Binh Phuoc is so seldom visited by westerners, very little useful, firsthand information is available.
What is available is the Vietbooks 'Yellowbook' for the province -- it's promotional in nature and packed with sites that would be of absolutely no interest to anyone but loyal Vietnamese citizens touring the country's achievements in infrastructure and development. We did our best on our visit to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to come up with some relatively worthwhile spots to check out.
Ba Ra Mountain Ecological Tourism Area
A trip to Ba Ra Mountain is probably the easiest of Binh Phuoc's worthwhile attractions to visit on your own -- in terms of arranging a trip, that is. Getting to the top of the mountain is an entirely different matter.
Ba Ra, just outside the town of Phuoc Long, 60km north of Dong Xoai, is a lone mountain that stands 733 metres above the surrounding flatlands. Luckily, you don't have to hike the entire height. There is a paved road that winds 4km up from the base of the mountain to maybe just about half way. From there, the way to the top is via a very solid 1.5km-long set of stone steps, which ascends more than 400m, from our rough guesstimate. It's a very healthy hike.
Before you reach the top, a path branches to the left leading to a viewpoint where you can take in the panoramic view of the surrounds, including Thac Mo, the lake created by a local hydroelectric project. It's much prettier than it sounds. Continuing up the steps to the top leads to a radio tower -- there are no services up there, so take supplies.
The mountain hosts a yearly race to see who can make it up the fastest. It took us about half an hour at a leisurely pace. At the top, we were in awe of the guys that man the radio tower, realising that this was their morning walk to work.
The road to the mountain is just south and to the east of the town's main intersection. To get there, head north out of Dong Xoai with your own transport, or catch a Phuoc Long bus at the roundabout for 15,000 VND. Once in Phuoc Long, you'll have to catch a xe om to the base and get them to wait for you or pick you up in a couple of hours -- price negotiable. There's no entrance fee for the mountain.
Phuoc Long Victory Monument and War Remnants
If you're in Phuoc Long to scale Ba Ra Mountain anyway, you might as well head east from the traffic circle to another crossroads where there's a Victory Monument commemorating the 1972 liberation of the area by North Vietnamese forces. A crashed US cargo plane is on display right across from it, and you get a good view of Ba Ra. It's a good opportunity to pause and reconsider what you're getting yourself into if you plan to hike up it.
Ta Thiet Army Base, Loc Ninh District
Considering that throughout much of Vietnam, remnants of the war with America have been erased, relocated, or hopelessly gussied up, the Ta Thiet Army Base is something of a standout. It remains pretty much as it was during the war and has been preserved as a monument to a famous general, Tran Van Tra. Given the difficulty in getting to this location, especially for foreigners, we can really only recommend it to war buffs conducting a thorough canvas of the country. Foreigners, as a rule, need official permission to visit the site, though when we went, our tour guide had the right connections and we were waved on through.
The site consists of a "headquarters" where the famed general's picture is on display -- the humble wooden structure is a striking reminder of how starkly different the physical culture of the North Vietnamese was from the Americans'. Beneath the headquarters is an earthen bunker, and a long trench lined with concrete and leading to a foxhole that lets out behind a blind, allowing for the possibility of escape during a frontal attack from the south. The mid-section of the trench is gone, but portions at either end are still relatively intact, so you can scoot along in it pretending to duck incoming rounds. It's a pilgrimage site for the party faithful, so there's a small cafe on site.
The road that leads to the base branches to the east of route 13, 10 km north of Binh Long, and leads 14km to the site, near the Cambodian border. There's no public transport from route 13 to the site, and word is a trip cannot be arranged from Binh Long, only from Dong Xoai. Your only choices seem to be to go through the provincial tourism office or one of the travel agencies. Since none of these places speak English, you'll have to get a bilingual Vietnamese person to make the arrangements in advance -- this would best be done through a tourism office in Saigon. The direct contact number for the site is (0651) 519 287.
Rubber Plantations and Waterfall Number 4
Forestry is Binh Phuoc's bread and butter, and most of it comes in the form of a sticky goo oozing from zillions of rubber trees and dribbling into tiny plastic cups. The short cut from Dong Xoai to Binh Long leads through the plantations, and makes for a pleasant view along the way, if you're heading north. Even if you're not, spending a day exploring the area on a motorbike is pleasant in itself. The plantations are best viewed during the rainy season when the sap is running -- the trees don't produce during the dry season. Occasional roadside noodle joints where workers chow down make good lunch stops.
While you're here, you have the option of winding your way to Thac So 4 -- the colourfully-named waterfall number four. The area around it is meant to be something of a resort, but without accommodation. There's a disused tennis court, a murky swimming pool (which you can swim in if you dare) and even some carnival-type kiddie rides, but these are only in use when the place is booked for a festival. The rest of the time, it's empty. The waterfall is tiny, and there isn't anything to do but go for a walk in the woods. It's skippable, but it gives you somewhere to head when you're exploring the rubber tree plantations. Admission is 5,000 VND. The direct contact number for Waterfall Number 4 is (0651) 666 413.
Soai Lam Lake
Ten kilometres north of Dong Xoai along the road to Phuoc Long, Soai Lom is billed as a "resort" but really it's just an unexceptional, natural lake with one floating restaurant. It attracts a trickle of visitors throughout the year, and, apparently, hordes on certain holidays. There are some paddle boats, but on our visit they weren't renting them out. You can take a dip in the lake and get some coffee at the restaurant, where they play loud Vietnamese pop music just to enhance the serenity of the spot. If you still want to go for a swim, the public bus can drop you off across the road from the entrance, and then it's a 2 km walk to the lake, or you can make arrangements with a mototaxi driver in Dong Xoai. Expect to pay at least US$10 per person for the ride.
Loc Ninh War Vestiges
About 90 km from Dong Xoai, 30 km north of Binh Long, the city of Loc Ninh has some interesting war wreckage on display -- two massive charred and twisted jet engines, a couple of tanks, and some heavy artillery, all of it, purportedly, either shot down or captured during the war. If you're already headed to Ta Thiet Army Base, it's only an extra 10 km to Loc Ninh, so a stop here makes a lot of sense. You can also head directly to Loc Ninh via a public bus from Dong Xoai for 23,000 VND. The site is located just southeast of the town's main intersection, so it's easy to reach from the main road.
Other sites in Binh Phuoc
Judging from the pictures we've seen, Thac Dakmai looks to be a large and gorgeous waterfall, but on our visit, we were told it was off limits. It's somewhere in the extreme north of the province, near the border with Dak Nong. A lesser waterfall, Thac Voi, is also on the menu -- it's an 80 km ride from the town of Bu Dang in the northeast of the province. A traditional village on an idyllic-looking spot called Trang Co Bu Lach, somewhere to the east of Bu Dang, is another attraction.
None of these guys speak English, nor are they accustomed to dealing with westerners. Best to contact them using a bilingual Vietnamese person -- easier to accomplish from one of the major tourist centres before you get here. Good luck.
So Thuong Mai (Provincial Tourism Authority): Hung Vuong Street, Dong Xoai. T: (0651) 885 326
Thuan Phuoc Tourist and Trading: 132 Route 14, Dong Xoai. T: (0651) 880 789; F: (0651) 880 789.
Vietphuoc Travel: 1257 Phu rieng Do Street, Dong Xoai. T: (0651) 888 234; F: (0651) 888 123. email@example.com