Wednesday, 10 March 2010


After visiting Binh Chau hot spring in the south of Vietnam, I was astounded at the contrast of experience of soaking here and that in other Southeast Asian countries. Was I witnessing progress? Could what is achieved here, be only be done with communist autocratic government? Or are the Vietnamese so totally different?

The main swimming pool complete with faux rocks and cascades.

Vung Tau
But let's start at the beginning. Binh Chau is a hot spring located in Ba Ria province, about 150 km from Ho Chi Minh city (or as some say Saigon), a two and a half hour drive away.
Besides Ba Ria, Vung Tau is another large city in this province and the focal point of tourism; Vung Tau being the beach of Saigon.

From the point of Cap Saint Jacques, Vung Tau is essentially a major area of hotels and beach resorts stretching for about 10 km along the sea facing shore until an expansive coastal flood plain after which a number of smaller resorts dwindle as one continues along the coast north and eastwards.

On the Saigon side large scale industrialization has taken place.

One of these smaller northeastwards located resorts, Binh Chau is a reasonable sized town located 70 km from Vung Tau. As the number of resorts peter out here, so does the quality of the road. From Binh Chau one needs to drive 2-3 km inwards towards the hot spring site itself.

Claims to fame?
Once through the entrance area there is a massive development, wide avenues and big reception buildings. Our car is parked close to the entrance. A 200 m long road leads to an intersection where one can proceed onward by foot to more park -like area, accommodation and the springs proper. Go right and one goes to the soaking section.

The hot spring resort is run by an investment operation called Saigon-Binh Chau Tourist Joint Stock company which includes a local beach resort. Since the turn of the century facilities have been improved and
'in August 2003, the happiness and success of this investment are rewarded by the World Travel Organization’s recognition that Binh Chau Hot Spring is one of the 65 areas of sustainable ecotourism development of 47 nations around the world'.
Yes, that accolade looks good. But looked at it in more detail, reveals that Binh Chau was merely
'a compilation containing 65 case studies received from 47 countries about exemplary practices in small ecotourism businesses (SMEs)'.
I.e., a slap on one's own back rather than 'recognition'. As the publication is not freely available on the web, little insight can be given to the aforementioned claim.
It's also not clear exactly what the WTO understands as ecotourism, their website lacks any definition.

More possible future (investment) development around the Binh Chau includes a safari park and villa's, which might just throw a different light on the eco claim ...

The naming game: call it eco and it is?

Developing hot springs and protecting the environment
Aside from the eco claim, it's not totally clear, but there are a number of references putting Binh Chau hot springs as part of a larger protected area. Amongst these is
Lonely Planet which lists:
'Until about a decade ago there was wildlife in the area, including tigers and elephants, but it seems humans have nearly won the area over'.
Binh Chau's own web site refers to the ecological reserve:
'11.000 hectares of forest, known as Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu natural preservation zone'.
Note that Bin Chau hot springs site themselves are only 35 ha.

More info on the natural reserve can be found in this document from 1997. It contains a forewarning:
'Binh Chau hot springs is designed to suit the tastes of affluent Vietnamese tourists. The flower-lined walkways among hot springs, shady cabanas and a litter of bright painted stucco figures is pleasant and charming.
But, more concerning, the resort also holds a small zoo containing several rare species. Among other things, an eagle sulks in a purpose-built cage shaped like giant a spider's web and listless binturong (Arctitis binturong). It is illegal to keep the endangered binturong. I could not identify the eagle but several species of eagle and buzzard in Vietnam are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Long-tailed macaques Macaca fascicularis, also on the IUCN Red List, were in two small cages. The centre-piece of this exhibit is a giant painted concrete structure resembling a coiled snake, strangling a rampant deer.
When I visited in December 1996, new structures were being added to the zoo complex.Clearly, this architecture enforces common perceptions of nature as mysterious and evil. 'Nature' - the Vietnamese word is 'nguyen', - carries a reproachful connotation of 'primitiveness'. Zoos of this character do nothing to show how precious is nature of itself. Nothing is here about the natural history of these species. Nothing to allow people to empatize with wildlife. Nothing to encourage them to protect their wild resources'.
It's therefore chilling to note the following announcement:
According to Management Board of Binh Chau - Phuoc Buu Natural Reserve, from the beginning to May, 2009, the reserve has attracted 20 tourism projects under ecological- tourism forms. Total investment area of these projects are about of 1,500ha'.
To proceed to the soaking section one needs to purchase entrance tickets in an adjacent building.

This building incorporates changing facilities, showers and lockers, never seen a locker at a soaking site in Southeast Asia!

Beyond the entrance are two palm fringed pools against a backdrop of faux rocks stacked up 5-10 m. This tiled area is backed up by a free form 2 m wide pool, meant for kiddies, containing less warmer water.

In 1 corner are amenities while beyond the kiddies pools are places for mud treatment and VIP soaking rooms. On the other side a track extends into a swamp where there a number of other in-huts-enclosed-tubs, varying in size and thus price.

The main pool though is heated and goes to depths of more than a meter. The soaking experience is somewhat placid, late on a hot weekday most visitors are middle-aged Vietnamese, day visitor tourists already having left. The pool itself could do with some painting and the visible quality of the water could be better.

However, strikingly, almost all patrons are wearing bathing costumes, much in contrast to nearly all other soaking facilities in Southeast Asia. So much so that I wonder whether this is in Southeast Asia at all. It could be Europe or Australia. Canada or the states. I wonder whether this bathing custom is something Vietnamese or simply limited to these facilities.

The sights of Binh Chau: mud baths, hot pool, more mud baths, private pools and jacuzzi.

Throwing Mud
On offer are also mud baths or the opportunity to cover oneself in healing (?) mud.

Possibly this claim is true but what I find weird is why if it it so good, why the need to keep bathing clothes on. Especially women wearing a full one piece suit can be seen covering their suit in mud (below), can't see much health gains in that.

And though there are private enclosures, these are not meant for au naturel bathing. Inside photo's (above) disprove this as well as the fact that the material used allows for outside viewing.

Nguyen Pham's untitled muddy picture from Binh Chau.
Question is if mud equals health,
does this mean that females can not fully profit from the perceived health benefits?

An introductory youtube video on Binh Chau hot springs

Getting there: From Vung Tau head north / east along the coast until Binh Chau village. Take a left on the other side of the village followed by a right turn and after a km you'll arrive at the hot springs site.

Soaking experience: Certainly pleasant, considerable effort has been made to make soaking a worthwhile experience. Of the near 30 soaking experiences I have visited in Southeast Asia, this ranks highly amongst them even though the metamorphosis into a some what sterile soaking area comes at a loss of naturalness.

Overall impression: With in mind that this has been created to attract tourists, one could argue that this has been done tastefully. Certainly it could be a lot worse.

Part of the attraction park are the natural hot springs located away from the soaking pool itself.
It's said that they number more than 70.

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