There are off-the-beaten track destinations, and then there are off-the-map destinations, and Binh Phuoc province and the provincial capital Dong Xoai are soundly the latter.
About 700,000 Vietnamese, including Hoa, Khmer, M'nong, Nung, Tay and Xtieng ethnic tribes inhabit the area, but according to the provincial tourism authority, they receive only about 900 foreign tourists in any given year.
At least that's what they told us. Going on the reaction of the locals during our visit -- utter shock and surprise punctuated by bursts of nervous giggling -- we'd wager they'd be lucky to get a handful a decade.
Part of the problem is the location. It isn't on the way to or from anywhere in particular. To the north, the province borders Cambodia, but there are no crossings -- only a lot of Vietnamese border guards trying to keep those rascally Cambodians from trying to sneak in and make a buck and any poverty-wracked minority groups from fleeing. That means that much of the northern portion of the province is off limits, or hard to visit without a permit. Extremely little English is spoken here -- there are no English menus and no English-speaking travel agents. We did find one guide who spoke French fluently. If you don't bring along a good phrase book, a good translator, or speak Vietnamese, Binh Phuoc can be a tough place to navigate.
But the problem is also that Binh Phuoc is hardly a cornucopia of travel destinations. The Ta Thieng Army Base is one of the better-preserved relics of the war against America, but its value as an attraction has to be weighed against the time and expense of getting there. War detritus sprinkled throughout the province could lure war buffs but other than that, there are only a few water falls -- the best of which, Dakmai, is off limits -- a nice mountain to hike up, some uninspiring "resorts", and vast rubber tree plantations stretching on for hectare after hectare.
While geographically a part of Southeast Vietnam, we've included Binh Phuoc in our Central Highlands coverage as if you're in the province, chances are you're heading further into the Highlands.
So, why visit Binh Phuoc? Well, maybe you've been practically everywhere else in Vietnam and you're looking to do it all. Maybe you really love war stuff. Maybe a stiff hike up Ba Ra Mountain is tempting enough because, after all -- it's there. Or, maybe you're tired of being sardined into buses and swindled at every turn, and you need to be reminded what the rest of the population of the country is like -- generous, welcoming, curious about foreigners, and hard at work doing things that have nothing to do with trying to empty your wallet.
The provincial capital Dong Xoai is little more than a roundabout at a crossroads, with development radiating around it and quickly tapering off into countryside. There isn't much to it, but if you come for a visit, you are almost guaranteed to be the only foreigner in town and you'll attract a lot of curious attention.
You'll find a decent range of services here as well as some very acceptable accommodation, and restaurants that all offer very similar menus of strictly Vietnamese fare. Dong Xoai makes a good staging area to see the sites in the rest of the province -- some of the better destinations are closer to the district capitals of Binh Long, Bu Dang, Dong Phu, Loc Ninh and Phuoc Long, but you'll have an even harder time organising tours from these locations than from Dong Xoai -- which is saying a lot. They all have services such as internet and post, banks (but don't count on any ATMs or plan to cash travellers cheques outside Dong Xoai) and at least a couple of decent places to stay in the low- to mid-range if you happen to be there overnight.
Dong Xoai is as hard to pronounce as it is to spell (try saying dome soo-aye with a very hard D). Almost everything you'll need is near the roundabout at the city centre, though some farther-flung restaurants are worth seeking out, and the provincial tourist authority is about 5km outside of town.
Just southeast of the main roundabout, hidden from view until you enter it, is the town's large, sprawling, characteristically fetid central market.
The banks have 24-hour ATMs that accept Visa and Mastercard. The most convenient is the Sacombank, right next to the Dong Xoai Hotel, which cashes travellers cheques for a 2% commission. They also exchange major currencies. In case you run into trouble here, there's an Agribank near the main entrance to the market, and another branch, along with an Incom Bank, further up the road from the Sacombank.
Agribank - 1073 Phu Rieng Do St (near the market), Dong Xoai.T: (0651) 870 578; F: (0651) 885 066. Hours: 07:00 to 11:00, 13:30 to 17:00.
Sacombank - Route 14 (Quoc Lo 14) Next to Dong Xoai Hotel, Dong Xoai. Hours: 07:30 to 11:00, 13:30 to 17:00 Weekdays, 07:30 to 11:30 Saturdays.
Internet is available, with most places charging 3000 VND/hour, and the quality of service is generally not too bad considering the remoteness of the location. Things like printing, scanning, and memory card readers are going to be tough to come by, if you can find them at all.
The post office is just past the Sacombank, a few doors down from the Dong Xoai Hotel.
Main Post Office - 416 Route 14, Dong Xoai. Hours: 06:00 to 21:00. T: (0651) 879 741; F: (0651) 870 590.
The bus station is two kilometres south of the roundabout on Phu Rieng Do street, also known as Tinh Lo 741 or DT 741, but you won't need to go there for most local buses or to get to Saigon (see Transport section for more info).
Main Bus Station (Ben Xe Khach Tinh Binh Phuoc) - 2km south of the roundabout, Dong Xoai. T: (0651) 883 057; F: (0651) 883 687.
By Don Morgan