follows the pretty coastline around Mui Nai Cape to the beach

Of the two, the second beach (the one further to the north) is probably the nicest. On busy days, you might have to pay a small entrance fee at the kiosks, but I’ve never been asked to. In general (but especially during the dry season: December to May), the water is exceptionally calm, and the views over to Phu Quoc Island and the Cambodian mountains are good. The sand is dark and sometimes a bit muddy, but the water is balmy, shallow, and great for bathing (safe for young children, too). There are lots of waterfront seafood restaurants who also rent deck chairs for sitting on the beach and use of their showers. There’s even a kind of hillside roller coaster, a zip line, and a sea slide.

Mui Nai Beach, Kien Giang Province, Ha Tien, VietnamMui Nai is essentially Ha Tien’s beach: the water is usually very calm & good for bathing

Low-end development dominates the beaches here, but most of it is well-organised. When busy, Mui Nai can become a bit of a messy tourist trap, but when quiet, it’s rather lovely: sitting under the shade of an umbrella tree, eating fresh crab with a cold beer, watching the sun set behind the Cambodian islands. To create a loop back to Ha Tien, head north from Mui Nai beach on Bà Lý road until it meets QL80. From here, either turn right (due south) on QL80 back to town, or follow the back roads along the Cambodian border via the caves of Nui Da Dung and Thach Dong, as outlined in the Caves section. (It’s also possible to stay on Mui Nai beach: see Accommodation for more details). A small archipelago called Đảo Hải Tặc (Pirate Islands) is accessible by ferry from Ha Tien, but at the time of writing the islands were closed to foreign visitors.

Mui Nai Beach, Kien Giang Province, Ha Tien, VietnamThere’s a string of development on Mui Nai Beach, including restaurants & mini-hotels

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ACCOMMODATION:


Ha Tien has lots of good-value accommodation for budget travellers. There are also several places to stay at nearby Mui Nai beach. A couple of mid-range hotels offer smarter rooms but, as yet, there are no luxury options in Ha Tien, although I’m sure that’ll change in the near future.

The following hotels, in each category, are in order of my own personal preference. You can book rooms directly from this page by clicking the BOOK HERE links: any bookings made from this page will help to support this website:

*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & all my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the Agoda links & search boxes on my site, like the ones on this page. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.

Ha Tien's waterfront, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien has many good-value budget hotels, especially near its breezy waterfront


Budget:

There are dozens of hotels for budget travellers in Ha Tien. Excellent mini-hotels and guesthouses have sprung up all over town, mostly catering to travellers (foreign and Vietnamese) hopping between the Cambodian beaches and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island. These are my favourites:

Hai Yen Hotel: 15 To Chau Street; 077 3851 580; [MAP] Straddling the quiet corner of To Chau and Chi Lang streets, Hai Yen Hotel is in the east of Ha Tien, near the confluence of the Dong Ho Lake and the Giang Thanh River. A white-painted five-storey building, the hotel offers dozens of rooms, all of which have either balconies or windows. Particularly nice (and excellent value for money) are the corner rooms on the higher floors, which have views over the lake, river, town and surrounding hills. All rooms are bright, spacious, clean, comfortable, and feature everything you’d expect: hot water showers, air-con, towels, tea and coffee, mini-refrigerator, WiFi, and TV. Staff are efficient and the entire property is kept spotless. Hai Yen Hotel is away from the main cluster of hotels around the markets, which works in its favour: it’s a lot quieter, leafy, laid-back, and less touristy here. All of Ha Tien’s sights are within walking distance and staff can arrange boat tickets to Phu Quoc Island. Rooms for 1-4 people are between 200,000-500,000vnd.

Hai Yen Hotel, Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, VietnamHai Yen is my pick of the budget hotels: clean, bright & away from the main tourist area


Hai Van Hotel: 55 Lam Son Street; www.khachsanhaivan.com; [MAP] Located a couple blocks back from the riverfront, Hai Van Hotel occupies a shady corner at the intersection of Lam Son and Cau Cau streets, just opposite Ong Bon temple. Its quiet, attractive back-street location, away from the hot bustle of the waterfront, is part of the hotel’s appeal. The cheaper rooms in the old wing are fine if you’re on a real budget, but pay a couple of dollars extra for a room in the new wing and you’ll be rewarded with a balcony with city and river views. This hotel is comfortable, well-run, and tidy: a classic, good-value, Vietnamese mini-hotel. Prices range from 200,000-400,000vnd.

Du Hung Hotel 2: 12-13-14 Tran Hau Street; 077 3950 5556[MAP] Du Hung has two hotels on Ha Tien’s high street (Tran Hau), of which the second is the better one. There’s a spacious foyer and reception area downstairs which opens onto the relatively busy main street; a back entrance leads out to the riverfront. This is a fairly large, centrally located hotel with lots of rooms, making it popular with groups. Guest rooms are very clean and tastefully furnished. Make sure you get one with a window, because some of the cheaper rooms are dark and windowless. In particular, the large VIP and Family rooms are good value for money. Rooms can sleep between 2 and 8 people and range from $12-$30BOOK HERE

Hai Phuong Hotel: 52 Dang Thuy Tram Street; 077 3852 240; [MAP] Between Ha Tien’s main street and the waterfront, Hai Phuong Hotel has long been the town’s go-to backpacker accommodation. And for good reason: rooms (of which there are plenty) are cheap, bright, comfortable, clean, and quiet, and staff can arrange all onward travel to Phu Quoc and Cambodia. If you’re a solo traveller, there’s a good chance of meeting others here to share your travel stories with and perhaps continue on the road together. Most rooms have balconies with river views. It’s well-situated for access to the riverfront promenade, markets, and food outlets on Tran Hau Street. Rooms range from $10-$20BOOK HERE

Hai Phuong Hotel, Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, VietnamHai Phuong is a popular budget hotel for backpackers travelling to/from Cambodia


Long Chau Hotel: 36-37-38 Truong Sa Street; 077 3959 189; [MAP] On either side of the ‘market zone‘ there are dozens of budget hotels and guesthouses covering several blocks. The best of these is Long Chau. With a waterfront position that’s perfect for people watching and observing the river traffic as it comes and goes throughout the day, Long Chau offers nicely presented, very clean rooms. Try to get a room with a balcony as they have excellent views of the Giang Thanh River flowing out to sea and the To Chau hills to the east. The only problem is noise, especially around dusk, when the riverside night market gets going and the loudspeakers next door play recorded sounds of twittering swifts in order to encourage them to nest. Average prices are $12-$20. BOOK HERE

Phao Dai Hotel: 1 Mac Thien Tich; 077 3851 849; [MAP] This is a rather strange place with the potential to become one of Ha Tien’s fanciest lodgings. Occupying a perfect position atop a hillock on the left of the To Chau Bridge as it comes into town, the hotel grounds look out over all of Ha Tien to the north and east, and the Gulf of Thailand to the south and west. There’s even an outdoor pool. However, the hotel itself doesn’t do justice (yet) to its terrific location. The old and new wings have decent rooms with city views (but rooms in the new wing are much nicer). However, there’s the distinctive whiff of officialdom and business about the place, which means there’s also a fair amount of ‘comfort women’ coming and going. Prices are between 350,000-500,000vnd.

Room at Hai Phuong Hotel, Ha Tien, Kien Giang Province, VietnamRooms in Ha Tien’s mini-hotels are typically clean & tidy like this one at Hai Phuong

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Mid-Range:

River Hotel Ha Tien: www.riverhotelvn.com; [MAP] A multi-storey structure of curving glass right on the riverfront, it’s difficult to miss the River Hotel, currently Ha Tien’s plushest accommodation. On weekends and public holidays it’s popular with large tour groups, but during the week it can be almost empty. Rooms are spacious, clean, tastefully furnished, and receive lots of natural light thanks to the large windows. The views over the river, hills, and town are fabulous (although there are no balconies, only windows). Prices include a buffet breakfast and use of the hotel’s pool, which is sadly too small to get excited about. With Deluxe corner rooms for as little as $40, the River Hotel is good value for the standard of accommodation on offer. Its position on the waterfront means that eveything in Ha Tien is within easy walking distance. It’s a shame that they haven’t utilized their rooftop to create Ha Tien’s first ‘sky bar’ – cocktails up there at dusk would have been great fun. Average rates are from $30-$60. BOOK HERE

Ha Tien Hotel: 36 Tran Hau Street; [MAP] This hotel sits on a corner on Ha Tien’s main street, opposite the riverfront park. It has an appealing air of faded importance, almost like an old colonial building. Rooms are fine, especially the ones with little balconies, but you don’t get much more for your money here than at cheaper hotels, such as Hai Yen. Rates are between $25-$35. BOOK HERE

River Hotel, Ha Tien waterfront, Mekong Delta, VietnamThe River Hotel on the waterfront is Ha Tien’s plushest & most modern lodgings

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Mui Nai Beach:

As well as the two mid-range accommodations listed below, there are a handful of cheaper guesthouses scattered between the waterfront restaurants that line much of Mui Nai beach.

