Vietnam Coracle Independent Travel Guides to Vietnam Sat, 07 Oct 2017 00:50:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Liberty Central Hotel, Nha Trang Sat, 30 Sep 2017 14:12:21 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published October 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ha Tien: Jewel of the Mekong Delta Wed, 23 Aug 2017 12:37:21 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published September 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


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

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

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


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

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Ha Tien & surrounds, Kien Giang Province, Mekong Delta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Temples & Pagodas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mui Nai Beach:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drinks & Dessert:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around Town:

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

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

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By Bus:

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

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

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

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By Boat:

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

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

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

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By Motorbike, Bicycle, Car: 

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

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

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By Air:

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

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

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To Cambodia: 

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

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


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The Ocean Road: Saigon to Mui Ne Wed, 09 Aug 2017 12:33:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Last updated August 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


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

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

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


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


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

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

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The Ocean Road: Saigon to Mui Ne | 270km

View in a LARGER MAP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VIDEOS: Celebrating 100,000 views Thu, 27 Jul 2017 08:42:30 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published July 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


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

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


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

The 5 Most-viewed Videos:

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

My 5 Favourite Videos:

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

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

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1. The Con Dao Islands:

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

Watch on YouTube

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2. Bún Mắm Soup, Saigon:

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

Watch on YouTube

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3. Ho Tram Beach Boutique Resort:

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

Watch on YouTube

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4. Saigons Hidden Cafes:

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

Watch on YouTube

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5. Two Months on a Motorbike:

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

Watch on YouTube

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1. Saigon to Hanoi: Part 2: The Mountains

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

Watch on YouTube

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2. Homestays in Pu Luong Nature Reserve:

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

Watch on YouTube

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3. Dalat’s Waterfalls:

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

Watch on YouTube

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4. Hon Gom Sandbar:

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

Watch on YouTube

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5. The Saigon River:

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

Watch on YouTube


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The Twin Passes: Cổ Mã & Cả Thu, 20 Jul 2017 13:52:41 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published July 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


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

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

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


The Twin Passes of Cổ Mã & Cả on Highway 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Diep Son Island & Sandbar, Van Phong Bay Fri, 14 Jul 2017 17:27:10 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published July 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


Lying in the calm, warm waters of Van Phong Bay, just an hour north of Nha Trang, Diep Son is a mini-archipelago of small green islands. At low tide, a curving sandbar is exposed, linking three of the islets via a ‘sand bridge’. The long sweep of white sand between the three green islands in the blue bay is very picturesque. Although Diep Son is increasingly popular with domestic tour groups, it’s best visited independently, because this way you can avoid the crowds. Travel to Diep Son is an easy combination of road and sea transport between Nha Trang city, Van Gia village, and Hon Bip island. Diep Son makes a good day trip from Nha Trang, or as part of a wider exploration of Van Phong Bay and the surrounding area (see Related Posts). A great option for budget travellers is to spend the night on Hon Bip island in a tent or bamboo hut on stilts above the water.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamIn the calm waters of Van Phong Bay, the islands of Diep Son are linked by a ‘sand bridge’

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I’ve written the following guide as a travelogue, including practical information about transportation, prices, accommodation, food, drink, and things to see and do along the way, as well as my map of the area. The following paragraphs break down into four sections:


Diep Son Island & Van Gia Town, Van Phong Bay

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Nha Trang to Van Gia:

Not long ago, one of the many drone cameras showcasing Vietnam’s natural beauty from above, flew over Diep Son. The resulting video went viral on Facebook: everybody wanted to know where Diep Son was and how to get there. Now, hundreds of people take the boat across Van Phong Bay, from Van Gia to Diep Son, every day. The vast majority are domestic travellers – either as part of a group tour or phượt (independent road-trippers). This means that, on the one hand, getting to Diep Son is pretty easy and hassle-free, but on the other hand, you feel like you’re on an organised tour. However, if you travel at the right time of day and, especially, if you stay the night on the island, it’s still a very rewarding, scenic, and worthwhile trip.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamDespite a dramatic rise in visitor numbers, it’s still possible to avoid the crowds on Diep Son Island

Although most hotels and guest houses in Nha Trang can arrange a tour to Diep Son, I recommend doing it independently. There are several daily local buses between Nha Trang, Ninh Hoa and Van Gia, from where you can walk to the port on the seafront to get the boat to Diep Son (inquire about bus times at your hotel in Nha Trang or at the Nha Trang bus station). However, by far the most exciting way to get to the port at Van Gia is by motorbike (or, if you have the time and energy, by bicycle). If you don’t already have a motorbike, most accommodations in Nha Trang can arrange rental for a day or more (100,000-200,000vnd per day).

Van Gia, Van Phong Bay, VietnamTour buses disgorge passengers at Van Gia ferry pier: it’s better to go independently

The drive from Nha Trang to Van Gia is mostly on Highway 1, which, although heavily used by trucks, is in good condition at the moment, making the journey a smooth, scenic, relatively low-stress 60 to 90-minute drive. Van Gia is 60km north of Nha Trang, located on the coast at the centre of Van Phong Bay. The attractive seafront road (Tran Hung Dao) is lined with swaying coconut palms, under which wooden fishing boats bring in the night’s catch and undergo repairs. The road is dotted with shady cafes, eateries and a few mini-hotels. At the middle of the waterfront, Van Gia port (cảng Vạn Gĩa) is where boats leave for Diep Son (look for a large sign saying Điệp Sơn Quán [Diep Son Restaurant]).

