December, 2014-January, 2015
As any traveller will agree, the thirst to find destinations devoid of hoards of tourists is becoming much more difficult to seek out. Dong Hoi (Đồng Hới) delivers on this elusive quest and as a result, you will experience many welcoming friendly locals and many ‘hellos’!
After a lovely 8-day stay over the Christmas period in Hue, sadly, it is time to leave and spend New Year’s Eve at a new destination. So, heading north to Dong Hoi, which is supposed to be a less traversed northern Vietnamese city with far less tourists.
Really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of Hue as a quiet time away from the hustle of tourists. Actually, hardly saw any other tourists here and the traffic is also very quiet, which is rare for Vietnam!
The 3-hour train from Hue to Dong Hoi was quite a pleasant trip but the best part is that we didn’t have to travel on Vietnamese roads again. This is always a bonus and especially after experiencing a fatal accident during the first few days of arriving in Vietnam.
Apart from Nhat Le beach, the focus of the actual town is on Nhat Le River, canals, the Citadel, and the Tam Toa Church ruins. This is also a great stopover to go caving if you’re interested.
Dong Hoi is not really discussed in the guidebooks, which is great for those with a lust to venture beyond the pages. This is not a party town and most things shut at about 20:00hrs, so be prepared to catch up on sleep here (not a bad thing).
Wander along the Nhat Le River and right around to the sea and check out the fishing boats but also kids playing on old rotting boats forgotten by time. This is everyday life devoid of gloss and pretence for the tourist trade; no airs and graces in this city.
Locals are friendly and you may even get some odd looks, especially if you wander down the local markets. Here, live chickens and ducks are being slaughtered and sold on the roadside, nothing is hidden behind closed doors as this is every day life.
Walk south of the city on Hung Vuong Street and you’ll run into the Citadel, which is nothing much these days apart from the Quảng Bình Gate. Although originally constructed in the early 1800’s, most parts of the citadel were damaged during the French Indochina period and the remainder demolished by American bombs during the Vietnam War.
This region of Vietnam is renowned for some 300 caves including the famous Hang Dong Cave, which costs USD$3,000 (probably a price increase already) for a week’s trekking in the cave and has a 12-month waiting list – couldn’t afford to do this one!!
If you’re interested in caving then staying in Dong Hoi is the better alternative than in Phong Ngha Village, as in the village you’re captive with prices on everything but also the many touts. If you don’t want to stay in Dong Hoi, then Hue is another great alternative.
Day tour to Paradise and Phong Nha Caves
Booked the day tour for both caves through the Nam Long Plus Hotel (800,000VND/person), which was an amazing and very long day; had an excellent time! I would like to do the 2-day tour but at USD$300/person, a little high for the current budget.
Walked a kilometre into spectacular Paradise Cave then back again and 540 steps down again. The 100-metre high cathedral ceiling along most of the walk is amazing. In total, Paradise is about 31 kilometres long! (You can take longer tours through these amazing caves.) This cave is nothing short of spectacular and very impressive – it’s gorgeous!
Following a huge delicious local lunch (included in the ticket price), a small boat along the Shan River took us one kilometre through and then back into the amazing Phong Nha Cave! What an experience…if you like caves then these 2 are not to be missed; incredible and breath taking.
The 7-kilometre long Phong Nha is one of the caves the Viet Cong hid in during the Vietnam War.
Update: The day after visiting both caves we were advised that the government had just increased fees to tourist destinations by more than double. Unlike other times where the government gives tour operators a month’s notice, no notice was given but dictated that as of 1st January 2015, all fees would increase. People already booked on these tours were going to be in for a shock and either cancel, or companies would lose money on bookings; not a great way to run a business!
Nam Long Plus Hotel (28A Phan Chu Trinh)
Booked 4 nights but stayed 5 nights as this hotel has warm friendly and excellent staff, which really make you feel at home. Sad to leave as great hospitable owners also!
The price includes a very large comfortable clean room, serviced daily, good quality bedding, wi-fi, and even a kettle to make your own hot drink, should you not feel like venturing out. The different varieties of breakfasts are good and plentiful…you won’t go hungry.
The main street, beach, and harbour are about a 15-minute walk from this hotel and a 10-minute walk to the Tree Hugger cafe, which is good to sit with a coffee and watch Dong Hoi unfold during the day – spent many an hour here…
Warm Vietnamese hospitality
As it is New Year’s Eve, the owners of the hotel invited us up to the top floor of the hotel, which is their home for dinner. We were very lucky to experience genuine Vietnamese warm hospitality that will stay with me for a long time.
It was a lovely night and a great way to spend a special evening seeing a new year in. The dishes (mostly seafood) kept flowing from the restaurant’s kitchen and were wonderfully delicious; served with very good Dalat wine.
- Tree Hugger Café (30 Nguyen du) – An inviting cafe with great atmosphere, good local snacks (offers breakfast and lunch, not dinner); where you can sit and have a nice coffee whilst watching the locals go about their day in this relaxed city. Good service from caring staff, eager to make your experience great. Alcohol available as is wine at reasonable prices.
- Nam Long Plus Hotel – This in-house restaurant serves fresh delicious local (and some western) dishes at very reasonable prices; ate here most nights and love the restaurant’s version of Noodle Chicken Soup.
Dong Hoi to Ninh Binh
Walked about 3 kilometres from the hotel to the train station to buy tickets for the 8-hour train (257,000VND, soft seat, AC) to Ninh Binh, luckily, not this time with heavy backpacks.
The scenery on this next train journey is supposed to be pretty special, so really looking forward to the trip and can’t wait!