"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Local boys at the beach Dong Hoi Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

April 2018. When on a cross country adventure, I always love stopping for a few days in some nowhere town deemed unworthy by the masses. In fact, these off-the-beaten path locales often throw up some of my favourite travel memories.

The Vietnamese coastal city of Dong Hoi isn’t exactly off the chart. Indeed it is the capital of Quang Binh Province and serves travellers as an overnight base from which to explore the stunning caves of Phong Nha–ke Bang National Park. However, it seems few people actually stay to see the town itself.

Train travel in Vietnam.

Arriving in Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

After a bit of reading on Dong Hoi’s under-appreciated charms, I figured it was worth a few days. Located on a pretty section of Vietnam’s north central coast, it took me ten hours to get there from the capital. I went on an overnight train and had a wonderful night’s sleep. Hence I was full of beans when I emerged from my cabin into Dong Hoi’s sleepy train station.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Dong Hoi Train Station Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I really struck gold with my choice of accommodation, Nam Long Hotel. It’s right in the heart of the city, just steps from the promenade park. Acting on a blog tip I’d read, I booked in advance and specifically asked for Room 301.

The room was priced the same as the others (around $20 back then), but had a large private balcony overlooking the Nhat Le River. It was such a blissful spot to come home to each night after a long day’s exploring. And they even served dinner right to my table at no extra cost.

Private room with balcony Nam Long Hotel Dong Hoi

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

So Dong Hoi is a city, they say, a provincial capital no less. But the population is just under 170.000 and it carries the air of a somewhat forgotten town. On my first day I went for a walk along the river, following the stone walkway that runs for several kilometres in both directions.

Dong Hoi Harbour in Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

It was late morning and the place was deserted. Quite possibly due to the searing heat, though there was no sign whatsoever of the sun, which seemed stuck somewhere behind the commanding gloom.

Visit Dong Hoi in Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Eventually, I caught sight of a fellow human pottering around on his bobbing boat. But he didn’t make a sound. Indeed the entire promenade held an authoritative silence, which felt both calming and a touch eerie as I progressed along the river.

Tam Toa Church.

Tam Toa Church Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Before long, I made for the skeletal bell tower of Tam Toa Church, a 19th century ruin situated in Cong Vien Park. Unwilling to ignore the warning signs and enter the ruin, I rested on a bench and did some online reading.

Dong Hoi suffered greatly during The Vietnam War. With its position near the DMZ, separating North and South Vietnam, the city came under relentless attack by American B-52 bombers. On February the 11th 1965 a bomb fell right on the church, reducing it to the sad structure we see today. 

Tam Toa Church in Dong Hoi Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

It has since been designated a war relic and listed as a protected building by the government. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s locals still celebrated mass in front of its tower, though authorities have now banned such activities.

Ruined Catholic Church Dong Hoi Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

As I sat studying the church, trying to imagine the scenes here in the mid 1960s, I realised I was being studied myself. This little guy didn’t say a word and barely moved, even when I took his picture. He looked far too serious for a boy of such a young age. Thus I couldn’t help but ponder what kind of life he lived in this uneventful Vietnamese city.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Young boy Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

A short distance from the church, I came upon a striking statue honouring a Vietnamese heroine, Mother Nguyen Thi Suot. Born in Dong Hoi in 1906, she grew up in a poor fishing family. As an adult, she worked as a farmer for a wealthy landowner and also as a fisherwoman. Moreover, she earned extra money ferrying people across the Nhat Le River.

Mother Suot Monument Dong Hoi Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

At the height of the Vietnam War she began offering boat services to Vietnamese soldiers. The Americans were continuously bombing the harbour, prompting the suspension of all crossings. By 1966 she was the only person brave enough to continue boating soldiers from one side of the river to the next.

Mother Suot Vietnamese war hero.

Mother Suot.

Her luck finally ran out in August 1968 when she was killed in a bomb attack. Mother Suot was 62 years old at the time of her death. Family members, villagers and many of the soldiers she’d helped attended her funeral bearing flowers and gifts. In the 1980s the government commemorated her efforts in Vietnam’s Congress of Heroes.

Nguyen Thi Suot Statue Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

A short while later my walk took me to a surviving section of Dong Hoi’s ancient city walls. After bit of digging I found out it dates back to the 17th century, though you won’t find any historical information onsite. The Nguyen family constructed it in order to fend off attacks from the Trinh Lords during the Trinh-Nguyen Civil War. In its heyday historians say the wall was around 100 kilometres long.

Adventures in Vietnam.

