The Ocean Road: Part 1

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A well-made road runs 150 kilometres along the southeastern ‘heel’ of Vietnam. 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 and dusty villages where ox-drawn carts full of sun-dried hay linger in the heat; I call it the Ocean Road.

The Ocean Road: skirting the deserted coastline of Vietnam's southeastern 'heel'
The Ocean Road: skirting the deserted coastline of Vietnam's southeastern 'heel'

The Ocean Road links two popular beach retreats: Vũng Tàu to the south, and Phan Thiết/Mũi Né to the north. Both are well-established among domestic and international tourists, but the road between them is hardly used. This is because most foreign tourists skip Vũng Tàu and head straight to Mũi Né on Highway 1, which cuts cross-country from Saigon and misses out the Ocean Road. Vũng Tàu, on the other hand, caters mainly to domestic tourists and expats who are looking for a short break within easy reach of Saigon, so very few continue up to Mũi Né. The Ocean Road offers a chance to see a side of Vietnam most tourists don’t see, while traveling between two towns most tourists do see. Because of the lack of regular tourist transport along the Ocean Road it’s a great opportunity for independent travel on Vietnam’s most popular mode of transportation: the motorbike. (See Travel Information for details on bike rental).

VIDEO: A montage of scenery & food along PART 1 of the Ocean Road (watch in HD quality for best viewing):

You could easily spend a week pottering up and down the Ocean Road. There are good beaches and accommodation in all price ranges, as well as other interesting sites such as fishing villages, hot springs, hill-top pagodas and old French lighthouses. Alternatively, you can use the Ocean Road as a more scenic and less congested way to drive from Saigon to Mũi Né: this route is 50km (about an hour) longer than the more direct Highway 1, but it is infinitely more rewarding and relaxing to go via the Ocean Road, especially now that the ‘back road‘ out of Saigon has been repaved. Because of its proximity to Saigon, the Ocean Road also makes a good alternative weekend break for expats living in the city who are bored with the usual short-break options of Vũng Tàu, Cần Giờ and Mũi Né. However, Vietnam’s economic boom is catching up. Soon the Ocean Road will be a continuation of the two beach towns at either end of it: the coastline is being gobbled up by the construction of massive resorts, casinos and new residential projects. Go now, while you still can.

Sunset after a storm on the Ocean Road

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THE ROAD TRIP:

Note: This is PART 1 of the Ocean Road: from Saigon through to Bình Châu Hot Springs. PART 2 of the Ocean Road will be published later, and continues the journey from Bình Châu through to Phan Thiết/Mũi Né:

I’ve written this road trip starting from Saigon. You can, of course, drive it in the opposite direction; starting from Phan Thiết/Mũi Né. Another option is to take the high-speed boat from Saigon to Vũng Tàu and start the trip there (see SECTION 1: Directions for details).

There are many places along the Ocean Road where you can break the journey, either for a couple of hours or overnight, but it is also possible to drive the whole route in a day. I’ve organized this article into 6 SECTIONS; each one represents a possible place to stop (click on a SECTION to read it):

                                            – SECTION 1: THE ‘BACK ROAD’ FROM SAIGON

                                            – SECTION 2: BÀ RỊA TOWN

                                            – SECTION 3:LONG HẢI AND LỘC AN BEACHES

                                            – SECTION 4:HỒ TRÀM BEACH

                                            – SECTION 5:HỒ CÓC BEACH

                                            – SECTION 6: BÌNH CHÂU HOT SPRINGS

Every SECTION has its own contents: The Ride gives a description of the place and the drive there; Sleep lists accommodation in the area; Eat and Drink recommends options for food; Directions gives a detailed explanation of the route; and Map shows my own annotated Google Map of the area. You can create your own itinerary based on the information in this article; where to linger and where to pass straight through.

This is a MAP of the entire Ocean Road route: from Saigon all the way to Phan Thiết/Mũi Né (for more detailed maps see each SECTION of the road trip):


View The Ocean Road in a LARGER MAP

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SECTION 1:

THE ‘BACK ROAD’ FROM SAIGON

The Ride  |  Eat and Drink  |  Sleep  |  Directions  |  Map

The Ride:     [MAP]

There are now four options for crossing the Saigon River when heading east out of the city for the coast: three bridges and a tunnel. And, now that the ‘back road’ via the Cát Lái ferry has been repaved, there’s no need to drive the long, dusty crawl on Highway 1 to Biên Hoa – an industrial satellite of Saigon that Paul Theroux, in the early 1970s, accurately described as ‘a jumble of grey roofs and chimneys’. Even the once horrible Highway 51 to Vũng Tàu on the coast has been transformed recently into a 6-lane dual carriageway. It’s never been easier to sneak out of Saigon and reach the beaches of Vietnam’s southeastern ‘heel’. (See Directions for details about the Cát Lái ferry and for information about the ferry to Vũng Tàu)

The Cát Lái Ferry: gateway to the 'Back Road' out of Saigon

The Cát Lái ferry is the real boundary of Saigon: once on the other side things can only get greener. For 10km the road passes through fields of cassava and rubber trees. In amongst the plantations there are make-shift stalls selling all sorts of tropical fruits – coconut, durian, jackfruit, water coconut – that can be eaten in hammocks strung between branches in the shade. Wild boar is for sale on the roadside – great hairy sides, hacked into hunks and chunks and hanging on hooks. The butchers are friendly but say no to any photos: illegal hunting is a big problem in Vietnam, and perhaps this is how these wild boar were acquired. Despite the sale of wild animals and tropical fruits it’s still the familiar long goodbye to the city’s sprawl; traffic, construction, trucks, scrapyards for heavy duty building machinery, container depots, and finally Nhơn Trạch industrial estate rising from the rubber plantations.

Rubber plantations near Nhơn Trạch on the 'Back Road'The ‘back road’ ends when it hits Highway 51. Once described by a friend of mine as ‘the Seventh Circle of Hell’, this road was recently widened and completely resurfaced in anticipation of the construction of a new airport for Saigon to be built in nearby Long Thanh and, of course, to ease access to the beaches along the Ocean Road! Although Highway 51 is now a smooth ride it can still get busy with trucks, and the scenery – mostly factories and flat agricultural land – isn’t particularly inspiring. However, you might want to stop for a Bánh Bao 69 (big meat and egg dumpling) along the way. (See Eat and Drink for details)

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Eat and Drink:     [MAP]

There are plenty of generic roadside eateries along the ‘back road’ and on Highway 51: look out for signs saying CƠM and PHỞ (‘rice and noodles’). The rubber plantation before Nhơn Trạch industrial estate is a nice place to stop for exotic fruit while swinging in a hammock under the trees.

Bánh Bao 69 (steamed dumplings) for sale on Highway 51About 10km after meeting Highway 51 you’ll see dozens of roadside stalls all selling Bánh Bao 69. These are big meat and egg steamed dumplings that are a popular street snack all over Vietnam. The reason for the number ‘69’ is because it is exactly 69 kilometres from here to Saigon. But why are there so many stalls concentrated at the 69 kilometre mark? Why not 71km, or 83km or 50km? The vendors themselves don’t seem to know! A friend of mine suggested the significance of 69 is that this is a lucky number in Vietnam, which seems as good an explanation as any. Bánh bao are loaded with minced meat, Chinese sausage and little quail eggs – making them a very filling snack. I enjoy them, but many foreigners find them too heavy.

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Sleep:     [MAP]

There are roadside guesthouses dotted at intervals along the ‘back road’ and Highway 51 – look for signs in Vietnamese saying ‘NHÀ NGHỈ’ (guesthouse). However, unless you have an affinity with dusty highways, I would suggest waiting at least until Bà Rịa to stop for the night.