Doi Nai Vang Resort: Bãi Sau (Back Beach), Mui Nai promontory; www.doinaivang.com[MAP] Accessed via a steep, narrow lane leading to the top of a hillock protruding into the bay, Doi Nai Vang Resort enjoys a good position. Although aimed mostly at the domestic market, this resort has decent rooms in brick and tile bungalows with terraces looking over tropical plants and the flat waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Rooms are fairly simple (for the price) but comfortable. There’s easy access to a stoney bit of beach, with Phu Quoc and the Cambodian islands visible to the north and west. Spending a weekday here (avoid weekends when it can become noisy and crowded) makes a nice change from staying in ‘downtown’ Ha Tien, which is only 10-15 minutes away by taxi or hired motorbike. Room rates are from $40-$50. BOOK HERE

Nui Den Resort: Nui Den Street, Mui Nai promontory; www.nuidenhatienresort.com; [MAP] Sitting at the foot of Nui Den hill, right at the tip of Mui Nai promontory, this resort has a dozen or so concrete chalets set in gardens on the hillside. It’s a lush setting and there’s also access to the top of Nui Den hill, where the views are stupendous. Rooms are well-appointed and include terraces with good views. There’s a decent swimming pool and a waterfront restaurant. Swimming in the sea from the coast road is also good. Room rates are from $25-$40. BOOK HERE

Mui Nai Beach, Kien Giang Province, Ha Tien, VietnamMui Nai Beach has several accommodation options to stay by the sea for a night or two

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FOOD & DRINK:


Ha Tien’s casual dining scene is fantastic. From riverfront seafood stalls to back-street noodle soup vendors, there are a lot of tasty dishes at very reasonable prices all over town. Drawing on culinary influences from the Khmer and Chinese (both of whom still make up a large percentage of the population here) and sourcing ingredients from the local region – fruit, vegetables, and rice from the fertile fields of the Mekong Delta; fish from the Giang Thanh River and the Gulf of Thailand – food in Ha Tien is exciting and delicious. Dining ambience is very local, informal and, more often than not, al fresco. For travellers missing the comfort foods (and drinks) of home, you are well-catered for at Andy’s Oasis Bar. Although there may be English menus at some of the riverfront seafood restaurants and hotels, most street food outlets will list their dishes in Vietnamese only. But, follow my suggestions below, and you should be fine:

Bún cá fish noodle soup, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien has some fantastic food, most of which is locally sourced & very inexpensive


Breakfast:

In the mornings, head to Lam Son, a shady and charming street with plenty of breakfast options. Near where the old market used to be, at the intersection with Tuan Phu Dat Street, several local food stalls serve up Mekong Delta soups, such as bún mắm (a pungent fish and egg plant concoction) and bún cá (fish noodle soup), or bánh hỏi (a light and balanced arrangement of rice noodle lattices with accoutrements). Dishes are around a dollar (25,000vnd) each, and you can enjoy your breakfast surrounded by the sound of chirping birds and local women gossiping about food, money, cooking, and the weather.

Bánh hỏi rice noodle latices, Ha Tien, VietnamBreakfast: take a seat at one of the food stalls on Lam Son street. This dish is bánh hỏi

Further up Lam Son, at the corner with Nguyen Than Hien Street, Ms Diep sets up her stall from 7.30am outside the crumbling but handsome facade of the old house at number 49. She serves delicious bún thịt nem nướng (cold rice noodles with marinated grilled pork) and gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls) for around 25,000vnd. Meanwhile, at Andy’s Oasis Bar (30 Tran Hau Street), the full English breakfasts are the real deal, and good value at 90,000vnd, but you’ll have to wait until 9am until they open. They also have English Breakfast tea and cafetière coffee.

Bún thịt nướng noodles & pork, Ha Tien, VietnamMs Diep prepares bún thịt nướng (cold noodles with grilled pork) on Lam Son street

Miến Gà Thúy is a long-established Ha Tien chicken noodle soup stall, next to number 9 on Tran Hau Street, the town’s main drag. The soup is hearty and good, but I wish Ms Thúy was as good at pouring on the charm as she is at pouring on the broth. (35,000vnd a bowl; open all day).

The main market complex is good for food throughout the day. For breakfast, head to the Chợ Ăn Uống-Hoa-Trái Cây (Food, Drink, Flower & Fruit Market). Inside, there are dozens of small food stalls offering a variety of Vietnamese soups, including bún kèn (a fish soup from nearby Phu Quoc Island). This is canteen-style eating; it’s where market workers and fishermen come to eat after their early morning’s work is over.

Noodle soup vendor, Ha Tien market, Mekong Delta, VietnamThe cooked food section of Ha Tien market is a good place to find regional noodle soups

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Lunch:

Hong Ngoc (62 Tran Hau) is a good place to pick up a classic bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette) loaded with all the goodies you’d expect: roast pork, cold cuts, pâté, egg, chillies, coriander. Great for a quick and inexpensive breakfast or lunch, or to take with you for a picnic while out exploring the town (15,000vnd).

At the middle of Tran Hau Street are a couple of informal Vietnamese common rice eateries. I love these kind of places: choose from over a dozen home-cooked meat, fish, and vegetable dishes to have over rice. Cơm Ánh Tuyết (63 Tran Hau) is a favourite lunch-stop for locals and domestic tourists alike (25,000vnd per plate).

Thanks to the large Buddhist monasteries and temple complexes in and around Ha Tien, there are a few vegetarian restaurants around town. Look out for signs saying cơm chay. Try Thiện Tâm (138 Mac Thien Tich).

Cơm bình dân (rice eatery), Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamLocal rice eateries (cơm bình dân) are a tasty & inexpensive way to fill-up at lunchtime

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Dinner:

Mì Nghĩa, at the intersection of Chi Lang and Bach Dang streets, serves good mì hoành thánh (fresh egg noodles with wonton dumplings and shrimp crackers), a Chinese dish that’s popular all over southern Vietnam (25,000vnd; open evenings only).

In the evenings, check out the line of street food stalls behind the back of the Chợ Bách Hóa (Dry Goods Market). There’s a range of tasty treats available here, but in particular try to find Ms Thuyen’s stall, which is on the left corner behind Chợ Bách Hóa. Ms Thuyen and her mum have been selling street food for 40 years. Choose from hủ tíu xào (stir-fried Chinese-style noodles), bánh xèo (savoury crispy pancakes), bún nem nướng (cold noodles with spring rolls), and trứng vịt lộn (the famous fetal duck egg). The food is very good but, as with many of the food stalls around the markets in the evenings, overcharging of foreigners is fairly common. Sadly, this is an inevitable consequence of increasing visitor numbers to Ha Tien. The prices are still very reasonable, so don’t get angry, and bargain politely if you must. Once you head away from the markets and the riverfront (i.e., away from the tourist area), you are very unlikely to be overcharged.

Street food, Ha Tien Night Market, Mekong Delta, VietnamMs Thuyen’s stall, on the fringes of Ha Tien’s Night Market, serves excellent street food

At dusk, informal, alfresco seafood restaurants set up tables and chairs along the waterfront. This is Ha Tien’s Chợ Đêm (Night Market). As you’d expect, the seafood is very fresh: dozens of varieties of shellfish, snails, and fish are displayed along the street. Prices are more than I would normally expect to pay, but the quality is good and the setting is nice. However, for more of a local ambience, head further east up the seafront, beyond the River Hotel, to Hải Sản Bờ Kè (10 Dang Thuy Tram). Prices here are almost half those at the Night Market, and I really enjoyed the food – they even have English translations for most items on the menu. (For more about how to eat and order shellfish take a look at this guide.)

Seafood on display, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamSeafood is good & fresh in Ha Tien: try it at the alfresco restaurants on the waterfront

A couple of kilometres out of town, due south along the coast on QL80, several seafood shacks open before sunset by the beach. Set under coconut palms and other tropical fruit trees, these eateries offer fresh seafood and superb sunset views over the mirror-flat waters of the Gulf of Thailand. It’s well-worth exploring. There are also dozens of fresh seafood restaurants lining Mui Nai beach, west of Ha Tien centre.

The Giang Thanh River waterfront, Ha Tien, VietnamAt night, tables & chairs line the riverfront promenade, offering snacks & drinks

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Drinks & Dessert:

Ha Tien can get very hot during the middle of the day and in the afternoons. Shelter from the heat by stopping for a drink at the floating cafe on Dong Ho Street. Thủy Tiên, which I think means ‘Water Fairy’ (referring to the myth of the fairies on Dong Ho Lake), sells decent coffee and is a good place to catch the breeze off the lake while watching the boats. Alternatively, order a cold drink (try the orange juice with no sugar; cam vắt không đường) in the shady and agreeable courtyard of Xuan Mai Cafe, straddling both To Chau and Bach Dang streets.

Thuy Tien floating cafe, Ha Tien, VietnamThuy Tien floating cafe is a good place to catch the breeze during the afternoon heat

After dinner, follow the riverfront east towards where it begins to bend northwards and becomes the Dong Ho Lake. At night, a few Vietnamese dessert and juice stalls set up along the riverside park here. Try some chè (the classic local dessert; iced, gooey, fruity, sweet concoctions in a glass) or sinh tố (fruit and condensed milk smoothies). It’s pleasant and cool by the water at night. Even further still along the waterfront road (Dong Ho Street), cafes line the embankment with plastic decks chairs and fairly lights. Young local couples head here for a romantic night out, drinking coffee and eating ice cream. It’s a nice spot, with the town’s lights reflected in the water, but the atmosphere is sometimes spoiled by loud pop music from one of the cafes. (All of the above drinks and desserts are between 10,000-20,000vnd.)

Fresh orange juice, Xuan Mai Cafe, Ha Tien, VietnamStop by Xuan Mai Cafe in the backstreets for a refreshing glass of iced orange juice

Last but certainly not least, Andy’s Oasis Bar (30 Tran Hau Street) is the place for an excellent gin and tonic (and many, many other drinks besides) from sunset onwards. Andy, a long-term British expat, is good company and he’ll help you sift through his eclectic and tempting menu of classic Western fare and some ‘homey’ dishes from back in the UK, such as black pudding. This is the place to meet other travellers, expats, and English-speaking locals. Andy’s friend, Mr The (0918 574 780), is a local guide and fixer: between the two of them, they can fill you in on pretty much everything Ha Tien-related, as well as help arrange local travel and sightseeing. Prices at Oasis Bar are very reasonable.