City walls Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Furthermore, a single surviving gate reminds locals of a great citadel that once stood in Dong Hoi. Built in 1812 by King Gia Long, it later became the site of a glorious Vietnamese victory when forces successfully repelled a French invasion. Unfortunately, like so many of Dong Hoi’s historical buildings, it was all but destroyed during The Vietnam War.

Citadel gate Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

There is a cluster of elegant townhouses in and around this part of Dong Hoi, some with sculpted balconies overlooking the river. These were by far the prettiest residences I saw in my explorations across the city.

Royal residences Dong Hoi Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Back in 2018 there wasn’t much of a cafe-bar scene aimed at expats. But the few places that did exist were excellent spots for comfort food and drinks. Hot and tired from my exertions, I opted for a pitstop at the wonderful Tree Hugger Cafe on Nguyen Du Street.

Tree Hugger Cafe Dong Hoi.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

They do absolutely everything a hungry traveller would want, including cooked breakfasts, pizzas, smoothies, salads, burgers, pancakes and local noodle and rice dishes. Seeking the quietest corner of the house, I made my way upstairs through the first floor craft store onto their endearing balcony.

Coffee at the Tree Hugger Cafe in Dong Hoi

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I sat here for some time enjoying my caramel latte, cookies and freshly squeezed pineapple juice under the fulsome branches of a neighbouring tree. The tiny balcony is also home to dozens of potted plants and several wonky shelves of cacti. A closer look at their menu meanwhile details the cafe’s eco-friendly practices. Just perfect.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Best cafe Dong Hoi Vietnam.

The Tree Hugger Cafe.

Dong Hoi has a number of pretty beaches scattered across its handsome 12-kilometre coastline. I paid a visit to its most popular stretch, Nhat Le Beach. Located at the mouth of the Nhat Le River, which leads out to the South China Sea, the beach has beautiful powdery white sand.

Nhat Le Beach sign Dong Hoi Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Despite being the main show in town, I found the beach a delightfully laid-back affair and a perfect opportunity to watch locals at play. I didn’t see one other westerner that afternoon. Rather, there was a young woman walking her dog and the occasional couple ambling by, hand in hand.

Nhat Le Beach.

Nhat Le Beach.

The tide lapping against my feet, I exchanged hellos with the locals, all of whom seemed happy to see me. They smiled and posed for pictures, but for the most part left me to my business. This was certainly refreshing compared to the near-constant attention I got back home in China, where I often wished I were invisible.

Local boys Nhat Le Beach Dong Hoi

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

For a spell I sat watching groups of boisterous teenage boys play-fighting in the sea. They were cooking up an audio storm, which only got louder once they spotted me. “Heeeeeeey, hoooow are yoooou?”

Visit Vietnam Nhat Le Beach Dong Hoi

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I also caught a keenly contested women’s volleyball match. It was Dong Hoi versus Danang, a local man told me, a fierce annual derby by all accounts. While I’m no volleyball expert the standard seemed high, though in the end Danang came out as comfortable winners.

Nhat Le Beach.

Beach volleyball Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I really cherish those few hours I spent on Nhat Le Beach. As I began making my way back to the harbour, I even spotted an old man sittin’ doin’ nothin’. The icing on the cake so to speak.

Old man sittin doin nothin Dong Hoi Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Before arriving in Dong Hoi, the thing that had most excited me was the prospect of a visit to the Quang Phu Sand Dunes. But when the time came to grab a taxi, nobody wanted to take me! Driver after driver turned me away saying that it was “too far”. This was strange, as the dunes were only half an hour out of town.

Finally, back at Nam Long Hotel, the manager said he would rent me a motorbike for just $5 if I returned it within a few hours. This was great, although there was just one problem: I don’t really drive!

Motorcycling Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Looking back, it was pretty crazy how I took it upon myself to drive to the dunes. In fact, it stands as one of the riskiest things I’ve done in twenty years of global travel. Yes, I got continually honked at for driving too slow. And yup, I thought I was going to crash and die as I negotiated several hairy bends. But somehow I made it to the dunes in one piece!

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Quang Phu Sand Dunes Dong Hoi Vietnam

Quang Phu Sand Dunes.

While I would never do something like that again, I assuredly have no regrets. Completely off the tourist track, I found myself perfectly alone as I climbed the dunes, breathing in the wild, sub-desert beauty.

Exploring the Quang Phu Sand Dunes in Vietnam

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

The dunes cover a surprisingly small area, so it only took me about twenty minutes to puff my way through the smooth white sand right to the top. Happily, there were wonderful views to reward my efforts.