Scenery from Highway 51: mostly flat agricultural land
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Directions:     [MAP]

The ‘Back Road’ from Saigon:

It is no longer necessary to drive the horrible stretch of Highway 1 from Saigon to Biên Hoa in order to get onto Highway 51 toward the ocean. You can now take the ‘back road’:

Wherever you are in Saigon, you’ll need to make your way to the Cát Lái ferry, which is at the end of Nguyễn Thị Định Street (or Đồng Văn Cống Street which runs parallel) in District 2. Nowadays this is relatively hassle-free thanks to the completion of big new infrastructure projects. The following MAP shows the routes to the Cát Lái Ferry; read below for details:


View Routes to the Cát Lái Ferry in a LARGER MAP

- If you’re coming from District 1: take the Thủ Thiêm Tunnel under the Saigon River which connects with the new East-West Highway in District 2. Turn right onto Nguyễn Thị Định/Đồng Văn Cống street and follow it to the ferry.

- If you’re coming from Bình Thạnh District: take the Thủ Thiêm Bridge over the Saigon River and continue straight until it connects with the East-West Highway. Turn left onto the highway and then right onto Nguyễn Thị Định/Đồng Văn Cống street and follow it to the ferry.

- If you’re coming from District 7 (Phú Mỹ Hưng): take the Phú Mỹ Bridge over the Saigon River. Turn right onto Nguyễn Thị Định/Đồng Văn Cống street and follow it to the ferry.

- If you’re coming from District 2 (An Phú): turn right off Highway 1 onto the East-West Highway. Turn left onto Nguyễn Thị Định/Đồng Văn Cống street and follow it to the ferry.

The Cát Lái Ferry can get busy during rush hoursThe Cát Lái ferry runs 24 hours a day: every few minutes from 5am to midnight, and about every half hour after that. The crossing only takes 5 minutes but it can get busy during rush hour (7-9am and 4.30-6.30pm) when the queue of vehicles stretches hundreds of metres: avoid these times. Tickets are bought at the kiosk before boarding: 4,000VNĐ ($0.20) for a bike and passenger.

After the ferry continue straight on Lý Thái Tổ Street. Stay on this road as it makes a sharp right 5km after the ferry and changes its name to Trần Văn Trà Street. At the end of this road (2km) turn left at the T-junction for Quách Thị Trang Street. Stay on Quách Thị Trang Street as it makes a sharp left at a gas station (3km). Take a sharp right on to Tôn Đức Thắng Street (1km) and follow this all the way through rubber plantations and Nhơn Trạch industrial estate until it hits Highway 51 (15km). Turn right on to the highway towards Bà Rịa and Vũng Tàu.

The Ferry to Vũng Tàu:

If you want to cut out the drive from Saigon to the coast altogether, take the hydrofoil (high-speed ferry) from Saigon to Vũng Tàu. Boats leave every half hour from the Saigon pier across from the Majestic Hotel in District 1. Tickets are 200,000VNĐ ($10) one-way; there are lots of competing companies; try Greenlines: www.greenlines.com.vn. It takes about 90 minutes for the hydrofoil to wind its way through the meandering Saigon River before crossing open sea to the pier at Vũng Tàu. From here you can rent a bike and drive along the oceanfront promenade in Vũng Tàu, before turning left at the end, and then right at the first roundabout for Highway 51. If you’re heading to Bà Rịa Town stay on Highway 51 for 20km until you hit the town. If you want to go straight to Long Hải Beach and the Ocean Road, stay on Highway 51 for 10km then turn right at the big roundabout. Turn left after the Cửa Lấp Bridge and make a right at the crossroads for Long Hải Town and Beach. (For information on hotels and things to do in Vũng Tàu I recommend Rusty Compass online guide: www.rustycompass.com)

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Map:


View SECTION 1: The ‘Back Road’ from Saigon in a LARGER MAP

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SECTION 2:

BÀ RỊA TOWN

The Ride  |  Eat and Drink  |  Sleep  |  Directions  |  Map

The Ride:     [MAP]

Street food is good in Bà Rịa!An hour on Highway 51 brings you to the town of Bà Rịa. There are no ‘attractions’ here and you certainly won’t find it on any tourist itineraries, nevertheless Bà Rịa does have its charms. There’s a grid of quiet, leafy backstreets where a few faded colonial villas still stand, and there’s lots of great street food to be found in this area too. Bà Rịa is one of my candidates for best-kept Vietnamese city: street vegetation is tidily trimmed and sidewalks are wide and clean. Perhaps this has something to do with injections of cash from the oil and gas giant, PetroVietnam, which has a big presence in this area due to offshore drilling. Bà Rịa (as with most towns along the Ocean Road) has a large Christian congregation. If you visit on a Sunday, it’s well worth stopping by the big new church on the main drag to witness evening mass, when the faithful spill from the nave into the courtyard and out onto the pavements. It’s a very communal atmosphere as well as being slightly eerie with all the statues of Christ carrying his cross dotted amongst the crowds of worshippers. Despite the nearby towns of Long Hải and Vũng Tàu being by the sea, I think I’d choose Bà Rịa over them for a night if I was running late and couldn’t reach the beaches of Hồ Tràm or Hồ Cóc before dark. You could do a lot worse than a night in Bà Rịa!

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Eat and Drink:     [MAP]

Bánh Cuốn (rice paper rolls) for breakfast on Bà Rịa backstreetsLike most Vietnamese towns there’s a lot of street food available in Bà Rịa. A particularly lively place to be in the evenings is the large square between Highway 51 and Bà Rịa central market. However, I usually choose to find my meals in the leafy grid of streets around Hai Bà Trưng, Nguyễn Du and Nguyễn Đình Chiểu streets. There’s a nice ambience here, especially in the early mornings, when good, cheap street food is served in the porches of French villas, some dating back 120 years. It’s not teeming with food, but a quick ride around the grid is all it takes to find an enticing spot. Jany Café is housed in one of the French villas. The tiled porch is a nice place for a drink in the evening (unless there’s a live band playing!).

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Sleep:     [MAP]Thanh Sang Motel on Lê Thành Duy Street, Bà Rịa

Lê Thành Duy Street, which runs parallel to Highway 51, is full of guesthouses. Look for signs saying NHÀ NGHỈ. I recommend Thanh Sang Motel (26-28 Lê Thành Duy Street): it’s clean and cheap, with Wi-Fi, air-con and TV. Prices change according to room size: 150-300,000VNĐ ($7-15). If you choose to stay in a different guesthouse use your ‘traveller’s radar’ as some of them can be rather seedy – it’s not too difficult to work out which ones to avoid!

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Directions:     [MAP]

Bà Rịa town is 40km on Highway 51 from where the ‘back road’ meets the highway. It can get busy with trucks plying to and from ports and industrial estates: lunchtime is probably quietest. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the big arches on your left which read ‘Bà Rịa’. Turn left off the highway and go under the arches. This takes you on to Cách Mạng Tháng Tám Street (‘Tám’ is also written as ‘8’ on some maps), Bà Rịa’s main drag.

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Map:


View SECTION 2: Bà Rịa Town in a LARGER MAP

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SECTION 3:

LONG HẢI AND LỘC AN BEACHES

The Ride  |  Eat and Drink  |  Sleep  |  Directions  |  Map

The Ride:     [MAP]

Bà Rịa is the last stop on Highway 51 before the turn-off for either Lộc An or Long Hải, which are both on the beach (see Directions for details). Whichever route you choose, things become mercifully more rural: acres of green rice fields on the way to Lộc An, or acres of white salt flats and shrimp farms if going to Long Hải.