Van Gia, Van Phong Bay, VietnamVan Gia’s seafront is a pleasant place where fishing boats cluster & receive repairs under palm trees

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Exploring Van Gia:

Van Gia is only used as a transport hub for boat connections to Diep Son. But, if you have a night to spare, it’s not a bad idea to spend it here. Van Gia is an interesting little place that is, in all probability, on the cusp of major development, thanks to its position in the middle of the bay and proximity to the islands. Indeed, the new seafront road was surely constructed with this in mind. However, it still has a refreshingly local feel. (At some point, many years ago, this must have been what Mui Ne felt like, before the arrival of mass tourism.) Local people are friendly, the backstreets are dotted with cute little red-tiled homes, the harbour is full of fishing boats, and the main town (a few blocks back from the sea) has everything you need: banks, street food, a supermarket, motorbike garages.

Van Gia, Van Phong Bay, VietnamVan Gia has a great location at the centre of Van Phong Bay: it’s worth staying a night

A sleepy town during the day, Van Gia’s seafront comes alive in the late afternoons and early evenings, when the sun is low, the light pink, and the breeze is wonderfully refreshing; children frolic in the surf and play in the sand, while parents and lovers lie back in deck chairs under the trembling sails of coconut palms, munching on hot snacks served from illuminated food carts, and sipping freshly pressed sugar cane juice….and everybody leaves their trash strewn over the sand or thrown into the sea (sigh). Good-value rooms are available at all the nhà nghỉ (local guest houses) and mini-hotels along the seafront road, from where it’s a short walk to the boat pier. The standard price is 250,000vnd for a clean, plain room with a window and hot water shower. I like Gia Huy Hotel (2 Tran Phu Street; 0583 708 686). Nha Nghi Phuong Hoang (0122 553 7707) has two locations, including one conveniently located directly opposite the boat pier, but they were very rude to me.

Van Gia, Van Phong Bay, VietnamBudget hotels line the waterfront road: this is Gia Huy Hotel; 250,000vnd a night

Seafood is served in several eateries along Tran Hung Dao and there are a couple of good cafes on the backstreets leading from the seafront, including the lush Cafe Moc. Don’t miss Ms Hậu’s bánh căn (spongy, savoury rice flour and quail egg cakes dipped in ‘special sauce’) under a tree on the corner of Tran Hung Dao and Nguyen Binh Khiem streets (11am-4pm; 10,000vnd per 10 cakes).

Van Gia, Van Phong Bay, VietnamPay a visit to Ms Hậu’s bánh căn stall for a delicious & filling local snack during the day

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Van Gia to Diep Son by Boat:

Another advantage of staying the night in Van Gia is that you can catch an early boat to the islands the next morning. Buying a ticket is quite easy and well-organized. Tables selling tickets set up by the port, under the shade of a large tree, next to the ‘Điệp Sơn Quán’ signpost. You can’t really miss it, because there will be coaches and minivans all around. Boats leave at regular intervals from 7am till lunchtime (around midday). As the afternoon progresses, there are fewer boats leaving to the islands, because, by that time of day, most day-trippers are on their way back from the islands to Van Gia.

Van Gia, Van Phong Bay, VietnamBoat tickets are sold from plastic tables set under a tree on Van Gia’s waterfront

There are two kinds of boats: fast speed boats (and they really are fast), and much slower wooden boats. Tickets for the fast boats are 200,000vnd return and journey time is 10-15 minutes. Tickets for the slow boats are 100,000vnd return and the journey takes at least 30-45 minutes. As an independent traveller, it’s generally best to get the fast boat, as most of the slow boats cater to large tour groups who meander their way from Van Gia via other sights in the bay before arriving at Diep Son. (You may need to show your passport when buying a boat ticket, although I’ve never been asked to.) All boats are for passengers only: there are not vehicles, of any kind, allowed. If you have a motorbike or bicycle, you can park it securely at one of several giữ xe (parking lots) opposite the boat pier (10,000vnd per day; 20,000vnd overnight: don’t lose your parking ticket).

The boat to Diep Son Island, Van Gia, VietnamThe fast boat is the best option: 200,000vnd return; the journey takes 10-15 minutes

Most large tour groups turn up at the dock between 7am and 8am, during which time it can get busy. However, this is not a bad time to go to the islands, because many of the groups take the slow boats on organized tours that visit other islands in the bay, before arriving at lunchtime for a seafood meal on Diep Son. Therefore, by taking the fast boat from Van Gia direct to Diep Son at 7.30am, for example, you will have at least a couple of hours on the island before the bulk of the tour groups arrive for lunch. (Another reason most tours time their arrival on Diep Son at lunchtime is that this is when the tide is low and the sandbar is most exposed.)

