Vietnam Coracle http://vietnamcoracle.com Independent Travel Guides to Vietnam Sun, 24 Jun 2018 16:43:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.6 The Cham Towers & Ancient Citadel of Vijaya http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-cham-towers-ancient-citadel-of-vijaya/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-cham-towers-ancient-citadel-of-vijaya/#respond Fri, 22 Jun 2018 11:21:42 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=26042 Continue reading ]]> First published June 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Scattered across the central coast and plains of Vietnam are the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Champa. Lasting for over a thousand years, from the early centuries of the first millennium CE, Cham civilization thrived in the lush, fertile valleys and sheltered bays of Central Vietnam. Vijaya, near present-day Quy Nhon, served as the Cham capital for 500 years, from the late 10th century until 1471, when it was finally taken by the Vietnamese from the north. An Indianized culture, whose religion for most of its existence was Hinduism, the ruins of Cham towers, temples, shrines and cities are a powerful reminder of the rich history of what is now Vietnam. Visiting the impressive Cham towers and bare remains of Vijaya is a rewarding day trip from Quy Nhon, on the central coast. In many ways, seeing the remnants of Cham civilization in this region is far more affecting than visiting the more famous ruins of My Son, near Hoi An. While the latter receives thousands of visitors each day, the sites near Quy Nhon are serene and seldom seen. There’s more of a sense of history here than most other historical sites in Vietnam (or in Europe for that matter).

Vijaya Cham towers & citadel, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamThe ruins of the ancient Indianized kingdom of Champa lie strewn across the plains near Quy Nhon

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GUIDE: CHAM TOWERS & VIJAYA CITADEL


There are several Cham sites within easy reach of Quy Nhon. In this guide, I’ve focused on four of them, which can all be visited in one day. The best way to travel between the ruins is by motorbike (or bicycle, if you factor in a lot more time). However, it’s also possible to hire a local taxi from Quy Nhon to take you around the sites, or organize a car and driver through your accommodation. Public transportation isn’t really an option if you want to visit all four locations. I’ve marked the ruins on my map and linked them via a scenic loop, starting and ending in Quy Nhon. The countryside is pastoral and beautiful, and back-roads criss-cross the region: if you have time, explore some of the smaller lanes. Below, I’ve written a brief introduction to all four sites (including a bit of historical context), followed by a selection of photographs from each of them. If, like me, you have a general interest in history and enjoy wandering through deserted ruins of lost civilizations, with the sense of history hanging heavy in the air, then you’ll enjoy this itinerary. Other Cham sites dot the region, and it’s worth dropping by the Binh Dinh Museum in Quy Nhon for some historical background.

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

Click below to read more:

MAP:

The Cham Towers & Vijaya Citadel, near Quy Nhon:


View in a LARGER MAP

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Thap Doi Towers:

Located just 5 minutes northwest of downtown Quy Nhon, these two towers are situated in a pleasant park next to a busy road. The juxtaposition of the ornate ruins, dating from the 12th century, and the honking hulks of giant juggernauts passing by is jarring, but also very representative of 21st century Vietnam. The towers’s arching forms and floral motifs are echoed, to some extent, in the crowns of the long and slender coconut palms and other tropical trees that grow around them. Inside, the towers taper upwards for 20 metres, like giant red brick chimneys, before opening to the sky. Owing to its easy access, Thap Doi (Twin Towers) is by far the most visited of the four sites in this guide. In particular, they’re a popular selfie spot for Vietnamese teens. Early morning is the best time to visit. Entrance is 10,000vnd.

Vijaya Cham towers & citadel, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamRed brick & tall, narrow archways characterize most of the Cham towers in this region


Vijaya Cham towers & citadel, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamRestoration of Cham ruins in Vietnam has been mostly sympathetic to the original structures

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Banh It Towers:

Hiding in plain sight, Banh It towers are seldom visited despite being easily accessible and in full view of Highway QL1A. Beautifully restored, the four Cham towers here have a powerful presence and a commanding position atop a hill. Nobody is here, just butterflies and the wind, and, inside the towers, the high-pitched calls of bats echoing off the red-brick walls. Down the centuries, the Cham Kingdom was pushed further and further south, due to Chinese and Vietnamese military advancement from the north, and attacks from the Khmer Angkor kingdom from the west. Thus, the Cham towers in Binh Dinh Province are later than those in Quang Nam Province to the north. The four Cham towers at Banh It, 15km northwest of Quy Nhon, date from the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Cham capital had shifted south to Vijaya after the fall of Indrapura, near Danang. The Banh It towers are wonderfully situated on a breezy hilltop with panoramic views over the cultivated flood plains of the Thi Nai River, with the Truong Son Mountains to the west, and the ocean to the east. It’s easy to understand why this site was chosen as a place of worship. Indeed, as is often the case with ‘holy lands’, this location has continued to be sacred for future inhabitants, long after the Cham (and the Hindu deities whom they worshiped) had declined. A Buddhist monastery stands at the foot of the hill and a cemetery is scattered over the lower slopes. As with sacred sites across the Mediterranean, it would seem that land, once sanctified, remains holy through the centuries, regardless of what religion is currently dominant in the area. Banh It towers is a place to linger, soaking up the atmosphere. Entrance is 10,000vnd.

Banh It Cham towers, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamThe collection of Cham towers at Banh It are clustered on a hilltop surrounded by countryside


Banh It Cham towers, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamThe scale of the towers at Banh It surprised me: look how they dwarf the woman in the foreground

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Vijaya Citadel & Canh Tien Tower:

Vijaya (also known as Cha Ban and Do Ban) is one of those places with a lot of history, but very little visible signs of it. The Cham capital from the 11th to the 15th centuries, Vijaya was rich and prosperous. It was subject to many besiegements, sackings, and bloody battles. The Khmer and Vietnamese armies all came and conquered, but, as far as I understand, the citadel stood in one form or another, albeit by different names and under the control of different dynasties, until at least the early 19th century. The site of Vijaya was in Vietnamese hands since 1471, when it was finally captured by emperor Le Thanh Ton, who oversaw the battle in which some 60,000 Cham were killed. Then, during the Tay Son Rebellion, which overthrew the ruling Vietnamese imperial dynasty in the late 18th century, Vijaya was rebuilt as Hoang De Citadel, stronghold of the Tay Son Dynasty in central Vietnam. However, this only lasted a generation, as Hoang De was ultimately taken, retaken, and taken again after several more brutal sieges, by Nguyen Anh, who was to become emperor Gia Long, the first of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors. Very little remains of the once great citadel. Parts of the original city wall stand, but most of it has been restored. Open excavations reveal some of the original Cham structure, but the majority of what you see today dates from the Nguyen Dynasty, from the 19th century. Still, it’s an atmospheric place to visit and there’s no one else here. I find there’s a certain pathos about Vijaya/Hoang De today: for all the blood that was spilled in order to hold it or defeat it, all the importance and significance it once had, it’s now hardly more than a forgotten field amongst farmland, with the Reunification Express train rattling by several times a day, a few airplanes passing overhead on their descent to Phu Cat Airport, cows munching grass next to stone dragons, and farmers pedaling silently past. This is the site of some momentous shifts in the history of the land we now know as Vietnam, yet it attracts little interest.

Only a couple of minutes away, Canh Tien tower stands on a gentle rise behind the citadel. Heavily restored, many of the tower’s decorative features appear to by representations of the tropical foliage that dominates lowland Vietnam. As such, (and as with all Cham towers in Vietnam), the architecture fits its natural environment; managing to be both dominant and harmonious. Canh Tien is probably a bit later than the other towers in Binh Dinh, perhaps the 13th-14th centuries. Entrance is 10,000vnd, but there’s often no one at the ticket kiosk.

