Adventure is one of the reasons I moved to Ho Chi Minh. Exploring the never ending list of good local food, building friendships with locals and expats, learning to drive the motorbike, adapting to the crazy way locals navigate the roads, and working for a school with an internationally-represented staff and kids of diverse culture are presenting me constant fun adventures everyday. HOWEVER, Saigon disappoints me when it comes to nature adventures. The closest thing to nature that HCMC has is a river system but you cannot actually do anything with it (although I see locals fish there sometimes). Oh, there are also some nice parks where you can chill… but chilling is not an adventure for me. This made me appreciate more my home country where I could (almost) never run out of mountains to hike nor waterfalls to jump on that are just 1-3 hours away from the central Manila.
Silent hill at Mount Chua Chan Mountain
Quest to Get Lost in Nature
Right after I hiked the highest peak in Southern Vietnam (Black Virgin Mountain, Tay Ninh – click here for the DIY guide), I searched for the next mountain I could climb. I found a very few and probably outdated information about Chua Chan Mountain in Dong Nai Province, the second highest peak in Southern Vietnam at 800 MASL. No information about routes, if there are guides required, how much time and money to budget for the entire thing. But the challenge of the unknown made me even more excited to do it. So that Saturday, I hopped into my motorbike with 3 other friends tagging along and headed west of HCMC. I also posted the event in Couchsurfing as I usually do to open the hike to other joiners. One local from Long Khanh joined our trip.
Getting to Chua Chan Mountain
Nui Chua Chan (Nui means mountain in Tieng Viet language) is 90km from District 2. There are buses that would take you to Long Khanh District in Dong Nai but getting to the foot of the mountain would be a hassle without your own means of transportation. So take your motorbike and go the 2nd route below. We took the first route because we we’re following our local Vietnamese company but it proved to be a longer route although the distance is a bit shorter than the 2nd route. The first route has a very good road though so the drive was fun. 🙂
In Long Khanh, we stopped for a Cafe Sữa Đá (Vietnamese Iced Coffee) and Sinh Tố break, also to meet up our couchsurfing joiner who was a local from Long Khanh.
At the final approach to the foot of the mountain is a path that shows a good panorama of the mountain where you should not miss a shot of. 🙂 Finally, you will find a big open space that looks like a parking lot opposite of which is a covered parking space where we parked for 10K VND. 🙂
Hiking Chua Chan Mountain
Our hike took 2.5 hours of almost endless staircases and forest-crossing to reach the top. A physical preparation is highly recommended before any hike, especially this one! One of my company who never hiked before, although struggled, finished it well which means anybody, even someone who has no experience hiking before could do this. There is actually a cable car that could help shorten the trekking time but we opted to experience it the natural way which served us well experience-wise because taking the cable car meant missing the endless staircases. That being said, I could not share details about the cable car such as expense and travel time. Below however is the entry point if you want to ride it.
The Stairway and the “Elevated” Vietnamese Society
Similar to Núi Bà Đen, the start of the trek of Nui Chua Chan is a paved path of almost an hour of ascend! But it’s such an experience to see the way the Vietnamese are living in this elevated neighborhood. Despite a very little number of hikers (in fact we just encountered 4 little groups along the way on a Saturday), you will see a lot of small food, rest and souvenir shops mostly throughout the paved staircases. Maybe Sundays would be more busy for them because of the pagodas present in the mountain.
Nothing else but Nature
After an hour of staircase trekking, you will finally enter the “this is what you came for” part… mountain-trekking! Unlike Nui Ba Den, this one is foresty rather than rocky. It also has less trash along the trail than the former. At times you will have to stoop moving forward through the low hanging bamboo branches.
The tiny yet instinctive trail implies that the mountain has not been hiked by a lot of visitors yet. When you encounter forks, just always choose the wider trail. If you end up the same route as we took, you will encounter a very confusing path to either the left or right, with no marker to help you. We took 5 minutes to decide and ended up going the left route. After around 10-20 minutes of that big decision, we saw a trail marker which means we made the right choice! there was very little clearing while we were ascending. Although it would be better if we could completely see the view down, we enjoyed being enveloped by the clouds 🙂
The dramatic summit surprised me as I’ve never seen such a peak before. In the google pictures, the summit looks green. But when we arrived there, it was a vast land of burned grasses that turned into yellowish brown. There were also traces of baby plants ready to be planted so we concluded that the locals probably intentionally burned the grass to make way for the new plants.
The breeze was soothing to the soul and perfect for a nap. It was neither sunny nor raining, and there was only a little clearing. It was such a great reward to be one with nature again even just for a day.
The summit is a vast land with one area full of burned grasses and another area full of lush trees. I tried to venture into the woods on my own but there seemed to be no trail and I was actually scared to get lost alone while my friends are having a nap :p
We started to descend at 2:30 pm and it was a smooth 1.5 hours of downhill.
Hiking Considerations and To-Bring
-The path has a lot of tall grasses that makes your skin itchy so better wear long sleeve and pants. A lot of mosquitoes too so long clothes will protect you from the bites as well.
-Check the weather forecast. It was a thunderstorm forecast during our hike and it was amazingly cold at the summit with a lot of clouds in our midst! Even though it rained at the start of our trek, the path was easy to go through, although a little muddy.
-For non shoe-lovers, you can use an open trekking sandals. I happily made it without a pair awesome trekking shoes.
-Camping at the summit is also possible.
-Bringing trail food and lunch is recommended but you can also get food from the food stalls around the stairway.
Important to bring the ff:
-Sun and rain protection (there are light plastic raincoats available at the stores along the stairway at 5K VND… better than the motorbike raincoat.)
-Trail food, lunch and at least 1L of water
-Change of shirt (optional)
5:30am ETD from Ho Chi Minh City
6:00am Breakfast somewhere (30 mins)
6:30am Continue Driving (with stopover buffer)
9:00am ETA at the foot of the mountain, park, prepare your stuff, walk to the start of the stairway
09:30am ETA staircases, pagodas
10:30am End of the staircases, start of the mountain trekking
12:00am ETA at the summit, lunch/eat, chill
2:00pm Start descend
3:30pm ETA at the the foot of the mountain
4:00pm Drive to Long Khanh to eat its specialty, Bun Rieu
4:45pm ETA to to Long Khanh, dinner
5:30pm Continue driving to HCMC
7:30pm ETA HCMC
My Actual Expenses
80K gas (100K had a lot of leftover)
25K breakfast along the way
90K Packed lunch (SPAM and Banh Mi)
30K Awesome dinner, Bun Rieu in Long Khanh
Total expense: 280K VND ($13)
Chua Chan Mountain is a good daytrip from Ho Chi Minh City to quench you thirst for some nature adventure. The hike is challenging, trail is quite clean and environment is definitely unspoiled by the locals. I made a teaser video to entice you to do this trip for the coming weekend, you can watch it here.