The road from Bà Rịa to Lộc An cuts through luminous rice fieldsLong Hải is a rather scruffy, dusty fishing town that, despite being Saigon’s closest sand beach by road, has none of the sophistication of Vũng Tàu and none of the desolate tranquility of Hồ Tràm and Hồ Cóc. There are two beaches: a municipal one to the west, and a private one to the east where the smarter resorts are located. On the peninsular dividing these two beaches is Mộ Cô (Madam’s Tomb), a temple complex which is a nice place for a drink with a view. Apparently, ‘Madam’ was a young woman travelling by sea 200 years ago from Phan Rang (about 300km to the north) when she was shipwrecked and drowned. She is still worshipped in Long Hải today.

Long Hải Municipal (west) Beach
In town, a handful of crumbling colonial villas still offer a glimpse of how good the French must have had it here. There’s a colourful morning fish and food market by the municipal (west) beach, and plenty of cheap accommodation and eating options here too. To get the most out of Long Hải, stay in one of the more expensive resorts on the private (east) beach and stray into town at mealtimes to sample the local street food. But, other than being a convenient night stop if you’re running late, there’s not much reason to stay here. Having said that, Long Hải’s future is (supposedly) bright: Land is being cleared for plush resorts and sea-view apartments, and a whole new grid of streets has been laid-out for the town’s expansion. But all that seems a long way off for the time being.

Frangipani flowers in bloom on the Ocean RoadJust after passing the last of the resorts in Long Hải the road meets the sea and rounds a small cape: this is where the Ocean Road really starts. A salty breeze, mysterious perfumes of unseen flowers, fresh air, space, peace and quiet, and the scent of eucalyptus – this is what the Ocean Road is all about for me! Along the roadside you’ll see red and white Hibiscus hedges, purple Trumpet Blossoms, yellow Oleander, pink and white Frangipani flowers, and bright red Flame Trees – typical flora along the Ocean Road. (The spring months from March to May are best for flowers in this area).

 

Minh Đạm Resistance Base is at the top this forested mountainHalfway between Long Hải and the non-descript fishing village of Phước Hải is Minh Đạm Resistance Base. From the 1930s until the end of the war in 1975 the base was used to fight first the French and later the U.S and South Vietnamese government troops. Minh Đạm is located at the top of a densely wooded hill. There’s not much to see, but it’s a nice road up with views over the ocean, and good walks through the jungle which give an idea of the kind of terrain that the Việt Minh fought and lived in for so long. Around the turn-off for Minh Đạm Base there’s a couple of mid to high-end resorts on the Ocean Road which offer a decent alternative to staying in Long Hải.

Beaches near Long Hải and Lộc An are fine, but not the best!After the dust and fishy aroma of Phước Hải village the road heads inland for a few kilometres until the small settlement of Lộc An. It’s a quiet place with a large fishing harbour (to get to the harbour look for the signpost ‘Cảng Cá’ on the right after passing through town, just before going over a small bridge). There’s one resort on the beach, a few cheap guesthouses and a large, well-known seafood restaurant called Phương Trang. Lộc An is nice enough and the beach is fine, but it’s not really worth staying the night. A much better idea is to time it right for a lunch-stop at the restaurant and then continue on the Ocean Road with a full stomach. However, as with Long Hải and Bà Rịa, it’s convenient for a night if you’ve left it too late to get to Hồ Tràm or Hồ Cóc. There’s an alternative road to Lộc An from Bà Rịa which I mentioned earlier. This road skips Long Hải and cuts through a lovely piece of flat farmland (see Directions for details).

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Eat and Drink:     [MAP]

Long Hải

Typical street food lunch in Long Hải for $1!I’m yet to find any stand-out food in Long Hải, but I’m sure better food is available here than what I have sampled. The night food market by the municipal (west) beach has lots of stalls selling all sorts of snacks from grilled, tender baby octopus to various kinds of sea snails. A little further down the beach from the night market there’s a string of seafood restaurants. I imagine the produce is very fresh, but my meals here have been average. Bánh Khọt is a famous dish from this area. Small rice-flour pancakes with a shrimp in the middle are grilled in oil until crispy. These are then wrapped in a mustard leaf with herbs and pickles, and dipped in fish sauce. It’s all eaten with your fingers: very crisp, fresh, and full of texture and flavour. Pretty good bánh khọt can be found at 1 Khu Phố Hải Trung and shouldn’t cost more than 30,000VNĐ ($1.50). You could also try the high-end resorts for more expensive seafood meals. For breakfast, I usually head back into town to make the most of soup vendors who are everywhere in the early mornings.

Phương Trang Seafood Restaurant ( not an advertisement for Tiger Beer!!)Lộc An

In Lộc An the Phương Trang Restaurant is the place to eat for lunch or dinner. Keep a look-out for the sign on the right side (beach side) of the road that appears to be an advertisement for Tiger Beer, but is actually the restaurant! Seafood is a little pricey but usually worth it: crab, shrimp, fish and snails are all on the menu here. Lộc An Resort also has very good food, and a more intimate dinning area than Phương Trang. For cheaper snacks you’ll find a few Cơm and Phở (‘rice and noodles’) places dotted around.

 

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Sleep:     [MAP]

Long HảiNhà Nghỉ (guesthouse) in Long Hải - generally cheap and clean

Budget:

Budget accommodation in the form of guesthouses (nhà nghỉ) can be found just back from the municipal (west) beach in Long Hải. There are dozens to choose from, all of them offering similarly clean rooms with T.V, Wi-Fi and hot water for 200-300,000VNĐ ($10-15). As no one guesthouse stands out from the others, I’ve simply marked the area on the map. Smarter rooms are available at The Palace Resort just before you get to the municipal beach. They have a good pool by the ocean (non-guests can pay 40,000VNĐ [$2] for access). Double occupancy is 900,000VNĐ ($45).

 

Mid-range to High-end:

Anoasis Beach Resort - former seaside residence of the Vietnam's last emperor!The best (and most expensive) accommodation in Long Hải is on the private (east) beach. Anoasis Beach Resort (www.anoasisresort.com.vn) is easily the pick of places to stay. Housed in the former summer residence of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bảo Đại, this is a stylish resort with a boutique ambience that makes it feel more intimate and cosy than other high-end beach retreats. Décor is tasteful, and there’s a good pool and spa. The resort is on a sandy mound that looks over the beach and ocean. Deals are sometimes available on their website for $100 a night. If you can afford it, a couple nights here is the best way to get the most out of Long Hải. Alternatively, you can spend $80 a night at the next door Long Hải Beach Resort (www.longhaibeachresort.com). This place looks promising but doesn’t live up to expectations once inside. The pool is big, and the bungalow rooms are nice, but prices are too high for the general standard, especially with Anoasis next door.

A couple of kilometres out of Long Hải along the Ocean Road is Thùy Dương Beach Resort (www.thuyduongresort.com.vn). This is a sprawling mid-range option with a wide variety of rooms from $35-80. Thùy Dương spans a good stretch of beach and there’s a big pool, tennis courts and lots of greenery and shade. Rooms are fine, but sparsely furnished. It gets busy with domestic tour groups on weekends and holidays, but during the week it’s empty. Not a bad place for a day at the beach.

A little further along from Thùy Dương is Tropicana Beach Resort (www.tropicanabeachresort.com). Located opposite the turn-off for Minh Đạm Resistance Base, this is a large, modern resort with sturdy, well-furnished rooms with sea views. At $50-100 a night the cheaper rooms are good value. Facilities are better than Thùy Dương but it’s not as well-landscaped. Agoda often has good rates for this resort.

