Vietnam Coracle http://vietnamcoracle.com Independent Travel Guides to Vietnam Thu, 26 Apr 2018 13:44:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.6 Local BBQ in Phong Nha http://vietnamcoracle.com/local-bbq-in-phong-nha/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/local-bbq-in-phong-nha/#respond Thu, 26 Apr 2018 13:13:01 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=25528 Continue reading ]]> First published April 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

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Arriving in Phong Nha recently, via the incredible scenery on the Western Ho Chi Minh Road, my friends and I slammed on our brakes as with entered a cloud of barbecue-scented smoke. Through the fog, we saw meats rotating on a spit above hot coals and we instantly knew we had to stop and eat. Quán Bình Hoa is a local BBQ joint about 5-10 minutes’ ride north of all the mini-hotels, hostels, and Western-oriented bars and diners of Phong Nha town proper. Located on the south side of the Ho Chi Minh Road (QL16) as it passes through the small settlement of Phúc Trạch, Quán Bình Hoa is a classic informal Vietnamese roadside eatery, specializing in grilled meats and good times. We had one hell of a meal here as dusk fell on the limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Crunchy roast pork, whole spit-roasted duck, barbecued quail stuffed with lemongrass, heaped plates of baby clams with fiery chillies, freshwater ‘sucking’ snails, and grilled ox tail. This place is a meat feast, and the atmosphere – groups of locals huddled around low tables chatting, drinking, and gnawing – is half the fun.

Quán Bình Hoa BBQ, Phong Nha, VietnamA 5-10 minute ride north of Phong Nha town, Quán Bình Hoa serves an excellent local BBQ

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GUIDE: LOCAL BBQ IN PHONG NHA


Address: Ho Chi Minh Road, Phúc Trạch village, Quảng Bình Province

Phone: 0911 271 913 | Open: dusk till late | Price: 50,000-150,000vnd per person


MAP:

Quán Bình Hoa BBQ, near Phong Nha:


View in a LARGER MAP


Quán Bình Hoa should be easy to find: just look for the signage by the roadside. Unfortunately, my GPS wasn’t working when I was there, so the marker on my map is only an approximate location, but I’m pretty confident it’s within 100m or so of the actual location. It really shouldn’t be difficult to go to the general area where my map marker is and find it within minutes; it’ll likely be engulfed in a cloud of meat smoke. If you’re struggling, you can always ask a passing local, ‘Quán Bình Hoa ở đâu? (Where is it?).

Quán Bình Hoa BBQ, Phong Nha, VietnamBình Hoa BBQ should be easy to fine: look for the yellow signage with red text on the roadside

Quán Bình Hoa is actually quite a large eatery, with two bare concrete structures housing dozens of tables and chairs for diners to sit, eat, drink, and be merry. Try to get here around sunset (5-6pm is about right), when the light is starting to fade and local life begins to animate the shopfronts, stalls, schools, and cafes lining the Ho Chi Minh Road.

Quán Bình Hoa BBQ, Phong Nha, VietnamThe BBQ at Quán Bình Hoa is out front, next to the Ho Chi Minh Road: try to get here around 5-6pm

Hardly any English is spoken but that shouldn’t be a hindrance to ordering: Vietnamese, especially in the countryside, are generally excellent at communicating by gesticulation and sign language. Just point at the meat rotating over the coals and that will get the ordering process started. As a rough guide, here are some translations of what you can eat at Quán Bình Hoa: heo quay (roast pork ribs and belly), vịt quay (whole barbecued duck), cút quay (whole roasted quail), đuôi heo/đuôi bò chiên (fried pig/ox tail), hến xào (baby clams fried in lemongrass and chilli), ốc hút nhỏ (tiny snails that you suck out of the shell). There’s more besides, and all of the above are served with various sides and accoutrements, such as large sesame rice crackers, heaps of fresh herbs, pickled green papaya, steamed rice, and homemade dipping sauces to die for, including chilli, garlic and lemongrass paste, and a fiery garlic fish sauce. Oh and there’s local beer too: Huda is the preferred brand here, served over ice, of course.

Quán Bình Hoa BBQ, Phong Nha, VietnamA typical spread at Quán Bình Hoa: roast meats, rice crackers, clams, fresh herbs, dipping sauces & beer

The family running Quán Bình Hoa are nice and friendly. Every family member has their role: the wife takes orders and deals with the fried dishes in the kitchen, while her 14-year-old son takes charge of the BBQ on the sidewalk; her daughters (babies in their arms) serve drinks to customers, and grandma stands over the wood-burning hearth out back, heating the rice porridge.

Quán Bình Hoa BBQ, Phong Nha, VietnamThe owners and customers at Quán Bình Hoa are friendly and fun, and happy to welcome foreign diners

Prices are very reasonable: our meat feast for three people worked out at around 100,000vnd ($4) per person. Try to come here with a group of friends; be hungry, order everything, and enjoy it. At some point in the evening one of the other groups of diners will probably invite you over for a round of drinks, and from there the night could go anywhere. The food and atmosphere at Quán Bình Hoa are fantastic and, personally, I found it was a relief to be in a local eatery, away from the backpacker enclave that Phong Nha town has become; not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s nice to be able to access some local life too, not just English-language menus and posters for cave tours. For many visitors to Phong Nha, the go-to BBQ joint is The Pub with Cold Beer, which is justifiably famous for its chicken and peanut sauce, and has received worldwide press. The food at Quán Bình Hoa is, in my opinion, on a par: you don’t get the riverside location that The Pub with Cold Beer has, but you do get a very local atmosphere with local people. If you’re visiting Phong Nha and you like your BBQ, it’s a lot of fun to try both places and see how you find the differences between them in terms of food and atmosphere.

Quán Bình Hoa BBQ, Phong Nha, VietnamThe food & atmosphere at Quán Bình Hoa are excellent: I had a memorable feast here with my friends

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 BBQ eatery and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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The Juice Lady, Saigon http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-juice-lady-saigon/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-juice-lady-saigon/#comments Fri, 13 Apr 2018 03:44:29 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=25437 Continue reading ]]> First published April 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

In Saigon, neighbourhoods are essentially networks of alleyways. Among other things, each tangle of alleys has its own local rice eatery, noodle house, ‘everything shop’ (selling household necessities, such as toiletries, fish sauce, eggs and so on), and juice stall. In my local neighbourhood, the latter is somewhere I’ve only recently started to take advantage of. Now, however, I go there every day for fresh fruit juices and smoothies. Our local juice lady is just one of thousands in the city, but, as many expats and locals will tell you, one becomes very attached to one’s own local stalls and stores. Our juice lady is called Diệu. She’s in her middle age with young children who live with her at her juice stall, which she’s been running for a decade. Orange juice, passion fruit juice, and fresh coconuts – brimful with naturally sweet coconut water – are my personal daily orders, but there’s plenty more besides: smoothies made from tropical fruits and vegetables, juice blends, sugar cane juice, sweet snacks, and coffee. This is a brief ode to my local juice lady in Saigon, including some useful Vietnamese phrases for how to order juices and smoothies without the sugar and condensed milk which is so often added to drinks in Vietnam.

The Juice Lady, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamMy local juice lady, Diệu, serves fresh fruit & vegetable juices & smoothies throughout the day

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GUIDE: THE JUICE LADY, SAIGON


Address: Cu Xa U Tau, Ward 25, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City 

Open: dawn till dusk daily | Prices: 10,000-20,000vnd ($0.50-$1)


MAP:

My local Juice Lady, Saigon:


View in a LARGER MAP


Diệu works on her stall on an alleyway just off Ung Van Khiem Street, in Binh Thanh District. Ung Van Khiem is a horrible road, but, as is so often the case in Saigon, as soon as you duck down alleyway Cư Xá U Tàu all the noise and traffic disappear, and you’re suddenly in a local nieghbourhood. I live around the corner from here, and I’ve written about other local places that I regularly frequent in my area, such as the Cô Ba Lài Soup House and Hải Đăng Vegetarian Eatery, as well as a short film of my neighbourhood. But it was only a few weeks ago that one of my housemates brought our local juice lady to my attention. While he’d been loading up on fresh juices and smoothies every day for the last few months, I’d been missing out.

The Juice Lady, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamDiệu’s juice stall is down an alleyway off Ung Van Khiem Street, in Binh Thanh District

Happily, I now visit our juice lady every day: for a fresh orange juice or passion fruit juice over ice without sugar (nước cam/nước chanh dây không đường có đá) in the mornings, and for a fresh coconut (trái dừa tươi) and iced sugar cane juice (nước mía đá) in the afternoons, to replenish my body after playing tennis in the midday sun. I sometimes go in the evenings, too, for a freshly blended mango smoothie without sugar or condensed milk (sinh tố xoài không sữa không đường). In many ways, our juice lady has changed my daily diet.

The Juice Lady, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamA couple of coconuts, an orange juice, and a sapodilla and coffee shake in the morning sun at Diệu’s

Diệu’s opening hours are essentially dawn till dusk. She works hard (as do most of Saigon’s thousands of streetside sellers of food and drink), but maintains a generally friendly disposition. Sometimes, when she’s tired, her smile wanes, as if the effort of engaging her facial muscles is too exhausting after such a long day. Diệu’s home, behind the juice stall, is small, cramped, and in pretty poor condition. But her juice stall is kept fairly tidy and, as with almost all street vendors, Diệu is fastidious when it comes to organization and service. There’s a regular flow of customers throughout the day: school students, labourers, local businessmen, other food vendors on a break, and just passersby with a thirst. Diệu deals with hundreds of orders each day, managing to keep it all ticking over almost entirely by herself. She has one juicer, one blender, a press, and a separate sugar cane press of the type you see all over the city. It’s a simple, small setup.

The Juice Lady, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamDiệu’s set-up is small, simple, organized & efficient: she serves hundreds of customers every day

Out front of her stall, all the fresh fruits and vegetables are displayed in a bowl – mangoes (xoài), avocados (), oranges (cam), passion fruits (chanh dây), sapodilla (sapoche), carrots (cà rốt), winter melons (bí đao), tomatoes (cà chua), coconuts (dừa), apples (táo), soursop (mãng cầu), limes (chanh), calamansi (tác), strawberries (dâu) and any others that happen to be in season. Her shelves hold jars of sugar, condensed milk, peanuts, biscuits, cakes and various other sugar-filled accoutrements that negate any of the health benefits of the juices and smoothies. Because many Vietnamese customers have added sugar or condensed milk with their juices and smoothies, this has become the default serving. If, like me, you prefer not to have sugar or condensed milk, you have to state it clearly when you make your order. This should be pretty easy: just point at the fruits and/or vegetables that you want and then say ‘không sữa/không đường‘ (no milk/no sugar). The word for juice is nước ép or just nước, and smoothie is sinh tố. Apart from all the possible combinations of fruits and vegetables (you can be as creative as you like when choosing which to combine in your juice or smoothie), one particularly good but unexpected combo that two of my housemates discovered is the sapodilla and coffee shake (sinh tố sapoche cà phê).

The Juice Lady, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamFresh fruits & vegetables: you can pick & choose which combination you’d like for your juice or smoothie

In the morning, the fruits and vegetables are freshest and the air is cool enough to sit outside on the plastic furniture. Lunchtimes there’s a pleasant buzz on the alleyway as, between 11.00am-12.30pm, local workers stop in for a drink and the diners at the rice eatery opposite spill over to Diệu’s stall. Late afternoons, too, in the cooler temperatures and soft light, is a nice time to be here. Although it’s pleasant enough to sit outside at the juice stall and watch alley life unfold, most of Diệu’s customers get their drinks to take away.

The Juice Lady, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThe fruits & vegetables are at their freshest & most colourful in the mornings at Diệu’s juice stall

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 juice stall and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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25 of the Greatest Riding Roads in Vietnam http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-greatest-riding-roads-in-vietnam/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-greatest-riding-roads-in-vietnam/#comments Wed, 04 Apr 2018 11:36:30 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23645 Continue reading ]]> First published April 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTIONGUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Vietnam might have some of the best riding roads in the world. Over the years I’ve been running this website, dozens of motorbiking enthusiasts (who have ridden extensively in countries across the globe) have written to say that, with the possible exceptions of northern India, Nepal, and parts of Andean South America, Vietnam has offered some of the greatest riding roads in the world. For my part, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to over 40 countries, and still the roads in Vietnam continue to amaze me. Although I don’t claim to have ridden all the roads in Vietnam, and this list is, of course, entirely subjective, I have spent the best part of the last decade riding almost 200,000km around the country: taking in every province and always looking for great scenery, new roads, interesting places, good food, and engaging people. Based on this experience, I have compiled a list of what I consider to be some of the greatest riding roads in Vietnam.

25 of the Greatest Riding Roads in Vietnam

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GUIDE: 25 OF THE GREATEST RIDING ROADS IN VIETNAM

In this article, I am concerned only with paved roads: not trails or off-road. The latter is a completely different kind of riding, of which I don’t have sufficient experience to write about. For the purposes of this article, the criteria that roads must meet (with a few exceptions) in order to make it onto my list are: smooth surface, good-to-reasonable condition, great scenery, twists and turns, climbs and descents, meanders and straights, light traffic, and decent width. In short, these roads are all enjoyable to ride, relatively safe, and pass through fantastic landscape. However, this is not simply a list of the most scenic roads in Vietnam, because many which fit that description fall short when it comes to road quality. As mentioned in the introduction, neither I nor anyone else can claim to have ridden all of Vietnam’s roads: that would be preposterous. My only qualifications for writing this list are the time I’ve spent on Vietnam’s roads and the distance I’ve covered. Based on this experience, I’ve created the following list of 25 Great Riding Roads in Vietnam. Each road has a description, a photograph, and they are all plotted on my map. (This list is not in order of preference.)