The boat to Diep Son Island, Van Gia, VietnamThe fast boats can accommodate around 20 passengers; life vests are provided

The speedboats can accommodate around 20 passengers and, in theory at least, won’t leave until they are at least half full. In the mornings (peak time), you’re unlikely to have to wait for the boats to fill up, as there will be dozens of people waiting to board. But, in the afternoons, boats are less likely to sail with only a few passengers. The speed boats appear to be fairly modern and are equipped with life vests. However, Vietnam’s maritime safety record is appalling, and some of the boat drivers are disgracefully irresponsible: on one of the boats I was on, despite having a frail octogenarian seated at the front, the driver went as fast as he could, cutting in front of every vessel he overtook as close as possible to their hulls, and directing the boat into as much rough surf as he could. Fortunately, it’s all over in a blur, because the boats are so swift, but this is something to bear in mind if you don’t have good sea legs.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamArrival at Diep Son Island is at a long pontoon pier, leading directly to the beach & sandbar

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Diep Son Island & Sandbar:

Most of the boats moor at a long pontoon pier on Diep Son Island (also known as Hon Bip), the largest of the three islands in the mini-archipelago. Some boats also dock at Diep Son hamlet, which is just a short walk from the pontoon pier. (For the return journey, boats leave whenever there are a handful of passengers to take back to Van Gia. However, it’s difficult to get a return boat in the late afternoon). If you arrive in good weather, the island is a beautiful sight, rising from the flat, silky waters of Van Phong Bay, ringed with sandy beaches, one of which stretches out to sea in a curve, forming a sand bridge to the other islands, for which Diep Son is famous. For Vietnamese tourists, this is selfie heaven, and the majority of visitors tend to spend most of their time on the island posing for social media-bound photos.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamWalking across the sandbar connecting Diep Son’s three islands is the main attraction

There’s not much in the way of infrastructure on the island yet. A generator provides electricity throughout the day until about 7pm. A long, palm-thatched restaurant serves decent and quite reasonably-priced meals (including seafood) and drinks, as well as offering water sports, such as kayaking (a lot of fun on these calm waters), jet skis, snorkeling, and fishing. There are a couple of isolated drink and snack shacks on the other two smaller islands (accessed on foot via the sand bridge). At the time of writing, there were several other small-scale developments underway on all three of the islands, so expect a lot of changes over the next year or two.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamThe sandbar is a popular place for group photographs: it’s most exposed in the afternoons

Swimming is good. The water is shallow and calm so most people feel confident about taking a dip and, the main attraction, wading across the partially submerged sandbar to the two smaller islands. The water quality is still fine, although there’s an increasing amount of garbage lying in the surf, because day-trippers, who often bring their own picnics, tend to discard their trash by simply leaving it on the sand or throwing it in the sea (and there’s a fair amount of fishermen’s detritus too). However, trash has yet to overwhelm and ruin Diep Son as it has other popular sights in Vietnam: it’s hanging on, but it’s very fragile indeed. The interior of the islands is green, but also rocky and arid. Near the coastline, there are mango and calabur cherry trees, but further inland these are replaced by cacti, eucalyptus and, intriguingly, volcanic rock.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamThe water is calm & blue around the sandbar, making it good for swimming & kayaking

If you want to experience Diep Son without the ‘selfie hordes’ and tour groups, consider staying the night on the island. Accommodation is basic but atmospheric and very reasonably priced. Choose between a rented two-man dome tent on the beach (200,000vnd for two people) or a mattress under a mosquito net in a bamboo cabin raised on stilts over the water (400,000vnd for two people). Or, you can even bring your own tent and pitch it anywhere on the beach for free. Do this and you’ll have the entire island practically to yourself for the evening, night and early morning (unless a group of phượt travellers are also camping, but they’re usually young and good, fun company). Showers and bathrooms are OK, and the restaurant can serve you dinner and breakfast. Accommodation is arranged at the Diep Son Restaurant (0914 39 39 79) at the end of the pontoon pier.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamTo get the most out of a visit to Diep Son, spend the night on the island: in tent or a cabin

Diep Son is, without doubt, a beautiful place and worthy of its new-found fame. While I was waiting for the boat to leave Van Gia dock, watching busloads of tourists arriving from Nha Trang, I was worried that the islands would be too crowded (and too littered). But this turned out not to be the case, at least until lunchtime. And, although litter is a problem here (as it is in almost every popular tourist destination in Vietnam), it wasn’t bad enough to spoil the experience, and there were some encouraging signs of people clearing up their own trash. If you stay the night on Hon Bip Island you will almost certainly enjoy the experience, but if you happen to hit the island and the wrong time of day, you may be disappointed. However, there’s something temporary and even desperate about both the hastily-assembled infrastructure on the islands and the massive and sudden influx of domestic visitors: it’s almost as if everybody knows that this mini-archipelago is destined to fall into the hands of some huge, luxury developer, and so it’s crucial to visit now, before it becomes the preserve of the wealthy and the few.

Diep Son Island, Hon Bip, Van Phong Bay, VietnamDiep Son Island feels fragile and is bound to change dramatically over the coming years


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How to Send a Motorbike on the Train Thu, 06 Jul 2017 09:28:13 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published July 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


One the most common questions readers write me to ask is: Can I put my motorbike on the train in Vietnam and send it from one destination to another? The simple answer is, ‘Yes, you can’. But it’s useful for travellers to know exactly how it works, because this will ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible. Happily, sending your bike on the train is now a relatively hassle-free, efficient, and reliable service. On this page, I’ve written and illustrated a step-by-step guide to putting your motorbike on the train in Vietnam.