Canh Tien Cham tower, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamThe site of the ancient citadel of Vijaya, with Canh Tien tower looming above the trees


Vijaya/Hoang De Citadel, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamThe citadel of Vijaya/Hoang De is rarely visited: it’s a place of much history but little in the way of ruins

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Phu Loc Tower & others:

The last tower in this ‘Cham loop’ is the least visited but, in many ways, the most exciting. North of Vijaya, a narrow paved lane branches off Highway 1, winding through an increasingly medieval-feeling rural area. Although the details might have changed over the centuries, I doubt the atmosphere has: it’s still, quiet, and slow in the midday heat; a clutch of bare-torsoed, sinewy men in their 80s gather in the shade of tamarind trees, marking the site of an 18th century event during the Tay Son Rebellion (of which I could not understand the details). They give directions to the Cham tower, whose hilltop ruins are glimpsed every now and then from the road, but always seem to disappear again. The lanes get narrower, passing haystacks drying in the sun and tethered oxen munching lethargically. The lane turns to dirt, leading through a village cemetery, under whispering eucalyptus trees, at the foot of a hill. After dismounting the bike and walking along a steep, tight trail where arid bushes scratch your bare arms, you arrive at a grassy clearing. Battered stone steps lead up to Phu Loc tower, standing resolutely on the hilltop, as if it were a part of the natural landscape, unmoved by time. In the clearing, the tower casts a welcome shadow in which to sit and admire the view down over the plains, with the ancient capital of Vijaya and Canh Tien tower clearly visible to the south. It’s easy to use your imagination and start piecing together Champa as it might have looked in the 13th century, seen from this hill. The tower itself is big and time-worn. Partially restored, it’s lost none of it’s gravitas. Goats and cows are your only company, and, sadly, trash. There’s no admission fee.

(If you have time, there are several other interesting Cham sites in the vicinity: the triple towers of Duong Long, and the towers of Thu Thien and Binh Lam.) Head back to Quy Nhon via a pretty valley along road QL19B, towards the beautiful beach at Trung Luong. Perhaps stop for cocktails and a swim at the Crown Retreat, before continuing along QL19B down the Phuong Mai Peninsular, over the long, long causeway across the Thi Nai Lagoon (the ancient Cham port), and back into the city.

Phu Loc Cham tower, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamPhu Loc is the most romantic of the Cham towers: accessed via a steep pathway to a lonely hilltop


Phu Loc Cham tower, Binh Dinh Province, VietnamPhu Loc tower is large & imposing, its wide base rooted to the ground as if it were part of the landscape

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Exploring Saigon’s Railway Tracks: A Guide http://vietnamcoracle.com/exploring-saigons-railway-tracks-a-guide/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/exploring-saigons-railway-tracks-a-guide/#comments Fri, 15 Jun 2018 02:19:23 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=25934 Continue reading ]]> First published June 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

A few years ago, I lived close to the railway tracks in Saigon. Throughout the day (and night) I heard the blaring horn of the locomotives, succeeded by the rattling of the carriages as they passed through my neighbourhood on their way north. I loved the romance of being so close to the rails, and I was very sad when I had to move house (even though my housemates at the time would disagree: for them the train was an irritation). While living by the tracks, I began to explore the narrow paved lanes which run either side of the railway for several kilometres through the city. Lined with cramped housing, intriguing architecture, temples, shrines, pagodas, fruit trees, flowers, cafes, casual dining, trash, beer joints and other such urban miscellanea, it’s a fascinating area to explore, either on foot or on two wheels. Recently, I went back to the tracks where I used to live, in order to research and write this guide to drinking, dining, walking, riding, and sightseeing along Saigon’s railway tracks. Spend a day or two exploring the city’s railroad: it’s urban, ugly, pretty, gritty, cool, fun, and it’s very Saigon.

Exploring Saigon's railway line, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamLife along Saigon’s railway line is vibrant, pretty, ugly, fun, & fascinating: it’s great for exploring

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GUIDE: EXPLORING SAIGON’S RAIL TRACKS


In this guide, I’ve mapped some of the interesting cafes and eateries by the railway, and included some intriguing places to stop and see near the train tracks. All but a couple of places in this guide are on the two narrow lanes that follow the course of the railway. It’s very pleasant to walk or ride this route, by motorbike or bicycle. However, the lanes by the tracks are not continuous: it’s sometimes necessary to duck out and rejoin them. But, although there are a few dead ends, in general, no matter how tight the alleyways become, there’s almost always a way through, so persevere. I’ve written this guide starting from the Saigon train terminus in District 3, then following both sides of the track as it veers north and northeast through the districts of Phu Nhuan, Go Vap, Binh Thanh, and across the Saigon River to Thu Duc District. Any time of day is good: early mornings and late evenings are quiet and cool; the middle of the day is hot and slow; and during the rush hours the lanes can get very busy. There’s an abundance of food and drink and potential for exploration along Saigon’s railway: this is just a brief guide. (For similar guides to other aspects of Saigon, take a look at the Related Posts.)

*WARNING: It should go without saying that you must be extremely careful when exploring any area near the railway tracks. Never assume the line is safe or clear: always stop, look, and listen. Accidents on Vietnam’s railways are alarmingly common.


MAP:

Exploring Saigon’s Rail Tracks

View in a LARGER MAP

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Start at the largely disappointing (apart for the old steam locomotive at the entrance) Saigon train station. If you plan to walk, you can leave your motorbike at the station parking lot, opposite the main station building. However, the lanes leading either side of the tracks don’t begin until the first intersection after the station: at Tran Van Dang Street. Whether going by foot or on two wheels, grab a quick, satisfying snack of chuối chiên (banana fritters) at the place on the corner of the second set of tracks as it crosses Tran Van Dang Street. This is good fuel for the walk/ride. Alternatively, save your appetite for Quán Chay Thanh Tịnh, a friendly, clean, very Buddhist little vegetarian eatery, serving good veggie versions of classic Vietnamese noodle dishes, such as mì quảng and hủ tiếu.

Vegetarian mì quảng noodles, Saigon, VietnamA bowl of vegetarian mì quảng noodles at Quán Chay Thanh Thịnh by the railway line

For most of its length, there are railings between the tracks and the lanes. But when a train passes – which they do every 30 minutes or so – it feels mighty close to the homes, shops, cafes, restaurants, and people on the lanes. It’s a lot of fun when a train does pass, but beware: the volume of the horn is ear-shatteringly loud. What’s more, train drivers tend to be pretty trigger-happy, because the horn is their chief safety precaution when rattling along the cramped city tracks.

A passing train, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamTrains pass very close to the lanes running parallel to the railway tracks in Saigon

Like rail lines all over the world, the Saigon tracks are used as a convenient rubbish dump by many of the residents and passersby. You’ll find old sofas, refrigerators, pottery, cutlery, and the usual household detritus distributed around the rails (despite government notices forbidding it). However, it’s also apparent that the rail tracks function as gardens for the homes lining it. Saigon residents have learned how to make the most of the rapidly disappearing space available to them. Thus, the tracks are planted with banana, jack fruit, breadfruit, starfruit, and papaya trees, and fragrant and colourful plants and flowers, such as Rangoon creepers, frangipanis, bougainvillea, and night-blooming jasmine. Locals use the space for morning exercises, to let their chickens wander, to hang their laundry, to walk their dogs, and to hang their caged birds in the shade of trees. There’s an undeniable charm to life along the Saigon tracks, at least for the casual observer, if not for the residents. There’s a distinctive character to it; an almost village-like quality. If you’ve travelled by train in India, for example, the Saigon railroad has none of the squalor, awful living conditions, and fowl smell that it does on the subcontinent.

Lanes along the Saigon railway line, Ho Chi Minh CityLife along the narrow lanes either side of the railway line is intriguing, village-like, & often green

After crossing the Nhieu Loc Channel, the lanes offer up a couple of interesting coffee shops and track-side eateries. Definitely stop in at the incredible Nhỏ Cafe, a pokey but hugely atmospheric ‘vestige cafe’, filled with old bric-a-brac like portable TVs, cassette players, sewing machines, paraffin lamps, dolls, records, bicycles, pottery, clocks, telephones and typewriters. Settle down to a strong Vietnamese coffee or a fruit juice and soak up the vestige vibes, with the trains passing a couple of metres away. For a snack, head to the corner with Le Van Sy Street, where Badar is a hole-in-the-wall selling crispy pizza-pancakes called bánh đa trộn. Or, for those who can abide it, check out the string of dog meat restaurants on the other side of the tracks. In the evening, it’s worth stopping by Creative Station to see if there’s an open event happening or simply for a drink.

