Phan Rang: The neglected beauty
Sandwiched between Nha Trang and Mui Ne, Phan Rang – Thap Cham (commonly known as Phan Rang) has long been overshadowed by those two most visited beach destinations. Nevertheless, being a little bit less well-known has its own perk: Phan Rang still remains uttermost authentic.
If a more low-key holiday with the most genuine experiences is what you seek, then here in Phan Rang you shall find.
We happened to have an amazing trip to Phan Rang with a group of close friends recently and today, let us convince you to go on an adventure to this underrated beautiful land.
Phan Rang – Thap Cham – Hidden gem in Central Vietnam
Located in Ninh Thuan Province, Phan Rang got it name from Panduranga (which was the last of the Cham territories to be annexed by Vietnamese) while Thap Cham, meaning Cham Tower, is referred to Poklong Garai complex situated in the North of the city.
With over 3000km of coastline, Vietnam undoubtedly has its fair share of clear water and soft sand beaches, many of which are located in Central Vietnam. As most tourists tend to flock to the famous and well-developed spots such as Nha Trang, Mui Ne or Da Nang, adventurous travellers like us are constantly in search of more quiet yet beautiful destinations. Needless to say, Phan Rang has what it takes to offer us travellers a great holiday: isolated beaches, mythical layers of mountains, endless sand dunes, breathtaking coastal highway and fragments of the once-glorious Cham culture.
Phan Rang has become more popular among young Vietnamese tourists, but it is still unlikely to bump into many foreigners here. Compare to other destinations in Central Vietnam, infrastructure in Ninh Thuan Province still need a lot of development, which doesn’t sounds that bad as we can totally dodge mass tourism, for now.
How to get to Phan Rang – Thap Cham from Saigon?
Phan Rang is connected to Saigon via Highway 1A with approximate distance of 366km. There are 3 best to get from Saigon to Phan Rang:
- By bus: Buses to Phan Rang depart from Mien Dong Bus Station (Eastern Bus Terminal), Saigon and arrive at Phan Rang Bus Station. There are multiple companies running this route at various times of the day. Ticket fares vary from 6 to 11USD depending on the bus company, the quality of the bus and the departure time. Since the journey takes around 7 hours, we highly recommend you to go with the overnight sleeper bus, which is comfortable enough to enjoy a goodnight sleep and save you the travelling time. For our previous trip, we chose An Anh (Quê Hương) as they have good reviews. Us Vietnamese usually call for seat reservation, but we recommend you to buy tickets directly from the booths at Mien Dong Bus Station.
- By train: If you crave a more refreshing way to travel in Vietnam, going by train is a good option. The train leaves from Saigon Train Station and arrives at Thap Cham Train Station. It takes around 6 – 7 hours and runs 5 times/day. The ticket prices range from 6 to 28USD, which depends on your chosen class. Again, we highly recommend buying the tickets in advance directly from the station to avoid miscommunication.
- Self-ride: Vietnam is a two-wheeler country and many young people prefer travelling with their motorbikes to have more control. If you are confident and skilled in riding, this is a great way to see Vietnam as you will for sure come across many interesting things and people along the way, maybe even get to explore some off-beaten spots.
Getting around Ninh Thuan
Though taxi is available, we highly encourage you to rent a motorbike to get around. Not only it is more cost-efficient and more fun, it is also the best way to experience your holiday in Phan Rang and Vietnam. The cost is around 5-7USD/day and it is likely that your accommodation will offer rental service.
Now, hop on your bike and get ready to explore Phan Rang!
Best things to do in Phan Rang – Thap Cham
1. Embark on an exciting adventure to Vinh Hy Bay
Located in Vinh Hai village 42km away from Phan Rang, Vinh Hy bay is a natural harbor where local fishing boats dock. The best spot to admire the bay’s beauty is from higher grounds. Surrounded by white sandy beaches, rocky mountains and mysterious caves, Vinh Hy is an ideal place to throw yourself into different activities, such as snorkelling, riding on a glass-bottom boat, fishing and climbing.
As for us, we decided to take a high-speed boat ride to a nearby island, where we enjoyed a long swim, observed sea life by snorkelling and drank a lot of fresh coconut. Having dived and snorkelled in some other parts of the world, I have to be brutally honest here: the coral reefs in Vinh Hy Bay wasn’t very satisfying and didn’t seem well-protected. Nevertheless, we definitely had a super fun time, thanks to the companions we had. We then celebrated our group reunion by savouring a feast of palatable freshly-caught seafoods from the bay.
Even though I think Vinh Hy bay was impressive, the 42km ride there from Phan Rang was more memorable and filled with different emotions. As some people say: “It’s the journey that counts”, we don’t lie when we say the most exciting things you will experience in Phan Rang taking place along this road. Therefore, we highly recommend an early start in the morning for many good reasons: avoid the exceedingly hot sunlight, have more exploring time and dodge the tourist groups crowding the attractions along the way.
