Dong Hoi- A bit of history, great cuisine and stunning caves!
January 1, 1970
by Aniket Ketkar
A lazy morning at the Beachside
Yesterday, it was a clear day. The bright blue sky reflected its color in the dazzling water of South China Sea. But today morning was different. The clouds made a complete canopy up above, while the ocean below was wilder than usual.
I took a sip of coffee, looked at the strong waves crashing to the coast and opened my netbook.
I had been in Dong Hoi for three weeks now. Initially not even on my plans, I had ended up here based on a recommendation. The recommendation came during a drinking game in Hoi An, through a Danish girl called Elin. She told me to specifically go to Beachside Backpackers, a hostel situated a little out of the town center, right on the beach. And within no time, I had struck a good bond with the owners of the hostel- An, the Vietnamese hardworking man and his Irish girlfriend, Michaella.
Elin had arrived just two days after my arrival, on a Saturday, and that had given the hosts an opportunity to celebrate- a huge barbeque on the beachfront and then a game of Killer Pool.
But now, the hostel was empty. Elin had gone a long time ago, the other travelers had disappeared too and An and Michaella were in Saigon to be with a friend who had met a really bad accident two days ago. I was in charge now, but in the absence of other guests, had nothing much to do.
I looked at my new borrowed shoes that lay casually below the table. Blue Nike sneakers that Elin had lent me. I had lost my shoes on the second day in Saigon and had made my way up to the central Vietnam in flip-flops. But now I had these borrowed shoes and I did not know how long were they going to carry me and where!
“Oye Minh”, someone called out from the other side of the wall.
Minh was my Vietnamese name. So I looked up. It was the owner of a sea food restaurant next door and now he was peering over the top of the wall that separated the two establishments.
“Good morning”, I replied.
The owner beckoned me and I walked along the wall, on to the beach and then in the backyard of his restaurant.
It was just 9.30 in the morning, but Vietnamese don’t need a sundown to start drinking. Another friend was already present, who was a Police officer as I later found out.
A box of Huda lay by the side and as I took my seat, a plate of dried fish and six cans of Huda were placed in front of me.
Places to sleep: Beachside backpackers comes as my own recommendation now. The prices are between USD 6- 20 (dorm or privates) and it is right on the beach. The owners are fun and really helpful.
Buffalo Pub and Hostel is near Tree Hugger café, costs about the same, but can get a bit loud due to the bar.
And then there are plenty of local hotels from cheap to expensive, depending on your budget.
It took us about two and half hours to finish two boxes of beers and by the end, the Policeman had passed out. The restaurant owner shook my hand and appreciated my drinking spirit, as I thanked him for the generosity and walked back to the hostel.
About the national park
Dong Hoi is situated in Quang Binh province in the Central Vietnam and apart from its laid back culture, it is a gateway to famous Phong Nha caves. This narrow strip of Vietnam is till date one of the most heavily bombed areas in the country. And during the war, the North Vietnamese soldiers would take refuge in one of many caves (as many as 300) in the mountains or the deep underground tunnels built by them. In addition, the natural beauty here, is in abundance.
The National Park- The little town of Phong Nha is situated just about 40 km from Dong Hoi and is accessible by a public buses which run in abundance. While the huge rice fields, grazing cattle and friendly locals are enough to keep you glued here, the biggest attraction here is the Phong Nha- Ke Bang national park. This park is home to many a wondrous caves, including the world’s largest cave, Son Doong. Paradise cave and the Phong Nha cave are other two notable caves. Another interesting cave is the Dark cave, which requires a short kayak ride or zip-lining and then a long swim through the dark water.
The best way to visit these caves is through an organized tour. Easy tiger and Phong Nha Farmstay provide good guided tours and a bit of glimpse into the war history. For Son Doong cave though, you need to apply in advance through a government approved agency. The tours arranged by Easy Tiger and the Farmstay cost between 50-75 USD depending on the size of the group and activities covered. (Source: Farmstay website)
In the three weeks’ time I had visited the little town of Phong Nha three times. A couple of times with the local bus and the third time on a Honda Wind belonging to An. The Honda Wind had taken me through Phong Nha and then to many surrounding villages. The rice fields had looked as stunning as they had in 2012 (my first visit to Vietnam), while villagers wore the same wide smiles on their care-free faces. The Farmstay, though, had grew in size and business. I had met the owner, Ben from Australia for the second time, who had given me a sneak-peak into the changes that tourism was bringing to the town. His Farmstay now employed a lot more young Vietnamese from surrounding villages, who spoke English pretty well.
“But they are building a huge resort with a golf course. That’s just gonna take the charm out of this place”, Ben had told me, shaking his head in dismay.
Well, but resort will take a few years to complete and till then at least, one can expect the green country-side, the charm of a village life and lovely locals.
The beer was making my head swim now and I decided that a bit of food would help. So, I took a push-bike off the stand and rode along the beachfront, towards the market. There are plenty of cheap food restaurants near the market and I chose one. I ordered Banh Khoai and found myself staring at the big platter brought to me, consisting of pork slices, bean sprouts, fresh herbs and the thin rice paper sheets. I wrapped the ingredients in the rice paper, dipped the roll in Nuoc Leo (a spicy peanut sauce) and took a bite. It was simply exquisite!
Food tips: The cuisine in Quang Binh is quite diverse. There is a good mix of spicy, sweet and sour. Some notable specials include Banh Khaoi (self-made pork wraps), Banh Mi (the famous sandwich), various spring rolls and Banh Bot Loc (dumplings made from glutinous rice, filled with pork, shrimps or other sea food). Most restaurants near the wet market have very cheap menu.
But, if you are craving for western food, try 7th Heaven that serves good burgers, sandwiches and steaks or Tree Hugger café that serves a variety of vegan and vegetarian options.
The way back was slightly harder. My belly was full, the strong wind was on my face and the road carried ever so light slope. So, I decided to halt just before where the river met the ocean and observed the fishermen go about their routine- shaking the big square nets dipped in the water, while sitting in their little round boats. It must be a hard life, I mused, even as one of the fishermen looked at me and waved. I returned the wave and continued on my way back.
Why Dong Hoi?
Lately, Vietnam has seen a constant influx of backpackers. With that, the attitude of locals in the touristic places is changing. Most travelers do not feel the Vietnamese warmth any more. This is true, but only in the traditional backpacker route. If you are ready to go off the beaten path, you will definitely see the old Vietnamese hospitality. Since there are not many travelers in Dong Hoi, the locals are more interested in knowing you and spending time with you, than selling you massages or souvenirs. And that means, a lot of amazing food, great company and free beer!
Getting there: Dong Hoi is situated in the Quang Binh province, which is the narrowest part of Vietnam. To get here, one can get a bus from Hanoi (in the north) or Saigon (in the south). Most companies offer sleeper buses and from Hanoi, it would cost about 12 USD (Sinh Tourist). Coming from the south, it is recommended to split the journey as it is a long way. The town is also accessible by train, but the price can be a little more expensive.
Once in the town, getting around is fairly easy. Most places are accessible on feet.