Our overnight stay in Saigon was short but *ahem* eventful; when you woke up with a groggy headache and bloodshot eyes, then you know you had a good time, but then probably not much left to be remembered by. Whatever happened in Saigon, left in Saigon. It’s time for us to pack our bags and head north to Central Vietnam. This trip we will be focusing on some of the upcoming tourists destinations in Vietnam and our first stop will be in Dong Hoi.
Dong Hoi is the capital city of Quang Binh province in north central coast of Vietnam. I do believe the words ‘Dong Hoi‘ (东海) are actually loanwords from Chinese language which means the ‘eastern sea’ in Cantonese dialect. And that’s exactly what this city is famous for, 12-kilometers coastline with pristine white sand beaches. When Dong Hoi airport was completed and opened in 2008, Dong Hoi has slowly become a tourist destination, with 4 flights per week from Hanoi and Saigon into this tiny city by Vietnam Airline.
What to see & do
Historical monuments in Dong Hoi
Dong Hoi is also the narrowest land of Vietnam with around 40km from east to west, which makes this city an ideal mid-way battleground in many wars. This whole city was heavily devastated during the Vietnam War by bombardments from the United States B-52. The whole city was rebuilt and most buildings are only dated back to the 1980s. There are only two historical monuments left in this city are the Quang Binh’s Old Citadel Gate and Tam Toa Cathedral bell tower.
War decays and beautiful beaches, but the real main tourist attraction of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, 50km north from the city.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, it is one of the two world’s largest karst regions with 300 caves and grottoes with a total length of 126km. So far with only 20 caves have been surveyed and lot more to be explored and discovered. Not to mention, they even have the largest and longest caves to make this site one of the must-visit spots in the world.
There are many ways to get here, xe om (motorbikes), taxis and private cars are widely available at a fixed daily rate or simply join one of the day tours which can be booked through major hotels in Dong Hoi.
At the national park, there are up to five caves open to the public – Phong Nha Cave and Tien Son Cave used to be the two caves frequented by visitors, but Thien Duong Cave (paradise cave) that was later discovered in 2005 which is opened to public in December 2010 has now become the most popular cave with tourists. At 31km long, Thien Duong cave is regarded as the longest cave in Asia.
But to visit this cave is not an easy task, after paying an entrance fee of 120,000VND (about AUD5.80) at the gate with the optional golf cart at service at extra charge that brings you to the bottom of the hill, then is time to gird your loin and be prepared for 519 steps steep climb to the mouth of the cave –
A testament of resiliency and strength that will grant you access to…
If you only have time to visit one cave, then Thien Duong Cave will be the one. The cave was formed around 400 million years ago, surrounded by underground rivers and rocky mountains and it is still active. Some of the most spectacular rock formation with gargantuan stalactites and stalagmites almost 60-meter high are found inside this cave. A tour guide will lead you through a 1.1km path to marvel the formations while you start losing sense of time and space inside the cave.
On the other side of the national park is where the largest cave in the world lies. Son Doong Cave or Hang Son Doong in Vietnamese, is hidden deep in the forest near the border with Laos. To get there will require 2 or 3 days of 10km trekking in the rainforest with overnight camping in En Cave. Feel line being Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, anyone?
Dong Hoi wet market
Almost every town in Vietnam will have its own wet market, and the one in Dong Hoi is actually quite impressive in terms of scale and the variety of fresh produce. Usually a wet market is divided into sections, here you will find the fruit stalls are outside on the street, meat and vegetables are further inside the market under the shades. Seafood will be along the river front, and then dry goods like nuts, rice, and beans occupied a small section in the market.
Dong Hoi is also a fishing port, so some of the best seafood can be found here. But be mindful when consuming seafood in Asia countries, as even some locals will warn you to avoid any shellfish like clams, oysters or snails just in case of hepatitis.
What to eat & drink
Hoa Mi coffee chouse
If you have never been to Vietnam, then I’d suggest you that the first thing you need to try (other than pho) is Vietnamese coffee. We got tipped off by local that Hoa Mi Cafe has the best coffee in town. There is only Vietnamese menu and the girls who work here also speak no English. With my very limited Vietnamese, I managed to order ca phe sua da (iced coffee) but only just.
