Wild Camping on the La Nga River: A Guide

First published September 2020 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

The La Nga River rises in the Central Highlands, flows through a series of tight, forested valleys, and meanders across a flat agricultural plain before joining the Dong Nai River, one of the largest waterways in Vietnam. At one point on Highway QL55 – an excellent road connecting the coast with the highlands – the La Nga River is easily accessible from a bridge, where two dirt roads lead along its banks. Located midway between the coast and the mountains, the La Nga River is particularly pretty at this juncture. The banks of the river are bursting with fruits and foliage: banana, papaya, coconut, dragon fruit, jack fruit, cashew, tamarind, lemongrass, bamboo, winter melon, cassava and star fruit all grow in number here. But, rising steeply behind these crop fields are densely jungled mountains. If you have your own wheels and camping equipment, there are lots of potential campsites along the river. Camping by fresh water is special. There’s something about being close to a natural body of water for a day or more: you get to know its character, its ebbs and flows, its smells and personality: its ‘ways’. The La Nga River runs clean, clear and cool, making it good for bathing and swimming. It’s rare to find a waterway such as this within relatively easy reach of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

Camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam
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GUIDE: CAMPING ON THE LA NGA RIVER


Wild camping on the La Nga River is a great excursion for a day or two from Saigon, or as part of a larger road trip around the Central Highlands (see Related Posts), or as an alternative to camping in Dalat. However, independent wild camping requires preparation, common sense, and responsible behaviour. Please read the advice on this page carefully before deciding to camp on the La Nga River, and take particular note of the ‘warnings’ regarding water-level and fires. Click an item from the contents below to read more about it:

*WARNING: The La Nga River is regulated by dams upstream. The water level changes dramatically twice daily by as much as one metre, even in the dry season when there’s been no rainfall. You must be extremely careful both when swimming & when choosing a campsite. Make sure you pitch your tent above the high water mark, not on the beach, because the latter will be flooded under a metre of water once the sluices are opened upstream. Likewise, when swimming in the river be careful of the sudden change in flow & volume when the dams open their gates. When I was last there, the water flow was as follows: 4am-6am the sluices close & water level decreases until 4pm-6pm when the sluices open & water flow increases. The latter time (between 4pm-6pm) is when you need to be most cautious. (However, these times are subject to change.)

CONTENTS:

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


CAMPING MAP:

Camping on the La Nga River, Binh Thuan Province

  • Red zone: area with potential campsites
  • Black lines: dirt roads & tracks along the riverbanks

View in a LARGER MAP


ROUTE MAP:

Alternative routes between Saigon & the La Nga River

  • Blue route: Saigon to the La Nga River
  • Black route: Saigon to Phan Thiet (by train)
  • Red route: Phan Thiet station to the La Nga River

View in a LARGER MAP

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Why Camp on the La Nga River?


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The La Nga River snakes through the mountains, valleys, and farmland of the lower slopes of the Central Highlands. About halfway along Highway QL55 (a great riding road leading from the coastal town of Lagi to the mountain town of Bao Loc), the road crosses a bridge over the La Nga River. The bridge (which I call ‘jumping bridge’ on account of the local kids who dive off it into the water below) is near the confluence of three rivers: the La Nga, the Da Mi, and the Da Ti. The area south and east of ‘jumping bridge’ is flat farmland, but the area north and west of the bridge is steep and forested. The scenery is lush and attractive: crop fields, mountains, plains, and jungle. From ‘jumping bridge’ two dirt paths (the black lines on my map) lead either side of the river for a kilometre or two. Passing along grassy banks, fields of cassava and cashew orchards, these lanes run close the water’s edge, revealing several good swimming spots and potential campsites. The riverbanks are flat with easy access to the water, but behind the river the jungled mountains rise steeply. It’s hard to believe this is Binh Thuan, a south-central province known primarily for its coastal scenery and beach resorts.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


The landscape is green and pretty, and the river water is clear and cool. It’s surprising to find this kind of scenery within relatively easy reach of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Normally, I associate clear rivers and jungled mountains with more far-flung corners of the country, such as the Western Ho Chi Minh Road. And yet, here along the banks of the La Nga River, just a few hours’ ride from Saigon, there are opportunities for river swimming and wild camping. Camping on the La Nga River is peaceful and fun, and makes for a rejuvenating short-break from Saigon, especially if you don’t have time to go all the way to Dalat to camp. Alternatively, camp on the La Nga River as part of a bigger highlands road trip, such as the Dak Nong Geopark Loop, the Back-Ways to Dalat, or the Binh Thuan Back-Roads Loop

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


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Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam

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How to Get There & Where to Camp?