Coffee at Andy's Oasis Bar, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamAndy’s Oasis Bar offers many international dishes & drinks, including cafetiere coffee

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TRANSPORTATION:


Ha Tien is easily reached by bus from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and most major cities within the Mekong Delta region. In addition, Ha Tien is one of the most popular border crossings between Vietnam and Cambodia, and there are connections from here to Cambodian destinations, such as Kampot, Kep, Sihanoukville, and Phnom Penh. By sea, regular passenger and vehicle ferries connect Ha Tien with Phu Quoc Island. The nearest airport is Rach Gia (90km) which has daily flights to Saigon. Ha Tien can also be reached by motorbike via a scenic route through the Delta from Saigon. See below for more details:

River barges on Dong Ho Lake, Ha Tien, VietnamRiver barges on the Giang Thanh River: Ha Tien is well-connected by road & sea


Around Town:

Local taxis serve Ha Tien fairly well. Mai Linh Taxi (0773 966 966) has a fleet of cars that are great for getting to/from the ferry terminals and bus station, or for a quick trip out of town to Mui Nai beach or the nearby caves. Any hotel can call a taxi for you. Although Ha Tien is a good town for walking, a motorbike is a great way to visit the outlying attractions, particularly the scenic loop north and west of town via the caves and beaches. Ask at Oasis Bar, where Andy will put you in contact with Mr The (0918 574 780) who’ll arrange a rental motorbike for you (150,000-200,000vnd per day). I think Ha Tien would be a great place to cycle around, but as yet no one seems to be renting bikes. I hope this is something that starts to catch on, because Ha Tien and its environs would make a pleasant cycle ride.

Quiet streets, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamHa Tien’s quiet, pretty streets are great for walking or riding, but taxis are available too

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By Bus:

Regular buses run in both directions between Ha Tien and Saigon every hour or two throughout the day. However, the most comfortable buses are the sleeper coaches, which usually leave between 7am-10am and 7pm-10pm. Tickets are around 150,000-250,000vnd; journey time is roughly 9 hours. If possible, try to book onto a reliable bus company, such as Phuong Trang (Futa) and Kumho. The Ha Tien bus station has recently relocated across the river and is relatively smart and user-friendly as far as Vietnamese bus stations go. Tickets can be booked at the station or, just as easily, through hotels, travel agencies, and Andy’s Oasis Bar (30 Tran Hau) in town. From Saigon, buses leave from the gigantic, inconveniently-located Mien Tay Bus Station (395 Kinh Duong Vuong, Binh Tan District) from where you can catch a taxi or local bus into the city centre.

Ha Tien’s bus station also serves dozens of destinations within the Mekong Delta, with regular connections to Rach Gia, Chau Doc, Long Xuyen, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Ca Mau among many others. Ticket prices to any of these destinations are between 70,000-150,000vnd.

The main road from Saigon to Ha Tien, VietnamComfortable sleeper buses regularly connect Ha Tien with Saigon, using main roads

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By Boat:

Ha Tien has rapidly overtaken Rach Gia as the major port for boats to Phu Quoc Island. Fast passenger ferries run at least 4 times daily in both directions, and slow car ferries also sail around 4 times a day (there are many more sailings during peak months). Sailing time is 90 minutes/2.5 hours fast/slow boat. Tickets can be booked at the fast boat ferry pier or the car ferry pier, both of which are located across the Giang Thanh River from Ha Tien centre. However, most hotels and travel agencies can easily book tickets too. In general, most of the fast boats are operated by Superdong, and the car ferries are operated by Thanh Thoi. For full details about the boat between Ha Tien and Phu Quoc Island, including ticket prices and sailing times, see my Phu Quoc Ferry Guide.

There are daily passenger boats to Tien Hai, part of a small archipelago west of Ha Tien, known as Hải Tặc (Pirate Islands). Sadly, at the time of writing, these islands were closed to foreign travellers, although Vietnamese tourists could visit freely. This is subject to change, so it’s worth asking when you are in Ha Tien.

The slow car ferry to Phu Quoc, Ha Tien, VietnamThe car ferry in Ha Tien dock: there are many sailings each day to & from Phu Quoc Island

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By Motorbike, Bicycle, Car: 

It’s a long road trip from Saigon to Ha Tien, but it’s also one of the prettiest ways to see Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. By staying off the main highways as much as possible, the ride from Saigon to Ha Tien can be a lot of fun, and there’s plenty of good scenery and places of interest to stop at along the way. The distance is 300km, making it a one- or two-day ride by motorbike. By bicycle, this is not a bad route either, because the Delta is very flat so the riding is relatively easy. For detailed route information take a look at these two motorbike guides: Saigon to Phu Quoc and Mountains in the Mekong.

Riding to Ha Tien by motorbike, VietnamRiding to Ha Tien from Saigon takes you through some of the best bits of the Mekong Delta

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By Air:

Vietnam Airlines has one daily flight between Rach Gia and Saigon. Flights in both directions leave between 6am-7am; flight time is just 40 minutes. Tickets are $30/$70 one-way/return. From Rach Gia there are regular buses to Ha Tien (90km; 2 hours).

Fly from Saigon to Rach GiaThere are daily flights between Saigon and Rach Gia, 90km from Ha Tien

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To Cambodia: 

Ever since it opened several years ago, the border crossing near Ha Tien has been a great boon to travellers, allowing them to connect the popular beach destinations of Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island and Cambodia’s southwest coast. Hotels, travel agencies, and Oasis Bar (30 Tran Hau) in Ha Tien can all offer advice and arrange through transportation to Cambodian destinations, such as Kampot, Kep, Sihanoukville, and Phnom Penh. If you book onto any of these through trips it’s a lot easier than crossing the border alone and relying on public transportation on either side of the border. Also, the through tickets sometimes include the Cambodian visa. The Xa Xia-Prek Chak border gate is just a few kilometres north of Ha Tien town centre. The Vietnamese side is fairly scruffy, but the Cambodian side is pretty new and surrounded by giant casinos. Cambodian visas are issued on arrival for around $30. However, prices and procedures are subject to change, so it’s always best to check the current situation by popping into Oasis Bar before making plans to cross to Cambodia. In general, most travellers in Ha Tien are either on their way to or from Cambodia, so there’s a lot of information and agencies catering to this route. Always ask around and compare prices and opinions before committing to anything.

Close to the Cambodian border, Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, VietnamInto Cambodia…..


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The Ocean Road: Saigon to Mui Ne http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-ocean-road-saigon-to-mui-ne-2/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-ocean-road-saigon-to-mui-ne-2/#comments Wed, 09 Aug 2017 12:33:34 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23256 Continue reading ]]> Last updated August 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | MORE POSTS

The Ocean Road is the scenic route between Saigon and Mui Ne. Skirting the deserted coastline for much of its length, occasionally ducking inland through cashew trees and dragon fruit plantations, over white salt flats and green rice fields, past hot springs, hilltop pagodas, and dusty villages where ox-drawn carts full of sun-dried hay linger in the heat, the Ocean Road is a destination in itself. It may be longer than the direct route on Highway 1, but the Ocean Road is a far more rewarding, scenic, and relaxing way to travel between Saigon and Mui Ne. An easy, feel-good road trip, with a good balance of off-the-beaten-track experiences and creature comforts, this is my comprehensive guide to the Ocean Road, including places to stay, eat, see, and swim along the way.

The Ocean Road: Saigon to Mui Ne, VietnamThe Ocean Road is the most enjoyable route between Saigon and Mui Ne

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GUIDE: OCEAN ROAD: SAIGON TO MUI NE


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 270km
  • Duration: 1-5 days
  • Route: the scenic, coastal route from Saigon to Mui Ne [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: new highways, good coast roads, potholed sections, light traffic
  • Scenery: beaches, fishing villages, sand dunes, fruit plantations, green hills, beach towns


ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:

  • SECTION 1: Saigon to Ba Ria (via Cat Lai ferry): 80km
  • SECTION 2Ba Ria-Long Hai-Phuoc Hai-Loc An-River Ray: 40km
  • SECTION 3River Ray-Ho Tram-Ho Coc-Binh Chau: 30km
  • SECTION 4Binh Chau-Lagi-Ta Cu Mountain-Ke Ga: 65km
  • SECTION 5Ke Ga-Tien Thanh-Phan Thiet-Mui Ne: 55km

ABOUT THIS ROUTE:

Of all the roads in Vietnam, I’ve probably ridden the Ocean Road more than any other. As such, this is a long guide. But I’ve broken it down into five easy sections, so that readers can go directly to the part they’re focusing on. The total distance is only 270km, making it possible to ride the entire length in one full day. However, if you have time, there are lots of places to stop, see, stay and eat along the way: you could spend a very enjoyable week trundling up the Ocean Road from Saigon to Mui Ne. In each section, I’ve included recommendations of places to visit, things to see, food and drink, and accommodation options in all price categories. Because there are many places of interest on the Ocean Road, my map is a bit cluttered: zoom in on the relevant section to see it more clearly. Anytime of year is good for this route. The weather is driest from November to April, but the colours are best from May to October. Once in Mui Ne, there are many ways to extend this road trip: see my recommended extensions at the end of Section 5 for more details.

The Ocean Road: Saigon to Mui Ne by motorbike, VietnamThe Ocean Road stretches 270km from Saigon along the coast to Mui Ne

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ROUTE MAP:

The Ocean Road: Saigon to Mui Ne | 270km


View in a LARGER MAP

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SECTION 1

Route: Saigon to Ba Ria (via Cat Lai ferry) | Distance: 80km [MAP]

As always, leave Saigon early: under cover of darkness, before dawn. Do this and you’ll avoid the horrors of exiting the city during the busy hours: when the crush of the crowded suburbs, the dust and smog of the industrial estates, and the trucks and exhaust of the highway can be so bleak as to dampen your mood for the rest of the day. Even though this road trip utilizes the ‘back way’ out of Saigon, it can still be pretty grim if you hit it at the wrong time of day. Ideally, aim to leave Saigon between 4:00-4:30am: any later and it’s already too late.