*Please note: road conditions in Vietnam are in a constant state of flux: I can’t guarantee that these roads will be forever ‘great’. You can help by commenting at the bottom of this page about current road conditions or suggesting other great riding roads in Vietnam. Thank you.

Click a road below to read more about it:

MAP:

25 of the Greatest Riding Roads in Vietnam


View in a LARGER MAP

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1. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL3:

  • Route: Cao Bang to Na Phac [MAP]
  • Distance: 80km
  • Province: Cao Bang & Bac Kan
  • Scenery: endless mountains & dense forest cover
  • Road conditions: good two-lane asphalt road, light traffic, occasional landslides
  • Best time of year: March to October

DESCRIPTION: Winding through the mountains of northeast Vietnam, this 80km stretch of National Highway QL3, between Cao Bang and Na Phac, is a dizzying ride on an excellent tarmac road through one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country. After leaving Cao Bang, there’s hardly a kilometre of straight for the next 2-3 hours, as the roads rides over endless mountains blanketed in thick forest. It’s no wonder this area has provided sanctuary for rebels, revolutionaries and bandits throughout the centuries. (This great riding road is part of my Northeast Loop guide.)

IMAGE: National Highway QL3 between Cao Bang & Na Phac (80km)

National Highway QL3, Cao Bang & Bac Kan provinces, Vietnam

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2. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL4H:

  • Route: Cha Cang to Muong Nhe [MAP]
  • Distance: 80km
  • Province: Dien Bien
  • Scenery: high, treeless mountains, cultivated valleys, minority villages
  • Road conditions: excellent two-lane asphalt road, no traffic, occasional landslides
  • Best time of year: May to October

DESCRIPTION: In the deepest, darkest, remotest corner of northwest Vietnam, this meandering ribbon of asphalt is in excellent condition and sees hardly any traffic at all. Gliding over mountain ranges and sweeping along river valleys, National Highway QL4H is easy, uninhibited riding through a big landscape close to the Lao border. However, there’s a reason why so few vehicles ply this road: the region is remote and politically sensitive. If you choose to ride QL4H, be aware that the police may turn you back at any time, but particularly if you try to go beyond Muong Nhe.

IMAGE: National Highway QL4H between Cha Cang & Muong Nhe (80km)

National Highway QL4H, Cha Cang to Muong Nhe, Dien Bien Province, Vietnam

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3. PROVINCIAL ROAD DT520:

  • Route: Quan Hoa to Muong Lat [MAP]
  • Distance: 95km
  • Province: Thanh Hoa
  • Scenery: remote mountains & forest, ethnic minority villages, cultivated river valleys
  • Road conditions: good two-lane asphalt road, light traffic, occasional landslides
  • Best time of year: April to October

DESCRIPTION: Recently resurfaced, Provincial Road DT520 courses through the dense forests and deep valleys of northwestern Thanh Hoa Province, where foreign visitors rarely set foot. Like many roads along Vietnam’s western edge, DT520 is built to facilitate cross-border trade with Laos. But, in this remote and wooded region, trade is slow and trucks are few: you’re unlikely to encounter any serious traffic as you helter-skelter up and down the multiple mountain passes connecting Quan Hoa with Muong Lat. (This great riding road is part of my Limestone Loop guide.)

IMAGE: Provincial Road DT520 between Quan Hoa & Muong Lat (95km)

Provincial Road DT520, Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam

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4. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL55/55B:

  • Route: Lagi to Bao Loc [MAP]
  • Distance: 140km
  • Province: Binh Thuan & Lam Dong
  • Scenery: arid lowlands, wooded midlands, agricultural highlands, coffee farms, rivers
  • Road conditions: excellent two-lane asphalt road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: December to April

DESCRIPTION: Leading from the hot, dry beaches of the south coast to the cool, coffee-growing mountains of the Central Highlands, National Highway QL55/55B is a rarely used yet well-maintained artery passing through dramatically different climate zones and scenery. Wriggling across arid, burnt-out plains, up to wooded river valleys and cold tea plantations on mountainsides, this route offers 140km of smooth, winding, and practically empty road for almost its entire length. (This great riding road is part of my Binh Thuan Back-Roads guide.)

IMAGE: National Highway QL55/55B between Lagi & Bao Loc (140km)

National Highway QL55/55B, Lagi to Bao Loc, Vietnam

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5. WESTERN HO CHI MINH ROAD (QL15):

  • Route: Khe Sanh to Khe Gat [MAP]
  • Distance: 240km
  • Province: Quang Tri & Quang Binh
  • Scenery: extensive jungle, limestone mountains, caves, blue rivers, remote villages
  • Road conditions: good single-lane concrete road, no traffic
  • Best time of year: April to September

DESCRIPTION: Stretching for 240km through some of the most spectacular landscape in Vietnam, the Western Ho Chi Minh Road is many people’s outright favourite riding road in the country. Although it’s only a single-lane route (made up of large concrete slabs for much of its length), the absence of any real traffic makes it extremely good fun to ride: there are countless twists and turns and passes and plateaus. Add to that the constant carousel of jaw-dropping scenery – the kind of storybook Asian landscape that’s not supposed to exist in real life – and you have all the ingredients for a sublime ride. Believe the hype. (This great riding road is part of my Ho Chi Minh Road guide.)

IMAGE: The Western Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15) between Khe Sanh & Khe Gat (240km)

The Western Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15), Khe Sanh to Khe Gat, Vietnam

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6. TRUONG SON DONG ROAD (DT669/669B):

  • Route: Dak Po to Xa Hieu [MAP]
  • Distance: 105km
  • Province: Gia Lai & Quang Ngai
  • Scenery: extensive farmland, plateaus, mountains, jungle, minority villages
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, no traffic
  • Best time of year: April to September

DESCRIPTION: A romp through the Central Highlands, the Truong Son Dong Road is a ride to be savoured, both for scenery and for sheer riding pleasure. Many sections are brand new; in excellent condition as they meander through dense jungle and rolling farmland, like a river of asphalt. And yet, traffic is light and the land sparsely populated, with minority towns with strange and exotic sounding names, like Ayun Pa, K’Bang, and Ea Ly. The Truong Son Dong Road is long and remains unfinished, but the section between the Dak Po crossroads and the Xa Hieu junction is terrific. (This great riding road is described in detail in my Truong Son Dong Road guide.)

IMAGE: The Truong Son Dong Road (DT669/669B) between Dak Po & Xa Hieu (105km)

The Truong Son Dong Road, Vietnam

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7. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL7A:

  • Route: Anh Son to Nam Can [MAP]
  • Distance: 150km
  • Province: Nghe An
  • Scenery: wide, agricultural river valleys, limestone mountains, jungle
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: April to September

DESCRIPTION: Spreading west from the Ho Chi Minh Road, National Highway QL7A follows the course of the Ca River as it ploughs its muddy course through the rich agricultural landscape of Nghe An Province. The section from Anh Son leading 150km upstream to the Lao border gate of Nam Can, is in good condition and traffic is light. The road echoes the river as it curls deeper into the jungled mountains near the Lao border, skirting the fringes of the lush and haunting hills of Pu Mat National Park. Rarely travelled and highly scenic, this an easy, pleasurable ride. (This great riding road is part of my Big One route.)

IMAGE: National Highway QL7A between Anh Son & Nam Can (150km)

National Highway QL7A, Nghe An Province, Vietnam

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8. NUI CHUA COAST ROAD (DT702):

  • Route: Ninh Chu to My Thanh [MAP]
  • Distance: 60km
  • Province: Ninh Thuan & Khanh Hoa
  • Scenery: stunning coast, sandy beaches, arid hills, lush mountains
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: January to October

DESCRIPTION: A spectacular coast road draped along the rugged and strikingly beautiful coastline of Ninh Thuan Province, the Nui Chua Coast Road (DT702) passes some of Vietnam’s best beaches and bluest seas. Only completed a few years ago, the road surface is smooth asphalt for most of its 60km distance. Despite a surge in popularity, traffic remains pretty light, allowing riders to enjoy the sweeping corners and cliff-edge switchbacks high above the ocean in relative safety. (This great riding road is described in detail in my Nui Chua Coast Road guide).

IMAGE: The Nui Chua Coast Road (DT702) between Ninh Chu & My Thanh (60km)

Nui Chua Coast Road, Ninh Thuan Province, Vietnam

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9. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL32:

  • Route: Ba Khe to Binh Lu [MAP]
  • Distance: 230km
  • Province: Yen Bai & Lai Chau
  • Scenery: lush valleys, high mountains, rice terraces, mountain rivers
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: April to October

DESCRIPTION: A fabulous ride from the midlands to the highlands, National Highway QL32 is a swerving, snaking, wiggling, weaving route along the spine of Vietnam’s highest mountain range, the Hoang Lien Son. Recently upgraded, it’s currently in excellent condition. Beautifully smooth and undulating, riding this road lulls you into a hypnotic trance as you glide through the corners along river valleys and swerve through the switchbacks on mountain passes. The Khau Pha Pass is a highlight and so too is the absurdly pretty ride to Mu Cang Chai, famous for its steep valleys of terraced rice fields.

IMAGE: National Highway QL32 between Ba Khe & Binh Lu (230km)

National Highway QL32, Yen Bai Province, Vietnam

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10. PROVINCIAL ROAD DT725:

  • Route: Ma Da Gui to Hoai Duc [MAP]
  • Distance: 140km
  • Province: Lam Dong
  • Scenery: forests, mountains, coffee & tea plantations, agricultural plateaus
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, some potholed sections, light traffic
  • Best time of year: December to April

DESCRIPTION: From the lush jungles near Cat Tien National Park to the heavily cultivated plateaus near Bao Loc and Di Linh, Provincial Road DT725 slices through the heart of the Central Highlands. Much of the route is newly surfaced and traffic is very light. The lowlands are characterized by dense forest, but, as the road climbs higher, the landscape is given over entirely to the area’s most precious crop: coffee. (This great riding road is part of my Back Ways to Dalat guide).

IMAGE: Provincial Road DT725 between Ma Da Gui & Hoai Duc (140km)

Provincial Road DT705, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam

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11. ĐƯỜNG VEN BIỂN NINH THUẬN:

  • Route: Ca Na to Ninh Chu [MAP]
  • Distance: 40km
  • Province: Ninh Thuan
  • Scenery: sheer cliffs, rocky, arid headlands, sand dunes, beaches, big seascapes
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, some potholes, very light traffic
  • Best time of year: January to October

DESCRIPTION: From the fishing village of Ca Na on the south-central coast, the Đường Ven Biển Ninh Thuận crawls around a spectacular rocky headland. Literally translated as ‘Road along the Ninh Thuan Coastline’, this route was blasted out of the sheer cliff-face just a few years ago. The result is an unbelievable ride on a near-deserted road soaring high above the turquoise swell of the East Sea as it smashes against colossal boulders hundreds of feet below the tarmac. The scenery is fabulous: the rocky promontory has an arid, desert-like quality reminiscent of southern Spain. Unsurprisingly, boulders loosened during the construction of the road regularly roll off the mountainside and damage the road surface, but in general it’s a smooth ride. (This great riding road is described in detail in my Dragons’ Graveyard Coast Road guide).

IMAGE: Đường Ven Biển Ninh Thuận between Ca Na & Ninh Chu (40km)

Ninh Thuan Coast Road, Ca Na to Ninh Chu, Vietnam

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12. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL4D:

  • Route: Sapa to Phong Tho [MAP]
  • Distance: 100km
  • Province: Lao Cai & Lai Chau
  • Scenery: soaring mountains, plunging valleys, rivers, rice terraces, minority villages
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic, landslides are common
  • Best time of year: March to October

DESCRIPTION: Carving its way through the highest mountain range in Vietnam, National Highway QL4D used to be one of the most remote and unpredictable roads in the country. These days, however, thanks to a massive road building project, this route is a crisp new two-lane asphalt road riding high above plunging valleys and far below the jagged peak of Mount Fansipan (3,143m), the Roof of Indochina. The scenery is sublime: the bare slopes of the Hoang Lien Son Range (known to the French colonials as the ‘Tonkinese Alps’) fall into gaping valleys of terraced rice fields where ethnic minority villages perch next to cobalt-blue rivers. As the tarmac unfurls around the mountainsides – climbing to 1,900m at the Tram Ton Pass (the highest road in Vietnam) – there are countless switchbacks threading through the valleys all the way from Sapa to Phong Tho, creating 100km of great riding. Traffic is still quite light and road conditions are excellent, although landslides are common after heavy rains. (This great riding road is part of my Sapa-Sin Ho Scenic Loop guide).

IMAGE: National Highway QL4D between Sapa & Phong Tho (100km)

National Highway QL4D, Tram Ton (O Quy Ho) Pass, Sapa, Vietnam

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13. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL27/QL20:

  • Route: Tan Son to Dalat [MAP]
  • Distance: 70km
  • Province: Ninh Thuan & Lam Dong
  • Scenery: jungled foothills, mountains, agricultural plateaus, pine forests, tea plantations
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: December to April

DESCRIPTION: Ascending from the fiercely hot, arid foothills of the Truong Son Mountains, National Highway QL27 and QL20 climb sharply into the cool, pine-scented air of the Central Highlands. In French colonial days, this was the main route between the coast and the mountains, connecting Phan Rang with the hill station of Dalat. But the road fell into disrepair: initially from overuse, then from neglect as new roads opened better connections between the mountains and the sea. But recently, the entire 70km stretch from Tan Son, in the burning midlands, to Dalat, in the cold highlands, has been repaved and revitalized. Today, it’s a swift and glorious ride: climbing from near sea-level to 1,500m in a relatively short distance. The road meanders up steep mountain passes and skates over flat, agricultural plateaus. What’s more, traffic is much lighter than it was in the past, allowing you to enjoy the riding and the scenery like never before. (This great riding road is part of my Tet Classic Loop guide).