How to send a motorbike on the train, VietnamSending your motorbike on the train in Vietnam is now pretty easy, efficient & reliable

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I’ve organized this guide into several sections, including my step-by-step guide. Click an item from the list below to read more about it:


Main Train Stations to Send Motorbikes to/from in Vietnam

View in a LARGER MAP

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Putting your motorbike on the train is very convenient for road-trippers in Vietnam. For example, you can use this service to help you get out of the big, busy cities, such as Saigon and Hanoi, and into the countryside (or at least to smaller cities). This way, you don’t have to negotiate the awful traffic and pollution of the industrial suburbs. Or you can use it to skip large sections of a route. For example, many people want to ride one of my Saigon to Hanoi routes but don’t have enough time to do it all: you can put your motorbike on the train to either join a route somewhere further up the coast or to finish a route early and send your motorbike the rest of the way. You can send your motorbike to all major coastal cities between, and including, Saigon and Hanoi (Phan Thiet [Muong Man/Binh Thuan station], Nha Trang, Quy Nhon [Dieu Tri station], Danang, Hue, Dong Hoi, Vinh and Haiphong, from south to north respectively) and one inland destination, Lao Cai (for Sapa; from Hanoi only). See my map of major train stations in Vietnam above. (Note: for more details about sending your motorbike on the Saigon-Phan Thiet train read this post).

How to send your motorbike on the train, VietnamSending your motorbike on the train allows you to start or end your road trip anywhere along the coast

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There are a couple of drawbacks to be aware of, but these shouldn’t be a problem as long as you make allowances for them and organize your road trip accordingly:

  • 1: You won’t travel with your motorbike: it goes on a separate freight train (with the notable exception of the Saigon-Phan Thiet Express Train)
  • 2: Your motorbike will take between 2-5 days to arrive at its destination, depending on how far you are sending it and whether it’s a busy time of year. 
  • 3: Although it has never happened to me personally, readers have occasionally written to say that they have been refused permission to put their motorbikes on the train because of overcrowding. This is usually at peak times of year, particularly in and around the Tet Lunar New Year (January/February) and the high-season summer months (June-August).

How to send your motorbike on the train, VietnamDrawbacks: your motorbike travels separately to you & will take 2-5 days to arrive

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Step 1: Ride your motorbike to the train station. Generally, opening hours for sending your motorbike (and picking it up at the other end) are between 7am and 5pm, although it’s quite likely (especially in smaller cities) that workers take a lunch break from 11.30am to 1.30pm. (Note: remember that you must send your motorbike on the train at least a couple of days before you want to pick it up again at its destination.)

How to send your motorbike on the train, VietnamWorkers at the Saigon train station freight department on their lunch break: 11.30am-1.30pm

Step 2: At Saigon and Hanoi train stations find or ask for the Door to Door office (in Vietnamese: Công Ty Bao Bì Vận Chuyển). This is a reliable company that handles freight. At Saigon train station their office is located to the left outside the main station entrance at 1 Nguyen Thong Street. At Hanoi train station the office is located in a little kiosk to the left of the main station facade (120 Le Duan Street). At other stations between Saigon and Hanoi there may or may not be a dedicated Door to Door office (I’m pretty sure Danang and Hai Phong have one). If there isn’t one, find or ask for the hành lý (freight) office. This is usually just to the side of the main ticket office at all the main stations marked on my map.

Sending your motorbike on the train, VietnamAt the station, find the Door to Door office or the hành lý (freight) department

Step 3: If possible, try to find a woman behind a desk, next to a computer. (In general, it is the women who deal with the transaction and the blue-overalled men who deal with the practical side of things: packing and wrapping the motorbikes. In my experience, the women are much easier to deal with than the men, and much more likely to do it all by the book, rather than trying to squeeze some ‘extra charges’ out of you.) If you don’t speak any Vietnamese the process should still be straightforward, and some staff know enough English to be able to communicate. Point to your bike and say the destination you want it to be sent to. The staff will show you a laminated list of stations, motorbike types, and prices. It’s very clear and the prices are fixed. (Note: a standard 50,000vnd [$2] handling fee is paid separately to staff when you collect your motorbike at its destination station.) Once you’ve established where you want the motorbike sent to and how much it will cost, it’s best to get an idea of how long it will take for the motorbike to arrive at its destination. Again, if you don’t speak Vietnamese, this should still be easily done by pointing to today’s date on a calendar and then pointing to a date a couple days in the future and saying ‘Yes?’. (Note: although some major destinations, such as Quy Nhon (Dieu Tri) and Dong Hoi, are not listed, it is possible to send your motorbike to them, so persist.)