Dawn on the Saigon River, VietnamLeave Saigon before dawn if you want to avoid the traffic getting out of the city

Head east out of the city towards the docks on the Dong Nai River. Take the Cat Lai Ferry across the wide and muddy waters, as the dawn light starts to glimmer on the horizon. (Ferries operate 24 hours a day: every 15 minutes during the daytime and every 30 minutes during the night; tickets are 3,000vnd per motorbike/person; the crossing takes 5-10 minutes.) The docks are often busy with large container ships, whose cliff-like hulls dwarf the traditional wooden river barges and tugboats scuttling between them. Downriver (due west) are the silhouettes of Phu My Bridge and the high-rise apartments of Saigon. It’s a short ferry crossing, but it’s dense with interesting goings on. Once on the other side, you’re out Saigon and have arrived in Dong Nai Province.

Cat Lai Ferry, Saigon, VietnamThe Cat Lai Ferry across the Dong Nai River is the ‘back route’ out of Saigon

Riding east after the ferry on roads DT769 and HL13, little pockets of greenery in the form of roadside vegetation, allotments, and rubber tree plantations are a relief after the urbanity of Saigon. Hammocks swing under rubber trees where makeshift wooden shacks covered in blue tarpaulin sell fresh fruit in season: jackfruit, durian, coconut, avocado. But it’s a false dawn, because it’s not long before HL13 ploughs through the choked industrial zone of Nhon Trach, until coming to an end at Highway QL51 (also marked AH17).

Rubber plantations, Dong Nai Province, VietnamRubber plantations: the first sign of greenery….before Nhon Trach industrial zone

The ride from Saigon to Highway QL51 takes about an hour. Turn right (due south) onto the highway. Despite receiving a massive upgrade a few years ago, transforming this route into a 6-8 lane expressway, QL51 can still be a nasty ride full of trucks, dust and danger. Ride carefully and watch out for the beige-uniformed traffic police lurking by the roadside (you can usually tell where they are before you see them, because all the vehicles in front of you will suddenly pull together into one lane and slow right down). Traffic can be quite bad up until Phu My, but subsides considerably after it. It’s only an hours’ ride on Highway QL51 to Ba Ria, but if you need a break consider stopping for a bánh bao 69 (large, fluffy, steamed rice flour dumplings filled with pork, mushrooms and quail egg). There are dozens of roadside kiosks selling them for 15,000vnd each. Bánh bao 69 got its name because this part of the highway is supposedly 69km from Saigon, and 69 is a special number in Vietnam: 6=fortune, 9=longevity. It’s not a particularly pretty ride to Ba Ria, but there are lots of grand new pagodas lining the highway and, after Phu My, green hills rise to the east.

Note: For a shortcut between Highway QL51 and Ho Coc Beach/Binh Chau Hot Springs, follow the red line on my map. Also, you can skip the highway altogether by starting this road trip from Vung Tau and following the red line to join up with the Ocean Road at Long Hai. However, to do this you will need to take the fast boat from Saigon to Vung Tau and rent a motorbike there (try Ned Kelly’s Bar or Belly’s Bar), because no vehicles are permitted on the fast boat.

Banh Bao 69, Highway 51, VietnamBánh Bảo 69 are steamed rice flour dumplings sold by the side of Highway QL51

Ba Ria is an affluent-looking, very agreeable city. Its well-organized streets are laid out on a grid system and lined with flowering trees, making them shady, fragrant and attractive. Ba Ria is also a candidate for Cleanest City in Vietnam: the sidewalks and (most) of the public spaces are spotless. Like Vung Tau, the local economy is buoyed by the oil industry which, I would guess, is where the city gets its gloss. Ba Ria has everything you need for a good rest stop on the road: thriving local markets, supermarkets, motorbike garages, banks, great street food, plenty of good cheap hotels, cafes, and even some interesting architecture in the form of French colonial villas and giant, brand new religious structures, notably the city church. Dozens of nhà nghỉ (local guest houses) cluster around Le Thanh Duy Street. These are OK but cater largely to ‘courting’ couples and prostitutes (Thanh Sang Motel is the best of them: 26-28 Le Thanh Duy; 200,000vnd a night). If that’s not your cup of tea, head over to Bach Dang Street for clean, good-value rooms at Motel Le Hoa (149 Bach Dang; 0643 733 828) or Galaxy 3 Hotel (190 Bach Dang; 0643 734 567), both offering rooms from 220,000-300,000vnd. The leafy grid of back-streets between Nguyen Du and Nguyen Hue streets is filled with cafes, street food outlets and some old french villas, great for exploring in the late afternoons or early mornings. Try the hearty mì quảng noodle soup at Anh Thư Quán (6 Le Loi Street) for breakfast. For dinner, head to Cẩm Thành Hủ Tiếu (113 Bach Dang Street) for excellent wonton noodle soup (order mì hoành thánh). At night, hang with the cool kids at one of the ultra trendy milk tea bars, such as Trà Sữa MM (156 Bach Dang Street). It may not make it onto any foreign traveller’s itinerary, but I really like Ba Ria: it has plenty of small town charm and enough food, drink and markets to keep you busy for a day and a night.

Mì Quảng noodles in Ba Ria, VietnamBreakfast in Ba Ria: a colourful bowl of mì quảng noodles at Anh Tư Quán

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SECTION 2

Route: Ba Ria-Long Hai-Phuoc Hai-Loc An-River Ray | Distance: 40km [MAP]

Road DT44A leads south from Ba Ria to Long Hai, passing scruffy salt fields on the right and green hills on the left. Long Hai is a surprisingly busy town, but it’s also, for better or for worse, the closest beach to Saigon (closer even, by road, than Vung Tau). However, the beach is not great and most of the accommodation and facilities are aimed at domestic tour groups. It can get extremely busy on weekends and public holidays as families from Saigon, desperate to escape the city for a couple of days, flock to Long Hai for a budget break. During the week it’s fairly quiet, and there’s a attractive calm, slow, breezy ambience about the place. Deck chairs and showers are available at the main Municipal Beach (10,000vnd–50,000vnd) but swimming isn’t great because the water is murky. It’s a better idea to head behind the main beach to Mộ Cô pagoda (a very scenic spot commemorating, so I’m told, a drowned female traveller some 200 years ago) and settle down on the nicer, quieter beaches there. Or pay to use the pool at either Bavico Resort (200,000vnd per day) or Doan An Duong 298 Hotel a bit further up the beach (100,000vnd). Long Hai is OK for a night if you don’t have time to go further on the Ocean Road or if you’re running out of daylight.

Long Hai Beach, the Ocean Road, VietnamLong Hai isn’t the best beach but it is the closest beach to Saigon on the Ocean Road

There are dozens of nhà nghỉ (local guest houses) clustered around the main beach (the best of them are behind the big government hotels), all offering decent enough rooms for $10-$15 (try Nhà Nghỉ Nam Long [0643 867 374] or Gia Long Motel [0643 661 894]). An interesting budget option is Zenna Pool Camp, a couple of kilometres out of town. Apart from Bavico Village Resort, Long Hai’s classier resorts are located on another, nicer, beach behind the municipal one. Alma Oasis is the most impressive of these, housed in the former residence of Bao Dai, the last of Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty emperors. There are lots of seafood vendors, beach shacks, and restaurants on the Municipal Beach – Long Hai has a huge fishing fleet, so the fish is nice and fresh. A visit to Dinh Cô pagoda affords good sea views, and taking a ride down some of the narrow backstreets just before reaching the main beach is very interesting, revealing poor but friendly and sun-filled fishing communities eking out a living. The lanes eventually lead down to the working beach which, although covered in trash, is a fascinating place to observe all the fishing-related activities. Long Hai’s market is definitely worth a visit too, especially early in the morning.

Note: If you’re not planning to stop in Long Hai you can bypass it by taking Đường 36 (see the red line), which leads behind the town before rejoining DT44A as it hits the ocean. Alternatively, miss out Long Hai altogether by taking DT44B southeast from Ba Ria, through a pretty landscape of rice fields and hills, before joining the Ocean Road near Loc An (see the red line).

Long Hai Beach, the Ocean Road, VietnamLong Hai is a busy, working beach, full of fishing boats, coracles & fishing communities

Just out of Long Hai, road DT44A meets the ocean for the first time as it rounds a rocky cape with views out to sea and west back towards Vung Tau. This is the start of the Ocean Road proper: from here all the way to Mui Ne, and then beyond to Nha Trang, the road snakes along the coast, ducking inland on several occasions, but always returning to the sea. A salty breeze, mysterious perfumes of unseen flowers, fresh air, space, peace, quiet, and the scent of eucalyptus: this is what the Ocean Road is all about.

The Ocean Road, Saigon to Mui Ne, VietnamThe Ocean Road proper starts just after Long Hai, and continues all the way to Mui Ne

Dripping with tropical foliage, and with green hills on one side and the East Sea on the other, the Ocean Road is in great condition as it ploughs northeast to Phuoc Hai village. Up in the jungled hills above the road, Minh Dam Resistance Base was used, from the 1930s until the end of the wars in 1975, to fight against first the French and later the U.S, ANZAC, and South Vietnamese government troops. A pretty road leads up to the base, where there’s a museum and excellent views. At Phuoc Hai town don’t miss the new quayside road passing along a working beach full of coracles and colourful flags, for marking fishing nets, fluttering in the sea breeze. At the Phuoc Hai intersection, the Ocean Road bears right (due east), heading a little inland past forests, rice fields, longan trees, eucalyptus, bougainvillea, flame trees, mango, banana, cashew and watermelon plantations to Loc An, and then on through mangrove forest before crossing the River Ray. This section, all the way from Long Hai, is peppered with mid-range places to stay, including Tropicana Beach, Bella Vita Hotel, and Loc An Resort, all of which have good-value rooms from $25-$60 (on weekdays) and make decent night stops.

