Phu Yen has some unique assets that set it apart as a tourist destination including amazing arrangements of basalt rocks and a pagoda built
with corals and coconut shells.
While it is lesser-known than Nha Trang about 120 kilometers away to the south, many people woke up to its charms after Victor Vu’s award-winning film was released.
The adaptation of Nguyen Nhat Anh's coming of age novel "Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass" won an award at the Toronto Film Festival and premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2015.
Between January and mid-August is the most ideal time to visit Phu Yen, when temperatures range from 23 to 30 degrees Celsius.
From April to May, it gets very hot and between September and December, it is subjected to the stormy season along the central coast.
With just 500 meters in length, Bai Xep is one of the few beaches in central Vietnam that has retained most of its pristine nature.
At the foothills of Bai Xep in Tuy An District is a unique geological formation with black and yellow basalt rocks of all kinds of conceivable shapes – said to be the result of volcanic eruptions that took place millions of years ago.
To reach Bai Xep, visitors have to travel 17 kilometers north on the Doc Lap coastal road of Tuy Hoa Town.
The place is surrounded by casuarina equisetifolia, a tree that commonly grows in coastal habitats with white sands and cacti.
Hon Yen Islet, around 15 kilometers to the north of Tuy Hoa, is home to thousands of canaries, explaining its name. Camping overnight on the islet is a highly recommended experience.
Given its seclusion, visitors should remember to bring necessary equipment along.
Nature performs a magic show here with arpets of colorful coral reefs that are only exposed during low tide.
According to local fishermen, the low tide appears only in the afternoon of the first days of the month or between the third and seventh lunar months every year. The low tide lasts two to three days, revealing colorful coral reefs along the Ganh Yen beach.
However, the coral reef ecosystem on the islet has been damaged at an alarming rate as many ignorant and careless tourists step on the reefs to take selfies and photographs.
Authorities have imposed stronger measures to protect the coral reefs from destruction.
June is the busiest season of the year on Yen Islet as fishermen flock to the sea to harvest anchovies, considered a specialty of the central coastal region that is used to make the quintessential Vietnamese condiment – fish sauce.
Local resident Tran Bao Hoa said the fishermen start casting their fishing nets around 2 p.m. every day and return to shore at around 9 p.m.
Located in Dong Hoa district, around 35km from Tuy Hoa, the Mon beach was typically overlooked by travel firms because it lacked most tourist services.
But Victor Vu’s award-winning movie changed the status quo. It has now become a favored camping spot that tourists use to catch the sunrise. The sun is an early riser here, starting from 4 a.m.
From Mon beach, a km long walking train leads to a hill with about 100 wooden steps that can be climbed to reach the Dai Lanh lighthouse, built by the French in the 19th century.
Nhat Tu Son, a tidal island in Xuan Dai Bay, about 50 kilometers from Tuy Hoa, is another place that is usually overlooked, but worth exploring if visitors can remember the tidal cycle.
Once a day, a 300-meter sandy path linking the mainland to the island appears during low tide at 1-4 p.m. from the 1st to 15th day of each lunar month and from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. for the rest of the month.
The island's name originates from its resemblance to the character ‘First’ in Mandarin. According to locals, it helps protect nearby fishing villages, My Hai and My Thanh, from strong winds.
One of the oldest churches in Vietnam, Mang Lang, stands in Phu Yen. It was built by French missionary Father Joseph Lacassagne in 1892, almost three centuries after the first visit by Portuguese Catholic missionaries to Vietnam.
Built on 5,000 square meters of land, the church in An Thach Commune, 35 kilometers north of Tuy Hoa, took 15 years to build.
Named after a plant with purple-pink flowers, the church has the first book to be printed in the modern Vietnamese script. It was written by Alexandre de Rhodes, the French Jesuit missionary and lexicographer, who is believed to have played an important role in the creation of Vietnam's Latin script.
Another landscape highlight of Phu Yen is the 800m long Binh Thanh Bridge, said to be the longest of its kind in Vietnam. The bridge, which crosses the Binh Ba River, is also called the God of Tiger Bridge due to its proximity to a shrine where locals worship the feline deity to cure diseases and drive evil away.
During the October-November flooding season, the bridge is invariably swept into the sea and has to be rebuilt from scratch. When the waters recede, local residents use toll fees collected to rebuild or repair the bridge.
The Nhan Tower in Tuy Hoa Town is one of the few Cham towers still standing intact in Vietnam.
Built on the eastern slope of Nhan Mountain, situated 64 m above sea level, it is named after the many local swallows (or chim nhan in Vietnamese) that nest here.
It worships Thien Y A Na who is said to have descended from heaven to instruct the Cham ethnic people in plowing and weaving.
Nestled inside a small fishing village near Bai Xep beach, the pagoda is said to have been built by a group of Chinese merchants but no one knows the exact time when it was built.
The main hall of the pagoda has been built using coconut shells and corals. Coconut shells represent purity while corals are regarded as the refuge of marine species.
It is said that a precious wooden statue of Bodhisattva standing on a dragon drifted to Hon Dua beach, which is not far from the pagoda, in April 2004. The miracle statue is now worshipped in the Thanh Luong Pagoda.
The Da Dia Reef is a unique geological structure comprising black and yellow basalt rocks spread across a coastal area of more than a square kilometer.
From a distance, it resembles a giant black beehive.
According to geologists, the reef complex, about 30 kilometers to the north of Tuy Hoa, was created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. The lava, when it came in contact with the water, cooled, contracted and fractured and formed vertical or horizontal columns before becoming polygonal rocks.
Besides Phu Yen, there are only other three places in the world that boast this magnificent phenomenon: Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, Los Órganos in Spain and Fingal’s sea cave in Scotland.
In downtown Tuy Hoa, some budget hotels and homestays offer prices of VND150,000-300,000 per person per night.
At luxury resorts like Rosa Alba Resort, Sala Grand Tuy Hoa Hotel and Saigon Phu Yen Hotel, a night’s stay can cost up to VND5 million.
One resort in Phu Yen that has received rave reviews from international travel magazines is Zannier Hotels Bai San Ho in Song Cau Town. It has three different types of Vietnamese-style villas with bamboo ceilings and antique rice baskets.
Banh beo chen (Vietnamese water fern-shaped rice cake) is a signature dish in central Vietnam.
Small bowls of hot water fern cakes are topped with pork floss, fried bread, and oiled scallions. One thing that makes the dish different from other places is it is served with a dipping fish sauce made of anchovies, a specialty of Phu Yen people.
One tray has 10 small bowls and only costs VND15,000 ($0.66), for a serving for one person.
Food bloggers recommend No.3 Le Trung Kien Street at the foot of Nhan Mountain for this dish.
Banh canh he (fish cake noodle soup with chives) is a signature dish in the province. One of the ingredients that decides the success of this dish is fish cake. The fish is minced thoroughly, then seasoned and folded into pieces. Then, it is steamed or deep fried.
Phu Yen can be reached by plane, train or bus depending on where you set out from.
Vietnam Airlines, Bamboo Airways and VietJet Air have daily flights to Tuy Hoa, the capital of Phu Yen, with round-trip ticket prices ranging from VND1.5 million to 5 million.
Tuy Hoa airport is about 10 km from the town’s downtown area.
Train journeys cost VND400,000 to 1 million depending on the type of seat and place of departure.
A sleeper bus from HCMC departs from the Mien Dong station at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. and arrives early in the morning. Round trip ticket prices start at VND540,000 per person.
Story by Nguyen Quy