IMAGE: National Highway QL27/QL20 between Tan Son & Dalat (70km)

National Highway QL27/20, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam

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14. NATIONAL HIGHWAY AH13/QL6/QL279:

  • Route: Son La to Dien Bien Phu [MAP]
  • Distance: 155km
  • Province: Son La & Dien Bien
  • Scenery: high mountains, jungles, rivers, rice fields, limestone karsts, rural communities
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, fairly light traffic
  • Best time of year: April to October

DESCRIPTION: Traditionally Vietnam’s road to the Wild West, National Highways QL6 and QL279 combine to form Asian Highway AH13, a long and twisting tangle of mountain passes and meandering valley roads, plugging straight into the far reaches of Vietnam’s remote northwest. Road conditions have improved markedly in recent years, and traffic is still fairly light. Long, empty stretches of smooth asphalt plough through a verdant and majestic landscape, culminating in the Pha Din Pass and the descent into the famous Muong Thanh Valley, which was the dramatic setting, in 1954, for colonial France’s last stand against the ultimately victorious Viet Minh, who hauled the machinery of war by foot and on bicycles across the rugged landscape which we now glide across on our motorbikes today.

IMAGE: National Highway AH13/QL6/QL279 between Son La & Dien Bien Phu (155km)

National Highway QL6/279, Son La to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

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15. PROVINCIAL ROAD DT722:

  • Route: Suoi Vang Lake to Dung K’No [MAP]
  • Distance: 50km
  • Province: Lam Dong
  • Scenery: pine forests, jungle, mountains, coffee farms, remote ethnic minority hamlets
  • Road conditions: excellent two-lane tarmac road, very light traffic
  • Best time of year: December to April

DESCRIPTION: A crisp new road through miles and miles of pine forests and jungle, Provincial Road DT722 glides over undulating highlands just north of Dalat. The road is in fabulous condition for its 50km length and sees hardly any traffic at all. The reason for this, however, is that it’s not finished yet: at the Krong No River the tarmac comes to an abrupt end. Eventually, the road will continue over the river to Yang Mao and connect with the Truong Son Dong Road, but for now this is the end of the line. It’s well worth the one-way ride, though, as the scenery is good, the road surface is smooth, and the riding is excellent as the seam of asphalt weaves through the pine-scented forests in the cool mountain air. (This great riding road is described in detail in my Pine Tree Road guide).

IMAGE: Provincial Road DT722 between Suoi Vang Lake & Dung K’No (50km)

Provincial Road DT722, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam

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16. PROVINCIAL ROAD DT206/QL3:

  • Route: Cao Bang to Ban Gioc [MAP]
  • Distance: 80km
  • Province: Cao Bang
  • Scenery: limestone pillars, jungle, agricultural valleys, rice fields, waterfalls
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: April to October

DESCRIPTION: Swerving between limestone pillars into Vietnam’s remote northeastern corner, Provincial Road DT206 picks up where National Highway QL3 left off: through a splendid pastoral landscape along the Chinese border, culminating in the sublime falls at Ban Gioc. After years of upgrades, the road is now in great condition, allowing bikers to eat up the corners (including the famous Ma Phuc Pass) whilst admiring the scenery, which is among the prettiest in Vietnam. From a rider’s perspective, there is one drawback: booming trade with China has led to an increase in container trucks plying this route to and from remote border crossings in the northeast. However, the general volume of traffic is still very light, and even the presence of articulated lorries can’t detract from the joy of riding this excellent road through such superlative scenery. (This great riding road is part of my Northeast Loop guide).

IMAGE: Provincial Road DT206/QL3 between Cao Bang & Ban Gioc (80km)

Provincial Road DT206/QL3, Cao Bang Province, Vietnam

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17. THE HO CHI MINH ROAD (QL15):

  • Route: Khe Gat to Tan Ap [MAP]
  • Distance: 90km
  • Province: Quang Binh & Ha Tinh
  • Scenery: jungle, limestone karsts, blue rivers, mountains, rural hamlets
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: April to September

DESCRIPTION: This section of the Ho Chi Minh Road is a meandering river of asphalt blazing through soaring limestone pinnacles and across jade-blue rivers straddling the Lao border. A good, wide, smooth, two-lane road, QL15 between Khet Gat and Tan Ap is an impressive engineering feat. During the ‘Vietnam War’, the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed west of here, crawling through the dense Lao jungle to supply the southern territories with soldiers and military equipment. In those days, it took months to reach the south; today, riders can sweep through this difficult terrain with ease thanks to this amazing road. The scenery is fantastic and the riding is pure pleasure. Traffic is light, but trucks are increasingly choosing this road over the clogged artery of Highway 1, so expect at least some heavy goods vehicles, especially struggling up the steep and spectacular Da Deo Pass. (This great riding road is part of my Ho Chi Minh Road guide).

IMAGE: The Ho Chi Minh Road (QL15) between Khet Gat & Tan Ap (90km)

The Ho Chi Minh Road, Khe Ghat to Tan Ap, Vietnam

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18. THE HAI VAN PASS:

  • Route: Cu De River to Lang Co [MAP]
  • Distance: 25km
  • Province: Danang & Thua Thien Hue
  • Scenery: stunning coastal views, beaches, coves, lush mountains, city skylines
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: April to September

DESCRIPTION: One of the most famous roads in Vietnam, the Hai Van Pass curls around a mountainous spur of the Annamite Range as it meets the sea, between Danang and Hue, in central Vietnam. Famous down the centuries as s barrier between kingdoms and peoples, the Hai Van Pass reached a global audience in 2008, when the Top Gear Vietnam Special was aired on the BBC. The presenters’ awed response to the majesty of this scenic route and the joy of riding the deserted hairpin bends, encouraged a generation of travellers to follow in their tyre tracks. Despite being only a short stretch of road, the views over the ocean and mountains are excellent and, because a tunnel takes the lion’s share of heavy traffic, the Hai Van Pass is relatively quiet. The great, looping switchbacks, for which the pass is famous, are wide and smooth, allowing riders to lean in and enjoy the corners. (This great riding road is described in detail in my Hai Van Pass guide).

IMAGE: The Hai Van Pass between the Cu De River & Lang Co (25km)

The Hai Van Pass, Vietnam

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19. NATIONAL HIGHWAY QL27C:

  • Route: Dien Khanh to Dalat [MAP]
  • Distance: 120km
  • Province: Khanh Hoa & Lam Dong
  • Scenery: low & highland farming, mountains, rivers, deep valleys, pine forests, jungle
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, fairly light traffic
  • Best time of year: January to September

DESCRIPTION: Forging a path from sea level to 1,700m at its highest point, National Highway QL27C is a relatively new route, linking the hot and sunny beach town of Nha Trang with the cool and misty mountain retreat of Dalat. I’m told that some kind of roadway existed along this route during French colonial times, but it was only recently that the road was upgraded to a National Highway. Now days, QL27C is the preferred route from coast to mountains. The road is wide and smooth for the majority of its length, including the 37km Khánh Lê Pass, a thrilling ascent from peaceful, agricultural valleys to cold, misty mountains cloaked in jungle. After reaching the Central Highlands, the road sweeps over a pine-studded plateau covered in coffee plantations. Although a popular route, traffic is still light enough (particularly on weekdays) to enjoy the ride unimpeded by cars and trucks. (This great riding road is part of my Classic Route between Saigon and Hanoi).

IMAGE: National Highway QL27C between Dien Khanh & Dalat (120km)

National Highway QL27C, Nha Trang to Dalat, Vietnam

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20. THE MA PI LENG PASS (QL4C):

  • Route: Dong Van to Meo Vac [MAP]
  • Distance: 20km
  • Province: Ha Giang
  • Scenery: stunning limestone landscape of peaks & troughs, steep river valleys & gorges
  • Road conditions: reasonably good one-lane tarmac road, very light traffic
  • Best time of year: March to October

DESCRIPTION: Known as the Road of Happiness, the Ma Pi Leng Pass is located in Vietnam’s northernmost province, abutting China, and is a serious contender for the most spectacular road in the country. The short but utterly jaw-dropping stretch between the market towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac, hugs the edges of a steep, treeless valley, hundreds of feet above the Nho Que River. Limestone pinnacles tower over the valley, casting long shadows across the haunting – almost martian – landscape. The road is knotted: curling in on itself and then unwinding, like a tangled thread of string draped across the landscape. But, while there’s no doubting the scenic qualities of this road, it is quite narrow and potentially very dangerous. Fortunately, there’s still not much traffic at all, but as the region (Ha Giang Province) begins to attract more and more travellers, the number of motorbikes and vehicles is increasing. This is not a road for speed, but the soaring switchbacks and mythical scenery make it feel like flying, even when you’re only riding at 30km an hour. No list of great roads in Vietnam would be complete without it. (This great riding road is part of my Extreme North Loop guide).

IMAGE: The Ma Pi Leng Pass (QL4C) between Dong Van & Meo Vac (20km)

The Ma Pi Leng Pass, Ha Giang, Vietnam

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21. PROVINCIAL ROAD DT716/716B:

  • Route: Phu Hai to Phan Ri Cua [MAP]
  • Distance: 60km
  • Province: Binh Thuan
  • Scenery: long, empty beaches, sand dunes, seascapes, red earth ‘deserts’
  • Road conditions: excellent two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: January to October

DESCRIPTION: Completed a few years ago, this road begins behind the famous beach resort of Mui Ne. A fresh, wide and empty bypass (Vo Nguyen Giap Street) glides over the arid but attractive Mui Ne hills, looking down over the curving, blue bay below. The bypass meets the ocean (Road DT716) and skirts along miles of deserted coast, backed by red sand dunes. Traffic is light and the riding is excellent. However, unfortunately this road runs straight through an infamous ‘police trap’, where foreign riders are invariably pulled over. But, there’s an easy and effective workaround for this by taking a back-road behind the coast (see my Sand Dune Highway guide for more details). Bearing east, the road joins DT716B, a super-smooth, straight but undulating seam of asphalt that was recently laid over the great White Sand Dunes, known as Vietnam’s Desert. This is a road to eat up all the way to the fishing town of Phan Ri Cua. (This great riding road is part of my Sand Dune Highway guide).

IMAGE: Provincial Road DT716/716B between Phu Hai & Phan Ri Cua (60km)

Provincial Road DT716, White Sand Dunes, Mui Ne, Vietnam

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22. PROVINCIAL ROAD DT128:

  • Route: Lai Chau to Sin Ho [MAP]
  • Distance: 55km
  • Province: Lai Chau
  • Scenery: limestone karsts, high mountains, jungle, wide valleys, rice terraces
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, some rough patches, light traffic
  • Best time of year: March to October

DESCRIPTION: Climbing steeply from Lai Chau city to the mountaintop village of Sin Ho, Provincial Road DT128 swirls around the jungle-clad mountainsides as if following the contour lines on a map. Going from a warm, agricultural valley into a mist-shrouded alpine landscape, where the temperature can drop to freezing, this route offers extraordinary views over oceans of mountains, stretching all the way to the Chinese border. The majority of the road has recently been resurfaced and widened so that it’s now in excellent condition with practically no traffic at all. There are countless corners and switchbacks snaking through the mountains. However, there are still roadworks for the last 15km up to Sin Ho, and this section can be quite difficult, especially in bad weather. But, before long, the road will be completed and the whole 55km stretch will be a sublime ride. (This great riding road is part of my Sapa-Sin Ho Scenic Loop).

IMAGE: Provincial Road DT128 between Lai Chau & Sin Ho (55km)

Provincial Road DT128, Lai Chau to Sin Ho, Vietnam

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23. CON SON ISLAND COAST ROAD:

  • Route: Ben Dam to Dam Trau [MAP]
  • Distance: 25km
  • Province: Ba Ria-Vung Tau
  • Scenery: wild, empty beaches, rocky cliffs, dramatic coastline, forests, colonial-era town
  • Road conditions: mostly good, (wide) single-lane tarmac road, strong winds, no traffic
  • Best time of year: March to August

DESCRIPTION: Way out in the East Sea, 80km off the coast of the Mekong Delta, Con Son is a remote and beautiful island in the Con Dao Archipelago. Winding around its windswept and utterly beguiling eastern seaboard is Con Son Coast Road. Leading from the spectacularly situated port of Ben Dam in the south of the island, to the tiny airport and gorgeous beach of Dam Trau in the north, this coastal road is only 25km but is almost entirely deserted and exceptionally scenic. Although the first half (from Ben Dam to Con Son town) is currently being upgraded, the second half all the way to the airport has recently be relaid and is in great condition. The riding is glorious, but you may find it difficult to keep going, because the coastal vistas are so stunning that you’ll want to stop and take it all in. Also, be careful of strong winds as you round the exposed capes at either end of the island. (This great riding road is part of my Con Dao Islands guide).

