First published February 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Some 90 minutes from Saigon, Núi Dinh Mountain is an unexpected swell of high ground, rising above the flat expanse of several river deltas. As unlikely as it seems from ground level – where the industrial sprawl along Highway QL51 appears to have poisoned the land as far as the eye can see – Núi Dinh Mountain is a peaceful retreat into the trees and streams on its rocky slopes, upon which perch dozens of Buddhist temples and pagodas. On the lower slopes, Suối Đá and Suối Tiên are freshwater springs which trickle down the mountainside, forming multiple natural pools that are good for bathing. Situated behind the pleasant streets of Ba Ria town, Núi Dinh Mountain and springs are easily accessible on two wheels (just 70km from Saigon), making them ideal for a day-trip from the city or as a stop on a longer road trip following the Ocean Road to Mui Ne.
GUIDE: NÚI DINH MOUNTAIN & SPRINGS
In this guide, I’ve written a description of Suối Đá and Suối Tiên springs and Núi Dinh Mountain, followed by information about nearby accommodation, and transportation from Saigon. I’ve plotted all the places mentioned in this guide on my map. (For more ideas about places to visit near Saigon, see Related Posts.)
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Núi Dinh Mountain & Springs, Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu Province
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On the southern slopes of Nui Dinh Mountain, a gurgling stream runs through dense foliage and over giant boulders, flowing into several rock pools as it descends to the flat floodplains at the bottom of the mountain. Two points along the stream are easily accessible to visitors: Suối Đá and Suối Tiên. Although these two are connected by a steep and scenic pathway, there are also separate roads leading to the entrances of each one.
Suối Đá consists of five different bathing pools on multiple levels, where the stream has flowed into rock pools: some are natural pools, others are man-made. From the parking lot it’s a steep (and hot) walk between the pools (called hồ in Vietnamese). Each hồ is numbered 1-5, and it doesn’t take long to walk from one to another. But be careful on the pathways, because some of the stone steps are unstable and it would be very easy to twist your ankle. Entrance is free (at least it is during the daytime on weekdays when it’s very quiet, but there may be a small entrance fee on weekends or public holidays, when the springs get extremely busy).
The bathing pools are very attractive, surrounded by large rocks and greenery. Bamboo platforms with tarpaulin roofs have been erected around the water’s edge, where you can sit or swing in a hammock. Even during the height of the southern dry season (February-March) there’s still water in the stream. But bear in mind that the heavy rains of the southern monsoon (May-October) changes the character of the stream dramatically: after a storm, the area can be overwhelmed by water running off the mountain.
The water is clean enough to bathe in, and the temperature is lovely and cool – very refreshing on a hot, humid day. Food and drink is available from the makeshift shacks at all of the pools. One could easily spend a relaxing few hours here: reading a book, eating and drinking with friends, or dozing in a hammock listening to the trickling water.
However, if you want to enjoy the springs in peace and tranquility, try to arrive in the middle of the day on a weekday, because it gets very busy, noisy and dirty on weekends, when blaring karaoke muffles the sound of gushing water, and trash ruins the natural setting. The latter is a huge problem all over Vietnam, especially in beauty spots, such as this. During the week, the trash – which is all too apparent, strewn among the trees, left on the boulders, squeezed between the rocks in the stream – is just about bearable. But on the weekends, when groups of picnickers can be seen throwing their garbage in the water or the foliage, it’s too depressing to ignore. (I’ve written at length about the problem of trash here.)
Further up the mountain, Suối Tiên is accessed via a good road weaving through eucalyptus trees to the spring. (Alternatively, you can walk along a pretty pathway from pool No.5 [hồ 5] in Suối Đá all the way along the stream to Suối Tiên.) From the parking lot (entrance is free) several steep, rocky paths lead down to a large, blue pool of water surrounded by jungle vines, whose twisting roots spread over the smooth boulders dotted about the stream. It’s a lovely, shady enclosure, with plastic tables on a concrete bank where you can sit with a drink or snack from the little cafe-shack. Again, litter is a problem here, and again, if you want to avoid the crowds, visit during the middle of the day on a weekday.
Núi Dinh Mountain:
The winding road to Suối Tiên spring continues up the mountain for a few more kilometres. It’s a pleasant ride along a good road through eucalyptus trees, with occasional glimpses of the flat, flooded plains below. The tarmac comes to an abrupt end at a fork in the road. Straight ahead is Chùa Diệu Linh Temple. But if you bear right onto the dirt road this eventually leads to Hang Mai Pagoda, near the top of Núi Dinh Mountain. Shortly after the fork, turn left up a very steep concrete path (signposted to Chùa Hang Mai). On busy days, you may not be allowed to ride this lane on a motorbike, in which case you’ll need to park your bike and hike to the top. However, during the week this shouldn’t be necessary. Riding up is a lot of fun, but the gradient is quite extreme and many sections are unpaved: if the weather has been wet, it can be very treacherous indeed, but in dry conditions it’s fine.
