“Hey Siri, where can I find lush greenery the color of the Amazon, granite boulders the color of Australia, craggy promontories that look like the Moon, and distinctive Asian fishing boats the color of Cookie Monster, all in a relatively dry tropical climate?”
“I’m sorry, I think you’re searching for a different planet.”
Actually, no! Turns out there is an answer, and it’s the little fishing hamlet of Vĩnh Hy. And when I say little, I actually mean it this time around. Vietnamese standards for a “small town” are much different from American ones, but Vĩnh Hy is positively tiny. That may not be the case for long, however; it’s been discovered and is now host to at least one mid-level resort. There’s a shiny new bridge across the river, and the town is hard at work revamping the main street. Yet the side streets (which are mostly better described as alleys) are still classically rural, and the chickens, cows, and barefoot children that amble carelessly along them elucidate the town’s roots better than words ever could.
If you wish to further experience the ‘localness,’ you might want to set an alarm. The town’s market is only open in the morning; by 9am they’re all but packed up. The heat of the day drives most people indoors, and you’ll find little activity in town. Youngsters will gather in the main square after school, however, for an afternoon football (soccer) game. Later, shortly before sunset, you can gather by the dock with locals for street snacks until the first boat arrives. Then crowd the gangway to buy fresh fish literally off the boat. If you’ve got a place to cook (and you stocked up on the necessary veggies in the morning), it’s an idyllic meal.
But here’s where the flip side of the small town comes out: if you ain’t cooking yourself in Vĩnh Hy, you probably ain’t eating very well. We hardly found any restaurants to speak of. The wharf-side seafood shop overcharged like crazy for very poor quality fare. The resort is similarly overpriced (though good for bay-side views over coffee), and the little streetfood-type shop we found for breakfast and lunch was hit-and-miss. Simply put, the restaurants in town are a huge let-down.
Yet we visited twice! Why would we do that? Two reasons: the landscape and the hosts. I alluded to the natural beauty of the area above, but it’s hard to do it justice. The contrast of deep green foliage and orange-red rock struck me as reminiscent of Freycinet National Park in Tasmania, and is enhanced even further by the bright blue fishing boats peppered about the harbor. I’ve missed seeing exposed rock faces in the landscape since coming to Southeast Asia, so this was a welcome surprise – like a few chunks of Lawton, Oklahoma or Red Rocks, Colorado got tossed into Vietnam. It’s a pleasure to just sit and enjoy the vista.
But that’s not all! Call now and we’ll throw in a whole national park! Vĩnh Hy sits on the east side of Núi Chúa National Park. We didn’t actually explore much of it other than the Hang Rái area. Ironically, despite our cost-cutting habits, this is the part of the park that actually costs money to visit. 20,000 dong ($0.86) per person will get you entry tickets (which you bizarrely relinquish 50 meters down the road to a redundant attendant before continuing the half kilometer to the actual parking lot), and a short staircase takes you to the peaceful bolder-strewn shore and a very out-of-place lunar promontory. I can’t find any reliable reference as to what sort of rock (or coral?) makes up Vietnam’s very own chunk of the Moon, but it is stunning to see. Don’t stop there, though. Wander out on the rocks to see the extra little shelf that is a photographer’s dream and the tidal pools that are a marine biologist’s. Hang Rái has only become an attraction in the past couple years, but it now serves a constant stream of wedding and landscape photographers.
The other joy was, surprisingly enough, our lodging. We paid 150,000 dong per night (about $6) to stay in this picturesque little courtyarded inn called Nhà Nghỉ Vĩnh Hy (literally, “Vĩnh Hy House”). It’s a wonderful place to just sit and relax. It’s the off-season, and we happened to be the only guests, so the owners gave us full run of the outdoor kitchen. Trang sat and chatted with them a while in Vietnamese (their English is limited) and they trusted us enough to leave us to our devices completely alone on the property at night – asking only that we switch off the outdoor lights before we turn in. They also run a glass-bottom boat tour, but unfortunately we weren’t able to take advantage of that.
I fully recommend Nhà Nghỉ Vĩnh Hy, but if you book it, do so for the atmosphere and the easy friends, not for luxury. The rooms are very basic, and the bathroom in ours needed a lot of work (it’s clean enough, but the toilet seat was missing and sink drain needs reattaching). If you want Western resort accommodations, you’ll have to drop the coin at the bay-side Discovery Resort. You’ll get the expensive perks there, but not the authenticity. My recommendation is almost always to stick with the simple, local side of life.
You can rough it a little more, though, if you prefer. A chance encounter at Hang Rái led to the most memorable night. We happened to meet a park attendant whose side gig is setting up camping stays for visitors just outside his neighborhood. In this case, “just outside” means “on the tiny island 150 meters from shore.” The little rocky mound is accessible by foot during low tide – you walk by locals gathering mussels and crabs – but reachable only by boat at high tide. We bought a little crab and veggies to barbecue and set out for the night. Both sunset and sunrise from the island were unforgettable!
But our Phượt continues. We love experiencing small, out-of-the-way locations, but we don’t shy away from the tourist destinations either. Next up is Nha Trang, one of the most popular beach towns in the country!