Sprawling Nghe An province juts westward into northeastern Laos and cups around the South China Sea to the east. To the north lies Thanh Hoa province and to the south you'll find the equally uninteresting Ha Tinh province. Nghe An though is a little more interesting.
For starters, as soon as you step into Nghe An you're steping into Ho Chi Minh's birthplace and as such, for cadres-cum-tourists Nghe An is where it's at. Uncle Ho was born in the hamlet of Kim Lien some 15km north of the provincial capital and today it's a pilgrimage spot.
The provincial capital on the other hand, Vinh, is a large industrious town, home to a sizeable port -- if that doesn't sound too enticing then you're right on the money. US bombers absolutely flattened the city during the American War and while scarce evidence of the bombing remains, what does remain are loads of what-were-they-thinking communist-era buildings which were built with East German assistance once the war ran down.
When they think of Vinh, the first thing that comes to mind for the Vietnamese is "Ho Chi Minh". He was born and raised in the small, humble hamlet of Kim Lien just 15 km outside the city. Today, it's a well-preserved pilgrimage spot for the party faithful, and a good stop for travellers interested in a thorough understanding of Vietnamese contemporary culture.
The port of Vinh was a major source of supplies destined for the Ho Chi Minh trail, and as a result, the city was repeatedly bombed back into the stone age during the American war. You won't see much evidence of that now, though we did spot some old bunkers along the nearby beach at Cua Lo.
Cua Lo is a popular Vietnamese tourist magnet, with many hotels that have been around since before Doi Moi. The beach is quite decent, the scene is very local, with a strong reputation for massage parlours and the associated sex trade. You'll probably want to do your serious summer beach going further to the south, but if you wind up here in good weather it's worth a day-trip or an overnight.
Vinh is located along Highway 1, 197 km north of Dong Hoi, and just under a hundred kilometres from the Lao border at the NamCan / Nam Khan crossing. It's about 290 km south of Hanoi, 1,430 km north of Ho Chi Minh City, and its an express stop on the train line.
The main reason people find themselves in Vinh is to make a run for the border between Vietnam and Laos. There's now two border crossings one can opt for -- to the southwest via Route 8 lies the Nam Phao / Cau Treo which leads to Lak Xao and eventually Tha Khaek; and to the northwest via Route 7 is the NamCan / Nam Khan crossing which ends up in Phonsavan in Laos.
Most of the accommodation in Vinh is found along a strip of road to the west of town that changes name three times over the course of less than three kilometres -- Quang Trang, Le Loi and Mai Hac De. Since it's convenient to the train and bus stations, this is where many end up staying, and if it's all you see of Vinh, you'll likely to be very unimpressed. It's a frantic stretch of road, with not much to see and few good eating options other than noodles and rice. We strongly recommend to anyone staying here for any length of time that they seek out accommodation on the quaint and quiet back streets of Vinh, to the south and east of the Central City Park.
The park centres around a monumental statue of Uncle Ho that's beautifully lit up at night, and there's an amusement park with some rides that's good for a diversion, especially if you're travelling with kids.
A good map of Vinh (Thanh Pho Vinh, Cartographic Publishing House) can be purchased at Thanh Vinh Books on Tran Phu Street for 15,000 VND. It features good insets of Kim Lien and Cua Lo beach, and a provincial map on the reverse. It's mostly in Vietnamese, but readable.
Vinh is oriented more towards Vietnamese tourists, but Westerners interested in booking tours to Kim Lien, Cua Lo Beach, and other sites in the area might do well at the Phuong Dong Hotel's Travel Centre. Options we haven't had a chance to cover yet include: Nguyen Du Memorial Place (famous Vietnamese writer), Pumat primal forest in Con Cuong District, an ancient Thai Village, as well as grottoes and caves in Quy Chau and Que Phong districts.
Cheap, decent internet is easy to find in Vinh, but if all else fails, head to the main post office on the roundabout to the north-west of the Central City Park where it costs 2,000VND per hour.
There's a Vietcombank ATM at the corner of Le Hong Phong and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.
Post Office (Buu Dien Thanh Pho Vinh): 2 Nguyen thi Minh Khai, Vinh. T: (0383) 561 401, F: (0383) 832 644. Open daily 07:00 - 21:00.
Phuong Dong International Travel Centre: 3rd floor, Phuong Dong Hotel, 2 Truong Thi, Vinh. T: (038) 842 011, F: (038) 842 254.
Thanh Vinh Books (Nha Sach Thanh Vinh): 59 Tran Phu, Vinh. T: (038) 591 167. Open: 07:00 to 21:30.
By Sarah Turner.