Friday, May 27, 2011

Weekend Escape to Dong Hoi

The beach in front of Sun Spa Resort in Đồng Hới.

I recently decided that Hanoi was just too hot and that it was time to find a nice, breezy beach along a peaceful stretch of coast. If I’m going to be hot, I’d rather be hot beside the ocean and sand. That’s where the town of Đồng Hới comes in. In Quảng Bình province, only seven hours by train south of Hanoi, one can escape there very easily. In theory, if you leave late at night then you can just fall off to sleep in your cozy compartment and wake up early having arrived at your destination.

The express train we took, which seemed to travel at the speed of an antsy burro, was 40 minutes late leaving Hanoi.

By the time we arrived in Đồng Hới, we’d made up 15 minutes. We got a compartment with six sleeper beds, and the six of us—three Vietnamese, myself, and two Scots—fell asleep pretty quickly. But we were awakened as early as 5 a.m. from the sun stabbing through our windows, foot traffic in the corridor, and cart-pushing vendors loudly rattling off the food and drinks they were selling.

I opted for nothing, but I did get down from my middle bunk, toting my camera, and took some shots of the passing scenery. Quảng Bình province is on the northern fringes of Vietnam’s central coast, lying almost midway between Hanoi and Đà Nẵng. Its biggest claim to fame is probably the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, home to one of the most spectacular cave systems in the world. In fact, Sơn Đoòng Cave, discovered in 2009, is the world’s largest cave. Earlier this year, National Geographic published a piece about it here:

As I was saying, the landscape we passed through for the last two or three hours of our trip was gorgeous. Ponds, lakes, and streams were seemingly everywhere, with green rice paddies stretching to distant mountains. It was hard taking decent photos with the reflections (and dead-bug smears) in the windows, but I’ve included a few of my favorites below.

I also met some good people on the train. They were a bit camera shy at first, but by the time we rolled into Đồng Hới they were demanding shots left and right.

They even wanted me to photograph their tonsils, and since I had the camera anyway what could I do but oblige?

I don’t remember the exact time we got into Đồng Hới, but I do remember that I was hungry. So I guess that would have made it breakfast time. We grabbed a taxi into the city, which was about a one-minute drive away, and less than ten minutes later we were checking in to our hotel: Sun Spa Resort.

There’s not much to describe about the hotel’s main wings, though the grounds of the hotel and its beachfront were very nice—a long stretch of grass and coconut palms before the beach, which was empty and full of clean, soft sand. (Walking away from the beach, however, it wasn’t quite as clean.)

The resort had various beach activities, too, but the two pools were what drew the most guests, and for good reason.

The hotel also has a nice gym, though I was only in it long enough to take this picture. That’s because I’m incorrigibly lazy.

Sun Spa Resort has at least two restaurants and an outdoor bar/café, which at night fronts a small stage where a band plays live music. Also, if you’re into paying high prices for fresh seafood, the resort has seating under a beach tent where you can order off the grill just about anything catchable in the near waters.

Early the following morning, following an exhausting day of pool lounging and failed tanning, we were off to the Đồng Hới market, adjacent to the Nhật Lệ River.

I love Vietnamese fish markets, and I have to say that this was easily the best one I’ve yet seen. Not only was there a remarkable diversity of seafood being sold here, but the sheer volume of it was incredible.

It was a busy place, and wet, and fishy-smelling, and crowded, and I loved it. I would have thrown myself onto the pavement and rolled around like an excited, stupid dog if I hadn’t been forcibly stopped.

The following photos will attest to how great a place this was…if you’re into fish markets the way that I am, I mean.

Look at the size of that fish head compared to the woman selling it!

There were baskets and baskets of stingrays, too, which I don't normally see in Vietnamese markets.

There were also all kinds of fresh veggies and fruit.

You could even buy a bucket full of baby pigeons. And why not? Doesn’t KFC sell buckets of chicken? Can’t you buy a 60-piece bucket of chicken thighs in the U.S.? I’ve always thought that making a 60-piece bucket of chicken thighs sound appetizing was a disgusting an incredible feat of fast-food marketing.

