An easy adventure
Many daytrip destinations from Hoi An can be done with a run-of-the-mill guided tour that tick off a laundry list of tourist sights. For an independent adventure that is cheap, filled with local colour (and flavours) and remains relatively unexplored, check out the area around Lang Co.
Lang Co is a small town on the other side of the Hai Van Pass from Da Nang. Its existence hinges on three things. It's a throughway, with major Highway 1A zipping right through town. Fishing: it's sandwiched between the coast and an enormous seawater lagoon that's stocked with shellfish farms growing mussels, oysters and clams. And it has miles and miles of coast; during the hot, dry months from around March until October, this is a great place to check out some very low-key beaches. The town itself is rather unattractive and not worth spending time in except to have a seafood meal at one of the restaurants perched on the lagoon.
There are three ways to reach Lang Co from Da Nang: Go up 496 metres and over the scenic Hai Van Pass, a route that was thrust into the limelight by an episode of BBC TV show Top Gear. The most popular way for travellers is to rent a motorbike or take an Easy Rider-type motorcycle tour. Cycling diehards can tackle the route solo or with a bicycle tour company, but be warned, it is a strenuous challenge! The second option is to go via the Hai Van Tunnel, which opened in 2005. At 6.2 kilometres, it is the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia. A small toll fee applies. Motorbikes are not allowed to drive through so you'd have to take a passenger/bike shuttle; this is the best option at night or if the weather is miserable, as the pass can be dangerous in stormy or foggy conditions.
The other (and very enjoyable) way to go to Lang Co is on the train, chugging along a scenic route on the coast. Unfortunately Lang Co isn't a regular stop, so train service is usually limited to the mornings, which means if you are planning to return to Hoi An, you can't do it the same day by train. From Da Nang, take train SE22 (last stop Vinh) departing at 06:22, arriving at 08:03, or TN2 (last stop Hanoi) at 08:35, arriving at 10:04. From Lang Co, trains to Da Nang (in the direction of Saigon) are TN1 at 05:24 or TN2 at 10:04. A ticket for a hard seat or a soft-seat with air-con is 29,000 dong. Actually, the hard seat is best for photos as you can usually open the windows and grab photos without scratched, dirty glass. In the air-con compartments, Vietnamese passengers also tend to vigilantly keep the curtains shut to ward off any chance of sunlight touching their skin. When travelling from Da Nang to Lang Co, book a seat on the right side for the view.
Tiny Lang Co train station is inconveniently located a kilometre from town, at the south side of the lagoon, close to the start of the Hai Van Pass, which goes underneath the big bridge leading to the tunnel. If you go along the road to the start of the Hai Van, just as it starts to rise up the mountainside and above the train tracks, on a clear day you get an absolutely spectacular view of the beach, town, mountains and bridge. This shot has become iconic and in the Top Gear episode, the presenters stopped here to wax poetic about it.
What to do in Lang Co
If you're on two-wheels, be it bicycle or motorbike, a spin around the lagoon is a must. Set against a lovely backdrop of mountains, a narrow road winds around the water's edge and the body is so vast, at times it feels like you are at the ocean. Do be careful of chickens, dogs and other farm animals on the road. On clear days the surrounding mountains provide a stunning backdrop, while during cold, wet season, it may not be as comfortable riding around but the gloomy weather can make things unexpectedly beautiful and dramatic.
Seafood lovers can dig in at one of Lang Co's many seafood restaurants built up on stilts at the edge of the lagoon. We've dined here many times and the best joint, hands down, is Be Than. Buckets and tanks of sea creatures greet those who cross the wonky bridge up to the restaurant -- check out what is alive and fresh. The clams steamed in a pot with lemongrass, chilli and ginger are usually exceptional, as are the grilled mussels topped with a chopped mix of tomato, herbs and peanuts. Also try the stir-fried morning glory, whole fish steamed, squid (dip them in a slurry of salt, pepper and lime juice) and when fresh, the salt-chilli fried prawns. It's a rudimentary affair -- expect locals to be toasting their way through cases of Huda beer and discarding everything on the floor. No English spoken but most times there's a menu in English available. Vietnamese tend to eat dinner early (around six) so don't delay dinner too late as restaurants shutter up accordingly. Be Than is located west of Highway 1A. From the main road, simply find a lane that leads to the lagoon and drive along the water.
There are plenty of swimmable beaches to explore, with the best time to visit from around March to October. Don't expect anything glamorous until you hit Laguna Lang Co, an integrated resort property 20 kilometres away. Most of the coast running north from Lang Co town is very local and quiet until sunset, which is when families come for a cooling end of day swim. One of our favourite spots is Chan May Beach. To get there, once you exit the tunnel or the Hai Van Pass, continue on the main road Highway 1A north through town. On your right hand side, you'll see a sign pointing for the turnoff to Laguna Resort. Turn right onto this road and follow it for exactly 10 kilometres. On the right is the entrance to a village on the beach.
For now Chan May is blissfully empty. The beach is vast and flat, the waters very shallow quite a way out. Take a spin down the sand on your bike or motorbike, and watch fishermen drag in nets and sail out on basket boats as women sit and collect cockles. A few shacks offer low plastic chairs in the sand where you can sip a cold Huda (the local beer of choice in Hue), rice crackers and some fresh, cheap seafood. A metered taxi from town should cost no more than 200,000 dong, one way.
For more formal dining options, one beach up from Chan May (just continue on the same road and follow the signs another six kilometres) is Laguna, home to five-star resorts Banyan Tree Lang Co, Angsana Lang Co and a golf course. Outside guests are usually able to dine at their beachfront restaurants. The area around the entrance road to the resort is great for independent explorers who love pretty rural scenery complete with jungle-shrouded mountains, the Bu Lu River and rice paddies full of white ducks and wallowing water buffalos. You do have to get away from the town and the main highway to see these scenes, but it's well worth the extra kilometres.
If a stay at a five-star resort is out of your league, then for accommodation you are limited to an abundance of basic, very local hotels in Lang Co town. There really is no shortage, as being on Highway 1A, it is often a truck stop. Mai Nga Hotel (T: 054) 387 4432; email@example.com; maingahotel.com) is considered the best of the bunch. Rooms cost around 250,000 dong per night.
All beached out? Bach Ma National Park is a short taxi ride away. Think jungle activities including mountain walks (the views from the summit are breathtaking), lakes, waterfalls and nature -- monkeys and leeches, lots and lots of leeches. One of the best tours to take if you are just spending the day is the five lakes guided trek, which takes you on an eight-kilometre adventure hike through the best of the park.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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