In that moment I felt quite jealous of the people lucky enough to live in those fancy houses. The panoramic of the dunes sweeping before you in one direction, the infinite deep blue of the South China Sea in the other.

Quang Phu Sand Dunes.

Quang Phu Sand Dunes.

I could’ve stayed up there for ages, but alas I was worried about the motorbike, unattended back down at street level. And then of course there was the drive home, where this time my nerves were tested by a procession of cows in the middle of the road. Lord, I was SO relieved to get back to the hostel, both myself and the bike alive.

Cows in the road Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

On my final evening I spent a couple of hours wandering along Dong Hoi’s sad, unloved harbour. This, I conceded, summed up why the city remains excluded from most people’s travel itineraries. It was frustrating because there seemed to be so much potential.

Fishing boats Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

A big cleanup, for starters, would do the world of good. As would a fresh coat of paint here and there. And genuine encouragement for local businesses to open up and create more of an atmosphere.

Adventures in Vietnam.

Fish restaurants Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

Nevertheless, I felt captivated by the ghostly vista, particularly the blue and red sailboats and the sporadic bursts of makeshift fish restaurants. It was all very basic, just a bunch of plastic tables and chairs thrown together. But a great spot to kick back with a cold beer and a delicious fish dinner.

I also found a lone pancake vendor. He made his creations with meat shavings (beef or pork) and finely chopped vegetables. Drowned in a sweet chilli sauce, they were so fantastic I helped myself to three for the long walk back to the hotel. 

Night market Dong Hoi Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

It makes me sad to think about how incredibly hard Dong Hoi must’ve been hit by the global pandemic. I have great memories of my time there and, as I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s the perfect base to reach two of Vietnam’s most stunning caves. More on those coming up in my next piece…

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  • Little Miss Traveller

    The hotel looks gorgeous and specifically your room with the gorgeous views from the balcony. How brave you were to venture out to the sand dunes on a motorbike, I would never dare to do that!

    September 27, 2021 - 1:44 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Brave or just plain stupid, I’m still not sure ha ha. I have never passed my driving test and had certainly never taken control of a motorbike before. Thanks for reading Marion.

      September 27, 2021 - 8:26 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Okay, the motorbike story really sold me. I want to see the movie version of this adventure. Especially enjoyed the little guy who was watching you. You have to wonder what he was thinking. Probably something like, “Here’s another old guy just sittin’ doing nothin.” Great laid back feeling to the city.

    September 27, 2021 - 2:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hmm, the movie version would surely make me look very heroic. I think I would be played by a young Brad Pitt, naturally. And I’m going for Johnny Depp as the motorbike and John Goodman in the role of the sand dunes. It’s a winner.

      September 27, 2021 - 8:29 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Seems like a restoring place to base for a few days, the beach looks incredible as does that balcony! Glad you survived making it to the dunes taking the path less travelled 🙂

    September 27, 2021 - 3:33 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Lyssy, just catching up with various messages I missed over the past few weeks. I must be getting old 😉 That hotel was one of my favourites from the whole Vietnam trip. As for the motorbike, what was I thinking!? A sudden rush of blood to the head.

      October 6, 2021 - 9:35 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Wonderful post, as usual Leighton. It is always good to find those places that are less touristy and even better when you find the perfect hotel room due to another traveller’s tip. The place looks beautiful and so laid back. In retirement, I have perfected the art of sitting, doing nothing. This is something I would never have dreamed of while working. It is strangely freeing. Not sure I would have tackled driving over there, but glad it worked out for you. Thanks for sharing. Have a great week. Allan

    September 27, 2021 - 3:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Allan, I am terrible at sittin’ doin’ nothin’ but very much hope to reach that stage of nirvana when my time comes. Thanks for visiting Dong Hoi with me.

      September 27, 2021 - 8:33 pm Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    Another area I should have been to… The beach looks great but lucky you made it through those Sand Dunes. Those drivers speed along fast… hopefully they didn’t crash into you. Ha!! I always love the Vietnamese Food yummy.

    September 27, 2021 - 11:42 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading! Poor Dong Hoi deserves a few more visitors.

      September 27, 2021 - 11:49 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    Such a traditional atmosphere, far from the seaside towns elsewhere.

    September 28, 2021 - 12:03 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Dong Hoi certainly has a unique feel. Thanks for dropping by!

      September 28, 2021 - 12:10 am Reply
  • Priti

    Wow ! Excellent photos of Dong Hoi Vietnam. I haven’t gone there ever. But the place is looking beautiful with your nice description ☺️☺️. Thank you very much for sharing ❣️👏🌹😊

    September 28, 2021 - 4:43 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Priti!