IMAGE: The Con Son Coast Road between Ben Dam & Dam Trau (25km)

Con Son Island Coast Road, Con Dao, Vietnam

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24. THE HO CHI MINH ROAD (QL14):

  • Route: Thanh My to Da Krong Bridge [MAP]
  • Distance: 250km
  • Province: Quang Nam, Thua Thien Hue, Quang Tri
  • Scenery: jungle, mountains, rivers, ethnic minority villages, agricultural valleys
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, some concrete slab sections, light traffic
  • Best time of year: March to September

DESCRIPTION: Yet another extraordinary section of the long and fabulous Ho Chi Minh Road, this part romps through the remote and, at one time, war-scarred spine of Central Vietnam. Although there are poignant echoes of ‘The American War’ throughout this section – Hamburger Hill, A Shau Valley, Khe Sanh – it is the scale and beauty of nature which makes the biggest impact on riders who pass through here today. From Thanh My, the Ho Chi Minh Road corkscrews up multiple passes via a series of dizzying switchbacks, first to the little village of Prao and next to A Luoi. Misty mountains covered in a fleece of thick tropical jungle, where wild animals such as the Saola (Asian Unicorn) live, stretch to the horizon and continue into Laos. It’s not uncommon to have the road completely to yourself: not one vehicle for over 100km. Next, the Ho Chi Minh Road breezes along several river valleys, where the road is smooth and wide, and the riding is excellent. (This great riding road is part of my Ho Chi Minh Road guide).

IMAGE: The Ho Chi Minh Road (QL14) between Thanh My & Da Krong Bridge (250km)

The Ho Chi Minh Road, Thanh My to Da Krong, Vietnam

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25. NATIONAL HIGHWAY 91C:

  • Route: Dai Ngai Ferry to Mo O Beach [MAP]
  • Distance: 40km
  • Province: Soc Trang
  • Scenery: rice paddies, fruit orchards, Mekong River, fishing villages, vegetable gardens
  • Road conditions: good two-lane tarmac road, light traffic
  • Best time of year: November to June

DESCRIPTION: The Mekong Delta is very flat, so the roads are mostly arrow-straight: more like extended drag-racing tracks than great riding roads. But it seems rude not to include a Mekong Delta road in this list, and of all the roads I’ve ridden in the Delta, Highway QL91C between the Dai Ngai ferry crossing and the remote Mekong beach resort of Mo O is the most enjoyable to ride. Bending around the southern banks of the Hau River (the southernmost arm of the great Mekong River Delta) as it pours into the East Sea, Highway QL91C was recently upgraded. Road conditions are good and traffic is light: this part of the Delta, Soc Trang Province, isn’t really on the tourist trail. Yet, the agricultural landscape is fascinating and, in the soft low light of the mornings and late afternoons, very beautiful. Tropical fruits grow in riverside orchards, vegetable gardens line the canals, and busy little fishing villages dot the coast. The riding is easy and smooth, so you can sit back and cruise through the Delta, watching the pastoral scenes slide by.

IMAGE: National Highway QL91C between Dai Ngai Ferry & Mo O Beach (40km)

National Highway QL91C, Soc Trang Province, Vietnam

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Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa http://vietnamcoracle.com/aira-boutique-sapa-hotel-spa/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/aira-boutique-sapa-hotel-spa/#respond Fri, 23 Mar 2018 01:34:21 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23785 Continue reading ]]> First published March 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | REVIEW | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The town of Sapa is currently such a mess – construction, dust, traffic, and tourist tat – that the main reason for being in Sapa (as opposed to the countryside around it) is to stay in a good hotel with splendid views of the mountains surrounding the town, which is, after all, the reason Sapa became such a popular travel destination in the first place. Aira Boutique is one such hotel. On the edge of town, Aira Boutique is a brightly-painted, alpine-style lodge affording spectacular vistas across the plunging, mist-filled valley, with the jagged peak of Mount Fansipan casting a long shadow over the scene. This alone would be enough to recommend Aira Boutique, but plenty of other hotels in Sapa boast similar views. However, Aira is also a stylish, comfortable, homey and well-equipped hotel. With a swimming pool, large cosy rooms with balconies, tasteful decor, and a decent restaurant and bar, Aira Boutique is up there with the best of Sapa’s higher-end accommodations. [Average rates are $80-$110. To check availability & make a reservation for Aira Boutique Hotel 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.

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, Lao Cai, VietnamOn the edge of town, Aira Boutique Hotel & Spa has great views over Sapa & the surrounding mountains

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REVIEW: AIRA BOUTIQUE SAPA


Address: 30 Hoang Lien Street, Sapa, Lao Cai Province, Vietnam [MAP]

Average Price: $80-$110 | Website: www.airaboutiquesapa.com

BOOK HERE


MAP:

View in a LARGER MAP


I stayed at Aira Boutique with a good friend of mine at the end of a long motorbike road trip through the northern mountains: a kind of ‘reward’ for weeks of hard riding through mud and potholes. In this respect, Aira Boutique was exactly what I was looking for. On the fringes of town, Aira is just about far enough away from Sapa’s commercial heart that it doesn’t necessarily feel part of it. And this is a good thing, because Sapa doesn’t really have a ‘local scene’ anymore (if, indeed, it ever did). I stayed at Aira precisely because I wanted to be away from all the clutter of Sapa’s main streets: I wanted the views that Sapa is famous for, but not the hassle, traffic jams, overpriced food (and general overcharging) that characterizes Sapa town. For me, Sapa is a bubble of creature comforts in the northwest highlands: it’s where I come to recharge after exploring the mountains; it’s not a place to come to experience local life: not anymore, at least.

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, VietnamI came to Aira for the view & for some creature comforts after weeks on a road trip in the mountains

Aira Boutique sits on a steep mountainside. From the outside, it’s bright and clean, with some exposed stonework making it look a little bit like a modern ski resort chalet. Inside, it’s really rather stylish, with lots of angles and lines offset against a curving staircases and hanging ‘birdcage’ lanterns. The colour scheme is formal and classy: deep blues, purples, and grays. It reminds me of a first-class airline lounge, only with more character. Next to the lobby and reception is the restaurant and dining room, filled with plenty of natural light (a good thing in the often foggy northwest mountains) streaming in through large windows. Several modern fireplaces are spread around the room to keep guests warm during the evenings (remember it gets cold in Sapa).

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, VietnamInside, Aira’s decor is really rather stylish, like this spiral staircase hung with ‘birdcage’ lanterns

Guest rooms are large, warm and comfortable. Most have balconies with big views over the mountains. This is ultimately what Sapa is all about: that view over the steep, deep valley and green, purple and blue mountains is why Sapa has become the tourist mecca it is today. And the view from Aira is superb. It’s worth the room rates and you should make the most of it: get yourself a gin and tonic, sit out on the balcony and drink in the views. But, predictably, Sapa’s building boom is already beginning to encroach on the land around Aira. During my visit, bulldozers were tearing up the pine trees on the slopes below my balcony, clearing the land for another hotel (as, no doubt, was the case during the construction of Aira, too).

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, VietnamSapa is all about the views across the valley to the mountains: the vistas from Aira Boutique are excellent

Room decor is a cosy mix of the same formal colour scheme and symmetrical patterns as the lobby, mixed with some embellishments inspired by the textiles of ethnic minority groups who populate the northwest mountains. This works well, although the framed photographs of smiling local faces – ‘happy poor people’ – bearing down on guests paying $100 a night for a room is jarring: tourism in Sapa in general is a catalyst for provoking contemplation on the paradoxes and pitfalls of the tourist industry. Tiled and wooden floors, soft and hard surfaces, rugs and cushions, and a general coherency in style all add up to a pleasing and cosy place to be.

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, VietnamRooms are very comfortable & cosy with a mixture of modern decor & traditional embellishments

The restaurant and spa are both good, but not outstanding. Prices are pretty reasonable considering you’re in a high-end hotel, so ultimately meals work out as fairly good value for money. Western and Asian dishes are available, and there’s a good cocktail list. The buffet breakfast, included in the room price, is again good, but not one that will stand out among other hotel buffet breakfasts. There’s a pool table in the bar, which, considering the amount of cold, grey, rainy days in Sapa, is very convenient: we certainly got a lot of use out of it during our stay.

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, VietnamThe buffet breakfast at Aira is good but not outstanding; the dining room is nice, bright & warm

Aira’s swimming pool is located on the ground floor to the side of the hotel. It’s south-facing so that it makes the most of the sun (when it shines). During our stay, Northern European tourists were sprawled out on the loungers, desperately trying to soak up the sun’s faint warmth before returning home to autumn in their home countries. The mountains are visible from the pool, but it’s also right next to the driveway, which is a shame. And, although it’s absolutely adequate for children and non-swimmers, the pool is a few metres short of being genuinely swimmable.

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, VietnamAira’s swimming pool is pretty good, but it’s just a few metres short of being good for swimming laps

Overall, I got exactly what I wanted (and expected) from my stay at Aira Boutique: good quality lodgings with all modern facilities (and some style to boot), a fantastic view of the mountains, and a refuge from the commercial madness of Sapa town proper. It ticked all the boxes for my ‘end of motorbike adventure reward’, and was worth the money spent, although it did nothing to relieve the sadness of parting with my good friend from the U.K with whom I had travelled. [Average rates are $80-$110 a night. To check availability & make a reservation for Aira Boutique Hotel please use the search box below or 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.

Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa, VietnamI got what I wanted & expected from my stay at Aira: good views, modern features, style & comfort

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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Cafe Culture on Con Son Island http://vietnamcoracle.com/cafe-culture-on-con-son-island/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/cafe-culture-on-con-son-island/#respond Thu, 15 Mar 2018 11:01:48 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=25004 Continue reading ]]> First published March 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Vietnam has a rich and thriving cafe culture – probably among the most active, dynamic, and, importantly, independent cafe scenes in the world. The cult of coffee goes deep, reaching even the furthest corners of the country. And now, it includes the remote, utterly beautiful island of Con Son, the largest island in the Con Dao Archipelago. Lying some 80km east of the Mekong Delta, Con Son was once a prison island; the site of much suffering for generations of Vietnamese under French colonial rule. Nowadays, although the past is heavily commemorated, its reputation (at least among foreign travellers and younger Vietnamese) is as a classic tropical island paradise. In the last couple of years, as more young people choose to visit Con Son, and as the local population swells due to settlers arriving from the mainland, a distinctive cafe scene has arisen, adding yet another dimension to this remarkable pocket of Vietnam, way out in the East Sea.

Cafes & bars on Con Son Island, Con Dao, VietnamCafe culture has reached the remote & utterly beautiful island of Con Son, in the Con Dao Archipelago

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GUIDE: CAFES ON CON SON ISLAND


There are a handful of interesting, cosy, independent cafes in the sleepy back-streets of Con Son town, the main settlement on Con Son Island. Although the variety of cafes can’t compare with Vietnam’s cities, there are enough coffee shops in Con Son to keep you going for a few days, which is as long as most travellers choose to stay here. The ones listed on this page are my favourites, but there are several others too, and, no doubt, more will open in the near future. Some cafes offer Vietnamese-style coffee, others offer Italian-style espresso coffee, still others offer a selection of teas, juices, and cocktails as well. I’ve written a brief description of each cafe, illustrated them with an image, and plotted them on my map. Note that opening times vary, but most cafes open in the morning, often close for lunch, and open again from mid-afternoon. Prices are generally between 20,000-50,000vnd ($1-$2) for a drink. (For much more information about the Con Dao Islands see my full guide here).

Click a cafe below to read more about it:

MAP:

Cafes on Con Son Island, Con Dao Archipelago


View in a LARGER MAP

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Phien Khuc Cafe:

[MAP] Located on the wide, peaceful, tree-lined Nguyen Van Linh Street, Phien Khuc Cafe is a new addition to Con Son’s cafe scene. Deep in the charming back-streets of Con Son town, Phien Khuc is a classic ‘vestige cafe’, a style that’s trendy in Vietnam’s hippest urban centres. This means it’s a nostalgic arrangement of old bric-a-brac: broken wooden window shutters hanging at jaunty angles, bits of old motorbike lying around on tiled floors, wooden pallets for tables, old wooden furniture, potted plants growing up the walls, antique fans, guitars left on dusty cushions. It’s a romantic, cool, shady hangout to while away the hot, oppressive hours during the middle of the day. The drinks menu includes Vietnamese-style iced coffee, herbal teas, and Vietnamese rum-based cocktails. Oh, and there’s a beautiful shower of pink bougainvillea growing out front. A lovely place.

Phien Khuc Cafe, Con Son town, Con Dao Islands, VietnamPhien Khuc Cafe is on a quiet back-street under a shower of bougainvillea: a lovely place

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Cafe Infiniti/The Nest:

[MAP] Firmly established as the go-to cafe on the island ever since it opened several years ago, Infiniti continues to be popular with both island residents (especially those in the hospitality industry who’ve moved to Con Son from the mainland) and travellers of all ages and nationalities. In fact, Infiniti is such a success that they’ve expanded their property, which now includes The Nest, an extension of the original Infiniti Cafe, complete with a pool table and upstairs seating outside on a makeshift veranda – a tree house of sorts – looking over the street. Again, the ‘vestige’ style is dominant: bathtubs sawn in half to create sofas, colourful cracked tiles decorate the floor, bare plaster walls are hung with driftwood, empty picture frames and scraps of pottery, naked light bulbs drip from the ceilings, and there’s a general tendency to faded ‘beach colours’ – pastel blues, yellows and greens. It’s relaxed and informal but also stylish. Western-style coffee is excellent, as are the smoothies and fruit juices, and cocktails are only a few dollars each. This is the place to be on breezy Con Son evenings.