Nhỏ Cafe, along the Saigon railway line, Ho Chi Minh CityNhỏ Cafe sits next to the railway tracks: it’s a classic Vietnamese-style ‘vestige cafe’

Continuing beside the tracks after crossing over Le Van Sy Street, there are some cute murals decorating a section of wall on the left side. Then, take some time to soak up to the fantasia of ghoulish and garish iconography at Quang Minh Buddhist Temple, before sneaking off the tracks for a bite to eat at one of the many enticing street food stalls around Tran Huu Trang Market.

Quang Minh Buddhist temple, Phu Nhuan District, SaigonQuang Minh temple with its statues & reliefs sits right next to the rail tracks in Phu Nhuan District

Before hitting Nguyen Van Troi Street, the district communal spirit shrine (Đình Thần Phú Nhuận) is a nice, vaguely meditative spot dating from 1862 (pop in if the gates are open). Directly opposite, on the other side of the tracks, is a tight, dead-end alleyway whose close walls have been graffitied to the max. Duck down it and take a look.

'Graffiti alley', near the rail tracks, Saigon‘Graffiti alley’ leads off the rail tracks down a narrow, dead-end lane

Crossing over Nguyen Van Troi Street, have a taste of the delicious bò lá lốt (also spelled lốp) at the diminutive eatery at number 80/23 Nguyen Van Troi. This dish consists of grilled beef rolled in aromatic betel leaves, wrapped in herbs and rice paper, and dipped in a pineapple-sweetened sauce. It’s a classic Vietnamese combination of textures and flavours; of cooked and fresh ingredients. It’ll fill you with pleasure. When you’re full, head a few metres down the tracks to Mien Dong Thao Cafe, with its waterfalls, fountains, and multi-leveled seating (yes, it’s a bit kitsch, but in a good way). If you’re feeling, err, ‘sporty’ check out the large billiard hall right by the tracks after crossing Nguyen Trong Tuyen Street. A few frames of pool and a couple of cold beers is a relaxing way to watch the trains go by.

Bò lá lốt (grilled beef in betel leaf) by the Saigon rail tracksStop by to try the bò lá lốt (grilled beef wrapped in betel leaf) near the railway line: it’s delicious

The lanes on either side of the track between the intersections with Hoang Van Thu and Nguyen Kiem streets are particularly good for exploring. Head down a few of the narrow alleyways and get lost for a bit. There’s lots to like about Saigon’s alley life, including food, families, architecture, and the general warmth and comfort of life going on all around you. (If you need some more encouragement, check out my Alley Walks guide.)

Narrow alleyways near Saigon's railway line, VietnamIntriguing alleyways lead from the railway tracks deep into local neighbourhoods: go explore

Things get greener and more village-like after crossing the tracks at Nguyen Kiem Street. Showers of foliage fall over the houses and fences along the rail line. Perhaps this has something to do with the area’s myriad Buddhist shrines, temples, pagodas, monasteries, and universities. It’s surely no coincidence that one of the roads crossing the tracks here is Thich Quang Duc Street, named after the Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, whose flame-engulfed silhouette covered front pages across the globe in 1963, after his self-immolation (a protest against the anti-Buddhist, pro-Catholic leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem) was captured on film and camera. Also near the railway in this area is Vạn Hạnh Zen Buddhist Temple, which, as far as I understand, was founded by Thích Nhất Hạnh, the famed Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master who many will know from the 2017 documentary, Walk With Me, a thought-provoking and moving piece of film.

Van Hanh Zen Buddhish temple, Saigon, VietnamVan Hanh Zen Buddhist temple is just off the tracks, surrounded by lots of vegetarian restaurants

The presence of all these Buddhist places of worship means, of course, lots of vegetarian restaurants. Choose between the handful on Thich Quang Duc Street on the west side of the tracks. Or, if you prefer some meat in your diet, head to the soup house next to the tracks at 120/86 for a bowl of phở or bò kho (beef noodle soups). Continuing north along the railways towards Pham Van Dong Street, it’s possible to wind through the tight passageways to the unexpected Go Vap Station. It’s a odd place and there’s usually a few carriages waiting here on the sidings. Across the tracks, a tangle of fascinating alleyways spread east of the railway: great fun to explore.

Go Vap train station in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThe small & unexpected Go Vap train station, near the crossroads with Pham Van Dong Street

Between Pham Van Dong Street and the Binh Loi Bridge you’ll need to improvise a bit in order to stay as close to the tracks as possible. But it’s well worth the effort because the alleyways here are intriguing: sometimes very pleasant and full of life, other times quite grim. This is definitely the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, as it were: it’s noticeably less affluent on this section of railway. Housing is tight, sanitary conditions are poor, and many areas are in the process of being demolished to make way for new apartment blocks (of course). As in most large cities, there’s a stark contrast in Saigon between the haves and have-nots: the Vietnam Australia International School and the brand new Emart Mall (complete with Starbucks and suburbia-inspired white-painted villas encompassing it) rise above the open sewers and dilapidated housing on either side of the train tracks.

Narrow lanes along Saigon's railroad, VietnamLanterns & flags hang over the narrow alleyways along the train tracks, marking Buddha’s birthday

Google Maps actually works very well for negotiating the little lanes that twist along and then away from the railway line in this area. Some of the lanes are paved, but some are dirt tracks. Elephant grass, banana plants, herb gardens, and allotments grow up around the rail line. Set beneath a flourish of lush tropical foliage, Vuon Xoai Restaurant offers an atmospheric Vietnamese dining experience: tuck into fresh chicken dishes, including crunchy chicken salad and grilled chicken with lemongrass. As you get closer to the Saigon River, the level of construction increases. Most of this is connected to the new Binh Loi rail bridge project. The new bridge is due to replace the old one (constructed at the turn of the 20th century) by 2019. You used to be able to ride over the old bridge right next to the trains, but that’s no longer possible. Instead, head up to Pham Van Dong Street and take the Binh Loi road bridge across the Saigon River to Thu Duc District.

The Binh Loi rail bridge, soon to be replaced, SaigonThe Binh Loi rail bridge, constructed over a century ago, is soon to be replaced by a new one

Pick up the rail tracks again on the other side of the river. It’s possible to follow the tracks on both sides all the way to the Go Dua Channel. Kha Van Can Street is a large new road on the south side, but the road on the north side is smaller and much more interesting. Again, use Google Maps to negotiate the first tricky bit (including a dirt track along the rail sidings opposite the small Binh Trieu Station). But after a while the road is easy to follow and passes along a lively strip of shops, food stalls, street-side markets, and restaurants. Several Buddhist temples, shrines and schools dot this route, including Uu Dam Temple and Thien Quang Shrine.

The alleyways along Saigon's rail tracks, Ho Chi Minh CityThe narrow alleyways following the tracks almost always come out the other side if you keep going

In the evening, dine at the goat restaurants along the train track or the hidden Ven Song seafood restaurant, with brick-and-thatch gazebos on the banks of the Go Dua Channel. After dinner, try the Vietnamese sweet treat of chè at Chè Thiên Xanh, which has a nice seating area right next to the rail line. Finally, top the whole trip off with a gin and tonic at the superb Schiller River Club bar on the Saigon River, watching the sun set over the waterway and the city skyline in the distance.