      September 28, 2021 - 9:01 am Reply
      • Priti

        You are welcome 🙂🙂🌹 God bless you 🙂☺️❣️❤️🌹

        September 28, 2021 - 9:22 am
  • Rebecca

    It really is the smaller places which you originally had no expectations, but end up blowing you away. Dong Hoi looks to be a blend of beautiful, relaxing beaches and also sad history related to the Vietnam War. It’s incredible you spent a solid few days there, as most people would choose to bounce after a day of sightseeing; it really gave you the time to soak it all in!

    PS “I was full of beans” is an expression I’ve never heard of before, with my Americanisms. What’s that supposed to mean?

    September 28, 2021 - 5:05 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Rebecca, glad you appreciated Dong Hoi’s drowsy vibe. Ha ha these British sayings eh? “Full of beans” means to be energised, lively, in high spirits etc. I’ve never been sure if the “beans” are a reference to baked beans or coffee beans.

      September 28, 2021 - 9:06 am Reply
      • Rebecca

        Most likely coffee beans!

        September 28, 2021 - 11:17 pm

    Ah now that sounds like our kind of place…a little off the beaten track, a little downbeat, a little ramshackle but bags of character. We’ve taken some slightly foolhardy risks on our travels but motorised two wheels is not one of them!

    September 28, 2021 - 8:54 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Your description is about right for Dong Hoi, glad you like the look of it. Maybe you can squeeze it into your Vietnam II plans. The motorbike… ah it was a sudden rush of blood to the head.

      September 28, 2021 - 9:08 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    I really admire your willingness and ability to find interesting sights and things to do in out of the way places. Next time I travel to SE Asia, I plan to rent a motor bike or car. Driving a motor bike will be an adventure in itself for me.

    September 28, 2021 - 6:35 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Aw thanks, I do my best. Do you have a country in mind for your next SE Asia trip? I’m sure you’ll fare much better on the road than I did.

      September 28, 2021 - 7:41 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    The ruined church is eerie and beautiful at the same time. I’m glad that they have preserved it as a landmark. Mother Suot was interesting to read about. I want to have the same kind of moxy as she did at that age. I hope you have a great week 🙂

    September 28, 2021 - 8:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Meg!

      September 28, 2021 - 9:07 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    You tell a story in such a way that I almost feel part of your trip! You definitely wanted to see those dunes for taking up the offer on the bike … but I know, sometimes you do things that afterwards you promise you’ll never do again 😉. The photos of the destroyed church are beautiful, yet sad. But I loved the pictures of the boys the most – happiness on their faces … that’s really nice to see!

    September 30, 2021 - 8:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Corna, so glad you made it to Dong Hoi! Thanks for your kind words. Making a connection like that with locals on the beach, even so briefly, is one of the things that makes travel so magical.

      September 30, 2021 - 8:57 pm Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    I’d love to have the time when I travel to explore out of the way towns. I always seem to be chasing a timetable because of flights or commitments. And unless I’m traveling with someone, I’m a bit careful as a single woman. The church ruin is poignant. Love the photo of the young boy who was curious about you.

    October 3, 2021 - 6:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Ruth, I know what you mean about timetables and commitments, I’ve definitely been there over the years. I guess one upside of being nomadic, childless and (until recently) single is that I’ve had the full freedom to explore countries with less time restrictions.

      October 3, 2021 - 6:27 pm Reply
      • rkrontheroad

        And now you have a travelling partner!

        October 3, 2021 - 6:34 pm
      • Leighton

        Exactly! And luckily we are on the same page, so there’s no difference really. We have been living and traveling around Montenegro for about 5 weeks now. Hope all is well with you Ruth and you are enjoying the fall.

        October 3, 2021 - 6:41 pm
      • rkrontheroad

        Happy for you! I’m well, and very excited. I have a trip coming up in a week, first one in a year and a half… stay tuned!

        October 3, 2021 - 7:14 pm
  • Alison

    You have certainly helped putting Dong Hoi on the map with this wonderful post, such interesting facts and great photos. I really felt your fear on that motor bike! I’ve done similar things many many years ago and wonder at my stupidity.

    October 18, 2021 - 4:53 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for the kind words Alison. Dong Hoi was great though, I’m fairly sure, I’ll never get on a motorbike again!

      October 18, 2021 - 8:40 am Reply
      • Alison


        October 18, 2021 - 8:59 am

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