One of the best things that happened to us in Saigon was meeting Elise, our With Locals guide on our street food tour.
Not only was she a wonderful guide for the afternoon, but we became friends and got some great advice on places to see and things to eat elsewhere in the country. We had a very open itinerary but knew we wanted to check out some beach paradises somewhere between Dalat and Hoi An.
We had ruled out Nha Trang because everything we read basically described it as kind of the Miami of Vietnam.
Young beautiful people tanned and plucked heading out to clubs for all hours of the night after eating at fancy restaurants, then lying on a beach in a string bikini nursing a hangover the next day. Not much culture to speak of and probably not a good glimpse into the Vietnamese way of life. And entirely not our scene. I’m not knocking the city if that’s what you’re into, but it’s just not for us.
Mui Ne was another option and this is what we told Elise. She says, “Oh don’t go there, you want to go to Phan Rang.” We had never heard of it which piqued our curiosity. She told us a story of riding over a large sand dune to the most beautiful beach she had ever seen and of meals of fresh whole fish, killed to order. We were almost sold. Then she mentioned that you can drive a motorbike up and down the coast with panoramic views of the ocean and wineries. Well, that sealed the deal. We were going to Phan Rang.
Going off the beaten path takes some perseverance.
Our notion that no one would speak English was almost correct. Our first hurdle was the bus there. We booked a local bus ride that would drop us at our hotel. Arriving at the bus station we asked again to be sure, showing a map of where the hotel was located. I was assured with a “Yes, Ma’am”. We smiled – this wasn’t going to be so hard. We smiled up until the bus pulled into the station and the driver just looked at us and said “finished”. Meaning it was the last stop. Of course we were nowhere near the hotel and the taxi ride out to Ninh Chu Beach (a mere 10 minutes) cost the same as our four hour bus tickets. Yay.
When we arrived at the hotel, the English speaking owner wasn’t there, but his mom was.
She was sweet and tried to communicate through google translate which lead to some funny translations. Ah technology! Then she showed us to our room which was supposed to have a king bed, AC and a refrigerator. It had none of those things. We eventually learned that another customer who was renting the room we booked decided to stay longer. They let him keep the room and just didn’t inform us. No amount of back and forth could convince the owner that this is not good customer service. He kept telling us our room was bigger. Maybe, but it wasn’t what we wanted and also had a broken AC. The AC never got fixed but they did move a fridge in – compromise I guess? Todd and I slept like a married couple in the 50’s, each in our own little bed.
So it wasn’t the most fortuitous start I suppose.
But we walked right to Ninh Chu beach from our room and immediately relaxed. The beach was pretty and had great views of the local fisherman in their coracles. They are little boats that look like teacups and are adorable as far as boats go. We invoked quite a few stares being some of the only white people and had the usual group of giggling tweens come up to say hello to us. This almost made up for the earlier hassles. The day ended with some succulent grilled squid for dinner. It was nice to be back on the coast, having missed it after two months inland.
The next day we went back to Phan Rang to get a local chicken dish I read about on a couple of Vietnamese blogs.
We found the recommended restaurant and the grounds were gorgeous with small ponds full of lotus flowers and open air pavilions to eat in. And the chicken…..well, it was chewy. And plain. It was described as slowly poached in an herbal broth, but it seemed that they boiled it in a pot of water with no seasoning at all. It didn’t come with any herbs or sauces. Very strange. It’s priced by the pound so it wasn’t cheap either. This has now become the #chewychicken incident. Every time we have a miss on food, we just laugh and say, “Well at least it’s not chewy chicken!”
After exploring some Chap ruins we went back to the beach area. We discovered the Ninh Chu Bay Beach Club, owned by an American expat. The sand at this beach is some of the finest we have come across and the sunset views were fantastic. Add in Sangria on HH, free cabanas if you buy a drink or some food (they had a great Western/Mexican menu!) and we were happy as clams. It felt like a private beach since we were the only people there for the afternoon.
There are a few expats in town working on making Ninh Chu more of a tourist destination, kind of a kite-boarding focused, laid back alternative to Nha Trang. I imagine in ten years the town will look really different and I’m glad to have experienced it now while it still has the fisherman village charm. The men we met also gave us some tips on where to get street food, which was helpful in addition to the list in Vietnamese our friend Elise had provided.