Cafe Infiniti (The Nest), Con Son town, Con Dao Islands, VietnamCafe Infiniti (and The Nest) is probably the most popular and best all-round cafe on Con Son Island

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Ba Le Cafe:

[MAP] Another new cafe, Ba Le is a small, unassuming place that harks back to a simpler, nobler time that may or may not have existed. There’s a gentle revolutionary, nationalistic spirit running through this coffee shop. When it first opened, the famous patriotic words of Ho Chi Minh embellished the entrance: Không có gì quý hơn độc lập tự do (Nothing is more precious than independence & freedom). However, a coffee shop was seen as an inappropriate place for such a profound statement and was duly removed by the owners. Inside, simple wooden furniture stands on a beautiful tiled floor. Various antique artifacts – yes, this is yet another ‘vestige cafe’ – sit on bookshelves and desks: carved figurines, old sewing machines, pottery, enamel cups. The walls are decorated with murals of the distinctive-looking Con Dao Market and propaganda posters. Vietnamese-style coffee is very good here, and it attracts a friendly Vietnamese crowd. 

Ba La Cafe, Con Son town, Con Dao Islands, VietnamDisplaying ‘vestige’ decor, Ba Le Cafe has a gentle nationalistic character & good Vietnamese-style coffee

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Nice Cafe:

[MAP] Housed in a distinctive turquoise building on a street corner at the centre of Con Son town, Nice Cafe is the latest of several coffee shops to occupy this space. It’s a pleasant, homey cafe on two levels, with a breezy balcony upstairs looking over the street. Drawing a young crowd of Vietnamese tourists and locals, the decor is a mix of wood and plastic furniture, fairy lights draped over mirrors, hanging lamps, potted plants, and plastic flowers. It works well and is especially nice in the evenings when it’s often buzzing with chattering youth. The menu is replete with popular and refreshing Vietnamese drinks, such as chanh sả (lime and lemongrass), tắc xí muội (kumquat and salted plum), as well as Vietnamese-style iced coffee.

Nice Cafe, Con Son town, Con Dao Islands, VietnamDrawing a young, Nice Cafe has a breezy balcony and lots of refreshing drinks to choose from

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Uyen’s House:

[MAP] Just a few doors down from Infiniti, Uyen’s House is a bird’s nest of hidden corners, shady pockets, and cosy enclaves. The coloruful, floral tiles (a trademark of Con Son cafes, it would seem) lead through broken blue wooden shutters into an open courtyard awash with foliage. Take a seat on the wooden, metal, and plastic furniture under the branch of a frangipani or papaya tree and sip a strong Vietnamese coffee or refreshing juice. You’ll probably be sharing the space with a handful of selfie-taking Vietnamese youth, who come to be photographed in this attractive, pastel-toned abode.

Uyen's House Cafe, Con Son town, Con Dao Islands, VietnamUyen’s House is a very attractive ‘bird’s nest-style’ cafe with tiled floors, plants & trees

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Lacasa/Villa Maison:

[MAP] These two places in the centre of Con Son town are under the same management, but are very different in character. Lacasa is a sleek, chic, very modern cocktail bar on a street corner: a clinical combination of shiny metal and glass. Villa Maison, on the other hand, is a gorgeous, sprawling, veranda cafe, housed is a handsome, open-sided French colonial villa. You may as well disregard Lacasa because, at the time of writing (March 2018), the owners were getting ready to close it and focus instead on expanding the Villa Maison location. This is a good thing, as Lacasa always looked a little out of place in Con Son, whereas Villa Maison is simply marvellous and very much part of the town’s history and character. Therefore, in the near future, you can look forward to loungers in the old stone courtyard under the branches of giant tropical trees, drinking signature cocktails made from island ingredients. Inside the villa, the tiled floors reflect the soft lamp lighting, and decor is very stylish and tasteful.

Villa Maison Cafe, Con Son town, Con Dao Islands, VietnamElegant & stylish, Villa Maison (where Lacasa will soon relocate) is an atmospheric cafe & wine bar

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Cafe Con Son:

[MAP] A modern, open-sided cafe located in the leafy courtyard of the government post office guest house, Cafe Con Son offers good Western and Vietnamese-style coffee, and a short list of good, reasonably priced cocktails. Under a simple metal and thatch structure, Cafe Con Son centers around a smart wooden bar. In the mornings, various government employees gather here to socialize. It’s a nice, informal, and uncluttered place for a quick pick-me-up espresso in the daytime or a long drink after dinner.

Cafe Con Son, Con Dao Islands, VietnamCafe Con Son is a neat & simple place with good Western & Vietnamese-style coffee & some cocktails

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Con Son Cafe:

[MAP] This place has the potential to be one of the best cafes in Vietnam. The location alone – on the wonderful seafront promenade in Con Son town – is enough to set it apart from others, but add to that the building – the perfectly proportioned old French customs house – and you have the makings of a fabulous cafe. Formerly the Con Son Cafe (not to be confused with Cafe Con Son [see above]), it has taken many different forms under many different managers over the years, but none have yet successfully utilized the space and location. However, at the time of writing (March 2018), the cafe was due to reopen very soon. Let’s hope its new incarnation will do justice to the site. At one time, it was possible to sit on the seafront wall, sipping Long Island Iced Teas, in the shade of the giant old tropical almond trees, planted by prisoners under French orders over a century ago. One hindrance to the cafe’s success is the wind. From November to March, strong gusts blow in from the northeast, making it difficult to enjoy being outside with a coffee. In fact, the old Con Son Cafe used to close during these months. I hope the new owners will make the most of this precious patch of land. Watch this space, and please write an update in the comment section at the end of this post if you visit after the cafe has reopened.

Con Son Cafe, Con Son town, Con Dao Islands, VietnamCon Son Cafe has the potential to be a marvellous cafe & bar: it’s due to reopen soon. Watch this space…

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Bar 200:

[MAP] It might look like an archetypal American suburban home – a tidy bungalow surrounded by a white picket fence and a floral archway – but Bar 200 is one of Con Son’s go-to hangouts for Western residents and visitors. Why? Because they’ve got excellent coffee (espresso, americano, latte, cappuccino), tea (English Breakfast), wines, and cocktails (not to mention an extensive menu of Western food, including pizzas). The small, covered front yard is dotted with tables and chairs. Unlike many of the other cafes in this list, there’s no particular style to Bar 200, but the food, drink, and diners create all the atmosphere you need.

Bar 200, Con Son Island, Con Dao Islands, VietnamBar 200 is an unassuming place with great coffee, wine, cocktails and more

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Lo Voi Cafe:

[MAP] Just out of Con Son town, Lo Voi Cafe is by the roadside opposite the sinister-looking lime ovens used during French colonial times, when the island was still a prison colony. In contrast to this visible reminder of Con Son’s brutal past, Lo Voi Cafe (named after the limestone ovens) is a cute and peaceful little place with hanging plants and bamboo trellises, surrounded by lush gardens. The shady, open-sided cafe has wooden benches and plastic chairs, all in dappled sunlight thanks to the leafy surrounds. Vietnamese coffee, tea, and juices are served.

Lo Voi Cafe, Con Son Island, Con Dao Islands, VietnamLo Voi Cafe, just outside of Con Son town, is surrounded by flowers, trees, and bamboo

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Havana Cafe:

[MAP] Occupying a patch of land on a grid of back-streets which have yet to be built on, Havana Cafe is a smart looking, clean, and modern coffee shop. Decor is vaguely minimalist, and everything appears shiny and new: from the black and white floor tiles to the polished wooden tables and chairs to the bare grey walls. The Vietnamese-style coffee is good and attractively presented in big mugs. It might look a bit formal, but, like most Vietnamese coffee shops, it’s actually very relaxed and friendly.

Havana Cafe, Con Son Island, Con Dao Islands, VietnamHavana Cafe is modern and clean with good Vietnamese coffee served in big mugs

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The Ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-ferry-from-soc-trang-to-con-dao/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-ferry-from-soc-trang-to-con-dao/#comments Fri, 09 Mar 2018 12:11:20 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=24949 Continue reading ]]> First published March 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

I’ve always thought it inexplicable why so few travellers visit the Con Dao Islands. For many Vietnamese, I would imagine it has something to do with Con Son Island’s dark past as a penal colony. But, for foreign travellers, maybe the relatively high airfare from Saigon, or the cheap but long and arduous boat ride from Vung Tau (the only alternative to flying), has kept them away for so long. Now, however, there’s a third way to get to the Con Dao Islands: a daily passenger ferry from the Mekong Delta. The new Superdong ferry, which is fast and comfortable, connects Tran De port in Soc Trang Province with Con Son Island, meaning that travellers can now add the Con Dao Islands (which is, without doubt, one of the most remarkable destinations in Vietnam) onto their Mekong Delta itineraries. It also makes a Con Dao loop a viable option: by combining the ferry to/from the Mekong Delta with a one-way flight to/from Saigon and Con Son. Motorbikes and bicycles can travel on the Superdong ferry, but not cars. Below is my full guide to taking the ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao.

Soc Trang to Con Dao Superdong ferry, VietnamThe new Superdong ferry connects the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang with the Con Dao Islands

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GUIDE: SOC TRANG→CON DAO FERRY


The first thing to note is that the Superdong ferry doesn’t leave from Soc Trang city; it departs from Tran De port, at the mouth of the Hau Giang River (a branch of the Mekong), about 40km southeast of Soc Trang. There are bus connections to Soc Trang city from all major towns across the Mekong Delta, and from Saigon’s Mien Tay bus station (roughly 6 hours). From Soc Trang city, there’s a Superdong shuttle bus to Tran De port. On Con Son Island, the ferry arrives at the beautifully situated Ben Dam port. The crossing takes between 2-3 hours depending on weather conditions. Below I’ve written a full guide to taking the ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao, including tickets prices, schedules, contact details, places to stay at Tran De port, a description of the boat and the voyage, and a map of the route.

Click an option below to read more about it:


MAP:

Ferry Route: Tran De port to Ben Dam port (Con Son Island)

View in a LARGER MAP

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Ferry Operators & Contacts:

There is only one company operating ferries between Tran De and Con Son: Superdong. The Superdong website is pretty good, including ferry times and prices for all Superdong routes (not just the Con Dao one). However, despite an icon suggesting English language, the site is in Vietnamese only. But it’s still easy enough to figure out what’s what. 

Superdong have offices in Tran De (at the boat pier [map]; (0299) 3843 888), Soc Trang (193 Le Hong Phong Street [map]; (0299) 3616 111), and Con Son (Tran Phu Street [map]; (0254) 3630 138), as well as in all the other places from which they operate, and an office in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). They can be contacted in person at any of these offices (staff are generally very helpful, and there’s usually at least someone who speaks decent English), or by phone on any of the numbers above (again, some English is usually spoken), or by email: superdong_2008@yahoo.com.vn. For full contact details for all Superdong offices see this page.

Soc Trang to Con Dao Superdong ferry, VietnamSuperdong is the only company currently operating ferries between the Mekong Delta & Con Dao Islands

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Schedules & Sailing Times:

There’s at least one sailing in each direction everyday. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, there are two sailings in each direction, but an extra sailing will also be provided on other days if demand is high enough. Sailing time is between 2 hours to 2.5 hours depending on weather conditions. However, all sailings are subject to change or cancellation due to bad sea conditions (if you have an appointment to make on the mainland, don’t count on the ferry to get you there on time). This is most likely to happen during seasons with strong winds (generally November to March, but also June-August). Superdong staff will attempt to inform you in advance if there is a chance of cancellation or delay. The schedule is also liable to change without notice: for example, you can’t necessarily trust the sailing times published on the Superdong website. At the time of research (March 2018) the schedule is as follows:

  • TRAN DE→CON DAO: 8.00am (daily) | 1.00pm (Fri, Sat, Sun, or days when demand is high)
  • CON DAO→TRAN DE1.00pm (daily) | 8.00am (Fri, Sat, Sun, or days when demand is high) 

The Superdong fast boat from Soc Trang to Con Dao Islands, VietnamThere’s at least one sailing in each direction every day, but these are all subject to change due to weather

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Ticket Prices & Booking:

Tickets can be booked in person at any of the Superdong offices (even those located in other towns and places, such as Phu Quoc, Ha Tien, Rach Gia, and Saigon), or over the phone, or by email, but not online through the Superdong website. (See the Contact section for office addresses, phone numbers, and email). Tickets for motorbikes and bicycles can be reserved with passenger tickets, but payment for motorbikes and bicycles is made at the boat itself. On weekdays, it’s usually not necessary to book in advance, however, it’s still advisable to do so, especially if you’re on a tight schedule or if you’re travelling with your own wheels, because the number of bikes is limited. From Friday to Sunday, and all public holidays, advance booking is essential. Passengers should arrive at the docks at least 30 minutes before departure, particularly if you have a motorbike. Ticket prices are as follows:

  • Adult: 310,000vnd (one way)
  • Adult over 62 years | Passenger with disabilities: 260,000vnd | 230,000vnd (one way)
  • Child 6-11 years old (under 6 years go free): 220,000vnd (one way)
  • Motorbike: 180,000vnd

The Superdong ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao Islands, VietnamTickets can be purchased at any Superdong office, by phone, or email: book in advance if possible

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Departure & Arrival Ports:

Boats come and go from Tran De Port on the mainland, in Soc Trang Province, and Ben Dam Port on Con Son Island, the biggest island in the Con Dao Archipelago:


TRAN DE PORT: A small town at the mouth of the Mekong River, Tran De is way off the beaten path. Some 40km southeast of Soc Trang city, and a good six hours’ drive south of Saigon, Tran De is a fishing town that no one would have thought of visiting until the Superdong ferry put it on the map for travellers. The ferry pier is currently located at the end of the canal as it meets the river, but is due to be relocated a couple hundred metres south of here to a dedicated Superdong terminal in the near future. As boats leave at 8.00am, it’s a good idea to overnight in Tran De. There are several decent guest houses, all offering clean, simple rooms for around 200,000vnd. Ngoc Quy, Tan Hung Thinh, and Quan Ngoc (view map) are all fine for a night. There’s enough street food to fill you up in the evenings and mornings around the canal bridge on road QL91C as it passes through town. Note that it can get very busy on the narrow road leading to the ferry pier (and the ticket office can get swamped) leading up to departure times, but hopefully this will change when the new pier opens.