Watching the black coffee brewing is just as fascinating as its flavour. Finely ground dark roast coffee is individually brewed with a small metal French drip filter, slowly drips into a glass containing a few spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk. This process can take up to 5 to 10 minutes, then stir and serve as it is, or pour over ice.
Don’t be fooled by that little amount of coffee brewed from the phin (coffee filter); Vietnamese coffee is very strong! Vietnamese coffee has a broader, richer taste; it is lot more intense but with sweet toffee flavour. The beans are usually roasted in lower temperature at a longer period, sugar, oil and sometimes vanilla are added to give the beans that rich caramel flavour.
Hoa Mi Cafe 1 Hung Vuong Dong Hoi city, Vietnam P: (052) 3822431
Pho Bien floating restaurant – Dong Hoi
The old imperial city, Hue, is only 183km away from Dong Hoi, so many of the Hue specialties can be found in Dong Hoi. This region is notable for its sophisticated royal cuisines, constituted by many complex dishes served in small portions – Banh Bot Loc, this tiny glutinous rice dumpling is a good example.
We had a quick drop-by at Pho Bien restaurant, one of the many floating restaurants on Nhat Le River for a quick snack. Dumplings is a family affair, our unexpected visit startled the whole family when they were in the middle of making Banh Bot Loc together around the dining table. One would rolled out the dumpling skins using a plastic bottle, whilst the others will fill it with different fillings and then fold them with their dainty fingers.
A plate of Banh Bot Loc only cost us 70,000VND (around AUD3.50). The dumplings came in three different type of fillings, mung bean, vegetables and woodear mushroom or pork and fried shrimp, wrapped in dumpling skins that are made of rice and tapioca flour which gives you that translucent skin once steamed or boiled, slippery smooth with an addictive chewy, sticky texture. Central Vietnam is also notable for its spicy food, so the dumplings are usually served with a spicy chili peppers and shrimp dipping sauces.
Pho Bien Quach Xuan Ky Dong Hoi, Vietnam
Thuy Tien – Dong Hoi
Not far from the wet market, you’ll find a strip of restaurants that specialises in authentic Hue’s specialties. A pictorial menu came in handy as the dishes were all written in Vietnamese. A few must try local delicacies are the nem lui and banh khoai. Nem Lui is a DIY affair consists of grilled pork, fresh herbs, lettuce, unripe green banana slices and wrap in rice paper sheets then served with nuoc leo, a spicy peanut dipping sauce. I find the green banana can be quite astringent and suck all the moisture out of your mouth, not my favourite thing to eat.
On the other hand, Banh Khoai is absolutely my favourite. First time I had it was in Hue back in 2009. It is also very similar to Banh Xeo, but this rice pancake is lot smaller, but thicker batter which gives it a crunchier texture. And inside is filled with pork slices, shrimps and bean sprouts.
You can find good food at every corner in Dong Hoi, but some of best ones are usually found on the streets. Plastic chairs and tables were spread out along the riverfront where locals gathered around, winding down after a hard day work with beers and snack food, as the sun slowly setting over the horizon. A selection of seafood can be grilled to order, but the price can be a little higher for tourists – as we tried to order a grill squid but we were expected to pay USD20 which we refused to. So make sure to use your haggling skill.
Where to sleep
Sun Spa Resort
If you would like to stay at a quieter spot away from downtown, Sun Spa Resort is located on the banks of Nhat Le River. The resort covers 29 hectares of landscaped garden surrounded by pristine white sand beaches. Most rooms offer unobstructed sea view, but you are most likely to find yourself having a dip in the large swimming pool with cocktail in hand, or having a therapy massage at the spa room.
The meal at the resort was decent but sadly nothing to rave about. I will stick to street food or go outside the hotel to look for good food at local restaurants.
RESORT RESERVATION & PARADISE CAVE TICKET My Canh, Bao Ninh, Dong Hoi, Quang Binh Province P: 84 (52) 3842 999
[A Table For Two visited Vietnam as a guest of Vietnam Airlines]