Lộc An

The small settlement of Lộc An has a few places to stay. Lộc An Resort (www.locanresort.com) is the ‘smartest’ place in town. It’s well-run, clean and serves very good local food. There’s a free canoe-service that shuttles guests over the shallow inlet to the sandbar where Lộc An beach is. The resort maintains a bar and some thatched huts on the sand where you can spend the day enjoying the beach. Lộc An Resort is the most comfortable place in townRooms are from $30-50. Next door, Lộc An Xanh (www.locanxanh.com) is a similar establishment on a smaller scale, which also runs a row-boat over to the beach. Prices are $25-35. For a cheaper room try Thanh Thanh Phong Hotel ($10-15; tel: 064 365 189) located on the other side of the road directly opposite Lộc An Resort. The owner here is very friendly and always finds something about your physical appearance to compliment – even when you’re covered in dirt and pollution from the ride over! There’s no access to the beach here, but the spotless rooms are a good option if you’re running late and want a bed for a night before continuing on the Ocean Road the next day.

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Directions:     [MAP]

Long Hải Municipal (west) BeachFrom Bà Rịa to Long Hải it’s 15km on Road 44A. At the Bà Rịa roundabout on Highway 51 go straight over (don’t bear right as this will keep you on Highway 51 until Vũng Tàu) which will take you onto Trường Chính Street. At the next roundabout (2km) bear right onto Road 44A (signposted for Long Hải). When the road splits (7km) bear right for Long Hải town and the municipal (west) beach, or continue straight to go directly to the private (east) beach, where the smart resorts are.

From Long Hải to Lộc An (15km) follow the road past Long Hải Beach Resort and round a small cape: this is the beginning of the Ocean Road. After passing through Phước Hải village (8km) take a right turn signposted for Lộc An, which is just 5km away.

The direct route from Bà Rịa to Lộc An (which misses out Long Hải altogether) is 20km. Follow the above directions until the second roundabout. Instead of bearing right onto Road 44A for Long Hải, go straight over and continue on this road for 3km. Turn right at the traffic lights where there is a green advertisement for Hồ Tràm Resort (the turn is signposted for Lộc An but can be obscured by foliage). This is Road 44B which runs for 10km through farmland until a T-junction with Road 44A. Turn right at the T-junction and take the next left, which is signposted for Lộc An and has another green advertisement for Hồ Tràm Resort. This is the Ocean Road: continue for 5km to Lộc An.

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Map:


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SECTION 4:

HỒ TRÀM BEACH

The Ride  |  Eat and Drink  |  Sleep  |  Directions  |  Map

The Ride:     [MAP]

Hồ Tràm BeachThe Ocean Road is in particularly good shape after Lộc An: winding through mangrove forests and over muddy rivers. With the exception of weekends, there’s rarely any traffic on the road here – save for the odd refrigerated truck hauling the night’s catch from the beaches to seafood restaurants in Saigon. When the road exits the mangrove forest it crosses the River Ray. As the river empties into the East (South China) Sea it creates a long, narrow sandbar that’s studded with accommodation. The sandbar is in a fabulous position with the sea breaking on one side and the river lapping the other, but so far its development has been disappointing. At the moment it’s in quite a sad state: the construction of a gigantic resort is in progress, but other projects have stalled and remain half-built, while some of the existing accommodation is in disrepair. The River Ray Estates, however, is a decent option. It has riverside and seaside accommodation, the latter comprises of large villas complete with kitchen, sauna and garden, which are especially good value if you have a large group of friends. (See Sleep for details).

Watermelons for sale; freshly harvested from the fields behindContinuing due East on the Ocean Road you pass acres of watermelon plantations on the left. Shady shacks made of bamboo and dried palm leaves set up on the roadside to collect the huge fruit and sell them to passing traffic. A big 2 kilo watermelon goes for around 10,000VNĐ ($0.50) – they’re juicy and delicious! On the right-hand side there’s a hundred metres or so of undeveloped land between the tarmac and the sea. This windswept, desolate stretch of Casuarina-lined beach runs for over 10km and is prime real estate. A few years back when I first started driving the Ocean Road I inquired locally about the price of land here. I was told that the entire coast had already been sold – they’re just waiting for the right time to build. At the moment there are only a handful of places to stay (and very nice they are too!), but there are massive plans for this area – most of the land has already been fenced off for construction.

Hồ Tràm Beach: prime real estate!This area is known as Hồ Tràm. While Vũng Tàu and Long Hải might be the nearest sand beaches to Saigon, Hồ Tràm is the nearest good beach! Improved roads mean it’s now only 2-3 hours from Saigon, and with the city’s growing middle class wanting an alternative weekend beach getaway to Mũi Né (which is a painful 4-6 hour drive) Hồ Tràm looks set to provide it. However, for the time being the first (and best) accommodation in this area is Hồ Tràm Resort – a peaceful, tasteful and restrained oasis which makes for a very relaxing couple of nights by the beach. A few kilometres beyond Hồ Tràm Resort is Sanctuary, a new complex of extremely modern and fancy villas – a taste of things to come perhaps?

'Labourer's Lunch' at Hồ Tràm fishing hamletDespite these high-end developments it’s still possible to enjoy Hồ Tràm on a budget. Where Sanctuary ends there’s a crossroads which is surrounded by a scruffy assortment of restaurants, cafes and one or two guesthouses. This is Hồ Tràm fishing hamlet. Until recently it was a dusty, slightly rough place, but in the last couple of years its population has quadrupled (at least at mealtimes) thanks to the enormous workforce employed by the nearby MGM Grand Casino project. The labourers need cheap places to eat, drink and relax, and Hồ Tràm hamlet offers just that. There’s a wonderful, informal, cheap and delicious seafood market/restaurant here, where you choose your live seafood from dozens of big metallic buckets. The guesthouses (nhà nghỉ) offer decent budget accommodation for around $10 a night. A good way to enjoy Hồ Tràm on a budget is by staying the night at one of the guesthouses, paying the fee to use the lovely pools and beach at Hồ Tràm Resort during the daytime, and feasting on cheap seafood in Hồ Tràm hamlet in the evenings.

The beach at Hồ Tràm fishing hamletIf you turn left at the crossroads at Hồ Tràm hamlet this will take you to a small town called Phước Bửu (also known as Xuyên Mộc and Bà Tơ). There are a couple of guesthouses here and a great ‘food street’ that’s jammed with cheap eating options. It’s not on the beach and there are no sights here: I only mention Phước Bửu because it’s another place for cheap food and accommodation if you’re on a budget – when I’m strapped for cash I spend the day on the beach and then drive the 9km to town to spend the night cheaply.

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Eat and Drink:     [MAP]

Fresh, simple and delicious seafood at Thanh Thanh RestaurantBudget

The best places to eat in this area are the local seafood eateries around Hồ Tràm hamlet. Thanh Thanh Restaurant is the last place on your left before the beach if you turn right at the Hồ Tràm crossroads. It’s a weather-beaten, rough-looking place with plastic chairs. The menu is only in Vietnamese but there are pictures to guide you. Anything that swims is available. Try the crab in tamarind sauce (cua rang me) and steamed squid with ginger (mực hấp hành gừng).

