Central Vietnam Golden Loop
One of the great things about Da Nang is it’s central location. From here, it’s possible to take lots of fun weekend trips around Central Vietnam. I’ve already written about my trips to Tam Ky, Quang Ngai, Ly Son Island and many trips to Hue. But this last weekend I decided to to a drive that I’ve heard about many times, but never done in one round trip: driving to A Luoi. My trip went Da Nang – Prao – A Luoi – Hue – Da Nang. I’ve heard it called the Vietnam Golden Loop, so let’s go with that.
Leaving Da Nang
First order of business: getting out of town. There’s a couple ways you can go, but I chose to go over the Hoa Cam Bridge. Basically head out past the Tuyen Son Bridge (the ‘Lotte Bridge’), keep going past Metro till you get to the big ‘flyover’ bridge. Once on the other side, you’ll quickly realize that you’re no longer in the city, as there’s mostly industrial parks and then countryside. I hit my first snag of the trip when I realized the key my girlfriend had made me for her bike (much more road-trip-worthy than my zippy Honda 67) was only for the ignition, not the gas tank, so I had to backtrack over the Hoa Cam Bridge to find a locksmith.
Driving to Prao
Once I got the key sorted and the bike gassed up, I was on my way to Prao. The road to Prao is pretty straightforward. The only potential pitfall is making sure you turn off on Highway 14G, otherwise you’ll end up in Kon Tum. The turnoff isn’t not very well marked, but there’s a small billboard of a super ripped dude which I took to be a gym advert. Trust me, in the middle of the countryside, it stands out. Hang a right there and you’re set. It’s a great drive through some forest, and there’s really nowhere to turn off, so just enjoy!
I got to Prao around 1 pm and had to make a decision: continue on to A Luoi, or call it a day and spend the rest of the afternoon in Prao. It’s only another 100 kilometers, but it’s up a super windy stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Road. The guy at the gas station told me the locals can get to A Luoi in three hours, but that I could expect to do it in four. What he didn’t say was that it was about to start pouring rain and there’s almost nowhere to take cover along the way.
Driving to A Luoi
Put off by the thought of covering less than 100 km in a day, and tempted by the idea of having all the next morning to explore A Luoi before heading to Hue, I decided to go for it. Not so smart, in retrospect. As soon as I got out of Prao, it started raining. And it kept getting heavier. I had brought rain gear, but after 30 minutes in this rain I was totally soaked.
With nothing but jungle in front of my for the next four hours, my only choice was to press on. There was some small relief: two tunnels along the way where I could at least escape from the downpour for a few minutes and mentally regroup.
About four hours later, as I was rolling into A Luoi, the weather started clearing up. But it didn’t matter; I was soaked, tired and cold. It was time for a hot shower, a dry change of clothes, and a warm bed. There’s only a handful of hotels in A Luoi, and not many more restaurants. I walked into Thanh Do and got quoted 200,000 VND a night, so that was that. Dinner was decent but unexciting: bánh canh, a chunky noodle soup with freshwater fish. At least it was hot.
Around A Luoi
A Luoi certainly isn’t known for it’s nightlife, so I went to bed early and set the alarm for 6 am. And after a thorough cleansing at the hands of Mother Nature, the next morning was gorgeous.
After a morning coffee, I went to the visitor center to see about getting a local map of the area. The girl looked at me like I was crazy. The only ‘visitors’ there were a group of kids from Hue, who asked me to take a picture with them in front of an old American helicopter. I still don’t really know how to feel, as an American, about Vietnamese people asking me to take pictures with them in front of war relics, but after seven years I’ve stopped trying to figure it out and just smile for the camera.
I learned there’s two main things to do around A Luoi: a hot spring and a waterfall. Both require swim attire, which I didn’t have.
Hot Springs – Suối Nước Nóng
Head south out of town about 20 km. You’ll go down a big windy mountain into a valley. Right as the road levels out again, on the right-hand side is a sign for what’s basically a village medical center. Yep, the hot springs is in a hospital, which kind of felt like an army barracks.
And just my luck, it was medical check-up day, so it was full of people. Not wanting to strip down in front of all the patients, I settled for a picture with one of the dudes there. But I did stick my hand in the water and it is in fact hot, and does smell like sulfur, so it’s the real deal, folks.
Waterfall – Thác A Nôr
The waterfall is on the north end of town, maybe five km out. Turn right at a place that says ‘Khu Du Lịch’ – Tourist Area. I believe there is some English signage as well, which is weird considering how remote the place is. Without swim trunks, I was essentially just going to take a look, but it was worth the visit. This water comes from the mountains, and it’s very cold!
Driving to Hue
Having ticked off all the major tourist attractions in A Luoi, it was time to head to the next spot on my Vietnam Golden Loop drive: Hue. Head south out of A Luoi and turn left at the big sign; you can’t really miss it. To my surprise, the road goes from flat to mountain pass almost immediately, and it’s beautiful! As I headed into the mountains, I noticed some gray clouds forming behind me and feared the worst. It even started to sprinkle a bit. But with blue skies ahead of me, I pressed on as fast as I safely could and managed to stay ahead of the weather.
I’ve been to Hue a bunch of times. Outside of Da Nang, it’s probably my favorite place in Vietnam. The people are lovely, the city is nice, and the food is incredible. On this visit I had a dish that, in my seven years here, I’d never even heard of: bún nuốc, which is a dry noodle salad with a kind of jellyfish and a crab-based sauce. The place to eat this dish is at 2 Chi Lang, just over the Gia Hoi Bridge. I paid 25,000 for a bowl, and it’s open after 1 pm. The flavors are pretty good, but like so many Vietnamese dishes, it’s driven more by texture. Crunchy rice cracker with firm jellyfish on a bed of fresh veggies and thin noodles make this a great, refreshing afternoon food spot.
Driving to Da Nang
After a couple days in Hue, it was time to heard home. I definitely prefer the longer but more scenic coastal QL 49B to the madness of Highway 1. Cross the Pham Van Dong Bridge out of Hue and head north-east to Thuan An Beach. Once you reach the beach, make a right and just go straight the whole way. You’ll pass through some cemeteries and a couple little villages. It’s not jungle driving but there’s no cars and not many people on the road, so it’s pretty mellow. Eventually you’ll reach a big bridge with this view:
Yep, you’ll be driving over those mountains soon. That there’s what they call the Hai Van Pass. It’s a great drive and I highly recommend it over the boring and not-actually-that-much-faster tunnel. Altogether driving to A Luoi and back via Hue clocks in at under 500 kilometers, so it’s quite manageable.
How was the Vietnam Golden Loop? Leave a comment below or head over the the forum.