View over the Saigon River from Schiller Bar, Ho Chi Minh CityEnd of the line: finish with a Gin & Tonic overlooking the Saigon River at the fantastic Schiller River Club

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The High Roads: Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-high-roads-ha-giang-ba-be-lake-cao-bang/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-high-roads-ha-giang-ba-be-lake-cao-bang/#comments Thu, 31 May 2018 12:21:57 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23635 Continue reading ]]> First published June 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The roads linking the three northern provinces of Ha Giang, Cao Bang and Bac Kan travel through some of the most spectacular and remote regions of Vietnam. The landscape around here is extraordinary: many travellers consider this their favourite place in Southeast Asia. Connecting two of the most scenic motorbike routes in the country (the Extreme North Loop and the Northeast Loop), a handful of incredible mountain roads corkscrew their way through a complex terrain of steep valleys, limestone karsts, and raging rivers. There are several different route options for riding between Ha Giang, Ba Be Lake (in Bac Kan Province), and Cao Bang; all of which are stunning, but none of which are particularly straightforward. In this guide, I’ve mapped three routes that connect the extreme north with the northeast.

Ha Giang-Ba Be Lake-Cao Bang, road trip, VietnamThree spectacular (but unpredictable) routes lead over the mountains from Ha Giang to Cao Bang

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GUIDE: HA GIANGBA BECAO BANG


ROAD TRIP DETAILS:

  • Total Distance: 360km/370km/310km
  • Duration: 1-3 days
  • Route: three scenic routes linking Ha Giang with Ba Be Lake & Cao Bang [MAP]
  • Road Conditions: back-roads & mountain highways, rough sections, light traffic
  • Scenery: limestone karsts, mountains, deep valleys, jungle, terraced rice fields, minority villages


ROAD TRIP CONTENTS:

ABOUT THESE ROUTES:

The map below shows three alternative routes between Ha Giang, Ba Be Lake, and Cao Bang. The Classic Route (the blue line) is the most popular and easiest to follow; the Border Route (the red line) is the most remote and least travelled; and the Ba Be Lake Route (the green line) is a combination of rarely used roads and national highways. The purple lines are connecting roads between the three routes, so you can mix and match as you please to create a route that suits you best. Although all of these routes are extremely scenic, they’re not necessarily easy to ride. The difficult, mountainous terrain, and frequent bad weather, mean that road conditions often deteriorate, resulting in treacherously muddy sections. What’s more, roadworks to upgrade and maintain these routes are ongoing. I’ve marked sections of rough road as best I can on my map. But, when riding any of these routes, take note of recent weather conditions (heavy rain, for example, can lead to serious landslides which can block roads for hours or even days), and try to ask locals or other riders you meet about current road conditions. Below, I’ve written a brief description of each route. For accommodation, there’s at least one mini-hotel or local guest house (nhà nghỉ) at each of the places marked with a red pin on my map. (For more details about accommodation in Ha Giang and Cao Bang see my Extreme North and Northeast guides.) Any time of year is good, but the heaviest rains occur during the summer months (June-August), and it can be bitterly cold during the winter months (December-February). Although any of these routes can be completed in one (long) day, the winding roads make riding a lot slower than you might expect. Alternatively, you can turn this into a scenic round trip by connecting the upper, lower, and middle routes and making a loop.


ROUTE MAP:

Ha Giang→Ba Be Lake→Cao Bang | 3 Routes

Blue line: 360km | Red line: 370km | Green line: 310km


View in a LARGER MAP

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The Classic Route:

BLUE LINE: Ha GiangMeo VacBao LacCao Bang: 360km [MAP]

Starting out on the famous Ha Giang Extreme North Loop via the limestone landscapes of the Dong Van Karst Plateau, the Classic Route then heads southeast from Meo Vac on road QL4C down to the Gam River Valley. Out of Meo Vac there are some fabulous views over a vast and sparsely populated landscape. Although mostly upgraded, parts of the southern half of QL4C to the Ly Bon intersection with QL34 are still undergoing repairs. However, these should be finished by the time you read this. After crossing the bridge at Ly Bon, turn onto QL34 due east towards Bao Lac. Ly Bon is at the confluence of the Nho Que and Gam rivers, and the ride to Bao Lac affords some picturesque views of riverine scenes. Bao Lac has plenty of guest houses if you need them.

Road QL4C between Meo Vac & Bao Lac, VietnamRoad QL4C between Meo Vac & Bao Lac offers some extraordinary views over rice terraces & mountains

From Bao Lac, continue southeast all the way to Cao Bang city, via the mining town of Tinh Tuc and Nguyen Binh (both of which have a couple of nhà nghỉ guest houses). It’s a long ride to Cao Bang, and, although the scenery is superb (particularly around Tinh Tuc), the road conditions to Nguyen Binh are unpredictable. Expect a few rough patches, potholes and, if there’s been rain, landslides. Between Tinh Tuc and Nguyen Binh, there’s an intersection with a turning due south on road DT212 to Cho Ra: use this excellent back-road if you want to go to Ba Be Lake. If not, continue east along the meandering QL34 to Cao Bang City.

Road QL34 between Bao Lac & Cao Bang, northern VietnamRoad QL34 southeast from Bao Lac to Cao Bang has some rough patches but the scenery is excellent

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The Border Route:

RED LINEHa GiangMeo VacBao LacPac BoCao Bang: 370km [MAP]

After following the Extreme North Loop from Ha Giang to Meo Vac, head southeast on road DT217 towards the famous ‘Love Market’ of Khau Vai (usually held in April). This meandering road soars over a limestone plateau before descending sharply through Khau Vai village and down to the banks of the Nho Que River. Road conditions deteriorate severely before crossing the river and continuing the other side. From here, it’s a twisting ride over barren mountains (with incredible views) all the way down to Bao Lac in the Gam River Valley. The road surface is very inconsistent on this section, and it may prove challenging for riders on automatic motorbikes. Bao Lac has a few local guest houses if you need to stay the night.

Road DT217 between Meo Vac & Bao Lac, Ha Giang Province, VietnamRoad DT217 winds up the hillside leaving Meo Vac & then heading southeast to Khau Vai & Bao Lac

Follow the Gam River east of Bao Lac on an as yet unnamed road. This road is currently the talk of many riders in Vietnam. Hugging the Chinese border for much of its length, the road passes through some extremely remote landscapes. As if the fabulous scenery weren’t enough, the road itself is quite a sight. A narrow asphalt lane, it’s full of contortions and knots; constantly switching back on itself as it negotiates the difficult terrain. Just look at it on the map: it looks like the path of an agitated dragon, shifting violently from left to right, as if trying to shrug an assailant off its back. One pass in particular is breathtaking: Ascending what is essentially a vertical wall of rock, the road passes 14 (by my count) consecutive switchbacks. I call this the ‘Roller Coaster Pass‘. And while we’re randomly namely things, let’s call this unnamed road the ‘Agitated Dragon’.

The unnamed (Agitated Dragon) road between Bao Lac & Pac Bo Cave, Cao Bang Province, VietnamLooking down on one of the 14 switchbacks of the ‘Roller Coaster Pass’ on the ‘Agitated Dragon’ road

And so, the Agitated Dragon continues east along the Chinese border (with some extended rough, gravelly sections in the middle) until it hits the Ho Chi Minh Road (DT208), just south of Pac Bo Cave. (To visit the cave – which is well worth it – turn due north on road DT208 for 10km). Turn onto the Ho Chi Minh Road (DT208) and ride its smooth course south for 40km to Cao Bang city.

Pac Bo Cave, on the Chinese border, Cao Bang Province, VietnamPac Bo Cave on the Chinese border is a fascinating historical sight in a beautiful natural setting

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The Ba Be Lake Route:

GREEN LINEHa GiangDa ViBa Be LakeCao Bang: 310km [MAP]

This southerly route between Ha Giang and Cao Bang, via Ba Be Lake, can be joined at any point along road QL34: you don’t necessarily have to begin it on QL34 right out of Ha Giang city (see the purple lines on my map for connecting roads with the green Ba Ba Lake route). This route comes in two halves: the first half passes through lovely landscape but there are a fair few rough road sections; the second half, from Ba Be to Cao Bang, is generally a very smooth ride.