Choose your seafood from dozens of metal and plastic bowls and buckets!Just a couple of doors before Thanh Thanh Restaurant is one of my favourite places for seafood in Vietnam. It’s more of a live seafood market than a restaurant: there’s no menu just dozens of bowls with sea creatures swimming in them. You can point at what you’d like to eat and someone will cook it up for you while you find a seat by the road-side and order a beer from one of the local kiosks. The food arrives in polystyrene boxes with lime, chilli and salt to mix together as a dip, and toothpicks as eating utensils. My oysters grilled with spring onion and Shellfish steamed with ginger and dipped in chilli, salt and lime: simple and delicious!peanuts (hào nướng mỡ hành) were the best I’ve ever tasted, as was the grilled squid with chilli and salt (mực nướng muối ớt). If you don’t speak any Vietnamese it may be difficult to communicate how much you want and how you want it cooked (steamed with ginger, fried with garlic etc). It’s a good idea to look at other diners and just point at what they’ve got – it’s all delicious anyway and it’s so cheap that you can afford to make mistakes! (If you want to make more of an effort to order your seafood exactly how you want it, check out the menu decoder in my article on eating shellfish and sea snails).

If you’re on a tight budget (or if you just want a change of scenery from your resort restaurant) the ‘food street’ in Phước Bửu has a great variety of classic Vietnamese street food to choose from; all of it for under 30,000VND ($1.50)

The seafood market/restaurant in Hồ Tràm hamlet: it might not look good but it is!

High-end

Food is available at all the resorts in the Hồ Tràm area: Hồ Tràm Resort serves decent Western and Asian meals, as does the fancy restaurant at Sanctuary. The beach bar at Hồ Tràm Resort is great for an evening cocktail and a dessert, even if you’re not staying at the resort.

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Sleep:     [MAP]

Budget

Leafy: Hoa Lan Hotel in Hồ Tràm hamletFor budget accommodation there are a few options but none of them are on the beach. The closest one to the ocean is Hoa Lan Hotel in Hồ Tràm hamlet. The name translates as ‘orchid’ and the hotel lives up to its name with a colourful garden café filled with flowers. Rooms are bare but clean. 300,000VND ($15) for a double is probably $5 more than it should be, but it’s right next door to the seafood market/restaurant, and conveniently located between Hồ Tràm Resort and the resorts at Hồ Cóc if you want to pay the fee to use their beach and pools for the day. Hồ Tràm municipal beach is a short walk away: good for a stroll; not too good for a swim.

T&T Mini Hotel: cheap!Turn left at the Hồ Tràm crossroads for T&T Mini Hotel (064 3782345) – about 100 metres on the right, next to the gas station. This is a standard Vietnamese guesthouse (nhà nghỉ) with clean rooms and Wi-Fi for 200-300,000VND ($10-15) a night. It’s fine if you just need somewhere cheap to sleep after a day at the beach. The same can be said for the couple of guesthouses in Phước Bửu town, which are located near the big crossroads with ‘food street. Look for the signs saying ‘NHÀ NGHỈ’.

The only mid-range accommodation is Giớ Biển Resort, but I wouldn’t recommend this as prices are too high and service is a little moody. However, old resorts often get make-overs, so it might be worth popping in to see if it’s been refurbished.

River Ray Estates: Beach-front VillaHigh-end

The River Ray sandbar is a superb location. A smart new resort (called Vietsovpetro) at the turn off for the sandbar will be opening sometime soon. For now, The River Ray Estates (www.riverrayestates.com) offers a good range of accommodation from wooden chalets atop a sand dune looking down on the river and mangrove forest, to large beachfront villas complete with kitchen, sauna, and fully furnished bedrooms and living room. There’s a nice pool at the ‘clubhouse’ (reception). Camping is also available on the beach with access to showers and toilets. Prices vary depending on how many guests are staying and whether you’re renting the whole house of just a room. See the tariff chart on their website for details. The beachfront villas may sound expensive, but when shared between up to 10 people it works out at a reasonable per person price – great for a party on a special occasion!

The salt water pool at Hồ Tràm ResortHồ Tràm Resort (www.hotramresort.com) is located right on the Ocean Road, just a few kilometres before the Hồ Tràm crossroads. It’s beautifully landscaped with fruit trees and tropical flowers. Most of the rooms are in thatched bungalows furnished with wood and have outside bathrooms with banana plants growing in them. An excellent buffet breakfast is included in the room price. The beach here is fine-grain white sand, but if the water’s too rough there are two pools to choose from – the salt-water infinity pool is gorgeous. This is a good value, well-kept, well-run, peaceful resort that blends into its physical surrounds rather than intruding on them: I hope other resorts planned for the area will follow this example. Prices hover around $100-130 for standard bungalows (try Agoda for these rates), but you can pay a lot more for one of the sumptuous suites. (Outside guests can pay 430,000VNĐ ($20) to use the resort’s facilities for a day – well worth it if you’re staying in a cheap guesthouse that’s not on the beach!)

Sanctuary Villas: posh!Sanctuary (www.sanctuary.com.vn) is a complex of modern villas just before the Hồ Tràm crossroads. The villas are fully equipped and can sleep up to 10 people, which makes Sanctuary a good place for families or a large group of friends looking for a luxurious couple of nights by the beach. Villas have private pools and verdant gardens. Furniture and general design is of the kind you see in glossy magazines advertising high-end condos – lots of right-angles, white surfaces and stainless steel in the kitchen. As you’d expect, prices are extremely high, but when you’re sharing the cost between a group it’s not all that bad: $550-1000 a night, including breakfast (Agoda seems to have better rates than the Sanctuary website). I quite like Sanctuary, but unless you get a seafront villa (the most expensive kind) there’s no hint of being by the beach – you may as well have rented a luxury apartment in Saigon for the night!

For the MGM Grand Ho Tram Resort and Casino see Hồ Cóc Beach SECTION: Accommodation

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Directions:     [MAP]

From Lộc An continue straight through town on the Ocean Road. After crossing the bridge over the River Ray (5km) there’s a T-junction: turn right for the River Ray Sandbar; or bear left to stay on the Ocean Road until Hồ Tràm crossroads (7km).

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SECTION 5:

HỒ CÓC BEACH

The Ride  |  Eat and Drink  |  Sleep  |  Directions  |  Map

The Ride:     [MAP]

From Hồ Tràm hamlet the Ocean Road climbs over a huge bank of sand with views over Hồ Cóc beach sweeping into the distance; sandwiched between Phước Bửu rain forest and the sea. There’s something wild and desolate about this area: ripping winds often whip up the sand as you drive by – the flying grains feel like thousands of pins hitting your bare legs. As recently as the 1990s the forests here were inhabited by big wild animals such as elephants and tigers, but today most of them have either been killed or ‘rescued’ and taken to other countries. There’s still something enchanting and wild about this forest: its dense canopy barely allows shafts of sunlight to reach the forest floor, and the intricate web of twisted roots, trunks and epiphytes echo with bird song and monkey calls.

The forests and beaches around Hồ Cóc have a desolate beautyThe natural beauty of this area has, unsurprisingly, caught the eye of investors, and today Hồ Cóc’s star is on the rise. A few kilometres before Hồ Cóc beach is the enormous MGM Grand Casino project. Four years ago I remember seeing the entire sandy cape being fenced off with signs and artist’s impressions of the new hotel, shopping and gambling complex to be built on the site. Sure enough, in January of 2013 the first phase of the MGM Grand is due to open. Promotions are available for the first few months (see Sleep for details). While the building is certainly not sympathetic to its natural surrounds – a 20 storey lump of concrete on the beach – it does promise to be extravagant and luxurious – a friend of mine who works there mentioned a ‘Kung Fu Tea Ceremony’ which involves acrobatics with cups of tea!MGM Grand Casino & Resort is set to transform the area

The hope is to turn the whole strip of coast into a luxury gambling destination to rival Macau. MGM’s more than $4 billion project is just the beginning: already other foundations are being laid. The great irony is that gambling is illegal in Vietnam where it is labeled a ‘social evil’. However, following the example of Singapore, the Vietnamese government has recognized that the prospect of millions of repressed and increasingly wealthy gamblers from China (where gambling is also illegal) coming to Vietnam to lose their money is too good an opportunity to miss. Once Saigon’s new airport at Long Thanh is completed (which won’t be for a while) access to Hồ Tràm and Hồ Cóc will be even easier: pop on a plane from Shanghai or Beijing in the freezing winter months, and a few hours later you’re gambling in the tropical sun on a Vietnamese beach. Good news for gamblers and perhaps the Vietnamese economy, but I’ll miss the tranquility and seductive desolation of Hồ Cóc as it is today.