By Road: To get to the La Nga River, you’ll need your own two wheels: motorbike or bicycle. Although the La Nga River can be quite easily reached from popular highland destinations, such as Cat Tien National Park, Bao Loc and Dalat, I’m assuming most people reading this guide will be travelling from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). If so, I would suggest taking the blue route outlined on my map, thus avoiding horrible, busy highways, such as QL1A and QL20, as much as possible. Using this route, the journey from Saigon to the La Nga River is roughly 180km and should take around 4 hours (not including stops). This route includes the Cat Lai ferry (open 24 hours) out of Saigon and various good, paved back-roads and lesser-used highways in order to make the journey as low-stress as possible. However, it pays to leave Saigon very early in the morning or after 7pm if you really want to avoid the worst aspects of the long crawl out/into the city.

By Rail & Road: Another good option for getting to the La Nga River is to put your motorbike/bicycle on the daily express train from Saigon to Phan Thiet, and then ride from the station to the river via the red route on my map. The train journey between Saigon and Phan Thiet is 4 hours and the ride from the station to the river is around 2 hours (80km). This is also an option for the return journey. The train from Saigon usually leaves at 6:40am, and the train back from Phan Thiet usually leaves at 1:20pm.


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Road to wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Road to wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Finding a good campsite: Searching for a suitable site is fun, but can also take some time. Think carefully about what it is you’re looking for. The general area around the bridge across the La Nga River on Highway QL55 (the pink zone on my map) is good hunting ground for suitable campsites. However, it’s best to take one of the dirt roads (the black lines on my map) leading along both banks of the river starting from the bridge. Either of these dirt tracks should reveal a number of potential campsites. Of course, the further down the dirt roads you go, the more isolated, peaceful, and beautiful the potential campsites become. However, if conditions are wet, these dirt tracks can be muddy, slippery and treacherous. Indeed, even when dry, there are certain sections (like this one) that are very tricky on a motorbike, if you’re not used to riding off paved roads. Remember to ride very carefully.

Road to wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


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Use your common sense and don’t leave anything to chance. Wild camping requires you to be sensible, careful and responsible, otherwise things can go badly wrong. Generally, a good campsite in this particular region is one with relatively easy access to the river, on flat ground, near trees, and hidden from sight. This is because you don’t want to attract the curiosity of any passersby. As a general rule, try not to draw attention to yourself: wild camping is still quite unusual in Vietnam, so anyone who sees a traveller setting up their tent in the middle of nowhere will naturally be curious, or even, in some cases, suspicious. Try to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Shade should be another consideration, because when the sun comes up, the days can get very hot, very quickly. Don’t pitch your tent in a position that’s too exposed: try to be near or under some trees. Also remember that, if it rains during the night, you don’t want to be at the bottom of a slope where all the runoff rainwater will flood your campsite. Most importantly, find a campsite within easy reach of the river, because this is one of the main reasons for camping in this area. The river is cool, clear, and refreshing. It’s wonderful to bathe in during the mornings, and there’s even a natural swimming pool where the water is deep enough and calm enough to swim laps. However, it is imperative that you don’t camp too close to the river. Read the warning below:

*WARNING: The La Nga River is regulated by dams upstream. The water level changes dramatically twice daily by as much as one metre, even in the dry season when there’s been no rainfall. You must be extremely careful both when swimming & when choosing a campsite. Make sure you pitch your tent above the high water mark, not on the beach, because the latter will be flooded under a metre of water once the sluices are opened upstream. Likewise, when swimming in the river be careful of the sudden change in flow & volume when the dams open their gates. When I was last there, the water flow was as follows: 4am-6am the sluices close & water level decreases until 4pm-6pm when the sluices open & water flow increases. The latter time (between 4pm-6pm) is when you need to be most cautious. (However, these times are subject to change.)


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Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam

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What Equipment do I Need & Where to Get it?

Make sure you come prepared. This is ‘wild camping’, so it’s up to you to take responsibility for yourself and do everything you can to make sure the experience goes smoothly. Firstly, you’ll need a tent. I bought mine years ago in a camping store in Covent Garden, London. But there are now quite a few camping shops in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and most other major cities in Vietnam that sell decent tents. Camping is becoming more and more popular in Vietnam, especially among young independent travellers, so there are more and more shops selling camping equipment. In Saigon, Danang and Hanoi, FanFan is a good place to start. But you can find other camping stores by googling and asking around wherever you are. In Vietnamese useful phrases are: đồ cắm trại (camping equipment), đồ dã ngoại (outdoor gear), cái lều (tent).


