Travel Report: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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