Empty: Hồ Cóc Beach as it is today - before the advent of mass tourismUnlike most of the other destinations along the Ocean Road, Hồ Cóc is only a beach – there’s no town or village by the same name. The closest Hồ Cóc gets to a settlement is at the crossroads where the Vên Vên Hotel is. To get there just continue for 5 minutes after passing the MGM Grand. Hồ Cóc crossroads is a leafy, shady and cool spot where (for the time being) all the overnight options are located. The beach is long (kilometres long!) and sandy. Although lined with Casuarina and Palm trees for most of its length it can feel very exposed during the hottest hours of the day and can also get quite rough. Water quality varies dramatically from month to month. I’ve seen everything from rich, deep-blue calm waters, to dark, Storms in the rainy season can change the water qualityfoamy waves, the water viscous from the build-up of seaweed and trash. I wish I could offer advice about the best time to visit, but I’m yet to notice any consistent pattern. In the rainy season (from late April to October) things can get really bad after storms when the runoff from the rains swells the rivers with dirty water which then flows into the sea. Also, Hồ Cóc is very popular with domestic tourists, especially on public holidays. Unfortunately, many of these visitors neglect to take their rubbish away with them, leaving an ugly trail of litter which, sadly, has scarred some of the best spots along this beach. Avoid holidays (and weekends, if possible). On weekdays you’ll have the beach to yourself.

The salt water pool at Saigon-Hồ Cóc ResortFortunately, even if the sea isn’t looking inviting, there are three good swimming pools to choose from that belong to the resorts along the seafront. If you’re not staying at one of them just pay the $5 fee to enjoy their facilities (see Sleep for details). My favourite is the salt water pool at Saigon-Hồ Cóc Resort.

One of the nice things about Hồ Cóc is that it is still, to some extent, a local beach. During the short, cool twilight hours on weekdays, you’ll see local people scouring the sands and digging shallow holes looking for edible sea snails and tiny shrimp-like crustaceans for their dinner!

If you turn left at the Hồ Cóc crossroads there’s a lovely, quiet road through the rain forest. Park your bike along the way and stop for a stroll under the canopy – just remember to bring bug-spray!

The scenic, quiet road through Phước Bửu Forest

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Eat and Drink:     [MAP]

Food at Vên Vên Hotel is very good!The best place to eat at Hồ Cóc is the restaurant at the Vên Vên Hotel. Although the hotel has had a recent makeover (a bad one in my opinion) the restaurant hasn’t changed a bit: food is still fresh and delicious; served outside on the patio in the shade of giant tropical trees, or inside on a tiled floor with wooden furniture. As with all food and accommodation in this area, prices have gone up over the last couple of years, but the quality of food justifies the expense: 300-400,000VNĐ ($15-20) for a meal for two. Even the ubiquitous The restaurant at Vên Vên Hoteltrà đá (iced tea) is better here than anywhere else. My favourite order is: lẩu cá măng chua (sour fish hotpot with young bamboo), gỏi ngó sen tôm thịt (lotus shoot salad with shrimp and pork) and cải xanh hấp gừng (steamed mustard leaf with ginger)…..oh and the sautéed shrimp in tamarind is good too!

All resorts in Hồ Cóc have restaurants serving good seafood. Hương Phong Resort’s restaurant is nicely located on the beach, and has a wide selection of Vietnamese dishes. This is the closest you get to a ‘budget’ option in Hồ Cóc.

Saigon-Hồ Cóc Resort has huge dining halls where you can order live seafood of all kinds, as well as crocodile and ostrich, both of which are farmed on the resort’s land! The food is fine, but it’s fairly expensive here.

When the MGM Grand opens in January 2013 they’ll be plenty of dining options but it’s bound to be pricey. Their website lists half a dozen restaurants, bars and cafes that will be on the premises.

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Sleep:     [MAP]

On weekdays you’ll have the whole of Hồ Cóc and its resorts to yourself; on weekends and holidays you’ll be sharing it with crowds of domestic tour groups: I know which I prefer!

Budget and Mid-range

Bungalows at Hương Phong ResortThe only way to stay at Hồ Cóc on a budget is by camping in the grounds of Hương Phong Resort (www.huongphonghococresort.com). They’ll charge a dollar or two which will include access to showers, toilets, the beach and – if you persist – use of the pool. The main accommodation at Hương Phong is in the new bungalows. These are pleasant and clean but lacking any real character. On weekdays it’s around $30 for a double – pretty good value; on weekends it can be as much as $50 – way too expensive for this kind of mid-range accommodation. Outside guests can pay 80,000VNĐ ($4) to use the pool, but you’re better off paying a dollar more to use the nicer pools at Saigon-Hồ Cóc Resort next door. Sadly, nowadays you sometimes have to pay $1-2 just to access the beach here. However, they’ve spent a lot of time cleaning it up over the last year and it now looks very inviting.

The new rooms at Vên Vên HotelVên Vên Hotel (www.venvenhotel.com) is on the wrong side of the road for the beach, but what it lacks in location it more than makes up for in charm and ambience. There’s a distinctive ‘Zen’ feel to the gardens and restaurant here. Set under towering trees on the edge of Phước Bửu Forest the hotel had a major facelift last year. What used to be wooden chalets (with lots of character despite the smell of damp) are now smart, concrete rooms equipped with LCD TVs and air-con. These rooms are fine but clash slightly with the whole ‘nature and harmony’ vibe of the rest of Vên The last remaining wooden house at Vên Vên HotelVên. However, there is still one wooden chalet standing which has four rooms in it; so you can choose between a modern and clean room or a wooden and charming one. Another consequence of this hotel’s refurbishment is a price hike: 700,000VNĐ ($35) for a double is too high in my opinion – especially considering it’s not on the beach, doesn’t include breakfast, and has no pool (the latter is something the owners might think about building in the future). Access the beach by walking two minutes over the road to Hương Phong Resort, or pay to use the pools at Saigon-Hồ Cóc Resort.

High-end

Phú Gia Wooden House at Saigon-Hồ Cóc ResortThe Saigon-Hồ Cóc Resort (www.saigonbinhchauecoresort.com)is also known as Hồ Cóc Beach Resort, or Hồ Cóc Village Resort. It certainly lives up to the latter of these names: sprawling along 2km of beach with half a dozen types of accommodation to choose from. Most of this resort is sensitive to its environment: natural pools have been incorporated into the resort’s landscape rather than filled with concrete; accommodation is in single storey villas made of wood, bamboo, tile and stone. The wooden chalets (Phú Gía Wooden House) on the beachfront are the best pick for atmosphere and comfort. There are two good pools here: the salt water pool is particularly nice. Outside guests can pay 120,000VNĐ ($6) for access – this is a good option for anyone staying at the Vên Vên Hotel which lacks a pool or beach. Try to come on a weekday when this massive resort is almost completely deserted; on weekends it’s very popular. Prices are much too high, especially on weekends and holidays. The more people you have the better the value as some of the villas can sleep up to 10 guests. On weekdays it’s worth bargaining for a significantly lower price. The cheapest rooms are in bamboo huts (Phú Lộc House), but even these are 900,000VNĐ ($45). Check Agoda and the resort website for occasional deals.