How to send your motorbike on the train, VietnamPrice list: motorbike types along the top; destination stations down the side (xe số=manual; xe ga=automatic)

Step 4: Apart from your motorbike and some cash, you will need to have three things with you to successfully send your motorbike on the train: your passport, motorbike blue/green card (the ownership card with your/previous owner’s name and address on it), and a phone number. In some cases, you may also need to give an address in Vietnam: you can put anything for this, like your hotel address, for example. Once the staff have taken note of all your paperwork, you pay the amount in full (except the 50,000vnd handling fee). You will receive a receipt with your name, phone number, motorbike model, and destination on it. Do not lose this receipt. If you do, you may find it very difficult to claim your motorbike back again at the destination station. Also, remember to take your blue/green ownership card with you (don’t leave it in the motorbike trunk, for example).

How to send your motorbike on the train, VietnamThis is your receipt: don’t lose it! You’ll need it when you collect your motorbike

Step 5: While you are completing the transaction, your motorbike will most likely be undergoing some changes needed for travelling as freight. The wing mirrors are unscrewed and stored in the trunk under your seat; all the gas is siphoned from your tank (make sure you don’t fill-up just before going to the station); and the motorbike is checked for any markings, flaws, or breakages so that the freight company is not held responsible for any of these on the other end. (Note: do not leave anything valuable in your motorbike trunk, and remember the take your keys with you – don’t accidentally leave them in the ignition.) Then your motorbike goes through the process of ‘mummification’. Vietnam’s railroads are surprisingly bumpy so, to reduce the chances of damages occurring during the journey, your motorbike is covered in protective layers: cloth, blankets, bubble wrap, plastic bags, padding, foam, cardboard and, lastly, an exoskeleton made of wooden planks. Safe and secure, your motorbike disappears behind the scenes with all the other freight, awaiting the locomotive that will transport it up or down the country to its destination.

How to send your motorbike on the train, Vietnam‘Mummification': your motorbike is covered in protective padding for the journey

Step 6: Now your motorbike is on its way, and it should have been a pretty painless process. (The only issue I’ve ever had is with some of the grumpy male handlers who wrap the motorbike. I’m sure it’s a thankless and lowly paid job, and the men in these positions have little to be happy about, but they can be quite gruff, rude and unhelpful at times, although this is certainly not always the case: the men in the pictures on this page, for example, were very friendly.) Now, all you have to do is get to your destination to pick up your motorbike. If you’re travelling by train, the Door to Door office at Saigon station (and Hanoi too, I think) also sells passenger train tickets. This is really convenient as it means you don’t have to queue up in the main station hall to buy your ticket. For example, last time I sent my motorbike on the train I simply went to the Door to Door office at Saigon train station, bought my motorbike ticket to Nha Trang from one desk, and then bought my own train ticket to Nha Trang from another: simply, easy, no queuing, and no hassle.

How to send your motorbike on the train, VietnamConvenient: the Door to Door office in Saigon also sells train tickets for passengers

Step 7: When your motorbike arrives at its destination you should receive a call or text from the station. (If you don’t hear from them after a few days, assume they’ve forgotten and head down to the station anyway.) At the station, find or ask for the hành lý (freight) department and show the staff your receipt. They will check your information with their books, find your motorbike, unwrap it, put the mirrors back on and hand it over to you. Pay the 50,000vnd handling fee, give your motorbike a good check-over – brakes, tyres, frame, trunk, mirrors – and you’re good to go. Except you’re not, because you won’t have any gas in your tank. Ask the staff for the nearest gas station (trạm xăng). You may have to walk your bike there, although some bikes, such as my own, seem to somehow be able to run on fumes for the minute it takes to get as far as the gas pumps. Now you have your motorbike, a full tank of gas, and a great Vietnam road trip ahead of you. (Note: if for any reason there’s a problem identifying or authenticating your motorbike, show your blue/green ownership card to the staff, so that there’s no disputing it’s your motorbike.)

How to send your motorbike on the train, VietnamAt the destination station the motorbike is unpacked & then you’re ready to hit the road


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Meat Feast: Hieu Map BBQ Shop Thu, 15 Jun 2017 11:46:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published June 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


I’m a big fan of barbecued, grilled or roasted meat. Fortunately, there are lots of places that cater to this in Saigon: from streetside stalls selling giant sides of roast pork to sidewalk eateries specializing in grilled chicken feet, from local eateries churning out barbecued ribs over rice to the recent trend of American-style BBQ restaurants – you’re never far from cooked meat on the streets of Saigon. What I like about Hieu Map BBQ Shop, in Binh Thanh District, is that it’s a very local, long-running establishment offering a variety of cheap, simple and tasty barbecued meats to take away. So, if you haven’t got the time or money for a high-end barbecue, like Quán Ụt Ụt, or haven’t the patience to drive out to Chicken Corner, head to Hieu Map BBQ Shop to pick up some chicken and ribs to take back home for a cheap meat feast.

Hieu Map BBQ shop, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityGreat for a take-out meat feast, Hieu Map BBQ shop, in Binh Thanh District, is cheap and tasty

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Address: 66 Ngo Tat To Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]

Price: 25,000-250,000vnd per item  | Open: 6am-9pm (Mon-Sat) & 6am-4pm (Sun)

Located in the middle of Ngo Tat To Street, a hopping foodie neighbourhood in Binh Thanh District, Hieu Map occupies a wide shopfront opposite the City Garden apartments. Ducks and chickens rotate on spits under an old Bodhi tree to the right of the store. Easily recognized by its green signage and flashing lights advertising its menu and prices in Vietnamese, Hieu Map has been operating here for 15 years (there’s also another store way out in Bình Tân District). I first visited a decade ago, when I lived in a house just around the corner, on Nguyen Cong Tru Street.