Tran De Port, Soc Trang Province, Mekong Delta, VietnamTran De Port (5-6 hours from Saigon) is a little Mekong fishing town, way off the beaten path


BEN DAM PORT: Ben Dam Port is in the southwest of Con Son Island. Beautifully situated in a lagoon between Con Son and Hon Ba islands, with rocky, forested hills rising all around, Ben Dam is as scenic a port as you could hope to find. Things can get a bit chaotic on the pier during arrival and departure, but everything seems to work out in the end. There are a few scruffy shops and rice eateries down the pier near the road. Ben Dam Port is 11km via a spectacular coast road to Con Son town, the main settlement on the island. Taxis meet the ferries, or if you have pre-booked accommodation on the island, they should be able to arrange a pick up for you. (For much more information about the Con Dao Islands see my complete guide.)

Ben Dam Port, Con Son Island, Con Dao, VietnamBen Dam Port on Con Son Island is a spectacular entrance to the Con Dao Archipelago

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The Boats:

As always with Superdong ferries, the boats are long, narrow vessels with two levels of indoor, air-conditioned, coach-style seating, and a fair amount of deck space at the stern. On board, the ferries appear to be modern, clean, and well-equipped, with space for over 300 hundred passengers. Seats are soft, reclinable, and comfortable; there are toilets (which are kept reasonably clean), USB sockets to charge your phone, and even on-board WiFi (although it was very weak and not really usable). Entertainment comes in the form of TVs suspended from the ceiling, showing soap operas, martial arts movies, and game shows, but the volume is bearable. The back deck (which is closed for the first and last 20 minutes) is quite spacious and great fun to be out on as the boat ploughs toward Con Son Island. There’s even a little bar on deck, serving cans of beer (great for your sea legs, no doubt), soft drinks, coffee, and light snacks. Life vests seem to be plentiful and staff are generally friendly and helpful.

The Superdong ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao Islands, VietnamThe Superdong boats are fast, clean & comfortable with coach-style seating in an air-conditioned cabin

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The Voyage:

The ferry is very popular with Vietnamese travellers: some of whom are the older generation, coming to pay their respects to those who died or were incarcerated on Con Son when it was a colonial prison; but many are the younger generation, coming to enjoy the island’s beaches and take selfies at all the scenic spots. The latter are dressed up in all their trendy beachwear, and there’s a pleasant sense of anticipation as everyone gathers on the pier before departure. (As yet, there are very few foreign passengers on this ferry route.)

The Superdong ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao Islands, VietnamThe majority of passengers are Vietnamese: either pilgrims to the former prisons or holiday makers

On board, it’s pretty relaxed, quiet and calm. Passengers are mostly content to sit in their seats watching TV, snoozing, or snacking. Sadly, the doors to the outside decks are locked for the first and last 15 minutes of the journey. I suppose this is a safety precaution, which, considering Vietnam’s terrible maritime safety record, is a good thing. But it does mean that you miss seeing the departure and arrival, which I think are the most exciting times to be on deck (the windows are large, but it’s not the same as being outside). However, when the doors do open, it’s great to be out in the sun and spray. The mouth of the Mekong is vast: there’s very little to see, but for a line of coconut palms on the distant banks. Soon, the ferry reaches open water. Gradually, the colour of the sea – stained brown by the emptying of the Mekong – turns a deep blue.

As the journey progresses, passengers begin to gather on the deck: smoking, drinking, selfie-taking and, in some cases, looking rather seasick. But the voyage can be fairly rocky at times, and the railings are low and the floor is wet and slippery, so be extremely careful when walking around outside.

The Superdong ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao Islands, VietnamThere’s a good deck space out back, where people gather to chat, drink, smoke (and feel seasick)

If conditions are good, the crossing may only take 2 hours. When the boat slides into the straits created by the islands of Con Son and Hon Ba, there’s a palpable sense of excitement on board. It’s a spectacular arrival: Ben Dam pier is situated in the middle of a blue lagoon with forested peaks rising sharply all around. Everyone is itching to get ashore, but disembarkation can be a bit of a shambles. When I arrived, it was low tide, so the level of the boat’s decks was 2-3 metres below the level of the pier. All baggage had to be relayed up to the pier, including the motorbikes, in a precarious rope lift/pulley arrangement. But regardless of how chaotic the arrival is, when you look around you at the bay, nothing else matters.

The Superdong ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao Islands, VietnamDisembarkation at Ben Dam Port can be a bit chaotic, but who cares when you’re on such a scenic island?

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


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On the Road & Under the Sky: Lunar New Year, 2018 http://vietnamcoracle.com/on-the-road-under-the-sky-lunar-new-year-2018/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/on-the-road-under-the-sky-lunar-new-year-2018/#comments Fri, 23 Feb 2018 13:39:21 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=24796 Continue reading ]]> First published February 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Lunar New Year is a time of gathering: of family and friends; of people and parties. But the Lunar New Year holiday (Tết) in Vietnam is also a time of noise and crowds; of pollution and overcharging. As much as I enjoy the former (not to mention the fabulous food), I’ve grown weary of the latter. This Lunar New Year (February 2018), I undertook to spend my Tết holiday in relative peace and solitude. I took my motorbike, my tent, and my guitar and set off for a week. Fortunately, I have friends in some of the corners of south-central Vietnam that I travelled through, and was lucky enough to visit them along the way, so my Tết was not entirely ‘people-less’. What follows isn’t a guide or a travelogue: it’s simply an illustrated scrapbook of some of the places I saw and stayed: a snapshot of an alternative Lunar New Year holiday spent on the road and under the sky.

Camping at Tet Lunar New Year, 2018, VietnamDuring the Tet Lunar New Year holiday, 2018, I tried to get away from the crowds on a camping road trip

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SCRAPBOOK: LUNAR NEW YEAR, 2018


I spent my time riding around the south-central triangle: the coast and the mountains between Saigon, Nha Trang, Dalat and Gia Nghia. This is a region of Vietnam I know well: I’ve probably explored this area more than any other part of the country since I arrived in 2005. I started along the coast roads, wanting to enjoy the seaside, in the glorious dry season weather, before the rush of domestic tourists after New Year’s Day (February 16, 2018). Then I headed inland, to the mountains, to get away from the holiday crowds, and to ride some quieter roads and find good wild camping in the cool highland climate. The road trip was just under 2,000km and lasted 11 days. The map below isn’t a route map: it shows places I camped and passed through while on the road. (For more specific details and guides to these areas, see Related Posts.)


MAP:

Some of the places I camped & passed through during Tết 2018


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Arriving on a sunny afternoon in Nha Trang, with the city filled with yellow flowers for Tết, I sat down for a bowl of bún ốc – snail noodle soup with bamboo shoots. This was my last stop on the coast before I turned westwards, into the mountains.

Bún ốc - snail noodle soup - in Nha Trang, VietnamA bowl of bún ốc (snail noodle soup) in Nha Trang, my last stop along the coast before heading inland

Road DT656 follows the Cai River valley as it passes through Phước Bình National Park, a striking mix of arid, boulder-strewn mountains, jungle-clad hills, and cool, clear waterways with sandy beaches that are ideal camping territory.

Camping in Phuoc Binh National Park, VietnamCamping on a sandy beach on the Cai River in Phuoc Binh National Park, Ninh Thuan Province

The days are hot and dry, but the nights are cool in Ninh Thuan Province during this time of year: perfect camping conditions. Sleeping in the open is so much easier during the dry season, and camping next to fresh water is always a treat, especially when it’s deep enough to swim.

Camping in Phuoc Binh National Park, VietnamCamping is easy in southern Vietnam’s dry season (November-April), especially next to a clear river

Passing through Dalat, I stopped to buy some rượu sim (rose myrtle-infused rice liquor) from a family-run farm-restaurant in the pine forests near Suối Vàng Lake. Sweet and flowery in flavour but mild in strength, rượu sim is one of my favourite tipples in the Central Highlands. Around Dalat, the pine forests were dry and the coffee blossom was in bloom, as well as other sweet-smelling flowers that you don’t find in the hotter lowland regions of Vietnam, like the fragrant sweet pea flower in the picture below (at least I think it’s sweet pea).

A sweet pea flower bush, Dalat, VietnamSweet pea: because Dalat’s climate is so cool, flowers grow here you don’t find in the hot, lowland regions

Moving further west on good, empty roads, I realize how easily accessible the highlands are now, since the completion of big new infrastructure. Many of the roads are built to facilitate dam construction and the clearing of forest for agricultural use. The dams form huge reservoirs which in turn become local natural attractions.

Central Highlands road & reservoir, VietnamNew roads have opened access to the Central Highlands: this is Dak Nong Province, Chua Thuy Lake

Before the mass cultivation of coffee and other cash crops, these highlands were dense forests stretching all the way to the Cambodian border. Today, there’s still large expanses of jungle left, but it’s disappearing fast as farming encroaches.

Forests & mountains, Dak Nong Province, VietnamLooking out over a forested mountainside from a bare ridge where jungle has been cleared for agriculture

Camping on a ridge in the forests somewhere between Gia Nghia and Cat Tien, I scared myself before bed by reading about how tigers roamed the wartime bases of the Viet Minh in the Việt Bắc region (northeast Vietnam), during the Franco-Viet Minh War (1946-1954). Guard dogs were eaten by tigers at night, and, in the 1950s, travellers on the road to Dalat were warned not to get out of their vehicles for risk being mauled by prowling tigers. Today, it’s estimated there are only some 40 Indochinese tigers left in the wild in Vietnam. Tonight, that figure comforts me, but I still woke up terrified at the sound of each footfall approaching my tent.

Camping on a ridge in the mountain forests, Dak Nong, VietnamCamping on a ridge in the forests & mountains of Dak Nong Province, once home to Indochinese tigers

Early morning on the ridge is magical. A mist fills the bowl created by the encircling mountains, hanging above the forest so that only the tallest trees break the grey veil of vapour. Birdsong fills the morning air – the trees are alive with them, flitting from branch to branch so that the entire canopy shimmers and shakes.

The jungle canopy in morning mist, VietnamIn the early mornings on the ridge, a mist fills the valley, hovering above the jungle canopy

The Dong Nai River is one of the longest in Vietnam. It’s dammed at multiple points in the highlands. I was able to bathe in it on the mornings I camped. Despite the air being cool, the water was quite warm. Once this river reaches the lowlands, near Saigon, it’s wide, muddy and polluted; but here in the mountains it’s clear.

Bathing in the Dong Nai River, VietnamThe Dong Nai River, one of the longest in Vietnam, snakes through the highlands & is good for bathing

Behind Cat Tien National Park, a small clear river runs through a tight valley populated by ethnic minority communities, who grow coffee and cashew trees – whose pungent fruit is the dominant smell in the valley – along the banks and fish in the river. This was my last night in the open, before heading back to the busier, more industrialized lowlands.

My tent in the Central Highlands, VietnamMy last night in the open, near Cat Tien: camping was an effective way to avoid the holiday crowds

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Núi Dinh Mountain & Springs http://vietnamcoracle.com/nui-dinh-mountain-springs/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/nui-dinh-mountain-springs/#respond Sat, 17 Feb 2018 10:59:20 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=24654 Continue reading ]]> First published February 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Some 90 minutes from Saigon, Núi Dinh Mountain is an unexpected swell of high ground, rising above the flat expanse of several river deltas. As unlikely as it seems from ground level – where the industrial sprawl along Highway QL51 appears to have poisoned the land as far as the eye can see – Núi Dinh Mountain is a peaceful retreat into the trees and streams on its rocky slopes, upon which perch dozens of Buddhist temples and pagodas. On the lower slopes, Suối Đá and Suối Tiên are freshwater springs which trickle down the mountainside, forming multiple natural pools that are good for bathing. Situated behind the pleasant streets of Ba Ria town, Núi Dinh Mountain and springs are easily accessible on two wheels (just 70km from Saigon), making them ideal for a day-trip from the city or as a stop on a longer road trip following the Ocean Road to Mui Ne.

Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, VietnamJust 70km from Sagion, the slopes of Núi Dinh Mountain are scattered with temples & freshwater springs

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GUIDE: NÚI DINH MOUNTAIN & SPRINGS


In this guide, I’ve written a description of Suối Đá and Suối Tiên springs and Núi Dinh Mountain, followed by information about nearby accommodation, and transportation from Saigon. I’ve plotted all the places mentioned in this guide on my map. (For more ideas about places to visit near Saigon, see Related Posts.)