Terraced rice fields between Ha Giang & Cao Bang, northern VietnamThe southerly route between Ha Giang & Cao Bang, via Ba Be Lake, passes particularly lush scenery

Take QL34 east out of Ha Giang along the very pretty Gam River Valley. Unfortunately, this section of road has been in poor condition for years. Expect to have to deal with giant potholes and muddy patches. It might be slow going but eventually you’ll reach the intersection with road DT176 heading south to Da Vi. This is an isolated, beautiful road: a narrow paved lane slicing along valleys and over mountains. It’s a gorgeous ride in good weather, but again you will have to contend with some pretty awful road conditions. In dry weather it should be OK, but if there’s been heavy rain it’s likely to cause landslides and mud pools. Take a look at the photo below to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Having said that, the bad patches are short (but difficult), and if you have a decent bike, it shouldn’t be any problem.

A muddy section of road, DT176 to Da Vi, VietnamSome sections of QL34 & DT176 can be very tricky conditions, but the bad patches are generally short

DT176 ends at the small village of Da Vi, on the edge of a giant reservoir. It’s a very off the beaten path place, but there’s a nhà nghỉ guest house here if you need it. From here, bear east onto an unnamed road leading over some spectacular mountains and through dense jungle all the way to the crossroads near Ba Be Lake. To go to the lake and the homestays on its southern shores, turn due west. Otherwise, take road QL279 east towards Cho Ra village, where there are several guest houses. From Cho Ra, it’s a lovely, lush ride to the intersection with QL3 at Na Phac. National Highway QL3 is a great road ploughing through marvellous scenery all the way to Cao Bang city.

Ba Be Lake, Bac Kan Province, northern VietnamStay at one of the homestays on Ba Be Lake before continuing on the excellent road QL3 to Cao Bang

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Villa Hue Hotel http://vietnamcoracle.com/villa-hue-hotel/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/villa-hue-hotel/#comments Thu, 24 May 2018 09:41:37 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23512 Continue reading ]]> First published May 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | REVIEW | MAP | RELATED POSTS

This gem of a hotel is located on a quiet yet central street in Hue, walking distance from the Perfume River and Royal Citadel. Drawing on modern, French colonial, and Imperial Vietnamese decor and design, Villa Hue is housed in a attractive five-storey building with open-sided corridors, terraces, and a courtyard with a pool. Part of the city’s Hospitality Training College, Villa Hue offers exceptionally good-value accommodation in Vietnam’s former imperial capital. The price-to-quality ratio is off the scale. Everything seems to be well-made, well-designed, and aesthetically pleasing. Yet Villa Hue retains a quiet, understated and informal atmosphere. I love it. [Average rates are $35-$55. To check availability & make a reservation for Villa Hue 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.

Villa Hue Hotel, Hue City, VietnamComfortable, classy & chic yet affordable, Villa Hue Hotel is excellent value for money

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REVIEW: VILLA HUE HOTEL


Address: 4 Tran Quang Khai Street, Hue, Thua Thien Hue Province, Vietnam [MAP]

Average Price: $35-$55 | Website: www.villahue.com


MAP:

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Like Hoi An to the south, Hue’s popularity with travellers means there’s a host of excellent accommodation, and competition keeps prices relatively low. Even by these standards, however, Villa Hue is remarkable. If staying on a weekday (and not during a public holiday), Superior Doubles can be as low as $35 a night. What’s more, if you pay an extra $10 or so, you can upgrade to a Deluxe room or a Suite, which offer even better value for money. When I stayed at Villa Hue, I was in the middle of a sun-filled, fun-filled road trip on the Coast Road, and I opted for a Deluxe room: it was fabulous.

Villa Hue Hotel, Hue City, VietnamStarting from around $35 a night, rooms at Villa Hue are large & comfortable

Housed in a handsome building, just a block from the Perfume River, Villa Hue’s architecture has echoes of the city’s imperial and colonial past. Shuttered windows and verandas bring to mind Mediterranean France, but the geometric balustrades and cool courtyards hark back to imperial palaces of the Nguyen Dynasty. There are even bits and pieces of Art Deco in some of the decorative features, such as the outdoor lampshades and sun screens. And yet there’s also something of 1950s and 1960s South Vietnam about it: Villa Hue wouldn’t look out of place as an embassy building on one of Saigon’s boulevards during the raucous days of the American-backed Diem regime. Whatever its architectural heritage, it’s certainly an interesting building to stay in.

Villa Hue Hotel, Hue City, VietnamThe architecture of Villa Hue is an interesting mix that recalls Vietnam’s imperial & colonial past

The reception, lobby and bar – which have a vaguely ’70s feel to them – lead onto to an attractive rectangular courtyard. Lounge chairs surround the elegant (but small) swimming pool. (The ‘Villa Hue’ insignia on the tiles at the bottom of the pool is a classy little touch.) The pool and courtyard are cool and shady throughout the day. This is where you come to sit down and plan your day of sightseeing in the morning after breakfast, and then relax with a book and a glass of fruit juice in the late afternoon after a long day of exploring Hue’s sights.

Swimming pool, Villa Hue Hotel, Hue City, VietnamVilla Hue’s swimming pool is in the hotel courtyard: a place to unwind after a day of sightseeing

The hotel’s Hue Purple Restaurant, with floor to ceiling windows and doors, is off to the side of the courtyard. The buffet breakfast, included in the room price, is served here on purple tablecloths – another allusion to the royal tones of imperial Hue. The spread is fairly modest but quality is good, including croissants, pain au chocolat, and Danish pastries baked on the premises. Staff are all young and in the midst of their training at the Hue Tourism College, which is attached to Villa Hue. This creates a nice dynamic between staff (who are essentially students) and guests.

Breakfast at Villa Hue Hotel, Hue City, VietnamThe buffet breakfast, at the Hue Purple Restaurant, includes freshly baked breads & cakes

Guest rooms are arranged on several storeys around the central courtyard. Accessed via open-sided corridors overlooking the swimming pool, rooms face out toward the city. All rooms are superbly appointed, especially considering the mid-range price tag. Bathtubs and showers, balconies with city views, large beds, imperial-style decor and colour scheme, and plenty of space are features of all the rooms at Villa Hue. There’s a sense of proportion and permanence about the arrangement and quality of the furniture and fittings; something that’s often lacking in mid-range hotels in Vietnam. All the elements come together really well: rooms aren’t fussy and cluttered, but neither are they sparse and cold.

Villa Hue Hotel, Hue City, VietnamSense of proportion: rooms are superbly appointed, especially considering the mid-range price tag

Villa Hue has managed the difficult synthesis of hard (cool) and soft (warm) surfaces that’s so essential in a climate such as Hue’s. It feels cool and calm during the oppressive summer heat, but cosy and warm during the rain and chill of winter. There’s also something very ‘Hue’ about these rooms – there are reminders everywhere that you’re in the former imperial capital of Vietnam: from murals of famous Hue landmarks, to framed prints of imperial gowns. At dusk, the distinctive, muted ‘Hue light’ slides over the rooftops of the city, seen from your balcony. This is one for the best-value hotels I’ve stayed in for a long time. There are two things I would change if I could: the pool needs to be a few metres longer – long enough to swim. And, if it were possible (but it’s not), I’d like views of the Perfume River from my balcony. [Average rates are $35-$55. To check availability & make a reservation for Villa Hue 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.

Villa Hue Hotel, Hue City, VietnamVilla Hue is one of the best value hotels I’ve stayed at in Vietnam for a long time: superb

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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Coconut Ice Cream in Saigon http://vietnamcoracle.com/coconut-ice-cream-in-saigon/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/coconut-ice-cream-in-saigon/#comments Thu, 17 May 2018 11:57:00 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=25793 Continue reading ]]> First published May 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

In the heart of one of Saigon’s best street food neighbourhoods, Nguyen Huong offers up a colourful, textural, tasty, Thai-style coconut ice cream. Occupying the shopfront of one of Saigon’s fast-disappearing old apartment complexes, Nguyen Huong is the perfect sweet treat to end a night of street food exploration along the buzzing sidewalks of Su Van Hanh, in District 10. This coconut ice cream is a classic Southeast Asian dessert dish: creamy and crunchy, sweet and savoury, fun, young, and pretty enough to attract a substantial amount of ‘likes’ on your social media timelines.

Coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong, District 10, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)The coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong in Saigon’s District 10 is a colourful, textural, tasty, sweet treat

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GUIDE: COCONUT ICE CREAM, SAIGON


I first stopped by Nguyen Huong with a couple of friends after a night of savoury delights on Su Van Hanh Street. Full as we were – having feasted on Chinese-style duck noodles in a medicinal broth, and stacks of mini-bánh xèo pancakes filled with pork, squid and bean sprouts – we still found room to try the coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong. At number 029 on Block H (Lô H), Nguyen Huong is only a few metres from Chè Khánh Vy, a famous, much-loved Vietnamese dessert stall, full of gooey, syrupy, beany treats. Nguyen Huong, too, is a good dessert stall in its own right; offering everything from filling glasses of bean-based chè to coffee-soaked crème caramel, among other sweet (and savoury) snacks. But it’s the coconut ice cream that you should come here for: their signature dessert.

MAP:

Coconut Ice Cream at Nguyên Hương, District 10, Saigon

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From the outside, Nguyen Huong appears to be a chain: another in a growing list of generic bubble tea-oriented outlets, either home-grown or established brands from Taiwan, China and other East Asian nations. However, despite the familiarly garish signage, I’m told that Nguyen Huong is a one-shop business; not a chain (không có chi nhánh, in Vietnamese). Strange, then, that on their business card there are two addresses (the other being in Go Vap District, way out beyond the airport). Either way, it’s safe to assume that Nguyen Huong outlets won’t be popping up all over Saigon, like the giants of the Asian desserts world are at the moment.

Coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong, District 10, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)Although Nguyen Huong looks a bit like a generic dessert chain from the outside, it isn’t

Little, white-painted, wooden tables and chairs are scattered over the sidewalk outside the apartment shopfront where Nguyen Huong is located. Take a seat and order kem dừa Thái (Thai-style coconut ice cream). They’re 30,000vnd a pop (less than $1.50). Sitting out on Su Van Hanh Street is good for people-watching: there’s a constant flow of street food vendors, with diners and local residents pulling up on their motorbikes, hunkering down to some food and then zipping off again into the sultry Saigon night. Unfortunately, the unpleasant odor of an open drain wafts over from time to time, but the meat-scented smoke of all the roadside eateries tends to overwhelm it pretty quickly.

Coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong, District 10, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)Take a seat outside on the sidewalk (good for people-watching) and order kem dừa (coconut ice cream)

When the kem dừa arrives on your table, it’s happy-snapping time: Instagramable dishes are all the rage in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia, and this coconut ice cream has got the “it” factor. Most customers at Nguyen Huong (especially the teens and twenty-somethings) reach for their smart phones and snap away for a few minutes before digging into their ice cream. And it is, indeed, a beautiful thing…

Coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong, District 10, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)A very pretty dessert: ‘Instagramable’ dishes like this coconut ice cream are all the rage in Vietnam

What you’ll have in front of you is: a coconut shell with its white flesh carved out into a curl (making it easier to eat) and filled with a scoop of white and creamy coconut ice cream. On top is a miniature artist’s palette of color and texture: purple sticky rice, crisp, toast-brown, roasted coconut shavings, bright yellow sweet corn kernels, luminous-green, gooey pandan-leaf flavoured pounded young rice, and little matchsticks of sweet potato. Served alongside the coconut is a glass of the naturally sweet and nutritious water from your fruit.

Coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong, District 10, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)There’s a lot more than ice cream in that coconut shell: sticky rice, sweet corn, sweet potato…

The combination of all these shapes, colours, flavours and textures (not to mention the very Vietnamese marriage of sweet and savoury) works extremely well. When I first tried the kem dừa at Nguyen Huong, I was a little confused by the savoury elements of this dessert. But it wasn’t long before I began to get it. At first it was the sweet corn that made sense to me, and then it was the gooey, chewy sticky rice. Each time I went back, a new aspect of this initially odd combination started to fall into place as my palate began to appreciate the different parts. The only thing that I still find baffling is that the coconut ice cream itself isn’t very, well, coconutty. Certainly, other coconut ice creams in Saigon win on the coconut flavour front. But for presentation, fun, location, creativity, artistry, and dining pleasure, the coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong in District 10 has got it goin’ on.

Coconut ice cream at Nguyen Huong, District 10, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)The combination of sweet & savoury & all the colours, flavours & textures works extremely well

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Long Thủy Beach Village, Phu Yen http://vietnamcoracle.com/long-thuy-beach-village-phu-yen/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/long-thuy-beach-village-phu-yen/#respond Thu, 10 May 2018 12:33:52 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23499 Continue reading ]]> First published May 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The province of Phu Yen is blessed with dozens of stunning bays and beaches. The vast majority are still undeveloped and completely empty of tourists. One of dozens of strikingly beautiful beaches, Long Thủy is a small fishing village at the northern end of a long, sweeping, sandy bay, just north of Tuy Hoa, Phu Yen’s capital city. Long Thủy is notable not only for its white sand beach and glistening sea, but also for its charming narrow backstreets, lined with crumbling homes, small temples, and cowsheds. Wandering through Long Thủy’s network of tight alleyways is like stepping back several generations; before the tide of Đổi Mới (economic liberalization) that now defines the character and drive of most Vietnamese towns and cities.

Long Thuy beach, Phu Yen Province, VietnamLaid-back & off-the-beaten track, Long Thuy beach & village has a slow pace & old-time charm

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GUIDE: LONG THUY BEACH


This is a very brief guide to Long Thủy beach and village. It’s only a small place and can be visited as a short stop on the Coast Road or the Beach Bum route for a couple of hours of exploring. Alternatively, spending a day and a night in Long Thủy, in one of the few mini-hotels here, is a pleasant off-the-beaten-path experience, which will give you a sense of life in a Vietnamese fishing hamlet.

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MAP:

Long Thuy Beach, Phu Yen Province

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LOCATION:


Located 10km north of Tuy Hoa city, Long Thủy is well-known to locals (who flock here on weekends and holidays), but generally left alone by travellers in favour of the more famous of Phu Yen’s beaches, such as Bãi Xép and Đá Đĩa. Admittedly, Long Thủy is nothing like as spectacular as nearby Vũng Rô Bay, nor as sumptuous as some of the other beaches and bays that you’ll pass on the Coast Road as you head northwards between Tuy Hoa and Quy Nhon. However, just like another favourite little bay of mine in Phu Yen Province, called Bãi Rạng, Long Thủy has local life and local character (as well as a lovely sandy beach). That’s why, in my opinion, it’s worth dropping by to have a swim, wander the narrow back-alleys, and soak up the sleepy atmosphere of this little beach village. (Although Long Thủy, and indeed many of the beaches in Phu Yen Province, is generally pretty clean, trash along the sand is becoming a problem, as is the case with so many of Vietnam’s beaches, whether touristy or not.)

Long Thuy beach, Phu Yen Province, VietnamNot far from Tuy Hoa city, Long Thuy beach makes a good stop on the Coast Road to Quy Nhon

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SEE & DO:


Apart from trying to charter a boat out to the little islets of Hòn Dứa (Pineapple Island) and Hòn Chùa (Pagoda Island) just off shore, there’s aren’t any ‘sights’ as such. Rather, your itinerary in Long Thủy should be something like this: take a lazy stroll through the tangled back-streets, ducking into a tiny temple or two; stop for tea in the shade of a coconut palm whilst chatting to a charming, toothless, leather-skinned local fisherman; walk barefoot through the hot sand on the beach, seeking out a vendor serving iced sugar cane juice (nước mía); order a seafood feast at one of the informal waterfront restaurants, before disrobing for a pre-lunch swim in the shimmering sea to work up an appetite. Get a room in a local hotel and sleep off the lunch and the hottest hours of the day. Late afternoon, hit the alleyways again, searching (sniffing the air) for a bánh xèo (fried savoury pancakes) stall, all the while waving and shouting ‘Hello!’ to the local schoolkids as they flood the streets after class. Find a coffee shop to people-watch from as Long Thủy winds down for the day, and the cicadas (and karaoke machines) fill the night. Early next morning, walk along the beach to the fish market, where the night’s catch is being hauled off the boats and onto the stalls. (You can ask about boats to the islets at the hotels, seafront restaurants, and at the beach).