View in a LARGER MAP

The cooked meat is displayed in a typical glass-paneled street food cabinet. Sides of roast pork with crunchy skin and crispy fat, whole barbecued chickens, marinated pork ribs, Chinese-style sausages, grilled quail, and whole roasted ducks hangs from hooks behind the glass, illuminated by white light bulbs. Inside, there’s a small space for eat-in diners, but it’s much better to get your meat to go.

Hieu Map BBQ shop, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityMeat on display behind a glass cabinet, illuminated by naked light bulbs, at Hieu Map BBQ shop

The menu (printed in black and white and taped to the wall) is simple and inexpensive. Choose your meat có cơm (with rice) or không cơm (without rice). Personally, I get my meat không cơm, because you get plenty of free extras with it anyway: herbs, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrots, chilli sauce, and salt, chilli and lime for dipping. Prices are cheaper than elsewhere, but the portions are large and the meat is flavourful. For example, a whole grilled chicken (gà nướng nguyên con) is 140,000vnd, marinated pork ribs (sườn que) are 250,000vnd per kilo, and chicken wings (cánh gà) are 25,000vnd each.

Hieu Map BBQ shop, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityChoice: grilled chicken, marinated pork ribs, roast duck, grilled quail, Chinese-style sausages & more

Order your meat and take it all back home with you for a meat feast with your friends, or as a picnic in one of Saigon’s parks. The chicken is particularly succulent, juicy and soft, and goes really well with the chilli, salt and lime dip. The ribs are slightly sweet, meaty and quite tough – great for gnawing on and good with beer. And the roast pork (heo quay) is crispy, salty, and tender. A favourite combination of mine to share with friends is: bốn cái gà góc tư, nữa ký heo quay, nữa ký sườn que (x4 chicken leg & thigh, ½ kilo roast pork, ½ ribs).

Hieu Map BBQ shop, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityA duck and two chickens over the streetside coal-fired grill at Hieu Map BBQ shop

Hieu Map may not be of the same quality as the American BBQ joints in Saigon, or as bustling and fun as Chicken Corner, but it offers tasty, grilled meat and low prices without any fuss or fanfare: it’s good old honest Saigon street food. Recently, I’ve got into the habit of grabbing a meat feast at Hieu Map and taking it back home to watch a big sporting event on TV with my friends or a movie: add a little alcohol and it’s a good night in.

Hieu Map BBQ shop, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityGet a meat feast to take-away and enjoy it with friends in front of a movie or as a picnic in the park

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


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La Nga River & Thac Ba Waterfall Wed, 07 Jun 2017 13:52:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published June 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


The La Nga River and Thac Ba Waterfall offer freshwater bathing, lush jungle, mountain scenery and opportunities for camping, all within a few hours’ drive of Saigon. A great inland escape for city-dwellers, these two pretty spots are best visited with your own wheels, either as a short loop from Saigon or as part of a longer tour of the region. New roads have made this area more accessible than ever. A trip here is a great alternative to more well-trodden inland natural attractions within easy reach of Saigon, such as Cat Tien National Park.

La Nga River & Thac Ba Waterfall, VietnamA few hours’ ride from Saigon, La Nga River & Thac Ba Waterfall offer freshwater swimming & camping

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On this page, I’ve written a brief overview of the La Nga River and Thac Ba Waterfall. If you’re not planning to camp by the La Nga River, there’s accommodation in the form of several nhà nghỉ (local guest houses) in the nearby towns of Lac Tanh (Tanh Linh) and Ta Pao. Alternatively, continue up to the hotels in Bao Loc, or to Di Linh for a night at Juliet’s Villa Resort. I assume that anyone intending to travel to the La Nga River and Thac Ba Waterfall will do so with their own wheels (motorbike, bicycle or car), so I have drawn a map of the best way to get there from Saigon (i.e. the most scenic and least traffic-clogged). Note: There are many excellent ways to extend this route and create a longer tour of the area. You could, for example, continue south on Route QL55B to the coastal town of Lagi and check out some of the campsites on the Ocean Road; or north on Route QL55 to Bao Loc and on to Dalat using my back-roads guide; or head west to Cat Tien National Park; or follow my Inland Binh Thuan or Tet Lunar New Year routes.

The road to La Nga River & Thac Ba Waterfall, VietnamRoute 55 leads through forests and farmland to La Nga River and Thac Ba Waterfall and beyond

MAP 1:

The La Nga River & Thac Ba Waterfall

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MAP 2:

The Route from Saigon to La Nga River & Thac Ba Waterfall

View in a LARGER MAP

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La Nga River:

Cool and clear, and surrounded by lush highland scenery, the La Nga River offers opportunities for wild swimming in its refreshing waters and wild camping along its pretty banks. This is very rare considering it’s within such easy reach of Saigon. Just 170km east of the city (a journey made much easier, and far more pleasant, than in the past thanks to new back-roads), the La Nga River is a great way to escape to the countryside for a couple of days.