The MGM Grand - the future of Hồ TràmMGM Grand Ho Tram (www.mgmgrandhotrambeach.com) will open in mid-January 2013. There’s quite a buzz about it in the Vietnamese and international media. Owned by Nevada-based MGM Resorts International, it promises to be lavish and luxurious. Rooms have floor to ceiling windows, and balconies looking over the East (South China) Sea. There are pools, spas and even a Greg Norman-designed golf course on the surrounding sand dunes (to be completed by late 2013). For the first 6 months of opening (until June 29th 2013) there are promotions (see website) which make a night or two here quite affordable at around $150 including breakfast. One downside to staying here might be that because the MGM Grand complex is so big it’s being constructed in phases – this is only the first phase – so much of the surrounding land is still a building site, which can make it unattractive and noisy. Watch this VIDEO to get an idea of the scale of development:

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Directions:     [MAP]

From the Hồ Tràm crossroads continue straight over and follow the road as it goes up a sand dune. The MGM Grand is on the right after 2km. Hồ Cóc crossroads is another 3km.

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SECTION 6:

BÌNH CHÂU HOT SPRINGS

The Ride  |  Eat and Drink  |  Sleep  |  Directions  |  Map

The Ride:     [MAP]

The Ocean Road between Hồ Cóc and Bình Châu VillageThe 10km stretch from Hồ Cóc to the village of Bình Châu is very scenic: the road skirts the coastline, passing deserted sandy beaches where waves break just metres from the tarmac. Inland, giant sand dunes peppered with big boulders and dusted with dry, weather-twisted foliage make for a wild, prehistoric backdrop to the ocean. There’s very little development here (although there are big plans for the future). For now, you can pick a spot for a swim and have it all to yourself. But beware; although not touristy these are still working beaches – fishermen tend to leave nasty surprises in the sand, such as sharp fishing equipment and glass bottles: watch your step!

Before reaching Bình Châu village there’s a particularly beguiling spot where a small bridge crosses a large lagoon. Sheltered from the sea by a sandbar lined with trees, the lagoon is ringed by Jurassic-looking mangrove and forest. On the surface of the deep, dark water float hundreds of water lilies. It looks like a Louisiana swamp.

Scenic spot: lagoon with water lilies and mangrove forest

Sandy, fishy Bình Châu village is only worth stopping at for a food break. There’s a market at the central crossroads where a few stalls sell good roast pork baguettes – the pigs rotate on spits by the roadside. One or two guesthouses (nhà nghỉ) offer cheap rooms if you’re stuck here for the night. Generally though, once I’ve filled up with street-food I continue straight on through the desert-like landscape until the junction with Highway 55, a few kilometres after Bình Châu village.

Vietnamese kitsch at Bình Châu Hot Springs!Bình Châu also gives its name to the nearby hot springs. Despite sounding rural and romantic, Bình Châu Hot Springs is Vietnamese kitsch, and there’s something of a fairground atmosphere about it on weekends and holidays. But during the week it’s usually quiet (although it’s increasingly popular with Russian tourists) and makes for a pleasant, relaxing stop. Owing to its growing popularity prices have doubled and even tripled over the last couple of years – going from reasonable to rip-off in a short space of time (see website for details).

The springs are set in the familiar dry, savannah-type landscape of the area. The complex is huge and sprawling which takes away slightly from the rural location. The springs might be natural but the baths, swimming pools and channels that they feed are certainly not: The pool area is dotted with cartoonish sculptures of elephants and penguins, and a fake rock formation forms the backdrop. However, the water is soft, soothing and very hot indeed! A hot bath in a hot climate seems like an odd idea, but – just like spicy food on a hot day – it works!

Bình Châu Hot Springs: very relaxing!There are many other relaxing activities at the hot springs including massages, spa treatments and mud baths. The latter is good fun, but some visitors might be disappointed as the ‘mud bath’ is not actually a ‘bath in mud’. Rather, you have your own private hut raised on stilts above the swamp (from which the mud and hot springs come) and are given a separate ‘bag’ of mud to spread over your body. After leaving the mud to dry on your skin for a while you run a bath full of hot spring water and wash it all away.

Mud bath at Bình Châu Hot SpringsFor me, Bình Châu Hot Springs is a place that I pop into for a quick bath while on the way to or from somewhere else on the Ocean Road. But if you do want to spend more time here there’s resort-style accommodation inside the hot spring complex, and outside there are a couple of cheaper overnight options in guesthouses (nhà nghỉ). As elsewhere, there’s an enormous resort under construction that’s set to outdo the present one in kitschness and adorable bad taste. However, it’s a long way from completion – only the giant dragon-studded arch flanked by two colossal statues of Mickey and Mini Mouse has been constructed so far! There’s also a more direct route to the hot springs via Highway 55 from Bà Rịa, which runs inland from the Ocean Road (see Directions for details).

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Street food in Bình Châu VillageEat and Drink:     [MAP]

Bình Châu village has some good street food around the central crossroads and market. I like the roast pork baguettes that are sold at the entrance to the market: the pigs rotate on spits by the roadside. At Bình Châu Hot Springs there’s a cluster of cheap eateries by the car-park, or you can dine in the big restaurant that belongs to Saigon-Bình Châu Resort (see Sleep for resort details).

 

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Sleep:     [MAP]

Towering trees - the biggest strength of Saigon-Bình Châu Resort! One or two guesthouses (nhà nghỉ) can be found on the Ocean Road as it passes through Bình Châu village. Look for the signs saying ‘Nhà Nghỉ’ (‘guesthouse’).

Saigon-Bình Châu Resort (www.saigonbinhchauecoresort.com) is under the same management as Saigon-Hồ Cóc Resort. Similarly big and sprawling this resort caters mainly to large groups of domestic tourists, who come to enjoy a ‘spa package’ of a night at the hot springs followed by a night at Hồ Cóc beach (see website for promotions). Accommodation is clean and well-equipped but without much charm or style. The cheapest rooms are around $45, but you can pay up to $300 for a 4-person villa. It’s a leafy complex set among towering trees, and room rates include access to the hot springs and breakfast. However, I don’t warm much to the accommodation here: it’s managed by Saigon Tourist – a state-owned company whose motto should be ‘Mid-range Standards at High-end Prices!’   

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Directions:     [MAP]

Junction with Highway 55: Left for the hot springs; right to continue on the Ocean RoadFrom Hồ Cóc beach to Bình Châu Hot Springs it’s 18km: At the Hồ Cóc crossroads continue straight ahead on the Ocean Road. At Bình Châu village (12km) continue straight over at the crossroads. After 3km the road meets a T-junction. Turn left and immediately right at the gas station and follow the road to the entrance of the hot springs (3km). If you want to miss out the hot springs turn right at the T-junction mentioned above. The turn is signposted for Phan Thiết. This road will take you to Lagi fishing town (30km) which is where PART 2 of the Ocean Road begins.

There’s a direct route from Bà Rịa Town to Bình Châu Hot Springs, which skips the Ocean Road altogether: Take Highway 55 from Bà Rịa which runs inland for 50km until the hot springs.