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Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


What kind of tent you choose is up to you, but standard dome tents with a fly sheet should be fine. It’s a good idea to buy a light-weight and compact tent, so that it’s easy to carry on your motorbike. But you also need a tent with a decent fly sheet to keep the rain out, especially if you’re camping between April-October: the rainy season. Although I’m not particularly fond of them, some people like camping hammocks, which are also available from stores in Vietnam.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


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Although technically it’s not absolutely necessary, you should bring a small camp stove (or two) for cooking. (The alternatives being cooking directly over a campfire or bringing pre-cooked food with you). [See Food & Drink]. For the camp stove (or camp fire), you’ll need a lighter or matches and/or fire lighters (you can buy the latter in stores: ask for cồn khô). Other necessities include a torch (flashlight), change of clothes, swimwear, and a light sleeping bag or blanket (the nights can be cool, but not cold). Having something to sleep on is also a good idea: the ground can be hard and uneven, so having something soft between you and it makes the difference between a comfortable night and a sleepless one. Eating utensils, such as spoons, chopsticks, and any tech gear, such as cell phones and power banks, are good to remember too. 

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Most importantly, bring something to put your rubbish in. Sadly, trash is a huge problem in the Vietnamese countryside, especially ‘casual items’, such as instant noodle packages, soft drink cans, water bottles, and candy wrappers. Set an example by making sure you leave your campsite spotless. For peace of mind, it’s good to have a lock or chain for your motorbike so that you can secure the wheels and leave it near your tent during the night (see Safety). Other little things which I’ve found useful over the years are socks (great for wearing outside the tent in the sand or on the earth), wet wipes (great for cleaning your skin and cooking utensils), candles (very comforting at night, especially if you don’t want to make a campfire), mosquito coils (long-burning and effective), thermos bottles (great for storing hot water so that you don’t have to reheat it every time you want a coffee or noodles), a portable musical instrument, such as a guitar or ukulele, and a decent knife.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam

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What About Food, Drink & Toilets?

Although the La Nga River isn’t near any large towns, there are lots of local shops, stores, and eateries in several villages dotted around the area. In particular, La Ngau hamlet is located on either side of the bridge across the La Nga River on Highway QL55. There are a couple of basic grocery stores here. But, for a greater range of supplies head to Ta Pao (10km southwest of the river) or Tanh Linh (the district capital, 20km southwest of the river). Both these towns are an easy ride away on Highway QL55, and both towns have plenty of stores with most things that you might need: local shops and fresh markets selling canned food, cooked food and perishables, cafes, bakeries, hardware stores, mechanics, and electronics stores.

The most important thing to bring is water. You can buy 1.5 litre bottles of drinking water in pretty much any shop, shack, on roadside stall in Vietnam. But, for camping, a better idea is to find a shop selling big 5-6 litre bottles of water. Strap one of these on the back of your motorbike in addition to carrying a couple of 1.5 litre bottles. This should be enough water for two people camping for one day/night, or even two nights if you use it sparingly. It’s surprising how much water you use: making coffee or tea, cleaning utensils, making noodles, brushing your teeth, and drinking.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


As for food supplies, that will depend on whether or not you have a camping stove or cooking pot (which I highly recommend you do). If so, you can be as creative as you like with your camping food. My camping staples are usually packs of instant noodles, cans of tuna, nuts, fruit, chocolate, tea and coffee. You can also bring along garnishes, such as herbs (there are dozens of varieties available in Vietnamese markets and they’re very cheap) and a small bottle of soy sauce (nước tương), fish sauce (nước mắm) or five spice (ngũ vị) to liven things up. I carry a portable coffee maker (either a V60 dripper or AeroPress) so that I can brew good, real cups of coffee while camping, rather than instant coffee. If, however, you don’t have a camping stove or cooking pot, you’ll need to either dine out at one of the towns or get take-out food and carry it back with you to the campsite.

Noodles & herbs, camping food, Dalat, Vietnam


Lastly, bring along something to really drink. The usual brands of lager are available in all shops within proximity of the La Nga River. But I prefer to get a bottle of the local mountain brew to keep me warm and jolly at night under the stars. Rice wine (rượu) is very popular in the Vietnamese countryside. If you ask around, you should be able to fine some local, home-made rượu for sale.

As for toilets, do as the animals do and go in the forest: there are trees, leaves, ditches and dykes. But do it sensibly: dig a hole and cover it up when you’re done.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam

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When is the Best Time of Year to Camp?