La Nga River, Binh Thuan Province, VietnamCows graze on the verdant banks of the La Nga River, near La Ngau hamlet on Route QL55

One spot in particular is easy to access and very beautiful. Near the minority hamlet of La Ngau on Route QL55, a bridge crosses the La Nga River. At either end of the western side of the bridge, dirt roads lead along both banks of the river. Follow these and you’ll find some fabulous bathing and camping spots.

La Nga River, Binh Thuan Province, VietnamDirt tracks lead along both banks of the La Nga River to good picnic, swimming & camping spots

You could easily spend the day (and night, if you have a tent) along the banks of this river. The further down the dirt paths you go, the rougher the surface and the more remote and pretty the scenery becomes. Bring some picnic food and drink, find a nice shady spot and while away the day. Ethnic minority communities live in bamboo stilt houses surrounded by cashew orchards, just back from the river. The locals will likely come and say ‘Hi’ as you picnic by the river.

Camping by La Nga River, Binh Thuan Province, VietnamIf you bring your own tent, there are good camping opportunities by the La Nga River

Note that, although swimming is good, the current can be strong. It all depends on what’s happening upstream, where the Da Mi hydroelectric dam controls the water flow. Be very careful, even if you’re a confident swimmer. The dramatic change in water level, depending on the dam, is also an important factor to consider when choosing a campsite: if the dam is closed, the water level will be low, and what may look like a perfect river beach for camping, will be a metre under water once the dam is opened and the water level rises. Make sure you camp above the high-water line.

Nga River, Binh Thuan Province, VietnamWater flow is controlled by the Da Mi hydroelectric dam upriver: bear this is mind when setting up camp

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Thac Ba Waterfall:

Thac Ba is an attractive cascade of white water tumbling over large granite boulders covered in jungle vines. It’s a beautiful place, but it can get crowded with domestic tourists and, predictably, tainted by trash. The ride from La Nga River to the falls, on Route QL55, is very pretty, passing rice fields in the shadow of forested hills before reaching Lac Tanh (Tanh Linh) town. A paved lane (signposted to the falls) leads south of town towards the jungled slopes of Nui Ong Mountain. 

Thac Ba Waterfall, Binh Thuan Province, VietnamThac Ba Waterfall, near Lac Tanh town, is a pretty spot but tainted by picnic trash

You can drive as far as the entrance gate (parking: 10,000vnd; entrance: 25,000vnd; open: 6am-6pm), from where a beaten-up, doorless old minivan ferries visitors up a pathway, through towering tropical trees and screaming cicadas, to the foot of the falls. The water crashes over boulders, then rocks, then stones, then pebbles as it bursts forth from the dense jungle foliage on the mountainside. It’s not especially high, but it’s still a very impressive and scenic sight.

Thac Ba Waterfall, Binh Thuan Province, VietnamWooden swings & hammocks hang from trees next to refreshing pools at the bottom of the falls

There are often large groups of Vietnamese visitors – families, friends, school children – jumping from the rocks into the cool water, swinging in hammocks between trees, drinking beer by the shady rock pools, grilling marinated meat over fires made between boulders, and having an all-around great time. It’s what Vietnamese groups do best: food, drink, family and friends in a beautiful natural setting.

Thac Ba Waterfall, Binh Thuan Province, VietnamThac Ba Waterfall is a popular picnic spot for domestic tourists who often set up BBQs on the rocks

Unfortunately, when it comes to cleaning up after themselves, no one seems to bother. Thus, there are piles of picnic trash jammed between rocks and strewn all over the place. Some people do make an effort, and there are staff at the waterfall who seem to pick up some of the trash, but it’s a losing battle. There are a couple of restaurants and cafes by the falls which serve pretty good food and drink. Alternatively, head back into Lac Tanh town for a meal of nem nướng (roll-it-yourself rice paper parcels filled with grilled pork and herbs). There are a few restaurants selling nem nướng on road DT720 as it passes through town. Several doors down from the restaurants, Nhà Nghỉ Minh Hoa (0623 880 256) is a decent local guesthouse with simple but clean rooms for 150,000-250,000vnd.

Nem nuong rolls, Lac Tanh town, VietnamDelicious nem nướng (rice paper wraps with grilled pork & herbs) in Lac Tanh town near Thac Ba Falls


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The Boat Cafe, Saigon Fri, 26 May 2017 10:40:55 +0000 Continue reading ]]> First published May 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle


Floating on the murky, milk tea-coloured waters of the Kenh Te Canal, separating districts 4 and 7, The Boat Cafe is one of those special places in Saigon that offer respite from the noise and chaos of the city without actually leaving it. Opened 5 years ago, The Boat Cafe (or La Ngon, to give it its real name) consists of two wooden river boats moored at right angles to the canal bank so that they protrude out into the water. The boats are furnished with tables and chairs on their upper and lower decks, with the sides open to the breeze off the canal. In a city obsessed with cafes, this one is pretty unique. (Update, July 2017: Sadly, one of the two boats mysteriously burned down, but the other is still operating as usual).