The scenic ride through the trees to the top of the mountain takes about 15 minutes. It’s wonderfully quiet up on the mountain, and the air is cooler than down on the plains. There’s nobody around: just you, your motorbike, the rustling of the leaves in the breeze, and the sound of birds in the trees. It’s a different world to the industrial sprawl that exists at the bottom of the mountain, along Highway 51.
At the top, the road descends sharply and ends at Hang Mai Pagoda. Although there has been a Buddhist temple here for years, it is currently undergoing major renovations and expansion. Constructed around a collection of giant boulders, the pagoda complex looks out over a vast landscape, including the surrounding mountains, fruit plantations, Phu My industrial zone, the ports and loading cranes along the river, expansive flood plains, and all the way out to the sea, near Vung Tau.
The monks that live here are very hospitable and may ask you for tea and food (vegetarian food, of course). The new temple consists of four storeys, each one with opened-sided prayer rooms offering fantastic views. The wooden carvings, bas-reliefs, murals, altars, bells and gongs that decorate the pagoda appear (at least to my untrained eye) to be of a finer quality than many of the other Buddhist places of worship I’ve visited in Vietnam.
I can quite happily spend an hour or two up here, listening to the chimes of the gong in the late afternoon as the sun begins to fall to the west, bathing the river docks in a hazy orange light, picking out the container ships on the sea off the Vung Tau coast, and lighting the eucalyptus trees on the mountainside until they look like a forests of matches that have been simultaneously ignited.
But Hang Mai is not the only sacred place on Núi Dinh Mountain. Indeed, the slopes are home to dozens of temples, pagodas and shrines. The largest complex is Thiền Tôn Phật Quang which is also still under construction. When it’s finished it will boast a colossal seated Buddha. The monks here are particularly zealous (in a friendly way) and were very keen to convert me, dressing me in robes and prostrating me in front of the altar to pray. But of all the religious sites on the mountain (which can be accessed by numerous tracks and pathways), the one I feel most attracted to is Di Đà Sơn Shrine. Accessed via a paved lane before reaching Suối Tiên, there is nothing fancy here: just a collection of sculptures under a tripod of freestanding boulders. It’s a pretty spot with a certain ‘atmosphere’, and rocky ledges on which to sit in the shade of a tree and gaze out over the landscape.
There’s no accommodation on the mountain (although if you’re lucky the monks might invite you to stay for a night at one of the pagodas), but at Suối Đá springs you can rent a tent (100,000vnd for as many people as you can fit), which is pitched on one of the wooden platforms above the water. Ask at any of the shacks on any of the levels (hồ) and they should be able to set it up for you. This is a good option for budget travellers to spend a night in the open. It also allows you to enjoy the springs in the early morning, when there’s nobody about. Otherwise, head into Ba Ria town, just a 5-minute ride up the road. Ba Ria is a clean, friendly and very likable place with a few good mini-hotels, which are perfect for a night after visiting the mountain and springs. Try Motel Le Hoa (149 Bach Dang Street), Galaxy 3 Hotel (190 Bach Dang Street), and Thanh Sang Motel (26-28 Le Thanh Duy Street), all offering simple, clean rooms for around 150,000-300,000vnd a night. If you have your own tent, it’s possible to ‘wild camp’ on the mountain, down the dirt tracks leading into the forests of eucalyptus trees. But if you decide to do this, make sure you do it discreetly and responsibly. For travellers wanting to stay by the beach, Ho Tram and Ho Coc are only a 30-45 minute ride away. Ba Ria also has lots of good, cheap street food.
From Saigon, it’s a 90-minute to 2-hour ride by motorbike to the mountain and springs. It’s not a pretty ride because it involves going through Saigon’s industrial sprawl and then along busy Highway QL51. But the roads are in good condition, and if you leave early in the morning (before 5am) or late in the evening (after 7.30pm), you’ll avoid the worst of the traffic. Take the back route out of Saigon, via the Cat Lai ferry, and continue through Nhon Trach industrial zone before turning due south onto Highway QL51. The turn off the highway for Suối Đá springs is next to Chu Hai Church, and the turn off for Suối Tiên and the Núi Dinh Mountain road (Đường Xe Lên Núi Dinh) is just a kilometre or so further along the highway. Motorbike or bicycle is by far the best and easiest way to get to the mountain and springs, but you could also jump on one of the many Saigon-Vung Tau minibuses and ask to be let off at the turn off for the springs or mountain. However, you’d still need to get from the road to the springs, which is a fair walk. Another (more expensive) option is to take a taxi from Saigon. If you’re travelling by motorbike, you can easily continue your road trip from Núi Dinh Mountain to the Ocean Road, leading all the way to Mui Ne and beyond.
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