Fishing coracles, Phuoc Hai, VietnamFishing coracles lined up on the beach at Phuoc Hai, seen from the new quayside road

As the River Ray flows into the East Sea it creates an attractive, tree-lined sandbar, with the river on one side and the sea on the other. Accessed by a small paved road bearing right from the menacing-looking (and sounding) Vietsovpetro Resort, the sandbar makes an interesting excursion. There’s camping and accommodation at River Ray Estates and The Beach House.

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SECTION 3

Route: River Ray-Ho Tram-Ho Coc-Binh Chau | Distance: 30km [MAP]

Bearing left at the River Ray sandbar, the the Ocean Road is wide and exposed, entering the up-and-coming beach zones of Ho Tram and Ho Coc. (Note: I’ve written this dedicated guide to Ho Tram and Ho Coc beaches which has much more detail about all the places to stay, eat and see in this area.) Even though, after the opening on The Grand Casino & Resort several years ago, this road is busier than it used to be, it’s still far from being busy. This is easy and enjoyable riding on a good, smooth road surface. Other new high-end developments have opened, or are under construction, all along Ho Tram Beach, but the best is still Ho Tram Boutique. Budget travellers can consider camping or head up the road behind Ho Tram hamlet, where a few mini-hotels are located (much more here). Whatever accommodation you’re staying in, make sure to get dinner at Mỹ Lệ seafood restaurant, where fresh and delicious shellfish, shrimp, crab and fish are cooked to order for a few dollars within metres of the beachfront.

Ho Tram Beach, the Ocean Road, VietnamHo Tram is an up-and-coming beach: this is the view from Ho Tram Boutique Resort

Beyond the high-rise blot of The Grand, an enchanting stand of dense forest creates a vivid backdrop to Ho Coc beach. A long curve of sand, Ho Coc is popular with Saigon youth for a quick weekend getaway, but during the week it’s almost empty. There are several places to stay on this beach, including Ven Ven (which is also a great spot for lunch). If you’re just passing through, all of the beachfront places offer bathing to outside guests for a fee, ranging from 50,000vnd for a deck chair at a beach-side shack, to 100,000vnd at the Saigon-Ho Coc Resort Four Seasons Beach (much more here).

Ho Coc forest, the Ocean Road, VietnamThis forest, near Ven Ven Hotel, creates an attractive backdrop to Ho Coc Beach

From Ho Coc, the Ocean Road continues east to Binh Chau village, skirting an arid and deserted coastline. Windswept and wild, the scenery is some of the most striking on this road trip, with large drifts of sand meeting the sea, and the air salty and invigorating. However, you’ll have to ignore the appalling trash left by the roadside and on the sand by picnickers (sadly, it’s like this along much of the length of the Ocean Road these days).

The Ocean Road near Ho Coc, VietnamA lovely section of the Ocean Road follows right by the sea between Ho Coc & Binh Chau

The coastal stretch ends at the dusty fishing village of Binh Chau. A couple of guest houses line the main street here (notably Hotel Dung Tao), and the food stalls around the market are good for a snack. But Binh Chau’s main attraction is the hot spring just north of town. Accessed via a paved road, the springs are heavily commercialized and practically all owned by the government-run Saigon Tourist. However, the extensive grounds are wonderfully lush, filled with exotic flowers and tropical trees, and, thanks to a recent makeover, there are lots of enjoyable hot spring-related activities and treatments on offer. Although prices have risen steadily over the years, so too has the quality and general aesthetic of the place (although there’s still plenty of ‘Vietnamese kitsch’ on display). Entrance costs a few dollars and then you have to pay extra for any of the activities: mud baths are fun but cost upwards of $10 per person; the main swimming pool, filled with water from the hot spring, is probably the best option. Try to time your visit between 11am-1pm, during which time the large family groups of domestic tourists tend to leave the pool for lunch. Binh Chau Hot Springs is also a resort: the rooms in the Binh Tam building are lovely and have their own hot spring pool; or rent a tent at the weird iRelax Bangkok Resort just down the road. If you have some time (and money) to spare then the hot springs make a good stop for a relaxing couple of hours before hitting the road again.

Mud bath, Binh Chau Hot Springs, VietnamStop for a mud bath or a relaxing dip in the natural hot water springs at Binh Chau

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SECTION 4

Route: Binh Chau-Lagi-Ta Cu Mountain-Ke Ga | Distance: 65km [MAP]

After Binh Chau the Ocean Road joins Highway QL55, heading east towards Lagi. In recent years, this section of road sees increased traffic and is now being widened: expect some road works for the next few months at least. Leading inland through an agricultural landscape of fruit trees, crops fields, rivers, and villages, the ocean is hidden from view for much of the way behind a long, high bank of white sand. In the early mornings, lunchtimes and late afternoons, streams of school children, dressed in white and blue, pour out of the school gates and march along the roadside back to their homes. Seeing a người nước ngoại (a foreigner) on a motorbike, they all shout ‘helllo!’ and wave enthusiastically as you ride by. Some of the roadside cafe võng (hammock cafes) are worth stopping at if you want to soak up the appealing, off-the-beaten-track vibe of this area, watching buffalo wade in the flooded fields under coconut palms.

Working in the rice fields on the Ocean Road, VietnamBetween Binh Chau & Lagi the Ocean Road heads inland through agricultural land

The landscape becomes arid as the road climbs a hillside of powdery white sand, dotted with cashew and eucalyptus trees (beware of traffic police on this hill). Descending the hill on the other side, the sea comes into view once again, and the large fishing town of Lagi sprawls along the coast where the Dinh River empties into the East Sea. At the foot of the hill, turn right (due south) off the main road and towards the sea on Nguyen Du Street. This is the ‘back way’ into Lagi. (Alternatively, if you want to bypass Lagi altogether, continue straight on QL55 until the roundabout, then wind through smaller roads to rejoin the Ocean Road on the other side of town – see the red line.) Nguyen Du leads to Cam Binh public beach, a shady, casuarina-studded bay a few kilometres south of Lagi. The beach is popular with domestic tourists and full of informal, local seafood restaurants. There are lots of cheap nhà nghỉ (local guest houses) lining the entrance to Cam Binh beach. Just around the corner is the spectacularly successful beach camping and party zone, Coco Beachcamp. Even if you’re not planning to stay here, stop in for a beach-side cocktail. From here, Le Minh Cong Street heads up the coast and into Lagi proper. Turn right at the church and left past the main fishing port and along Le Loi high street.

Coco Beachcamp bar, Lagi, VietnamStop by the bar at the ever-popular Coco Beachcamp for a drink by the sea

Lagi is a busy, bustling, noisy place with an impressive fleet of wooden fishing boats, a few good accommodation options, good street food, an interesting market, and a decent beach. It’s a natural night stop between Saigon and Mui Ne, and has the makings of a beach destination in its own right. I’ve always liked it here. Stay in town at Quoc Bao Hotel (151B Le Loi Street; 0623 843 862; 200,000vnd a night) or Ba That Hotel (25 Thong Nhat Street; $25) or, for more peaceful surrounds, head out of town to the beach at Ba That Resort ($30) or Hotel Ngoc Anh (200,000vnd). For dinner, go for delicious bánh xèo on an alleyway off Le Loi Street, where three generations have been cooking these little sizzling savoury pancakes. For breakfast, head to the recently relocated Minh Ky (361 Nguyen Truong To Street) for one of the best bánh mì bò kho (Vietnamese beef stew and baguette) I’ve ever had.

Fishing boats in Lagi, VietnamLagi is a natural stopover on the Ocean Road: the town’s river is crammed with boats

Head northeast out of Lagi on a new stretch of road which eventually links up with DT709 at Dat Lanh Resort. The riding is good but be careful of traffic police who like to patrol this road. After meeting the main road, there’s a large car park on the left. This is the entrance to Dinh Thầy Thím, a famous local temple dating from the late 19th century. There seem to be many ambiguous versions of local myths explaining the reason for the temple and tombs here, and thousands of pilgrims visit each year during a festival held in the 9th lunar month (September/October). It’s an interesting detour if you have time (the temple is actually located along a road behind the carpark). The beach opposite the car park is quite pretty and there are plenty of local places to eat. Mom Da Chim Resort is a good place to stay on a lovely spit of land. For cheaper digs there are several nhà nghỉ guest houses scattered around the car park area (try Nhà Nghỉ My My; 200,000vnd).

Coconuts on at Dat Lanh Resort beach, VietnamThe beach opposite the car park for Thay Thim temple is good: this is Dat Lanh Resort

Stay on DT709 to Tan Hai village, then turn right down a hidden dirt road (soon to be paved), signposted Le Quy Don, for a shortcut over a metal suspension bridge, through dragon fruit plantations and out the other side to join road DT719 heading east. Note: alternatively, make a side trip by riding north from Tan Hai to Ta Cu Mountain (see the red line). A cable car (100,000vnd return) ferries visitors up to a viewing platform with stupendous vistas down over the Ocean Road. Climb the steep steps to a monastery dating from the 19th century, a huge new pagoda complex, and the largest reclining Buddha in Vietnam. A few stark but clean rooms are available to stay the night on the mountain (400,000vnd; inquire at the ticket office on the mountain). This is a good option because, during the day, the mountain can become very crowded with tourists.

