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Owen Salisbury makes a pit stop off the Hanoi Highway, to discover a city whose charms fly beneath the radar

 

“Why are you going there?”

 

Counting out VND46,000, I paused. The ticket agent frowned, baffled. “Why not go to Mui Ne or Phan Thiet?”

 

I explained it was for fun, that I was writing a story about Bien Hoa.

 

Still puzzled, she handed me two tickets, saying, “Good luck.”

 

I think she was wishing me luck at finding fun in Bien Hoa.

 

Don’t be surprised by similar reactions when announcing you’re deliberately going to Bien Hoa. Despite only being a 45-minute train ride away from Ho Chi Minh City, many Saigonites seem to regard it as part howling wilderness, part bleak industrial exurb.

 

It’s neither. It’s a fun little town, with more possibilities than the uninitiated think, easily enough for a pleasant day or weekend getaway. The train ride is cheap and quick, though cab fare mounts up once there. Driving takes twice as long. Buses are even cheaper, though schedules are limited.

 

The train has the added bonus of going over the Ghenh and Rach Cat Bridges, built by one M. Gustave Eiffel, famous for a couple other little trifles in Paris and New York... though these little bridges are deservedly not world-famous.

 


 

K’Tan: Wild Menu, Wooden Taste

131A Cach Mang Tang Tam

 

 

Following locals’ advice, we lunched at K’Tan, right above the Dong Nai River, with the Ghenh Bridge visible down the vast bend of water.
The interior is charming, with faux-aged brick and fake vines hanging from the ceiling, the second floor a nicer version of the first. Our riverside table boasted a marvelous view.

 

But restaurants are about food, and that’s where K’Tan’s charm falters. The menu is vast. Ever craved duck tongues? Pig uterus? Sparrow or pigeon? ‘Dried Beef Ant’s Egg Salt’? (who hasn’t?)

 

My traveling companion and I opted for recognisable food. No waiters spoke English or understood my Vietnamese, so ordering took time. I’m fairly confident we got what we requested, point-and-grunt being universal.

 

It’s sad when the best thing about a restaurant is the rice. Everything looked beautiful, and K’Tan’s garlic-fried rice was good, but the “colourful” mango salad included a smoked fish (“Tastes more like smoked mud,” commented my companion), complete with pop-eyed head, not listed in the menu. The grilled goat with soya cheese was actually deep-fried in margarine, and even sweet garlic sauce couldn’t enliven steamed sweet potato buds.

 


 

Bien Hoa Night Market

Trinh Hai Duc, Bien Hung Park

 

 

After lunch, we walked the rain-freshened town, dotted with jewel-like parks, lakes and unexpected vistas. Our ramble took us to our next destination, the Bien Hoa Night Market.

 

Arriving at dusk, most stalls were still setting up. Western tourists must be rare; we were the objects of double-takes, frank stares, whispers — and often approached in that charmingly bizarre way, for pictures with complete strangers.

 

Established in 2005 with around 100 stands, the Night Market has grown steadily. We browsed along, eventually stopping at Minh Nhat’s six-year-old clothing stall, mostly because employee Sang, 21, asked in excellent English if we could take a picture together. We stayed to chat.
“People come from all over — Long Canh, Sung Loc, Ho Chi Minh City, Binh Duong. All come here, most on Saturday, Sunday and Monday,” said Sang. “They hang out at night and shop.”

 

They did brisk business, customers walking and biking by, waving like old friends. The other stalls, selling everything imaginable but most featuring clothes and snacks, were equally busy.

 


 

Lu Khach Quan Guesthouse: ‘The Place to Be in Bien Hoa’

73A/5 Nguyen Ai Quoc

 

 

This is the third time I’ve been to Bien Hoa — and on both previous trips I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of hotels.

 

The Lu Khach Quan Guesthouse goes way beyond surprising, however — it’s fantastic. Barely 18 months old, it’s simply owner-operator Nguyen Thanh Sang’s family home, and they welcome you to the family with open arms.