By far the best time of year to camp along the banks of the La Nga River is from November to March: the height of the Southern Dry Season. During this time of year, the weather is perfect for camping: dry, warm, sunny and bright during the daytime, but cool during the nights and early mornings. Daytime temperatures inevitably soar to over 30°C, but, once the sun goes down, it’s a pleasant 20-something. In the dry season, the days are bright and glorious, the nights clear with many stars, and the early mornings are damp with dew and the light sharp and bright. During the rest of the year (April to October: the rainy season) there’s always a chance that rain will spoil the fun. The La Nga River is in the ‘midlands’: the transitional region between the baking coastal plains and the damp highlands. The clouds can roll down off the mountains at any time and the rains burst from the sky in torrents. If camping at this time of year, come prepared for wet conditions. It’s wise to check the weather forecast for the next 24 hours before you decide to camp. I use the rain/thunder satellite on Windy.com.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam

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Is it Safe to Camp?

I’ve camped along the banks of the La Nga River several times over the last few years, and I’ve never had a bad experience. I’ve never been told not to camp and I’ve never had a problem with local authorities. Last time I camped, a couple of forestry workers approached my campsite: I asked their permission to camp, and they said it was fine as long as I did so responsibly. (See also How to Choose a Campsite.) When you go to sleep, make sure you have all your most valuable possessions with you inside the tent, and don’t leave food out during the night as it may attract animals. In general, if you come prepared and use your common sense, you should be fine. Make sure you read the ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’ warnings below.

*WATER WARNING: As mentioned previously in How to Choose a Campsite, the water flow of the La Nga River is regulated by dams upstream. The water level changes dramatically twice daily by as much as one metre, even in the dry season when there’s been no rainfall. You must be extremely careful both when swimming & when choosing a campsite. Make sure you pitch your tent above the high water mark, not on the beach, because the latter will be flooded under a metre of water once the sluices are opened upstream. Likewise, when swimming in the river be careful of the sudden change in flow & volume when the dams open their gates. When I was last there, the water flow was as follows: 4am-6am the sluices close & water level decreases until 4pm-6pm when the sluices open & water flow increases. The latter time (between 4pm-6pm) is when you need to be most cautious. (However, these times are subject to change.)

Wild camping on the La Nga River, VietnamThe La Nga River at low water: when the sluices of the dam upstream are closed


Wild camping on the La Nga River, VietnamThe La Nga River at high water: when the sluices of the dam upstream are open


Most of the big animals and predators that used to roam these forests – tigers, white rhino, elephants, bears – are now long gone: hunted and poached to near extinction. Nonetheless, nighttime can still be a scary and sobering experience: the darkness belongs to animals, not humans. You get a real sense of this as you lie in your tent, listening to the chorus of animals and insects outside in the big, black landscape. Don’t leave food outside your tent at night: clean your utensils, stash your food in a container, and tie up your litter in a bag. Snakes and mosquitoes are probably the most dangerous animals you’re likely to encounter, neither of which like fire. Snakes, apparently, don’t like heavy footfall and are unlikely seek out a place of human actively. (I’ve seen many snakes in Vietnam, but none when I’ve camped.) For mosquitoes, burn a coil throughout the evening and night, and bring bug spray if you need it. (See also Equipment.) In the night, there are occasional howlings, animal calls, and rustling in the trees and brush. In some cases, these could be poachers prowling the forests at night.

*FIRE WARNING: It should go without saying that if you make a campfire you need to be extremely careful, especially in the dry season, when everything is crisp, brittle & easy to ignite. At this time of year, the forests can be very arid & fire can spread quickly & easily. Be sensible, keep your fire small & under control & don’t take anything for granted.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam


I lock the wheel of my bike at night (although it would be almost impossible to steal it without being woken). I also leave my bike facing in the direction of ‘escape’, if for some reason I need to make a quick exit during the night (bad weather, perhaps, or some unforeseen circumstance). If you do need to bail out in the middle of the night, Ta Pao (10km) and Tanh Linh (20km) are the nearest towns of any size: both have local guest houses (nhà nghỉ). Other safety precautions include, keeping your bearings, making sure you have a flashlight (and spare batteries), a USB battery pack to charge your phone, and a good knife. All of these items should be kept easily within reach while in your tent at night. But most of all it’s about using your common sense and keeping your wits about you.

Wild camping on the La Nga River, Vietnam

Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free & independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I enjoy camping in this area & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here

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