Dozing in the warm morning sun beside their friends, shelled baby onions, these little guys have no idea what's in store for them...

We headed inside the central market building and climbed to the second floor. After crossing a bridge (and snapping a photo) that led to another market building, we found ourselves inside a large, if dark and grimy, second-floor eating area.

It smelled good here, especially since I’d not had breakfast yet, but sometimes your body tells you just to move on. I listened to my body this time.

Back on the street, however, and done with the market, we found a quiet side street full of blossoming phoenix trees and sat down for a quick dish of bánh bèo. For 20,000 dong it was a good deal, but it was little more than a snack. After gobbling this down we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, where a free buffet awaited us.

Bánh bèo topped with dried shrimp, green onions, and pork crackling.

Sun Spa Resort actually consists of two different classes of accommodation. Next to where we stayed is a many-starred (I’m sorry, I don’t know how many stars it rates) resort that’s part of the original resort. It’s sort of like the drop-dead gorgeous younger sister of the merely gorgeous older sister. (Or something like that.) The photos below show the open-but-not-yet-completed second resort. As of this writing they were offering 50% off of all villas and bungalows (a discount of $170 per night). The website for the villas and bungalows is here.

Not a bad price for your own private bungalow hidden by a wooden fence and lush vegetation, and with a private pool overlooking the ocean.

The grounds of the resort are extensive, peaceful, and empty. There’s a nice walking path that winds from the beach all around the Bao Ninh peninsula and along the Nhật Lệ River. Dusk is a great time to explore the area, even if you’re not a guest there.

At night we grabbed a taxi for the ten-minute drive up the coast on the opposite side of the Nhật Lệ river mouth. We were taken quite a ways past our original destination—Biển Đồng restaurant, which had been recommended to us—and dropped off. We explored the numerous local seafood options, many of which were interesting-looking, family-managed areas of plastic chairs and tables by the beach. In the end, though, we decided to return to Biển Đồng, where a rickety wooden bridge led us to this floating restaurant.

The menu at Biển Đồng, not surprisingly, is full of seafood dishes—though you can also order steamed, frien, and hotpot chicken. We skipped the fresh fish, squid, and crab, and went instead for tôm hùm (steamed jumbo shrimp served with pepper and lime juice), điệp nướng (grilled scallops topped with fried onions and bits of red chile—the best I’ve ever had), and a peppery cháo ngao (oyster porridge, which I also loved). The results are below.

Add a beer and some stir-fried veggies, and the total for two people came to…$16!

The walk back into town (but not back to Sun Spa) was nice at night, especially passing by an old lighthouse lit up on its upmost deck and with a full moon hanging over it. Unfortunately all my photos of it turned out blurry, otherwise I’d upload one here.

Anyway, the following day it was time to return to Hanoi. The train arrived in Đồng Hới almost half an hour late. I didn’t mind, as the train was scheduled to arrive in Hanoi at 4:02 a.m. In the middle of the night, what difference does half an hour make?

We entered our compartment, stuffed our things in the luggage area over our door, and settled in for the trip back north. If I were staying longer in Hanoi and needed a break from the city, I’d certainly consider Đồng Hới for any future weekend jaunt.

Stumble Upon Toolbar


  1. wow so jealous of your travels...brought back memories reading about the sleeper train! Love reading, don't stop writing!

  2. We are staying at the Sun Spa Resort in Feb 2012 and will certainly visit the fish market and probably the restaurant as well.

  3. Hi Paul: Thanks for your comment! Yes, I think both places will make wonderful visits for you, especially if you're short on time in Dong Hoi. Have fun, and enjoy the food!

    Hi Anonymous: I've been remiss! I had no idea that I failed to reply to you. Thank you for your kinds words about the blog, and very glad to hear that you have such fond memories of sleeper trains in VN!