 

If you go, make sure you have the guesthouse’s phone number, as most cabbies won’t know the way there. Located far down busy Nguyen Ai Quoc, it’s easy to miss, a building whose narrow front belies the warmth and comfort within.

 

The warmth emanates from Sang and his family, who opened the guesthouse in 2013. When we visited, the hotel was more than fully booked. I slept in an upstairs living room fixed up especially for me, and Sang cheerfully gave up his own bedroom to another guest.

 

Comfort is covered with a beautifully done six-bed dormitory, and the small private rooms are dominated by massive beds. The rooftop garden boasts a nice view, and guests gather nightly to drink and talk with Sang.

 

Breakfast is included in your stay, and is much better than at most hotels.

 


 

Lang Buoi: Pomelo, Pomelo and More Pomelo

Tan Trieu

 

 

Our second lunch was far better, at Lang Buoi, a riverside restaurant of thatched huts and tables scattered amid artfully tamed jungle, next to a pomelo orchard. According to a local friend, Lang Buoi was the first pomelo-orchard restaurant, now much imitated.

 

Here too were local delicacies — field eel, selachian, herring, game birds, boar — alongside dishes from many regions of Vietnam (but usually including pomelo.) The H’mong chicken looked particularly intriguing.

 

Finally, we chose bap xao, an appetiser of fried corn, followed by a massive pomelo-chicken-shrimp salad and com chay chien, crispy browned rice cake with green onion-chilli sauce. And, of course, the mildly alcoholic local pomelo wine, tart and refreshing. We finished with che buoi, pomelo sweet soup.

 

It’s peaceful, next to this lazy river, and while again there were communication problems (the entire restaurant has one lonely, ill-translated English menu) the food made up for it brilliantly.

 

Wine is for sale at about VND120,000 per ceramic, pomelo-shaped bottle. So you can bring home a bottle or two.

 


 

The Halong Bay of the South

Buu Long Park

 

 

We spent our last afternoon wandering Buu Long Park, an amusement park/zoo/outdoor theatre/many other things, complete with restaurants and event centre. Statues abound, like the massive dragons guarding the entrance. A temple features a gilded statue of the sleeping Buddha, surrounded by lesser figures.

 

The centrepiece is the artificial lake, dotted with jagged spires and cliff faces carved into animals. It’s stunning from almost every angle, despite occasional litter.

 

One of the best views is at in-park restaurant Du Long (Street 24), where the whole sweep of the lake is framed by gardens and flowers. Words cannot do it justice.

 

Stopping at a lakeside gazebo, we watched people paddling swan boats in and out of coves, stopping at the tiny islands. Our rest ended when workmen started chain sawing a tree nearby, which seemed a fitting signal to leave.

 

Not Nearly the End

 

When it’s time to leave, either schedule well, or be prepared to shell out over VND600,000 for a cab — buses and trains both stop around 5pm.
I’ll say again: don’t be put off by Bien Hoa’s reputation. It’s a nice, peaceful town not far from Ho Chi Minh City’s bustle, great for when you just need a short break.

 

Weekend over, my travelling companion summed it up nicely: “That was a lot more fun than I expected for my first magazine assignment.”

 


 

The Friendliest Man in Town

 

This mini tour barely touched the surface — ironically, nearly everything we did was included in the tours Mr. Sang offers. Ostrich riding, croc fishing, the midnight market, pomelo village tours… whatever you want to do in or around Bien Hoa, Mr. Sang is there to help.

 

Nguyen Thanh Sang, 33, started his guesthouse 18 months ago, about 18 months after he started his tour company.

 

“When I came back to my hometown from Saigon, I started my company. After a while, I started the tour company to let people know about my city.”

 

When asked more about his company, he demurs, preferring to boost his home city and spread a message of friendship.

 

“I want people to learn about Vietnamese culture and experience Vietnamese hospitality. I want people to really feel Vietnamese family life,” he says. “I really want people to know about my hometown.

 

“The way I’m doing it is to really let people live with my family, going to the market and cooking together. That’s different from other hotels.”

 

To learn more about Mr. Sang’s tours, guesthouse and café, visit his website at lukhach.com.vn

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