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityGhost ship: The Boat Cafe is housed in two wooden crafts on the Kenh Te Canal in Saigon’s District 7

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Address: 22/8 Tran Xuan Soan Street, District 7, Ho Chi Minh City [MAP]

Price: 25,000-50,000vnd per drink  | Open: 8am-12pm daily


View in a LARGER MAP

Tran Xuan Soan Street follows the south bank of the Kenh Te Canal, lined with squat Copper Pod trees. This road runs along the edge of Saigon’s District 7, looking back over the canal to District 4. Almost directly opposite the Hoang Anh Gia Lai 2 apartment block, The Boat Cafe (La Ngon) is at number 22/8. Nothing more than a clapboard and corrugated iron shack from the road, the signage clearly reads ‘La Ngon’, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. A beautiful Golden Shower tree (yes, I know, it’s a funny name) droops over the shack. This is the main bar, where you order your drinks and snacks before boarding one of the boats.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CitySeen from the road, The Boat Cafe (La Ngon) is nothing more than a shopfront with a bar

Behind the shack, the two boats are moored to the canal bank, one on either side on the bar. Both vessels appear to be something between a rice barge and a river junk. They’re registered to Ben Tre, a province in the Delta famous for its coconuts, and maybe this gives a clue as to their former use: coconut barges on the Mekong River perhaps? Nowadays, however, these two wooden crafts are floating cafes. Long and slender, with the traditional painted eyes on the bow, the boats’ upper and lower decks have been converted into attractive wooden spaces where young Vietnamese come to socialize and work.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityThere are two boats floating on the canal: long & slender wooden junks with decks open at the sides

Of the two, the boat on the right, as you come in, is the nicer. Accessed at the bow via a steep wooden gangway over the (horribly polluted) water, both decks are lined with comfy chairs and sofas. The sturdy hardwood floors and ceilings are very impressive, and the upper deck (which I assume was added to the boat when it became a cafe) is decorated with palmwood pillars and walls. It’s bright, breezy, spacious and cool. Given the choice, always sit on the upper deck, because it catches the breeze and avoids the ‘river odour’ that sometimes spoils the atmosphere on the lower deck (this is only really a problem at low tide). At dusk and in the evenings, grab a table outside on the back deck, where there are sunset views downriver.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityView from the gangway as you board the boat to the upper deck: seating is on either side of the cabin

Inside, the space is adorned with potted plants and spotlights; outside, with hanging plants and lanterns illuminating the hull. When the rains sweep in over the canal (which they often do between May and October), bamboo screens are rolled down over the the sides to keep the decks (and the customers) dry. During these tropical downpours, it’s easy to imagine you’re at sea on an old Vietnamese junk. The cabins at the stern of the boat have been converted into very clean toilets on both the upper and lower decks.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityInside it’s a cosy & comfortable space with hardwood floors & ceilings, and palmwood pillars & walls

Of course, one of the best things about The Boat Cafe is that it’s not (technically) on a road. Yes, you can still hear the traffic from Tran Xuan Soan Street roaring past, and you can still see the endless stream of vehicles rolling over the Kenh Te Canal Bridge; but when you’re on the boat, in the breeze, feeling the gentle tilt and drift of the the hull as it rides the soft swell created by a passing barge, you feel far removed from the rush and clamour of the city.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityA place to relax: out on the canal there’s brief respite from the noise & clamour of everyday Saigon

The light and space is a relief too: from the decks there’s a clear view along the waterway due west to District 5, and due east towards the Saigon River. Watching the river traffic pass by is also fun, and looking across the canal to the melange of rough-looking shanties, middle-class townhouses, and apartment blocks of District 4, offers a fascinating cross-section of urban living in Saigon, and the contrasting fortunes of its inhabitants.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityCross-section of District 4: a canal, a coconut barge, a pallet dump, poor housing & middle class homes

The drinks menu is beautifully presented and offers a good range of reasonably priced beverages: 25,000-50,000vnd ($1-$2) is the average cost per drink. The coffee is pretty good, as are the fruit smoothies and fresh juices. The house speciality is nước mía (sugar cane juice), which is very refreshing on a hot and sweaty Saigon afternoon. Some snacks, such as noodles, bread and eggs, are available, too (try the bánh mì bò kho - beef stew with baguette). In general, the quality is above average for the price, which is more than can be said for some of Saigon’s other trendy cafes, where style takes precedence over quality.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityThe quality & selection of drinks & snacks at The Boat Cafe is good, but there’s no alcohol :-(

One glaring flaw, however, is the absence of any alcoholic drinks. Oh, what I would give for a good gin & tonic, ice-cold beer, or glass of wine to take out onto the back deck at dusk at the end of a long day in the Big Smoke. I think there may be some licensing issue to explain this huge oversight, so perhaps things will change in the future. Music is sometimes played on board the boats, but it’s kept at a reasonable volume. And none of these issues can really distract from the qualities of The Boat Cafe. This is a great place for meeting friends or bringing a date. It would also be good for working too, were it not for the predictably unstable WiFi. However, providing you have a good 3G/4G data plan, there’s no reason you can’t ‘digital nomad’ on the decks of the Boat Cafe; I did, and do.

The Boat Cafe (La Ngon), Saigon, Ho Chi Minh CityGreat for meeting friends, bringing a date, or working online, The Boat Cafe is unique & characterful

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


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