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Map:


View SECTION 6: Bình Châu Hot Springs in a LARGER MAP

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TRAVEL INFORMATION:

Gas   |   Bike Rental   |   Weather

Gas:

Gas: always available on the Ocean RoadFrom Saigon through Bà Rịa and Long Hải there are big gas stations at very regular intervals along the ‘back road’, Highway 51, and Road 44A. Once on the Ocean Road proper – starting from either Long Hải or Lộc An – gas stations are less frequent. However, every settlement – even the smallest of hamlets – will have at least one filling station or, at the very least, a stall selling glass bottles of petrol by the roadside. I’ve marked some of the gas stations that are harder to find on my maps. If you really get stuck, try saying or writing down the Vietnamese word for gas – ‘XĂNG’ – and showing it to a local: they’ll direct you to the nearest station or stall.

 

Bike Rental:Rent a motorbike and drive the Ocean Road!

To drive the Ocean Road it’s best to hire a motorbike either in Saigon, Vũng Tàu or Mũi Né.

Saigon

In Saigon there are signs advertising ‘Bikes for Rent’ all over the backpacker area around Phạm Ngũ Lão and Đề Thám streets. Some of these places will also have decent bikes to buy at a reasonable price (after bargaining!) for anyone who wants to own their own wheels. Daily rates are between 150-200,000VNĐ ($7-10) depending on the quality of bike you rent – remember automatics are more expensive than manuals. Monthly rates are much cheaper at around $70, and if you’re renting for a week or two it should also be possible to negotiate a weekly discount. The only problem is (as is so often the case when renting motorbikes anywhere in Vietnam!) that most places insist on not driving beyond the city limits. In reality, as long as you bring the bike back in good condition (get it washed for $1 on the street first) you shouldn’t have a problem. Leaving a deposit or some kind of collateral is always necessary – do not leave your passport as you will need this to stay in any hotel or guesthouse in Vietnam (leaving a photocopy should suffice). Legally you’re supposed to have a Vietnamese driving license….but hardly anyone does.

Most reputable in this area is Chi’s Café (www.chiscafe.com). Tucked down an alleyway, Chi has been renting bikes to expats for years.

Saigon Scooter Rental (www.saigonscooterrental.com) has a good website which tells you everything you need to know about renting from them.

Similarly named Saigon Scooter Centre (www.saigonscootercentre.com) is another well-established place to buy or rent a bike.

Vũng Tàu

In Vũng Tàu, Belly’s Restaurant and Bar (94 Ha Long [Front Beach]) is the best place for bike hire. Located just across from the hydrofoil pier, Belly himself, and all the staff here, are very helpful and full of local information. Unfortunately, neither their website nor telephone number is working at the moment. But if you follow the marker on my map and look out for the big ‘Belly’s’ sign on the seafront road you can’t miss it!

Mũi Né

The seafront road (Nguyễn Đình Chiểu) in Mũi Né is cluttered with signs advertising bike rental. Try Jo’s Café and Garden Resort (www.joescafegardenresort.com). Jo (if he’s there) is very helpful, as are most of his staff.

 

Weather:

In the rainy season storms are frequent but briefA drive along the Ocean Road is pleasant at any time of year. Officially, the dry season in south Vietnam is from November to April, and the rainy season from May to October. But, in my experience the weather patterns by the coast are less predictable than those in Saigon and the Mekong Delta. It’s true that the dry season – especially February through April when the spring flowers are in bloom – is the best time to go: blue skies, bright light, hot sun and (around Christmas time) very cool temperatures in the evenings and early mornings. However, it can get very windy at this time of year. There are big tropical downpours during the rainy season, but these rarely last more than an hour or two, and if you come from a temperate climate like me, the storms can be very exciting. The average annual temperature for this area is 28˚C, so whenever you choose to go you’ll be nice and warm!

The Ocean Road at its best: in the hot sun!Back to Top   |   The Road Trip   |   Travel Information   |   Maps   |   Video   |   Images

 

MAPS:

This is a list of ALL the maps from the The Ocean Road: Part 1. CLICK on a map title to view it:

        – OUTLINE: The entire Ocean Road from Saigon to Pham Thiết/Mũi Né

        – SECTION 1: The ‘Back Road’ from Saigon

        – SECTION 2: Bà Rịa Town

        – SECTION 3: Long Hải and Lộc An Beaches

        – SECTION 4: Hồ Tràm Beach

        – SECTION 5: Hồ Cóc Beach

        – SECTION 6: Bình Châu Hot Springs

        – BIKE RENTAL: Places to rent motorbikes in Saigon, Vũng Tàu and Mũi Né

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VIDEO:

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IMAGES:

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Selected Resources for Travellers & Expats:  What's this?

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19 Responses to The Ocean Road: Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Tết Classic: Lunar New Year Motorbike Loop » Vietnam Coracle

  2. Anna says:

    Hi there,
    I have read your article about the road trip and I am very impressed! I wonder if the ride was dangerous some time, because I don’t see lots of traffic from the pictures at all. I am planning a trip to Vietnam with my boyfriend. We are considering of renting a motor bike too. But we only have experiences by scooter and we are no routined riders. So I wonder, if it might be a bit to dangerous to go by bike from Mui Ne to Da lat. What do you suggest? Looking forward hearing from you,
    best regards
    Anna

  3. Anh Thu Nguyen says:

    Tom, another quick question:

    How long does the stretch from Phan Thiet to Vung Tau take by motorbike? This is given that I will be riding at a leisurely pace and stopping to rest/eat/take in the scenery every 90-120 minutes or so?

    I am planning for 8-10 hours, is that accurate or too short/too long?

    Thanks!!!
    Anh

  4. Anh Thu Nguyen says:

    Great, thanks Tom! That really puts me at ease.

    I’ll also try and see if I can recruit other people to take the trip with me.

    All the Best,
    Anh

  5. Anh Thu Nguyen says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your detailed description of this path! This looks like quite a nice adventure that I would love to experience.

    I am wondering if you would recommend this route for a single female traveling alone? My thought is that as long as I am alert and sensible I should.

    I am Vietnamese-born and US-raised so I know the language but am used to drivers who follow the rules of the road. I’ve never ridden a moped but plan to rent an automatic one and practice in Saigon a bit before heading out, to get familiar with the bike and comfortable with the way people drive in Vietnam. Any bike suggestions for a petite female just about 5 feet tall?

    Thanks for your great posts (I was drooling over your food posts earlier) and thanks for any advice!

    Anh

  6. Steven says:

    Thanks for the quick reply.

    That’s what I thought when I seen pictures of the boats alright, but I read somewhere that you pay for an extra person and bring your bike.

    I think I’ll take the back road out.
    Thanks for the clarification and I’ll owe you a beer if I see you on the road.

    Steve

  7. Steven says:

    Hey Tom,

    Great website (the best I’ve found about Vietnam).

    I’m using your site as my main resource in planning my motorbike journey from Saigon to Hanoi in March.
    Just a quick question in relation to the ferry service from Saigon to Vũng Tàu. Can you bring motorbikes on the ferry? I have read conflicting reports.

    Thanks again for all your work on this site.

    Cheers,

    Steve

  8. Andy says:

    Great post and thanks! Planning on flowing your map next week. A few questions. Will any automatic scooter do for this trip, or any specific recommendations? Any big changes to Part I route wise? And do you think 4 days is enough to do Saigon-Mui Ne-Saigon roundtrip? Thanks again and looking forward to the drive!

  9. Pingback: Two Months on a Motorbike » Vietnam Coracle

  10. Bill says:

    Great, thanks. The entire blog is fantastic. Kudos!

  11. Bill says:

    Great post! Very useful information and detailed. Could you please tell me where we can find part 2 of this post. Many thanks!!!

  12. Anh Wu says:

    Wow, that’s incredible. You’ve posted very detailed and helpful information. I know Pat and Ash of Saigon Scooter Centre, especially their restored scooter business. These scooters won’t work in North Vietnam moutains as well as in the low land of South Vietnam. They are easy to handle though.

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