Long Thuy village, Phu Yen Province, VietnamAs well as the beach, Long Thuy’s back-alleys are full interesting temples, shrines & homes

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HOTELS:


There are only a couple of accommodation options in or nearby Long Thủy. In the village itself, Violet Hotel (0573 793 477) and Trung Hào Hotel (0573 793 216) are a stone’s throw from the beach, both offering decent rooms at reasonable prices (200,000-400,000vnd), some with balconies looking out to sea. Just behind Long Thủy, VietStar Resort & Spa is a lush, calm oasis, set back from the ocean for a peaceful (but pricier) night. Alternatively, for a wider range of sleeping options, head back to Tuy Hoa city and beach where there are many hotels to choose from.

Hotel, Long Thuy beach, Phu Yen Province, VietnamThere are a couple of decent, cheap mini-hotels near the beach in Long Thuy village

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EAT & DRINK


During mealtimes (5-8am, 10.30am-12noon, 5-7pm), Long Thủy has a spattering of street food stalls and casual restaurants. In particular, check out the seafood restaurants near the beach (try Hoàng Yến and Hương Biển), and try to find (or ask a local) a bánh xèo stall serving delicious, crispy, fried rice-batter pancakes with squid, wrapped in herbs. Also on the streets, you’ll find the odd juice vendor (including fresh coconut water [nước dừa] and sugar cane juice [nước mía]) and coffee shops. There’s a fish market and a dry goods market, both of which are best visited in the mornings.

Bánh xèo savoury pancakes, VietnamBánh xèo are delicious, crispy savoury pancakes: they can be found on Long Thuy’s back streets

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GETTING THERE:


Long Thủy is just east of Le Duan Street as it passes between Highway QL1A and the East Sea, about 10km north of Tuy Hoa city and its long beach. I assume that most people who choose to visit Long Thủy will do so as part of an independent motorbike road trip along the coast. This is very easy to do if you’re on a motorbike, especially as a short break on the Coast Road or Beach Bum route. However, if you don’t have your own wheels, you can get a taxi to Long Thủy from Tuy Hoa city (10-15 minutes). Tuy Hoa is connected to all major coastal cities via the Saigon-Hanoi railway. There are also daily flights to Tuy Hoa from Hanoi and Saigon. You can search & book transportation to/from Tuy Hoa below:

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


Long Thuy beach, Phu Yen Province, VietnamLong Thuy is best reached with your own two wheels, but taxis can also take you here from Tuy Hoa

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The Fanxipan Express: Hanoi to Lao Cai by Train (Passengers & Motorbikes) http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-fanxipan-express-hanoi-to-lao-cai-by-train-passengers-motorbikes/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-fanxipan-express-hanoi-to-lao-cai-by-train-passengers-motorbikes/#comments Fri, 04 May 2018 06:18:17 +0000 http://vietnamcoracle.com/?p=23651 Continue reading ]]> First published May 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

Rattling through the night from the capital city, along the Red River Valley, and into the northwest mountains looming large over Lao Cai on the Chinese border, the Fanxipan Express is a romantic rail journey that’s relatively cheap, comfortable, and easy to organize. Conveniently linking the urban rush and humid haze of Hanoi with the lofty landscapes and fresh air of Vietnam’s highest mountain range, the sleeper train to the Chinese border is the gateway to Sapa, the hugely popular mountain retreat in the Tonkinese Alps. For motorbikers, too, the Fanxipan Express is a direct line to the fabled riding routes of the north, thanks to an easy freight system for two-wheeled vehicles. Below is my full guide to taking the night train, for passengers and motorbikes, between Hanoi and Lao Cai.

Fanxipan Express, sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao Cai, VietnamThe night train is a convenient link between the capital and the northwest mountains

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GUIDE: THE FANXIPAN EXPRESS


Below I’ve written a full guide to taking the train between Hanoi and Lao Cai, including information about sending your motorbike on the train with you. I’ve written all the information in separate sections, and plotted the rail route and relevant places on my map. *Please note: you can support this website by booking train tickets directly from this page: see below.

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ROUTE MAP:

The Fanxipan Express: Hanoi to Lao Cai (for Sapa)

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SEARCH & BOOK TICKETS:

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

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Train Operators & Contacts:

The Hanoi-Lao Cai route is part of the state-run Vietnam Railways (VNR) network. However, there are several luxury carriages attached to this train, run by private travel companies, such as Livitrans and Oriental Express, among others. Contact any of these three operators through the above links to their respective websites, where you’ll find schedules, prices, and photos. Alternatively, compare prices across all train operators and book directly through Baolau.com.

Fanxipan Express, sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao Cai, VietnamThe Hanoi-Lao Cai route is operated by Vietnam Railways, but private companies also add carriages

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Train Times & Schedules:

For most of the year, there are two sleeper trains in each direction every day. Journey time is between 7-8 hours. Note that only the earlier train in both directions (SP1 & SP2) allows motorbike carriage. All train times are subject to change, but in general the following times are fixed. During peak times of year, such as public holidays, extra services may be laid on. For up-to-date schedules, prices, and bookings check Baolau.com:

HANOI→LAO CAI:

  • Train SP1: Depart: 9.35pmArrive: 5.30am (daily)
  • Train SP3: Depart: 10.00pmArrive: 6.05am (daily)

LAO CAI→HANOI:

  • Train SP2: Depart: 8.55pmArrive: 4.32am (daily) 
  • Train SP4: Depart: 9.40pmArrive: 5.30am (daily)

Fanxipan Express, sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao Cai, VietnamThere are two night trains in each direction every day; journey time is 7-8 hours

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Ticket Prices & Booking:

Although ticket prices are subject to change, the prices listed below rarely fluctuate by any significant amount. (Tickets for the privately-run luxury carriages, such as Livitrans and Oriental Express, are at least twice the price of those listed below and can be purchased via their websites or Baolau.com). Bookings can be made in person at Hanoi or Lao Cai stations, or online at Viet Nam Railways and Baolau.com, or through many hotels and travel agents across Vietnam. However, tickets for motorbikes must be purchased in person at the station. If travelling on a weekend or public holiday, it’s advisable to book tickets at least a day in advance, as trains can be full at these times. During the week, you should be able to get a ticket on the day of departure, although it’s still best to book in advance to avoid disappointment. All the following prices are one-way:

  • Soft seat: 155,000vnd
  • Bunk in 6-berth compartment (hard sleeper): 200,000-300,000vnd (bottom, middle, top bunk) 
  • Bunk in 4-berth compartment (soft sleeper): 400,000vnd (top or bottom bunk)
  • Motorbike: 240,000vnd (110cc) 324,000vnd (125cc)

Fanxipan Express, sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao Cai, VietnamThere’re three classes on trains (as well as the luxury coaches). This is a 4-berth soft sleeper compartment

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Sending your Motorbike:

Sending your motorbike on the train between Hanoi and Lao Cai is very convenient, because it cuts out the long ride up into the mountains from the Red River Delta. If you want to explore Sapa and the northwest mountains by motorbike but don’t have time for the ride there, sending your motorbike on the train is the perfect solution. Another boon for motorbikers is that the Hanoi-Lao Cai rail link is one of only a handful of routes that allow you and your motorbike to travel on the same train (the other significant route to allow this is the Saigon-Phan Thiet Express). Normally, on the vast majority of routes on the north-south mainline, your motorbike travels on a separate train to you, and usually takes at least a couple of days to arrive at its destination (for full details see this in-depth guide to sending your motorbike on the train). But on the Fanxipan Express, both you and your bike depart and arrive on the same train, at the same time. This allows you to rent or buy your motorbike in Hanoi and go straight into the mountains, where you can get started on several fantastically scenic rides in the area, including the Sapa-Sin Ho Loop, the Y Ty Loop, and the Borders & Back-Roads Loop.

