If you want fresh air and lofty mountain views, get on your bike and head towards Vung Tau. Just over two hours from Ho Chi Minh City, the mountains of Chau Pha are not inland, as you might expect, but sit in an otherwise flat plain close to Vietnam’s southeastern coastline. A day’s visit to these lush oases amounts to a pretty significant road trip, but many people still make the journey for work, faith or simply for a chance to adventure.
About halfway through your journey, take a slight detour from Highway 51 and loop through the town of Long Thanh. You will soon pass Cong Vien Cong 3A on your right. This eerie park was empty of life on the Monday we passed through. There is an abandoned playground as you enter and the rest of the park sits around an oddly peaceful lake.
Chau Pha is a resource-heavy area, home to one of the country’s most significant power plants, countless industrial parks and local mining operations. There aren’t many options for food, but if you head down the main road you will eventually pass by Quan An Huong Dong Quan, a streetside com joint. It is run by a group of aunties, populated by a few placidly indifferent dogs and hung with hammocks. We paid a mere VND60,000 for a generous meal and tasty iced tea and asked for directions to the mountain road.
Nui Bao Quan and Nui Suong Mu sit side by side, with one track ascending between the two peaks. The road is about 10km from the highway to the very top, and you can drive the whole way. The mountains are home to a number of temples, and most visitors to the mountain come to pray for family and friends.
The first of these temples sits 4km from the highway, and a kilometre above that is a collection of roadside coffee shops and bike parking areas, capitalising on a creek that lies just off the road. There are no designated parking areas for people who want to climb the mountain, but if you have time and are itching for some exercise then leave your bike at this spot and join the many young couples strolling around Suoi Tien.
About 1.6km up from this is one of the strangest Buddhist temples we had ever seen. Chua Dieu Linh is home to one Buddhist monk, Thanh, a collection of bedraggled canines and a host of gaudy statues flecked among the trees like plastic priests. Thanh lives off temple donations, spending his days alone in robes of orange to tend to the complex, make offerings to the deities and add more bizarre statues to the temple ranks.
A man named Phu and his wife were visiting the complex when we pulled up. He had driven to Nui Bao Quan from his home in Ho Chi Minh City, to pray for good health and prosperity. According to him, the mountains at Chau Pha are mostly Buddhist with a wide variety of temples on and around their slopes. Chua Dieu Linh is one of the most isolated, but many people come all year round to offer money and prayer in exchange for blessings.
“First you say your name, your age, and then you ask Buddha to bless your parents, your family, your friends and finally you,” he explained. “Most people ask for health, for food to eat, for money, success and for happiness.”
Phu took me to the largest shrine at the complex behind three sticks of elaborately inlaid incense. He prayed first, bowing his head to the carpet on the temple floor and then putting a note into the donations box beneath the shrine.
“You can give whatever you have,” he said. “Two thousand or 500,000 — it doesn’t matter. Give what you can give, and ask with respect.”
Driving down the mountainside again, we passed countless groups of local people in exercise gear, mostly 50 years and older, walking up the slopes with inspiring ferocity. We took petrol from an ancient roadside pump vendor and waved goodbye to flocks of school kids on bicycles around the fields below, then turned right and hit the road home.
With its mines, mountains and monks, Chau Pha is a strange place. But if you have the time for a day of exploration or a fascinating stop-off on the way to the sea then it is well worth the visit.
Drive up the Hanoi Highway and continue onto Highway 52. Take a right onto the Highway 51 at Bien Hoa and follow it to My Xuan. Turn right onto My Xuan — Toc Tien, then right again onto Hac Dich — Toc Tien and a final right onto Ba Ria — Chau Pha. To return, loop under the mountains and back onto Highway 51, retracing your drive back to Saigon.