Ta Ca Moutnain, the Ocean Road, VietnamTake a side trip to Ta Cu Mountain, visit the reclining Buddha and stay the night

After the shortcut, the Ocean Road suffers from potholes as it crosses flooded salt flats and rice fields with Ta Cu Mountain looming to the north. This is dragon fruit country and you’ll see the spiky, cactus-like plants growing everywhere – its splayed, thick branches always remind me of Sideshow Bob’s hairstyle, from The Simpsons. A fantastic, and very unlikely, budget place to stay in this quiet corner of rural Vietnam is Lara Homestay (run by the same people as Coco Beachcamp). It’s excellent for budget travellers who want to get off the beaten path.

Rice fields on the Ocean Road, VietnamViews over rice fields back towards Ta Cu Mountain from the Ocean Road

Take a right off DT719 to join a wide new road parallel to the coast. Built to facilitate resort construction, this road is largely deserted because the resorts haven’t arrived yet, with the exception of the sleek and elegant Princess D’Annam. Rejoin DT719 as it enters Ke Ga hamlet, famous for its lighthouse. Built on a rocky crag just offshore under the colonial French in 1899, Ke Ga is said to be the oldest lighthouse in Vietnam. The tiny, dusty settlement of Ke Ga sits on a beautiful beach and has become a popular stop for Vietnamese roadtrippers (phượt). It’s a scenic bit of coastline and the best way to see it is by hiring a boat to take you across to the lighthouse, which can be climbed via a spiral staircase, offering superb views up and down the coast. Many places in Ke Ga offer this service: I recommend the Song Bien Cafe (150,000vnd for 1-3 people; 50,000vnd more for each extra passenger) – the cafe is also a good place to sit and enjoy views of the pretty bay. Lu Glamping, recently opened on Ke Ga beach, offers camping under canvas or sleeping in a converted shipping container. The brand new Bien Da Vang Tourist Zone (090 1738 239) has really opened up the Ke Ga Cape, finally exploiting the area’s potential. However, it’s a sprawling, hastily-assembled complex of bungalows, huts, restaurants, cafes, and activity rooms. You can stay the night here in a room or camp (150,000-800,000vnd tents/rooms), which includes free transport over to the lighthouse. It’s a worthwhile night-stop for budget travellers, but not an attractive use of the area.

Ke Ga Lighthouse, the Ocean Road, VietnamWalking along the beach to get a boat across the water to climb the Ke Ga Lighthouse

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SECTION 5

Route: Ke Ga-Tien Thanh-Phan Thiet-Mui Ne | Distance: 55km [MAP]

From Ke Ga, the Ocean Road turns north around the cape and towards Phan Thiet. A wide and windy section of coast road skirting kilometres of inviting beach, there are resorts scattered all along this road at regular intervals. A popular mid-range choice is Rock Water Bay, where the rooms are draped in bougainvillea and the sea often crashes over the rocks and into the resort’s swimming pool. A good cheaper option is Anh Duong Resort (500,000vnd; www.anhduongresort.com). Depending on the wind and weather, the sea can be brilliantly blue and calm, or rather grey and rough. There are a few good spots for wild swimming on deserted sections of beach, but be careful of submerged boulders. A dozen or so informal open-air restaurants and cafes line the road, making good rest stops. This is one of the prettiest sections of the Ocean Road. Unfortunately, once again, you’ll have to ignore the litter left by picnickers by the roadside and on the beaches: god help Vietnam’s countryside if the current attitude to personal litter doesn’t change soon.

Relaxing on a beach on the Ocean Road, VietnamBetween Ke Ga & Phan Thiet there are some great patches of sandy beach to explore

The last 20km to Phan Thiet is a pleasant and easy ride along the coast, passing through the sun-drenched fishing hamlet of Tien Thanh, backed by lush hills and cliffs of red sand. There’s not much budget accommodation along this stretch, but Orchid Boutique is good value for flashpackers, and Green Organic Villas is a gorgeous place to stay for a (relatively reasonable) treat. After this, the road turns inland, making a steep ascent up Cambodia Slope (I’ve no idea how this hill got its name) and down into Phan Thiet City, which fills the wide plain between the East Sea and the foothills of the Truong Son Mountains to the west.

A house in a lush garden on the Ocean Road, VietnamLotus plants grow around an old house on a particularly lush section of the Ocean Road

Phan Thiet is shunned by the majority of travellers in favour of the resorts and long, arcing beach of Mui Ne, just 10 minutes ride east of the city. But I love Phan Thiet. In fact, I prefer it to Mui Ne. A bustling, prospering fishing town with a huge fleet of blue wooden fishing boats, Phan Thiet is a ‘real’ town, whereas Mui Ne is a tourist enclave with very little local life left. Phan Thiet has some of the best seafood I’ve eaten in Vietnam: try it at Thuan Phat restaurant on the banks of the Ca Ty River, which slides through town, providing shelter for hundreds of fishing boats, before emptying in the East Sea. The city has a large, clean and interesting market, and a lively street food scene, including delicious local specialities: try the fresh spring rolls (chả cuốn) filled with grilled pork, herbs and duck egg at Dung Cha Cuon (104 Vo Thi Sau Street), or track down a plate of bánh căn (little spongy savoury pancakes dipped in a tangy fish sauce) on Ton Duc Thang Street. There are loads of cheap guest houses (nhà nghỉ) around town, including Hoa Binh 2 (139 Le Loi Street; 200,000vnd) and Hong Hoa (165 Le Loi Street; 150,000vnd) near the beach. Great value mid-range accommodation can be found at the Ocean Dunes, and Doi Duong Hotel is pretty decent for the price too. The city’s Municipal Beach is looking very attractive these days, as is the riverfront promenade (Pham Van Dong Street) by all the fishing boats. So stay a night in Phan Thiet before heading to the creature comforts of Mui Ne.

Phan Thiet on the Ocean Road, VietnamPhan Thiet is a fascinating town with a large fishing fleet, great food & a decent beach

It’s only a short ride out of Phan Thiet, up and over a hill where the Po Shanu Cham towers still stand, and down into the famous bay of Mui Ne, whose glistening waters and palm-fringed beach spawned a thousand resorts along its 15km seafront. However, the beach is eroding and, although development has been generally low-rise, the entire bay is mostly given over to tourism: accommodation on the ocean side of the road; food and drink on the other. One of the ‘Western comforts’ I like to enjoy here is an excellent kebab at Sindbad’s (233 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street). For what’s left of local life, head to the market in Mui Ne town at the end of the bay, or partake in lẩu dê (goat hotpot), a local speciality, in one of the restaurants near the village of Ham Tien on the seafront road. For budget digs, I’ve always enjoyed Hong Di (70 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street; $10-$20) or Hiep Hoa; my pick of the mid-range options is Bao Quynh Bungalows; and the sprawling tropical gardens of Victoria Resort & Spa and Cham Villas are excellent high-end places to stay.

Fishing boats & coracles in Mui Ne Bay, VietnamBoats & coracles in Mui Ne bay, one of Vietnam’s most popular beach destinations

Extending your Road Trip: From Mui Ne, there are many great options for continuing your road trip. The most obvious is to stay on the Ocean Road as it heads northeast up the coast; linking the Sand Dune Highway, the Dragons’ Graveyard, and the Nui Chua Coast Road all the way to Nha Trang. Alternatively, you could head inland and off the beaten path by taking the Binh Thuan Back-Roads Loop. Or head up to Dalat on QL28 or QL28B, stopping at the Banyan Tree Cafe or Juliet’s Villa, and taking in some waterfalls on the way. Or simply put your bike on the express train from Phan Thiet back to Saigon.

Follow the coast road north of Mui Ne, VietnamExtend your road trip east along the coast or north into the Central Highlands

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VIDEOS: Celebrating 100,000 views http://vietnamcoracle.com/videos-celebrating-100000-views/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/videos-celebrating-100000-views/#comments Thu, 27 Jul 2017 08:42:30 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=22735 Continue reading ]]> First published July 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | VIDEOS | MAP | MORE POSTS

The Vietnam Coracle YouTube channel recently reached 100,000 views. Although I know this is a modest milestone by YouTube standards, I’ve decided to celebrate by compiling the following library of the top 5 most-viewed videos and my own top 5 favourite videos on the Vietnam Coracle channel. I make no claims as a video editor (it takes me days just to create a short, non-flashy, non-technical film), but I’ve enjoyed making these little clips over the last few years and, if nothing else, they serve as good animations to accompany some of the guides, articles, and reviews that I’ve written on Vietnam Coracle. The following videos also demonstrate the variety of my content – from road trips to street food to hotel reviews – and the rich diversity of Vietnam as a travel and food destination. Currently, my channel has 393 subscribers and displays 35 videos. Most of these date from at least a couple of years ago: this is because, as my site and traffic have grown, the demand for new written content has been my primary focus. However, I intend to make more short films in the near future, so if you’d like to subscribe to, or browse, the Vietnam Coracle YouTube channel, you can do so HERE.