Click an item below to read more about it:

MAP:

Núi Dinh Mountain & Springs, Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu Province


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The Springs:

On the southern slopes of Nui Dinh Mountain, a gurgling stream runs through dense foliage and over giant boulders, flowing into several rock pools as it descends to the flat floodplains at the bottom of the mountain. Two points along the stream are easily accessible to visitors: Suối Đá and Suối Tiên. Although these two are connected by a steep and scenic pathway, there are also separate roads leading to the entrances of each one.

The road to Suoi Da Spring, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamA concrete lane leads from Highway 51 up to the springs on the lower slopes of Núi Dinh Mountain

Suối Đá consists of five different bathing pools on multiple levels, where the stream has flowed into rock pools: some are natural pools, others are man-made. From the parking lot it’s a steep (and hot) walk between the pools (called hồ in Vietnamese). Each hồ is numbered 1-5, and it doesn’t take long to walk from one to another. But be careful on the pathways, because some of the stone steps are unstable and it would be very easy to twist your ankle. Entrance is free (at least it is during the daytime on weekdays when it’s very quiet, but there may be a small entrance fee on weekends or public holidays, when the springs get extremely busy).

Suoi Da Spring, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamSuoi Da Spring consists of 5 levels of rock pools that are good for bathing in the cool water

The bathing pools are very attractive, surrounded by large rocks and greenery. Bamboo platforms with tarpaulin roofs have been erected around the water’s edge, where you can sit or swing in a hammock. Even during the height of the southern dry season (February-March) there’s still water in the stream. But bear in mind that the heavy rains of the southern monsoon (May-October) changes the character of the stream dramatically: after a storm, the area can be overwhelmed by water running off the mountain.

Suoi Da Spring, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamWooden platforms covered by tarpaulins cluster around the pools for sitting, picnicking & relaxing

The water is clean enough to bathe in, and the temperature is lovely and cool – very refreshing on a hot, humid day. Food and drink is available from the makeshift shacks at all of the pools. One could easily spend a relaxing few hours here: reading a book, eating and drinking with friends, or dozing in a hammock listening to the trickling water.

Suoi Da Spring, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamSpending a couple of hours wandering around the pools, chilling out & swimming is a lot of fun

However, if you want to enjoy the springs in peace and tranquility, try to arrive in the middle of the day on a weekday, because it gets very busy, noisy and dirty on weekends, when blaring karaoke muffles the sound of gushing water, and trash ruins the natural setting. The latter is a huge problem all over Vietnam, especially in beauty spots, such as this. During the week, the trash – which is all too apparent, strewn among the trees, left on the boulders, squeezed between the rocks in the stream – is just about bearable. But on the weekends, when groups of picnickers can be seen throwing their garbage in the water or the foliage, it’s too depressing to ignore. (I’ve written at length about the problem of trash here.)

Trash threatens to ruin Suoi Da Spring, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamA common sight: sadly, trash threatens to ruin this natural setting; at the moment it’s just about bearable

Further up the mountain, Suối Tiên is accessed via a good road weaving through eucalyptus trees to the spring. (Alternatively, you can walk along a pretty pathway from pool No.5 [hồ 5] in Suối Đá all the way along the stream to Suối Tiên.) From the parking lot (entrance is free) several steep, rocky paths lead down to a large, blue pool of water surrounded by jungle vines, whose twisting roots spread over the smooth boulders dotted about the stream. It’s a lovely, shady enclosure, with plastic tables on a concrete bank where you can sit with a drink or snack from the little cafe-shack. Again, litter is a problem here, and again, if you want to avoid the crowds, visit during the middle of the day on a weekday.

Suoi Tien Spring, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamAccessed via a different road, or on foot from Suoi Da, Suoi Tien is another cooling pool of blue water

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Núi Dinh Mountain:

The winding road to Suối Tiên spring continues up the mountain for a few more kilometres. It’s a pleasant ride along a good road through eucalyptus trees, with occasional glimpses of the flat, flooded plains below. The tarmac comes to an abrupt end at a fork in the road. Straight ahead is Chùa Diệu Linh Temple. But if you bear right onto the dirt road this eventually leads to Hang Mai Pagoda, near the top of Núi Dinh Mountain. Shortly after the fork, turn left up a very steep concrete path (signposted to Chùa Hang Mai). On busy days, you may not be allowed to ride this lane on a motorbike, in which case you’ll need to park your bike and hike to the top. However, during the week this shouldn’t be necessary. Riding up is a lot of fun, but the gradient is quite extreme and many sections are unpaved: if the weather has been wet, it can be very treacherous indeed, but in dry conditions it’s fine.

The road to Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamA paved lane (occasionally deteriorating into a dirt path) leads all the way up Núi Dinh Mountain

The scenic ride through the trees to the top of the mountain takes about 15 minutes. It’s wonderfully quiet up on the mountain, and the air is cooler than down on the plains. There’s nobody around: just you, your motorbike, the rustling of the leaves in the breeze, and the sound of birds in the trees. It’s a different world to the industrial sprawl that exists at the bottom of the mountain, along Highway 51.

Eucalyptus forests on Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamThe quiet pathway to the top of Núi Dinh Mountain goes through eucalyptus forests to Hang Mai Pagoda

At the top, the road descends sharply and ends at Hang Mai Pagoda. Although there has been a Buddhist temple here for years, it is currently undergoing major renovations and expansion. Constructed around a collection of giant boulders, the pagoda complex looks out over a vast landscape, including the surrounding mountains, fruit plantations, Phu My industrial zone, the ports and loading cranes along the river, expansive flood plains, and all the way out to the sea, near Vung Tau.

Hang Mai pagoda, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamHang Mai Pagoda sits near the top of Núi Dinh Mountain with expansive views over the delta & sea

The monks that live here are very hospitable and may ask you for tea and food (vegetarian food, of course). The new temple consists of four storeys, each one with opened-sided prayer rooms offering fantastic views. The wooden carvings, bas-reliefs, murals, altars, bells and gongs that decorate the pagoda appear (at least to my untrained eye) to be of a finer quality than many of the other Buddhist places of worship I’ve visited in Vietnam.

Hang Mai pagoda, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamHang Mai pagoda is being expanded. The monks living here are friendly & may invite you for food & tea

I can quite happily spend an hour or two up here, listening to the chimes of the gong in the late afternoon as the sun begins to fall to the west, bathing the river docks in a hazy orange light, picking out the container ships on the sea off the Vung Tau coast, and lighting the eucalyptus trees on the mountainside until they look like a forests of matches that have been simultaneously ignited.

Hang Mai Pagoda, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamHang Mai pagoda is a peaceful place: I can easily spend a few hours here, especially at dusk

But Hang Mai is not the only sacred place on Núi Dinh Mountain. Indeed, the slopes are home to dozens of temples, pagodas and shrines. The largest complex is Thiền Tôn Phật Quang which is also still under construction. When it’s finished it will boast a colossal seated Buddha. The monks here are particularly zealous (in a friendly way) and were very keen to convert me, dressing me in robes and prostrating me in front of the altar to pray. But of all the religious sites on the mountain (which can be accessed by numerous tracks and pathways), the one I feel most attracted to is Di Đà Sơn Shrine. Accessed via a paved lane before reaching Suối Tiên, there is nothing fancy here: just a collection of sculptures under a tripod of freestanding boulders. It’s a pretty spot with a certain ‘atmosphere’, and rocky ledges on which to sit in the shade of a tree and gaze out over the landscape.

Di Đà Sơn Shrine, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamDi Đà Sơn shrine: the slopes of Núi Dinh Mountain are scattered with dozens of places of worship

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Accommodation:

There’s no accommodation on the mountain (although if you’re lucky the monks might invite you to stay for a night at one of the pagodas), but at Suối Đá springs you can rent a tent (100,000vnd for as many people as you can fit), which is pitched on one of the wooden platforms above the water. Ask at any of the shacks on any of the levels (hồ) and they should be able to set it up for you. This is a good option for budget travellers to spend a night in the open. It also allows you to enjoy the springs in the early morning, when there’s nobody about. Otherwise, head into Ba Ria town, just a 5-minute ride up the road. Ba Ria is a clean, friendly and very likable place with a few good mini-hotels, which are perfect for a night after visiting the mountain and springs. Try Motel Le Hoa (149 Bach Dang Street), Galaxy 3 Hotel (190 Bach Dang Street), and Thanh Sang Motel (26-28 Le Thanh Duy Street), all offering simple, clean rooms for around 150,000-300,000vnd a night. If you have your own tent, it’s possible to ‘wild camp’ on the mountain, down the dirt tracks leading into the forests of eucalyptus trees. But if you decide to do this, make sure you do it discreetly and responsibly. For travellers wanting to stay by the beach, Ho Tram and Ho Coc are only a 30-45 minute ride away. Ba Ria also has lots of good, cheap street food.

Accommodation at Suoi Da Spring, Núi Dinh Mountain, Ba Ria, VietnamYou can sleep at Suoi Da Springs in tents on wooden platforms above the water, or get a room in Ba Ria

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Transportation:

From Saigon, it’s a 90-minute to 2-hour ride by motorbike to the mountain and springs. It’s not a pretty ride because it involves going through Saigon’s industrial sprawl and then along busy Highway QL51. But the roads are in good condition, and if you leave early in the morning (before 5am) or late in the evening (after 7.30pm), you’ll avoid the worst of the traffic. Take the back route out of Saigon, via the Cat Lai ferry, and continue through Nhon Trach industrial zone before turning due south onto Highway QL51. The turn off the highway for Suối Đá springs is next to Chu Hai Church, and the turn off for Suối Tiên and the Núi Dinh Mountain road (Đường Xe Lên Núi Dinh) is just a kilometre or so further along the highway. Motorbike or bicycle is by far the best and easiest way to get to the mountain and springs, but you could also jump on one of the many Saigon-Vung Tau minibuses and ask to be let off at the turn off for the springs or mountain. However, you’d still need to get from the road to the springs, which is a fair walk. Another (more expensive) option is to take a taxi from Saigon. If you’re travelling by motorbike, you can easily continue your road trip from Núi Dinh Mountain to the Ocean Road, leading all the way to Mui Ne and beyond.

The road to Núi Dinh Mountain & Springs, Ba Ria, VietnamThe ride from Saigon to Núi Dinh Mountain takes about 90 minutes & the roads are in good condition

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The Floating Forest of Long An http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-floating-forest-of-long-an/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-floating-forest-of-long-an/#respond Fri, 02 Feb 2018 05:21:47 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=24486 Continue reading ]]> First published February 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Only 100km west of Ho Chi Minh City, Làng Nổi Tân Lập is an enchanted patch of wetland where cajeput trees rise from the black, swampy waters creating beguiling corridors through which canoes glide and raised walkways wind. Located in Long An Province, whose vast, flat, agricultural lands stretch right to the Cambodian border, Làng Nổi Tân Lập literally means, ‘Tan Lap Floating Village’. However, I think ‘floating forest’ is both more accurate and more romantic, and that is how I will refer to it throughout this guide (which, I guess, would make it Rừng Nổi Tân Lập in Vietnamese). Within 2 hours’ ride of Saigon, the Floating Forest is ideal for a day-night trip from the city, especially by motorbike. There’s camping and accommodation at the Floating Forest itself, or you can combine a visit here with a night in a wooden hut at the wonderful lotus lake homestays in nearby Thap Muoi. Either way, this is a great way to spend 24-48 hours away from the Big Smoke.

The Floating Forest of Tan Lap, Long An, VietnamThe Floating Forest of Tan Lap is easily reached from Saigon, making an ideal day-trip by motorbike

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GUIDE: TÂN LẬP FLOATING FOREST


In the following guide, I’ve written an overview of visiting Tan Lap Floating Forest, including ticket prices, activities, and accommodation information. I assume that most travellers will make their own way here from Saigon on two wheels, via roads QL N1 and QL62. The Floating Forest is great as a day-night trip from Saigon, but also as a stop on a longer road trip in the Mekong Delta, for example the Mountains in the Mekong route, or Riding to Phu Quoc Island.


MAP:

Tân Lập Floating Forest, Long An Province


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Ever since I first heard about Tan Lap Floating Forest, I was skeptical: Long An Province is not a place I associated with forests and natural beauty. Rather I saw it as an industrial suburb of Saigon: a place where the factories, which drive the southern hub’s economic boom, sprawl to the pollution-blurred horizon. But Long An is a big province, spreading 200km west of Saigon into the agricultural heartland of the Mekong Delta, and it changes quickly from urban to rural. Indeed, to get to the Floating Forest it is necessary to ride through the awful, dust-choked industrial zones, but, after an hour or so, the air clears and the traffic fades: fields and trees replace factories and fumes, the ashen sky becomes blue, green seeps into the landscape, and nature replaces industry. Suddenly, the idea of a natural attraction in Long An Province doesn’t seem so improbable.

The Floating Forest of Tan Lap, Long An, VietnamOnly 100km from Saigon, the Floating Forest is a breath of fresh air (literally) after the smog of the city

Làng Nổi Tân Lập is located just off National Highway QL62, only 25km from Cambodia. Trucks ply this route to and from the border, which is a shame because the noise from the road can be heard from within the Floating Forest, distracting slightly from the peace and stillness of the natural environment. The entrance to the Floating Forest is marked by a large gate and an enormous car park, which, if you visit during the week, will be entirely empty, but on weekends is likely to be full. Despite being open for several years now, construction is still ongoing: the reception and ticket office was surrounded by cement mixers at the time of my last visit. New accommodation was being built and more activities are in the pipeline.

