Ninh Thuan has been in the news recently as an ideal location for generating renewable energy.
It was also in the news a few years ago as the site for nuclear power plants, plans for which have since been shelved.
But this south-central province is notable for many other features that sets it apart from other locations in the country. One of the driest provinces in Vietnam marks the curve on the S-shaped nation’s coastline.
Given its proximity to famous tourist destinations like Nha Trang and Da Lat, Ninh Thuan is surprisingly unspoilt. This arid land does not just boast a highly picturesque coastal route, it has a topographic diversity that situates it between the desert and the sea.
It also carries vestiges of the Champa Kingdom, underlining the province’s historical importance.
Two provincial routes are part of Ninh Thuan’s 107km long coastal road: DT701, from Ca Na to Phan Rang; and DT702, from Phan Rang to Binh Tien.
One day on each route, visiting several tourism spots on the way will open your eyes to Ninh Thuan’s charms.
Top on the day’s agenda are impressive sea landscapes on the DT 702 route. It starts from Phan Rang city and runs 50km or so towards Khanh Hoa Province.
The first stop on this route is Vinh Hy Bay, one of the most beautiful in the country. Glass bottom boats allow visitors to see its coral treasures. Fresh seafood is a perk, here. Boat rentals range from VND50,000 - 100,000 ($2.14-4.29) per person.
The Binh Tien beach on the border of Ninh Thuan and Khanh Hoa provinces, with a long coastal line surrounded by rocky mountains, is as picturesque as it can get.
The beach is quite serene, with small waves and light breezes. Apart from the fresh seafood, services for visitors to get to pristine beaches that cannot be reached by road are a specialty. On the way from Phan Rang to Binh Tien, there are several secluded beaches to choose from, including Ninh Chu, Bai Rua, Bai Thung, Bai Chuoi, Bai Kinh and Nuoc Ngot.
The coral reef cave
The Rai Cave is an old giant coral reef surrounded by high rock ranges eroded gradually by the waves. As the water occasionally surges above the reef and crashes down, “the waterfall on the sea” takes shape, much to the delight of photographers.
Locals explain the name of the cave in two ways. It could be derived from otters (which are called ‘rai’ in Vietnamese) that used to inhabit the cave in large numbers. On the other hand, the cave was also home to the “rai” plant (Dipterocarpus alatus) from which oil was extracted to waterproof boats.
Another coral reef treasure in Ninh Thuan can be found on Do Island. Around 16km from the Rai Cave, this large area has many reefs and green mossy rocks. To get there, take directions from My Hiep village in Thanh Hai commune, Ninh Hai District.
A sandy trail through a poplar grove leads to Do Island. It is a tough one for motorbikes to tackle. A large area of Do Island is covered with sharp rocks, so care must be taken while walking, or the feet can get hurt. A lot of the time, this island is not crowded, and you can meditate against the rhythm and sound of waves crashing against the rocks.
Grapes grow here
Many people are surprised to learn that Vietnam has vineyards. Well, it has, and all of them are in Ninh Thuan. Grapes are the province’s primary agricultural produce. The large vineyards in the province are open to visitors, who can enjoy both fresh grapes and other products like wine. These lush, green places are an ideal rest stop for bikers after driving in the hot sun for hours.
On the 55km long DT 701 route, which runs from Phan Rang city to Ca Na commune in the westernmost part of Ninh Thuan, the diverse topography of the province and the vestiges of the Champa Kingdom are major attractions.
Just eight kilometers from Phan Rang city, the Nam Cuong sand dune is a sight not to be missed.
“It is the first time I’ve walked on a sand dune. I feel like I am in a real desert somewhere outside Vietnam,” said one excited visitor.
The most beautiful time to admire the beauty of the sand dunes is between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., when sunshine makes the sand glow golden.
After spending early morning on the sand dune, it is time to revisit an almost forgotten time in history. There are many legends and stories about the Indianized marine kingdom that once flourished in central Vietnam. Numerous legends and stories are linked to this kingdom which died out in the 19th century.
Among Ninh Thuan’s most important attractions are the vestiges of the Champa Kingdom. Just 7 kilometers away from Phan Rang city, the Po Klong Garai, considered the most majestic tower complex of the Cham people still standing in Vietnam, is an architectural masterpiece. The complex was built in Panduranga city, as the place was called during the Champa reign. The Cham people gather at the complex every October to celebrate the “Kate Festival,” praying for a good harvest.
About 10 kilometers away from Phan Rang city stands Bau Truc Village, one of two most ancient pottery villages in Southeast Asia. Bau Truc has preserved an old technique from the days of the Cham Kingdom, which does not need the potter’s wheel.
Dang Thi Phan, senior potter in Bau Truc Village, told local press that the pottery product still relies on the techniques handed down by the Cham people.
The Mui Dinh beach and Lighthouse are another prominent spots along this route. The lighthouse, in particular, offers a great panoramic view of the land and sea that is worth the climb to its top.
The Mui Dinh Beach has smooth sands and crystal clear wathers that can be reached by crossing cross a small "desert" – a small
sand-covered area. To avoid a 20-minute walk under the hot sun, a taxi service will do the needful (for VND100,000 or $4.28 per round trip)
from the parking lot to the lighthouse.
The Ca Na sand flatland is a smaller version of the Bolivia salt flatlands or Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, U.S. and are an amazing sight that is not to be missed.
Ca Na’s glossy white salt fields and conical salt dunes can cast a spell on visitors, one that lasts long after the Ninh Thuan visit.
A bus or train from any major city can be taken to Phan Rang city, the heart of Ninh Thuan Province. A flight to Cam Ranh Airport, 62
kilometers away from Phan Rang city, is another option.
From Ho Chi Minh City, a night bus to Phan Rang costs VND150,000 – 200,000 ($6.43-8.57) per person.
A weekend visit to Ninh Thuan should rank high on everyone’s travel plans in Vietnam.
Story by Linh Sea, Bao Ngoc
Photos by Linh Sea, Meo Gia, Tuan Dao, Minh Duc, Lam Linh, Bao Nghi