Vietnam Coracle YouTube Channel, 100,000 viewsA library of the most-viewed & my personal favourite videos to celebrate this milestone


VIDEOS: THE 5 MOSTVIEWED & MY 5 FAVOURITES


Below, are two separate video libraries, comprising a total of 10 short films. The first library displays the five most-viewed videos on the Vietnam Coracle channel, in descending order. The second library displays my five personal favourite videos on the Vietnam Coracle channel. Before each of the videos, I’ve included the film title, total view-count, run-time, date created, related link to the associated guide which the video is illustrating, and a brief description to give some context to the film. I’ve also plotted the film locations on my map. All videos are best viewed in HD, if the strength and speed of your internet connection allows it. Click a film from one of the libraries below to watch it:

The 5 Most-viewed Videos:

  1. The Con Dao Islands
  2. Bún Mắm Soup
  3. Ho Tram Beach Boutique Resort
  4. Saigon’s Hidden Cafes
  5. Two Months on a Motorbike

My 5 Favourite Videos:

  1. Saigon to Hanoi: Part 2: The Mountains
  2. Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve
  3. Dalat’s Waterfalls
  4. Hon Gom Sandbar
  5. The Saigon River

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MAP:

Film Locations: RED=most-viewed | BLUE=my favourites


View in a LARGER MAP

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VIDEOS: THE 5 MOSTVIEWED


1. The Con Dao Islands:

  • Views: 21,836
  • Run time: 3:44
  • Date created: 6 May, 2013
  • Associated guide: The Con Dao Islands: A Guide
  • Brief note: The runaway leader in terms of number of views, this film showcases one of the most enchanting destinations in Vietnam. Yet, still very few foreign travellers visit this small archipelago, lying in the East Sea off Vietnam’s southeast coast. I remember working fairly obsessively on this video: spending nine straight hours editing it on my beanbag in my home in Saigon. (Nonetheless, see if you can spot the glaring punctuation mistake in the overlay titles.)


Watch on YouTube

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2. Bún Mắm Soup, Saigon:

  • Views: 7,967
  • Run time: 1:54
  • Date created: 4 June, 2013
  • Associated guide: Bún Mắm: the Mekong in a Bowl
  • Brief note: A surprise ‘hit’ on my channel, this film focuses on a strange, pungent and delicious noodle soup called bún mắm. Full of ‘goodies’, chunky bits, and greenery, I first tried (and fell for) this soup at the locally-famous soup house featured in the film, which is just around the corner from my old house in Saigon. It’s a simple video but gives a good idea of what an informal Vietnamese eatery is like.


Watch on YouTube

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3. Ho Tram Beach Boutique Resort:

  • Views: 6,681
  • Run time: 2:56
  • Date created: 10 February, 2014
  • Associated guide: Ho Tram Beach Boutique Resort
  • Brief note: I’m very pleased that this homage to one of my favourite resorts in Vietnam should be the third most-watched video on my channel. Ho Tram Beach Boutique is a delightful place to stay by the ocean, and it’s within easy reach of Saigon. Leafy, calm, beautifully-landscaped, low-rise and low-impact, I’ve been visiting for many years now, with family and friends. Listen to the celestial sound of the fabulous wind chimes at reception in the intro and outro of this film. The Vietnamese soundtrack is suitably nostalgic and charming for a resort such as this.


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4. Saigons Hidden Cafes:

  • Views: 5,012
  • Run time: 2:25
  • Date created: 26 November, 2013
  • Associated guide: Saigon’s Hidden Cafes
  • Brief note: One of Saigon’s greatest strengths is its terrific cafe culture. In particular, the cafes hiding in the city’s nooks and crannies: down dead-end alleyways, deep inside crumbling old apartment complexes, and by the railroad. What makes these cafes even cooler, is that most of them are independently-owned; often run by young Vietnamese entrepreneurs. This film explores some of the locations, decor, and idiosyncrasies of Saigon’s hidden cafes. (Note: the ‘associated guide’ above needs an update – some of the locations of cafes may have changed.)


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5. Two Months on a Motorbike:

  • Views: 4,811
  • Run time: 6:08
  • Date created: 6 November, 2014
  • Associated guide: Two Months on a Motorbike: A Diary
  • Brief note: In the autumn of 2014, I embarked on a 9,000km, two-month motorbike road trip across the length and breadth of Vietnam. This was primarily a research trip, which provided me with material for dozens of future guides and articles. It was, of course, enormous fun, and each day I was on the road I filmed little clips of the life and landscape I encountered. When I returned to Saigon, I edited them together to create a short film that tries to capture the magic of life on the road in Vietnam. Sadly, YouTube has recently muted the film, because it contained a track by Led Zeppelin. So I have substituted the original video with my film of the Northeast Loop instead, which gives a similar feel of what motorbiking Vietnam is like. (If you want to watch the original film [now silent] you can do so here.)


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VIDEOS: MY 5 FAVOURITES


1. Saigon to Hanoi: Part 2: The Mountains

  • Views: 1,808
  • Run time: 4:19
  • Date created: 22 August, 2013
  • Associated guide: Saigon to Hanoi: 5 Suggested Routes
  • Brief note: When I first arrived in Vietnam, in 2005, I made a great friend, Sam. Sam stayed in Vietnam for nine months until, after an aborted attempt to ride the length of the country on a motorbike, he went back to the U.K. Eight years later, Sam returned to Vietnam to finish what he’d started: together we spent three wonderful weeks riding from Saigon to Hanoi. This video captures the second part of that road trip: the mountains.


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2. Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve:

  • Views: 4,038
  • Run time: 2:27
  • Date created: 28 April, 2013
  • Associated guide: Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve
  • Brief note: A couple of hours southwest of Hanoi, Pu Luong is an exceptionally scenic area of lush valleys, jagged limestone peaks, waterfalls, rivers, and bamboo homes clinging to hillsides. A few years ago, homestays started opening in this nature reserve, offering some of the most romantic accommodation you could hope to find. Inevitably, things have changed a bit since then – some of the homestays are now ’boutique eco-resorts’ – but the landscape is as captivating as ever. (Note: the ‘associated guide’ above needs an update – some of the information may have changed.)


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3. Dalat’s Waterfalls:

  • Views: 2,779
  • Run time: 2:45
  • Date created: 2 August, 2014
  • Associated guide: Dalat’s Waterfalls: A Guide
  • Brief note: Dalat is the darling of Vietnam’s Central Highlands region. But, these days, Dalat is a big, busy city. To really appreciate the area, it’s necessary to get out of town and visit the multitude of waterfalls that lie within 30 to 90 minutes’ drive of the city centre. While some of these cascades are kitsch tourist-traps, others are an impressive display of the power of nature. I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun it was to explore Dalat’s waterfalls.


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4. Hon Gom Sandbar:

  • Views: 889
  • Run time: 2:21
  • Date created: 4 July, 2013
  • Associated guide: Hon Gom Sandbar: A Guide
  • Brief note: There are some places in Vietnam that are certain to be major attractions in the future, but, for now, are almost deserted. Hon Gom Sandbar, on the south-central coast, in one such place. A sandy, rocky, and windswept promontory jutting some 30km out into the East Sea, this area is perfect for beachcombers and independent travellers on two wheels looking to get off the beaten track. A wide, new and entirely empty road leads almost all the way to the tip of the sandbar, revealing long stretches of wild beach and hidden coves.


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5. The Saigon River:

  • Views: 874
  • Run time: 3:58
  • Date created: 29 March, 2016
  • Associated guide: The Saigon River: A Guide
  • Brief note: Ever since I first arrived in Saigon, I’ve always enjoyed sitting by the Saigon River: watching its muddy waters sloping past the gleaming new high-rises of downtown, ships passing each other silently on the gentle swell. There’s something hypnotic and even enchanting about the river’s serene and constant progress as it passes through a city that is noisy, fast-paced, and ever-changing. In this film, I’ve tried to capture the serenity and scale of the river, as well as the juxtaposition of this natural body of water with Saigon’s rising skyline.


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The Twin Passes: Cổ Mã & Cả http://vietnamcoracle.com/co-ma-and-ca-pass/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/co-ma-and-ca-pass/#comments Thu, 20 Jul 2017 13:52:41 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=22687 Continue reading ]]> First published July 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | MORE POSTS

Historically, four great passes have always divided what is now Vietnam. These occur at the four points along the coast where spurs from the Truong Son Mountain Range spread eastwards to the sea. When the mountains meet the coast they create natural barriers, dividing the land, people, and culture to the north and south of them. These locations boast some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in Vietnam, where waves crash against sheer walls of black rock, and jungle-covered slopes slide into the ocean. Over time, passes were carved out of the mountains: winding and precarious routes leading up, around, and over the mighty spurs. Of the four great passes, the Hai Van is the most famous. But, for me, the twin passes of the Cổ Mã and Cả, are my favourite. Nowadays, new engineering projects lead under the mountains, rather than over them. And so, in September 2017, two new tunnels are due to open, leaving the Cổ Mã and Cả passes in relative peace, and making them a far more enjoyable and scenic prospect for road-trippers. 

The Twin Pass: Đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamVietnam’s coastline is divided by four famous passes: my favourite are the Cổ Mã Cả passes

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GUIDE: THE CỔ MÃ & CẢ PASSES


I’ve written the following guide as a travelogue of the road trip between the twin passes, including details about the location, a bit of history, a map, and some places to stop and to see along the way. The combined length of the Cổ Mã and Cả passes is only around 20km. You can use Dai Lanh Beach as a base from which to explore the passes, or incorporate this scenic coastal stretch into part of a longer road trip, such as one of my Saigon-to-Hanoi routes. There are also lots of other excellent sights within easy reach of the Cổ Mã and Cả passes, which can easily be reached on two wheels and, when combined with the passes, make a rewarding itinerary (see Related Posts for details).