The next day we drove north on the highway to Vinh Hy, another small fishing village in a lovely cove with bright blue water and even brighter painted boats.
The ride takes you through salt flats, shrimp farms and then the promised vineyards and stays along the coast most of the way. There are no resorts and the most traffic you will see comes in the form of cows and goats. We stopped off in the village for coffee and then a bit later to watch some kite boarders. We never saw an actual winery however so we were a bit bummed we didn’t get to sample the local wine. Really the drive is all about the views – if you like winding roads on the coast this drive is for you.
For breakfast the following morning we hopped across the street and tried some quail eggs with green onion in a rice flour batter. Those suckers are tasty with some chili sauce and very budget friendly. We got sixteen pieces for under $2! Afterwards we headed south to find the magical beach beyond the sand dunes. After about thirty kilometers the landscape changed to more of a desert atmosphere. At the top of a hill there were a series of huts selling refreshments. We spotted a sign pointing to the left that said “Mui Dinh Bay”. We had arrived. Parking the bike, we decided to walk over the dunes.
Sometimes we make decisions that are just so wrong. This was one of those times. About 200 meters into the dunes my feet were already burning from the sand. We were standing there trying to figure out what to do when a tractor with a Vietnamese family pulled up, waved us over and offered us a ride. We were confused since the seats were full. Then the driver lowered the shovel and spread out cardboard from empty cases of beer over the searing hot metal. So we climbed in, got lifted up and away we went! Riding in the shovel of a tractor was a first and probably won’t happen again so it was pretty exciting.
Then the water came into view and we realized we found one of many beach paradises in the area.
The sheltered cove was surrounded by huge boulders and the aquamarine water was crystal clear. There were a few shacks and two small restaurants, but that was it. No one else was at the beach except a lone mountain goat jumping from boulder to boulder. We have noticed the Vietnamese despise the sun – they go to the beach when it’s cloudy or just before sundown. Once someone described the rainy weather as a “preferable beach day”! We stayed for a couple of hours, floating in the water and exploring the rocks while moving from one small patch of shade to another. When it was time to move on we trudged to one of the restaurants. Through some charades we got a ride back on the tractor. This time we had real seats although I really preferred the shovel ride!
Hungry, we hopped back on the bikes to head another thirty kilometers south to Ca Na.
This stretch of road was the prettiest we had seen yet. It was all winding cliffs hugging the coastline with views of the ocean the entire way. The contrasting desert landscape as a backdrop was surreal, like being in a Dali painting. The amount of cows and goats on the road on this stretch was a bit comical. They will not move out of your way, you have to drive around them. As we approached Ca Na it leveled out and we passed some more salt flats. It’s really interesting to watch them rake and rearrange the salt as it dries. Unfortunately the price of salt has gone down quite a bit in the area recently. Many of the flats had huge piles just waiting to be sold.
We got lost in the town straightaway looking for gas and food, neither of which we could find.
As a rule, it seems when Todd and I are stuffed we will pass amazing looking food stalls one after another. When we are starving we are somehow in food deserts. Driving down another alley we passed by a couple of small tables and chairs – always a good sign! A woman beckoned us to come over. She pointed to some big pots of some type of soup. I was on the verge of hangry at this point so we had her dish some up. It was the best pork porridge I have ever had. The pork slid right off the bone, the broth had great depth of flavor and the bowl was topped with green onions, dried garlic and chiles. It was like a hug in a bowl and we devoured it.
Todd showed them our empty gas tank and the lady’s husband drove our bike (with Todd on the back) to the gas station. Thank goodness because we wouldn’t have located it ourselves. The kindness of this family really made our day. With full bellies we headed back to Phan Rang, enjoying the coastal vistas again.
All in all we are glad we took the road less traveled.
We had some bumps for sure. But we met cool folks, got help from locals several times, and got to ride in the shovel of a freaking tractor! We also discovered not only gorgeous mountain vistas but several hidden beach paradises. Would this have happened in a more developed area? I think not. The next day our journey continued about an hour north to the Binh Lap peninsula. This experience is a whole other story…..
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