Sending motorbikes on the sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao CaiSending motorbikes by train between Hanoi & Lao Cai is easy: bikes travel on the same train as you do

If travelling on a weekend or public holiday, it’s advisable to book your motorbike ticket at least a day in advance, because this is a popular route and there’s limited space available for freight. However, during the week, it should be fine to buy your motorbike ticket on the day of departure, although it’s still a good idea to buy it at least a few hours in advance. Unlike passenger tickets, motorbike tickets are usually only available to purchase in person at the station; not online or through hotels and travel agencies (although it’s still worth asking the latter if they can do it). At Hanoi (Station B; Tran Quy Cap Street) and Lao Cai stations go to the main ticket office and explain that you want to send your motorbike between the two stations. In most cases, staff will direct you to another counter that deals with freight. You’ll need to show your blue/green ownership card for the motorbike, and the staff will drain your bike of gas. You will be given a receipt: don’t lose it, otherwise you will have problems reclaiming your motorbike at the destination station. As all departures are in the evening, it’s best to take your bike to the station around mid-afternoon (I’m told that motorbikes must be at the station no later than 4pm on the day of travel). Station staff should be able to take it from you and wheel in onto the train later, before departure (this is certainly possible at Lao Cai station, but at Hanoi it may not be).

Sending motorbikes on the sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao CaiMotorbikes are drained of gas before boarding the train: don’t lose your motorbike receipt/ticket 

When arriving at your destination station, walk to the end of the train (the freight car is either at the front or back of the train) and show your receipt to the staff. They’ll wheel your motorbike off the carriage and onto the platform, from where you’ll need to wheel it down the platform and out of the station. (Note that, at Hanoi, motorbikes usually exit at the back entrance, on Tran Quy Cap Street, also known as Station B.) Remember that your bike will be empty of gas. There’s usually someone selling bottles of gas just outside the station. However, this is low-grade petrol at inflated prices, so it’s best to buy only a litre, which will be more than enough to get you to the nearest gas station to fill up. Bear in mind that all trains arrive early in the morning, so you may have to wait a while at the station before anything opens.

Sending motorbikes on the sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao CaiAt your destination station (in the early morning), collect your motorbikes from the freight coach

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Departure & Arrival Stations:

At either station, it’s always a good idea to arrive at least half an hour before departure. Both stations are relatively easy to navigate, and staff are generally helpful and used to dealing with foreign passengers. However, while Lao Cai station is small, quiet and fairly modern, Hanoi station (Station B on Tran Quy Cap Street) is quite busy, sprawling and hard to find. Of the two, Lao Cai is much easier to manage as a foreign traveller. There are ATMs at both stations.


HANOI STATION B [Tran Quy Cap Station]: (Ga Trần Qúy Cáp); Address: 1 Trần Qúy Cáp Street [MAP]: An odd complex of handsome French colonial buildings and rundown warehouses, Hanoi Station B is right in the heart of the capital but hidden down a small street behind the city’s main station (Station A on Le Duan Street). It can be hot and busy, but perfectly manageable with patience and time. The ticket office is inside the station compound, just off Trần Qúy Cáp Street. There are usually taxis available outside the station entrance. There are coffee shops and some noodle houses across Tran Quy Cap Street, opposite the station. Bear in mind that it will be early morning when you arrive at Hanoi Station B, so most places will be closed.

Tran Quy Cap train station (Hanoi station B), VietnamTran Quy Cap train station (Hanoi Station B) is on Tran Quy Cap Street, behind Hanoi main station


LAO CAI STATION: (Ga Lào Cai); Address: Khánh Yên Street [MAP]: A modern facade and tidy interior make Lao Cai station much easier for travellers to negotiate than Hanoi station. For most of the day, Lao Cai station is calm and quiet. The ticket office and waiting area are at the centre of the station building. Off to the right of this, at the entrance to Gate 2, is where you take your motorbikes to be loaded, if you’re sending it with you to Hanoi. There’s a snack bar on the second floor of the station, and several other informal rice eateries opposite (the Terminus Restaurant & Bar serves cocktails and smoothies). All station signage is in English and Vietnamese so it’s easy to find your way around (not that you’ll get lost as it’s just a small station). If, for some reason, you need to stay the night, Kim Cuong is a good mini-hotel just a minute walk from the station. Mini-buses and taxis meet the trains to take passengers on to Sapa (45 minutes).

Lao Cai train station, VietnamLao Cai train station is pretty modern, quiet, organized & easy to find your way around

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The Trains:

The general level of comfort and cleanliness on the Fanxipan Express is pretty good. For the majority of travellers, there’s no need to book onto one of the private luxury coaches attached to the end of the regular trains. It’s only an 8-hour journey, and the price you pay for the added luxury of the private coaches isn’t necessary. However, if you’re travelling as a family, or if you just really like the idea of a luxury train journey, it can be a lot of fun to book onto one of the luxury coaches. (You can compare prices for regular vs luxury coaches here.)

The Fanxipan Express, sleeper train, Hanoi to Lao Cai, VietnamThe train consists of around a dozen carriages, including the privately-run luxury coaches

For budget travellers, the soft-seats (155,000vnd) are cheap and reasonably comfortable. Seats are reclinable and there’s enough space to lie back and get some sleep. The carriages are severely air-conditioned, so remember to bring a sweater or blanket to keep warm during the night. If you’re unlucky, your sleep might be disturbed by other passengers eating, drinking, talking (and even singing karaoke) through the night. But, I suppose, that’s all part of the fun (if you’re in the mood). Beds in the 6-berth sleeping compartments are fine, but a bit cramped if you’re tall. Try to avoid the top bunk in you’re a remotely claustrophobic, because the distance between your face and the ceiling is only a few inches: it can feel like being trapped in a coffin. Again, sleep is subject to who you’re sharing your compartment with: if you’re with a family of screaming babies, you may struggle to get any shut-eye. The most comfortable option (apart from the luxury carriages) is a bed in the 4-berth soft-sleeper compartments. These are usually clean and comfortable with plenty of space to put your luggage and to lie down. A nice touch from Vietnam Railways is a desk lamp in each compartment, filling the space with soft, ambient light. My advice is to try to book the top bunk, because the lower bunk gets all the noise from the track. The click-ity-clap of the rails is part of the romance of any train journey, but on the lower bunk it can become an annoyance. Toilets are located at both ends of every carriage and are kept reasonably clean throughout the journey. Trolleys come through a couple of times, selling snacks and drinks, but it’s a good idea to bring your own supplies too.

Fanxipan Express, 4-berth soft sleeper, Hanoi to Lao Cai, VietnamComfortable: my parents on the bottom two bunks of a cosy 4-berth soft sleeper compartment

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The Journey:

No matter which train you take, the journey will be through the dead of night, so there’s very little to see. The exception to this is departing from Hanoi in the evening, when the train snakes through the city’s cluttered suburbs, passing within feet of peoples’ homes and businesses, offering a fascinating cross-section of the capital. But the rest of the journey is darkness; punctuated occasionally by the sodium lights of towns, the odd silhouette of a tree against the moonlit sky (if there is a moon), and brief glimpses of reflections on the broad and viscous surface of the Red River, whose path the train echoes for much of the journey. Something to bear in mind is that this is a surprisingly bumpy ride. Although the train rarely reaches a speed above 60 kilometres per hour, there are times when passengers are thrown about in their bunks and seats as the train flies over humps in the tracks. This can be a hindrance to sleep.

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


The Fanxipan Express, Hanoi to Lao Cai sleeper train, VietnamThe overnight journey is generally comfortable, although surprisingly bumpy at times

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

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Local BBQ in Phong Nha http://vietnamcoracle.com/local-bbq-in-phong-nha/ http://vietnamcoracle.com/local-bbq-in-phong-nha/#comments 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

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

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 we 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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