MAP:

The Twin Passes of Cổ Mã & Cả on Highway 1


View in a LARGER MAP

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The Cổ Mã and Cả passes are 80km north of Nha Trang and 40km south of Tuy Hoa, connecting the provinces of Khanh Hoa and Phu Yen. The passes frame the pretty beach of Dai Lanh, whose wide arc of sand is squeezed between two mountainous headlands, which the Cổ Mã and Cả passes climb up and down. The Cổ Mã Pass lies to the south of Dai Lanh; the Cả Pass is to the north. The former is a short ‘oxbow’ pass, bending around a large, jungle-covered rock-pile as it meets the sea; the latter is a long, winding pass, leading around a high, spreading headland above a calm, blue lagoon, and down the other side into lush farmland. The two passes are both part of Highway 1, Vietnam’s notoriously busy, main artery. However, when two new tunnels open, in September 2017, the highway will lead under the mountains, rendering the passes obsolete, and practically unused by large vehicles (with the exception of gas tankers). Thus, the Cổ Mã and Cả passes will soon be much quieter than any time in the last ten years, ever since heavy traffic began to clog the road. And they will be safer too, with the potential to become a popular and scenic coastal road trip on a par with the more famous Hai Van Pass in Central Vietnam.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamTwo new tunnels, due to open in September 2017, will relieve the twin passes of heavy traffic

The Cổ Mã Pass is a two-kilometre section of road that makes a 180° hook around a rocky bluff and then descends into Dai Lanh, with sweeping views across the gaping bay and broad beach, backed by steep, green mountains. The name ‘Cổ Mã’ means, to the best of my knowledge, ‘horse’s neck’, which presumably refers to the similarity between the sharp bend of the animal’s neck and head, and the bend of the pass as it veers around the bluff. It may be a short pass, but it’s also a very scenic one. At the eastern tip of the bluff, there are expansive views to the south, along the empty beaches of Hon Gom Sandbar, stretching all the way to the horizon, where mainland Vietnam’s most easterly point is located; and to the north, where the fishing village of Dai Lanh nestles in the blue shadow of a mountainous spur, above which you can just make out the meandering course of the Cả Pass, cutting its route through jungle foliage, high above the sea.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamThis is the view from Cổ Mã Pass, looking due north over the sands of Dai Lanh Beach

However, the Cổ Mã Pass is just a teaser; something to whet your appetite before the main event. Because, after dropping into Dai Lanh and skirting the length of its fine, two-kilometre beach, Highway 1 bears northeast, out of the fishing village and up into the green mountains which plunge into the calm blue waters of the East Sea. This is the beginning of the twelve-kilometre Cả Pass. Climbing sharply out of Dai Lanh, the pass immediately opens up superb vistas back across the bay, where dozens of blue fishing boats clustered together just offshore. A little cafe and restaurant, aptly named Hướng Biển (‘Ocean View’), is perched by the roadside not 50 metres after leaving Dai Lanh.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamLooking back down over Dai Lanh bay from the beginning of the Cả Pass

Lush foliage grows above and below the pass, sometimes reaching across the road, obscuring the stunning views out to sea, where a small island with interesting rock formations lies in the deep-blue water. This is the kind of enchanted isle where a Homeric creature might live, lying in wait for a shipwrecked sailor to be washed ashore. Breaks in the foliage afford glimpses of the railroad, clinging to the mountainside several metres below the pass, echoing the course of the road. Freshwater springs, coming off the higher slopes, are utilized by truck drivers, who take the opportunity to wash the caked-mud and dusk from their long, dirty haulage vehicles. I once cycled this pass, in 2005, not long after I’d arrived in Vietnam. After pedaling to the top in 35°C heat, I took advantage of these springs by standing beneath one of them for 10 minutes, after having paid a few cents to one of the locals who control the springs by funneling the water into jets.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamLush: dense jungle foliage grows on the slopes above and below the Cả Pass

The pass winds on, corkscrewing through hairpin bends straddling the green and rocky slopes, below which lies nothing but broken boulders and sea. But, despite the steep pitch of the mountainside, the lower slopes, beneath the road, are cultivated and planted with mango and star fruit trees. The higher slopes appear wilder: overgrown, threatening, and untamed. There’s something powerful and awesome about a good mountain pass. It’s a clash of man and nature: the road and the mountain locked in a constant battle, with the man-made structure fighting to prevail over the relentless push of the elements. Along the central section of the Cả Pass, when flat, stable land is nowhere to be seen, giant boulders threaten to roll off the mountain, tumbling towards the road; the crash barriers are dented from rockfalls and accidents; roadside shrines mark the sites of past casualties; and the heat, if it’s a sunny day, becomes more intense, or the rain, if it’s a stormy day, becomes heavier. Black exhaust spews from the backs of trucks and buses, crawling and hauling their way up the incline at a slow and painful pace.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamPrecarious: loose boulders, steep drops, and heavy traffic are hazards on the Cả Pass

Steep and winding, lush and lofty, scary yet thrilling, spectacular yet terrifying: these are all things that a good, memorable pass should be. But the Cả Pass has always been spoiled by the traffic, which, on reaching the incline, slows and struggles and pushes until it comes to a complete stop: a clot of traffic on a vein of asphalt. In some ways, this lends even more theatre to the spectacle of the pass: the long convoy of stationary vehicles stretching all the way around the mountainside, its impeded progress visible for kilometres in the distance. But this is also a dangerous pass. Because, when the vehicles aren’t hampered, some of the driving is horrendous. Drivers, bored and infuriated by the slow crawl up the pass, let out their frustrations by flying down the other side, including articulated lorries overtaking on blind corners next to near-vertical drops of hundreds of feet onto the rocks below. It’s the kind of maniacal driving that makes your blood boil. In the case of some of the long-distance truck and bus drivers, it’s difficult not to conclude that they have lost their minds: hours each day cooped up in the driver’s cabin on hot, busy, chaotic roads for little financial reward finally breaking their sanity. But, mercifully, this should immediately and completely change once the tunnels open, taking the vast majority of heavy traffic away from the pass, and leaving motorcyclists, cyclists, and ‘leisure drivers’ to enjoy this road in relative safety. The sooner the better, because I shudder to think how many lives have been needlessly lost on this pass over the years.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamSome of the driving is atrocious, but this will soon change, once the tunnels open in September 2017

Like the Hai Van Pass before it (whose underpass opened in 2005), the new tunnels should breathe new life into this area as a whole, but especially the Cả Pass. Because, not only is this pass one of the most scenic sections of coast road in Vietnam, as a natural barrier and frontier between peoples and cultures it’s also been the scene of many historic battles over the past 500 years. The Vietnamese clashed with the Cham here, as the former pushed their way southwards, conquering what is now southern Vietnam; centuries later, Vietnamese rulers fought each other for power at the Cả Pass; and, most recently, skirmishes between the Viet Minh and the colonial French flared up along the pass, as the former fought for their independence in the 1940s and 1950s. Rich in natural beauty and historical significance, the Cả Pass has the potential to be just as famous and popular as the Hai Van Pass, but this will only happen once the tunnels open and draw the heavy traffic away.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamAs a natural boundary, the Cả Pass has been the scene of many battles over the last 500 years

As the pass begins to turn northwards, the mountainside becomes increasingly unstable; made up of loose rocks and giant boulders. At one point, however, it’s as if the boulders have coalesced to form one sheer face of what I assume is granite. This wall of dark, bare rock protrudes into the bay, creating a formidable obstacle for the pass to negotiate. The road is chiseled out of the rock, producing an overhang which bears down on the vehicles as they pass through what is known as ‘Cua Đá Đen’ (Black Rock Gate).

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamThe ‘Black Rock Gate’ is where the Cả Pass cuts through a sheer wall of granite

After passing through the ‘Black Rock Gate’, a spectacular, bright-blue lagoon opens up beneath the pass. This is the fabulous Vung Ro Bay, a natural harbour circled by high, forested hills, and dotted with fishing boats and floating fish farms. Vung Ro port shelters at the western end of the bay, a sinister sight with its large oil drums, tankers anchored to a long jetty, and queues of unmarked trucks covered in military-green tarpaulin, waiting by the docks.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamFabulous sweeping views over Vung Ro Bay, seen from near the top of the Cả Pass

Presiding over the entire scene, at the top of the highest peak in the area, is Đá Bia, an 80-metre-high pillar of freestanding solid rock, looming above the pass like an colossal sculpture of an ancient god. From here, the pass snakes up to its highest point, at over 1,000 feet. It’s noticeably cooler, and this is often the point at which the weather changes: one side of the pass might be in bright sunshine, while the other could be in cloud and rain. A small and scruffy cafe offers some refreshments, where you can gaze over the lush fields and valleys of Phu Yen Province to the north, and back down over the blue bays and rocky promontories of Khanh Hoa Province to the south. (To visit Vung Ro Bay, turn east at the summit, down a beautiful road leading along the coast to Mon Beach.)

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamThe colossal stone peak of Đá Bia Mountain, which looms over the summit of the Cả Pass

The north side of the Cả Pass is a steep series of wide switchbacks, descending sharply beneath the colossal rocks of Đá Bia. Traffic can become severely bottle-necked on this section, as articulated trucks struggle to round the tight corners, hauling their heavy loads behind them, which often look in danger of overturning. But, of course, this won’t be the case for much longer….after the tunnels open. Halfway down, a small parking lot indicates the beginning of a long, steep and winding pathway, leading to the mountaintop where the stone pillars stand, known as Núi Đá Bia. Weather permitting, the views from the top are stupendous. A couple of other inviting-looking rest stops line this section of road, taking advantage of streams and gullies amid the jungle foliage.

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamView north from the top of the Cả Pass, looking over the lush valleys of Phu Yen Province

As the road begins to level out, it runs alongside the railroad once more, through an expansive valley of vivid-green rice paddies. The bottom of the Cả Pass leads into large boulder-fields scattered around ponds, lakes and streams. The hills are planted with eucalyptus trees and dotted with red-brick homes. This is where the tunnel, when it opens, will exit from beneath the mountain and join Highway 1. The road straightens, stretching across acres of heavily-cultivated farmland and the wide, flat floodplains of the Da Rang River, before crossing the long bridge into Tuy Hoa City, the capital of Phu Yen Province. (For ideas about how extend this road trip and other interesting excursions in the area, take a look at the Related Posts below).

The Twin Passes: đèo Cổ Mã & Cả, VietnamAt the bottom of the Cả Pass, Highway 1 ploughs through acres of rice fields to Tuy Hoa


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