Phuoc Hai, 90 km away from Ho Chi Minh City, offers a haven for those who want to give the city’s bustle a miss and enjoy quiet beaches, fresh seafood and trekking in hills.
On beautiful beaches along the 18km coastline of the small town in Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, early wakers can see fishermen collecting fish from nets in coracles.
A couple of resorts have opened in recent years as local authorities, trying to promote tourism, established two major tourism areas along the coast, Hoa Anh Dao (cherry blossom) and Minh Dam.
In January – February couples planning to wed go to Phuoc Hai to take photos with cherry blossoms that bloom along a road stretching five kilometers from Hoa Anh Dao to Deo Nuoc Ngot (Freshwater Pass).
Backpackers can opt to stay at several hotels and guest houses that offer rooms at VND200,000 – VND600,000 (US$9-27).
But white sandy beaches and fishing villages are not Phuoc Hai’s only attractions.
Phuoc Hai is located seafront, with the Minh Dam Mountains on its back that is also home to former military base with complicated systems of natural caves.
Caving, mountain trekking
The Minh Dam Mountains Base Relic is an interesting destination where tourists can learn about history, walk down natural caves and up to the peak.
Nguyen Huu Dinh, the manager of the relics site, said the caves were used as a safe hiding place by soldiers during the wars against the French and Americans from the 1940s to 1975.
“The mountains have been renamed after Bui Cong Minh and Mac Thanh Dam, two local officials who were killed by enemies in an ambush at their foot in 1948.”
From a large hillside temple that venerates nearly 2,700 local war martyrs, tourists can climb stairs for a distance of a kilometer to reach the 327-meter mountain peak where two large national and Party flags fly on 12-m poles.
They can also visit several pagodas on nearby hills.
The peak offers a panoramic view of Phuoc Hai, the nearby Long Hai town and the busy little town of Vung Tau.
Dinh said the complex natural cave system with streams was an important base for local forces in the wars.
The caves have been named after units based there -- like the District Party Unit, Military Medicine, etc. -- he said.
“There are more than 300 caves in the mountains, and four major caves are open to visitors.”
Largest whale cemetery
In Phuoc Hai, every fisherman is proud of his town because it is home to Vietnam’s largest cemetery of whales – the holy creature to which they often pray for good luck at sea.
Tran Van Xua, keeper of the Dinh Ong Nam Hai (Palace of the South Sea God), said he does not know how many whales are buried at the nearby cemetery.
“About 15-50 of them die and are buried here every year. They are either stranded or caught in nets.”
Like in all fishing villages along the country, Phuoc Hai fishermen hold funerals and bury the whales.
“It is lucky for any fisherman to find their bodies. The eldest son of the fishing family will mourn for the whale,” Xua said.
The temple used to be a cottage before being reconstructed recently after local fisherman Huynh Van Hien raised donations from locals.
In 1998 Hien’s boat capsized in a storm and he was brought ashore by two whales.
“After 3-5 years, we excavate the graves and take the bones to the temple,” Xua said.
In 2012 the Vietnam Book of Records recognized the cemetery as the country’s largest cemetery for whales with more than 1,000 whales having been buried over the years.
- How to get there: Tourists can take a bus from Ho Chi Minh City’s Mien Dong Bus Station to Phuoc Hai for around VND60,000.
Motorbikes and cars can take the following route(s): Hanoi Highway or Ho Chi Minh City – Long Thanh – Dau Giay Expressway (cars only) – National Highway 51 – Ba Ria Town – Provincial Road 44B – Provincial Road 44A.
An alternative route to reach National Highway 51 is Mai Chi Tho – Dong Van Cong – Cat Lai Ferry – Road 769 – National Highway 51.
- Accommodation: Thuy Duong Resort (064)3.886.215, Tropicana Resort (064)3.678.888, Bien Xanh Hotel (01289.973.915) and others, all located on Provincial Road 44A along the coast.
- Food: Tourists can buy seafood from fishermen or Phuoc Hai Market to ask restaurants to cook for a fee or just order food. Several popular restaurants are located at the entrance to the Minh Dam Mountains Base Relic: Ba Cay Duoi (0918.580.535), Vuon Xoai (01668.641.724), Cay Duoi (0979.515.844).