The Floating Forest of Tan Lap, Long An, VietnamReflections: cajeput trees grow out of the swampy waters creating Tan Lap Floating Forest

Don’t let these first impressions put you off, because things only get better the further into the forest you go. At the ticket office, the price list for all activities, accommodation, and food and drink is in Vietnamese and English. Staff are nice and helpful (although a bit robotic) so there shouldn’t be any problem buying your tickets. There are essentially two activities on offer (although this will change in the near future as new ones are opened), but because the price is so cheap you may as well buy tickets for both: entrance (including a short ferry ride to the forest proper and access to the raised walkways through the trees) is 60,000vnd, and a 30-minute ride in a canoe through the floating forest is an additional 40,000vnd. Together it’s only 100,000vnd ($5) per person. Considering you can stay in the forest for hours, just wandering around on the raised walkways, this is pretty good value for money.

The Floating Forest of Tan Lap, Long An, VietnamA motorized canoe takes you into the Floating Forest from where there are boat rides & walks

If you intend to stay the night at the Floating Forest, there are two types of accommodation: camping (100,000vnd for a two-man tent, which is pitched near the entrance, rather too close to the road to be peaceful), and an eight-storey hotel, which is located inside the Floating Forest. As this is by far the tallest structure for miles around, there are fabulous panoramic views, over the forest canopy and wetlands, from the balconies. Prices range from 560,000-1,080,000vnd ($25-$50) a night depending on the floor level, day of the week, and number of guests. In my opinion, a night in the hotel is very atmospheric and worthwhile, but camping here isn’t great. Instead, I would recommend heading an hour further west for a night in the excellent lotus lake homestays in Thap Muoi District ($5 a night). Note that there is no food available beyond the reception area, but drinks are sold within the Floating Forest.

The Floating Forest of Tan Lap, Long An, VietnamThe hotel (on the horizon) is by far the tallest structure around, so there are fantastic views over the forest

A motorized canoe whisks you from the reception area to the boat pier on the edge of the Floating Forest. Again, this short ride isn’t very impressive, thanks to large dredging barges, quite a bit of plastic refuse in the murky waters, and lots of cajeput trees being felled in order to create space for more ‘eco’ activities. (This is often the irony of so-called ecological tourist sites in Vietnam: so much of nature is cleared in order to make way for the ‘eco’ developments.) But don’t despair, because it does get better.

The Floating Forest of Tan Lap, Long An, VietnamWater lilies in the Floating Forest, which is still undergoing development for new activities

The boat pier is a pretty spot under the shade of trees. This is where little canoes depart, rowing through narrow channels between the cajeput forests. The hotel is also located here, on the banks of the waterway, and the network of raised concrete walkways leading through the forest all begin and end here. Take care when boarding the canoe, because they are very ‘tippy’ vessels. You’re required to wear a life jacket, and everyone is provided with a nón lá (traditional Vietnamese conical hat) to keep the sun off your head.

The Floating Forest of Tan Lap, Long An, VietnamA 30-minute canoe ride takes you through the channels between the cajeput trees

The first ten minutes of the canoe ride are unremarkable, but once you turn down the tight, narrow channels, within inches of the dense cajeput trees, it’s very beautiful. The light just about filters through the canopy, illuminating the strange, papery bark of the trees. It’s eerily still and quiet in the narrow waterways as you row between tree trunks and under the arches of several walking bridges. The atmosphere is hot, heavy and steamy. It’s easy to imagine yourself in a scene from Indiana Jones: crocodiles lurking beneath the surface of the black water, guarding the site of some ancient holy relic. But the crocodiles, if there ever were any, are long gone, and the general feeling I had was one of peace, reflection, and tranquility.

Tan Lap Floating Forest, Long An, VietnamThe narrow channels are particularly atmospheric, calm and peaceful to row through

The canoe ride is a half hour loop, ending back at the boat pier. From here, head on foot into the forest on one of the concrete pathways, which wind under the canopy, a few feet above the water, for more than five kilometres. There’s a map of the walkways before you enter, but it’s difficult to get lost because they all lead back to the boat station eventually, and there are regular signposts in the forest. A few bamboo shacks provide drinks, bathrooms and rubbish bins along the way.

Tan Lap Floating Forest, Long An, VietnamThere are over 5km of raised concrete walkways leading through the Floating Forest

Providing you visit on a weekday, walking in the Floating Forest is very rewarding. You could easily spend a couple of hours exploring all the meandering routes – through the trees, over lakes filled with blooming water lilies, up to the top of a look-out tower, over wooden bridges – stopping to read a book, listening to the sounds of nature (and the road), and just generally wallowing in the fact that only a few hours ago you were riding through the soot-covered industrial suburbs of Saigon, and now you’re in the calm embrace of a floating cajeput forest.

Tan Lap Floating Forest, Long An, VietnamEmpty on weekdays (but busy on weekends), wandering through the Floating Forest can be very relaxing

The density of trees does something strange to the quality of light under the canopy. The colours are vague, washed-out, and muted, like the sepia tones of an old photograph or an Instagram filter. The raised walkways, strewn with fallen leaves, are themselves very photogenic. The pathways twist between the trunks in front of you, before being swallowed up by the trees. Indeed, the Floating Forest has become a favourite place for Vietnamese youth to come on weekend road trips for a session of selfie-taking.

Tan Lap Floating Forest, Long An, VietnamUnder the dense canopy, the sunlight filters through creating a distinctive ‘washed-out’ light

Back at the boat pier, a motorized canoe will take you back to the reception area near the entrance. If you’re hungry, lunch is served in the dining shack next to the car park, but there are also local rice eateries in Thanh Tan town, 15 minutes back down road QL62.

Tan Lap Floating Forest, Long An, VietnamTan Lap Floating Forest can be visited as a day-trip from Saigon or as a longer Mekong trip

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Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Mekong Delta http://vietnamcoracle.com/floating-lotus-lake-homestays-mekong-delta/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/floating-lotus-lake-homestays-mekong-delta/#comments Thu, 25 Jan 2018 14:15:34 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=24492 Continue reading ]]> First published January 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Atmospheric homestays in wood-and-thatch structures in scenic locations are something I normally associate with the mountains of northern Vietnam. But, in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, in Vietnam’s southwest, a collection of bamboo and palm-thatch huts on wooden stilts above a sea of lotus flowers and rice paddy, prove me wrong. In the lush and largely forgotten (at least by travellers) district on Thap Muoi, several stilt villages, connected by raised, rickety wooden platforms, offer a night in a hammock or on a futon under a mosquito net in a hut, just a few feet above the frogs, the fish, and the lotus. There’s excellent, locally-sourced food available, plenty of local alcohol, and lots of friendly southern charm to boot. Oh, and it’s dirt cheap too. This is a wonderful way to experience the Mekong, and it’s only a 2-3 hour drive from Saigon. [To check current rates, availability & make a reservation for the Lotus Lake Homestays 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.

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaIn the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, several homestays offer simple huts above lotus fields

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REVIEW: LOTUS LAKE HOMESTAYS


Address: Hamlet 4, Tan Kieu Commune, Thap Muoi District, Dong Thap Province [MAP]

Average Price: $5 per night for a hammock or futon

BOOK HERE


MAP:

Lotus Lake Homestays, Thap Muoi District, Dong Thap Province


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Dong Thap Province, roughly 120km west of Saigon, is usually overlooked by travellers, who tend to focus on more famous Mekong Delta sights and towns, such as the floating market of Cai Be, and the commercial hub of Can Tho. This has left Dong Thap, a green and, by Mekong Delta standards, quiet and sparsely populated province, relatively unvisited. About halfway along Provincial Road DT845, there’s a turn off for Gò Tháp, down a peaceful, green lane. After crossing a small bridge, a smaller lane turns back on itself, leading through a shady grove of trees and along the edge of a large expanse of flooded fields, full of rice seedlings and lotus flowers. On the edge of this flooded farmland, there are about half a dozen homestays consisting of clusters of wooden huts constructed on raised plank-walkways above the lotus lake.

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaThe Lotus Lake Homestays are located down a small lane in Thap Muoi District, 120km west of Saigon

It’s difficult to know which of the homestays to choose. Personally, I like Hai Lúa, one of the first in the row. But 9 Theo and Hương Sen, further along the lane, are also very good. During the week, it’s quite likely that you’ll have the whole place to yourself, at least in the evenings. The owners tend to go to bed early (around 8pm), after which the lights go out, and you’re left to enjoy the peace and romance of a night suspended above sleeping lotus flowers and croaking frogs. But on weekends and public holidays it’s a very different experience: Vietnamese groups from around the region come to eat, drink and be merry, which involves a lot of great food, loads of rice wine, and lots of noise from the karaoke systems. Of course, this is not the peaceful, rural Mekong Delta experience that you might want/expect, but it can also be a lot of fun. Therefore, before planning a trip to the lotus lake homestays, bear in mind the differences of visiting during the week vs the weekend. Also note that during the week there’s no need to book in advance, but on the weekend there could be limited availability.

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaThere are half a dozen homestays to choose from: I like Hai Lúa, which is one of the first on the road

As there’s no public transportation, the homestays are best reached by motorbike, bicycle or hired vehicle. If you really want to, you could reach the homestays by a series of connecting public buses from Saigon, but for the purposes of this guide, I am assuming most people will come on their own wheels. Motorbike parking is by the side of the road, opposite the homestays. The owner or staff member will come out to meet you and then punt you across the muddy canal, separating the road from the homestays, on a wooden raft. This alone is a lot of fun, and it sure beats the marbled lobbies of five-star hotels for a theatrical entrance. (During the night, your motorbike is also punted across the water to be kept safe in the homestay).

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaA small wooden barge punts guests across the channel separating the lane from the homestays

Your hosts will sit down to discuss prices, sleeping arrangements, and food and drink. In most cases, not much English is spoken, but as people in the Delta tend to be gregarious and outgoing, there’s rarely any problem with communication. Sleeping is between 100,000-150,000vnd ($5-$7) per person. There’s usually a choice of a hammock or a mattress on the floor, both under the thatched roof of one of the wooden huts. (It’s worth noting that, as romantic as a night in a hammock sounds, it’s not that comfortable after a few hours, so if you intend to get some sleep, it’s probably better to opt for the mattress.) The huts have mosquito nets, power sockets, WiFi, and small trash cans.

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaSleeping is in wooden huts above the lotus fields: either in a hammock or on a futon under mosquito nets

Dinner is also negotiated on arrival, so that the family can prepare the ingredients for your meal. Most homestays have a full menu with prices. In general, each dish is between 50,000-150,000vnd. The food is all local: indeed, much of it is sourced from the homestay itself. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of lotus dishes on the menu – the lotus plant is famous in Vietnam for every part being edible: the stem, root, seed, flower; even the leaves are used to steam rice inside. In Vietnamese, lotus is sen, so make sure you order something with sen in it. Vegetables, including the ubiquitous and much-loved rau muống (morning glory), are very good, and so are the ‘Mekong meats’, such as rice fields rat (chuột đồng), snake (rắn), eel (lươn), frog (ếch), and snakehead fish (cá lóc). I know some of this might some too ‘weird’, but trust me, it’s all delicious, especially the rat and the eel and the fish. If you’re not feeling adventurous, there’s plenty of free-range chicken () dishes to choose from too. Alcohol options include the usual insipid Vietnamese beers, but much more interesting are the liquors (rượu). Try the rượu sen (29% proof lotus liquor), which is dry and slightly bitter. Depending on how many guests there are, your host may dine (and drink) with you.

Dinner at the Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaFood is locally sourced & very good, including lots of lotus-based dishes, like rice steamed in a lotus leaf

Most of the homestays are arranged in similar fashion: the host’s living quarters, dining area, and communal bathrooms are at the front, on a dyke between the canal and the flooded lotus fields, then a network of wooden platforms and walkways extend out over the lotus lake for about 50 metres, with a dozen or so thatched huts every few metres. The bathrooms are kept very clean but do not feature familiar Western-style conveniences, such as flush toilets and showers. Instead, a large amphora is filled with water, and a plastic scoop-bucket used to self-flush toilets and to shower. There’s running water from the taps in the sinks outside for brushing your teeth or washing your hands.

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaMost homestays are similarly designed, including clean bathrooms but with self-flush toilets & showers

The most atmospheric times of day at the lotus lake homestays are dusk, night, and early morning. At dusk, as the temperatures cool, the homestay families work the lotus fields: checking the plants, catching fish and frogs (which live in the flooded fields), making repairs to the wooden plankways, and preparing dinner. At night, the chorus of cicadas and frogs is hypnotic and romantic: this is a good time to sit out on the walkways staring out over the dark fields. However, mosquitoes are a constant irritation, so make sure you cover up and bring good repellent. Also, remember to bring a flashlight, because there are many potentially dangerous wires and obstacles on the wooden walkways. The mornings start early, with motorized canoes on the canal, cockerels calling, and dogs barking. The lotus flowers are in full bloom during the first few hours of the day; they close from midday onwards.

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaThe lotus & lilies are in full bloom during the mornings; at night the chorus of frogs is hypnotizing

Close to the homestays is the historical site of Gò Tháp/Tháp Mười. Recently excavated and restored, this is the site of several ancient towers, which were places of worship during the time of the Funan Kingdom. The towers, which are now little more than brick foundations, were active places of Hindu and Buddhist worship between the 4th-12th centuries CE. While there isn’t much to see here, there is a certain ‘sense of history’, and the area is also a nice, green, shady place to walk around. [To check current rates, availability & make a reservation for Lotus Lake Homestay 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.

Floating Lotus Lake Homestays, Dong Thap Province, Mekong DeltaPrices are around $5 a night (food & drink is extra). You can check rates, availability and BOOK HERE

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 homestay and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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