First off, the ride will take you past many salt fields with layers of mountains set in the background. The scenery looks even more enchanted when the sun starts rising and the morning fog is still hanging in the air.
Moreover, you may occasionally bump into different flocks of hungry goats and sheeps, which have no sense of traffic rules.
This DT702 road is so exposed and windy that riding around noon time is rather suffering. Vietnamese usually joke among ourselves that Phan Rang got this name because it is the place where “gió như phang, nắng như rang” (the wind blows so vigorously that it pushes your bike sideway and the sunlight is so harsh that it dry roasts your skin). It turns out to be no joke!
2. Take a thousand pictures at Hang Rai (Otter Cave)
After several encounters with ignoring-road-safety sheeps and goats, you will reach the breathtaking Hang Rai, 7 km before Vinh Hy Bay. Upon laying eye on this impressive creation of nature, we no longer doubt why it is among top-notched wedding photography destinations in Vietnam.
Located within Nui Chua National Park, Hang Rai is Vietnam’s largest fossilized ancient coral reef. The rugged, Mars-like surface, which appears to be floating above the deep blue sea, looks incredibly stunning at sunrise whereas the romantic last lights of sunset here will imprint in your mind forever.
A local gentleman told us that in order to capture the best shots of Hang Rai, we would have to be here at around 5am. Sadly, we enjoyed our beauty sleep a bit too much and agreed to settle with less perfect photos of this cave.
Apart from, of course, taking a thousand pictures, you can also spend some time fishing, swimming and rock climbing.
3. Visit a local vineyard and enjoy some free snack
When riding around Ninh Thuan, you must have noticed that there are several vineyards along the roads. Phan Rang is known for having the harshest weather in Vietnam, yet on this land, grapevines can grow extremely well here and local grape-related products have long become favorite souvenirs to bring home for friends and family. Therefore, we highly recommend to pay a visit to one of these vineyards.
We bumped into a group of local boys playing football next to the vineyard and they insisted we stopped to take pictures with themFor some reasons, many Vietnamese travel sites seem to be in favor of Ba Moi Grape Farm, but we believe there won’t be much difference between that and other places in term of service and prices. We stopped by one vineyard off the main road on our way back from Hang Rai and it was excellent. It is standard procedure that when tourists enter the vineyards, the owner will immediately welcome you by offering several grape products: fresh grapes, juice, wine, raisin, etc. If you like what you taste, you buy some as souvenirs or snacks on the road. Apart from grape delicacies, they also offered us this sweet seaweed snack which tasted so incredible we had to grab a few packages home along with some grape wine. Yum!
4. Ride the breathtaking Vinh Hy – Binh Tien Pass
So far DT702 has offered us 42km of amazing salt fields, several flock of innocent-looking goats and sheeps, awe-inspring Hang Rai and unmissable Vinh Hy Bay, but the magic doesn’t stop here!
From Vinh Hy bay, let’s continue our ride on DT702 to Binh Tien to witness one of Vietnam’s most impressive motorbike ride. We had never enjoyed any ride in Vietnam as much as we did here. About 12km in length, Vinh Hy – Binh Tien Pass opens to many jaw-dropping views with mountain on one side and pristine waters on the other. Another amazing thing is that the traffic is pretty sparse so you feel like you own the road!
After a lot of wow moments, we decided to stop at Bai Kinh to take the boat to the nearby Binh Hung island. In recent years, travelling to the 3 islands: Binh Ba, Binh Hung and Binh Lap in Cam Ranh Province has been very popular among Vietnamese travellers as these destinations offer the best lobster. Since we both haven’t been to any, it sounded like a good idea to go check Binh Hung out.
Binh Hung itself was probably once a peaceful and nice haven, tourism has brought the locals money but left the island full of trash. We were pretty disappointing seeing garbage floating everywhere along the shore. Apart from lobster farms, there are many floating restaurants between Binh Hung and Bai Kinh, which seem a little bit like tourist trap. However, it was too early to have lunch so we didn’t have the chance to check them out to clear our doubts.
5. Go mountain trekking in Nui Chua National Park
Nui Chua is home to the famous dry forest which many compare to African landscape. Despite being in drastically harsh climate, this unique ecosystem comprises of a variety of flora and fauna, many of which are endangered species. Apart from waterfalls, the trekking trail will take you to 7 different peaks with the highest one located at 1040m above the sea level. Doesn’t sound too difficult, huh? However, many local trekkers have claimed that this is much more challenging than conquering Fansipan (Vietnam’s highest summit at 3143m) due to the severe weather. Besides, one important note is that you have to book a tour to go trekking in Nui Chua National Park, mainly for forest protection and safety reasons. Nevertheless, this is one awesome activity to do in case you desire an adventure after a couple of lazy days on the beach sipping coconut water and eating too much seafood.
6. Head to Ninh Chu Beach for a quiet time
Just 6km North of Phan Rang, Ninh Chu is ranked one of the top 9 beaches in Vietnam by many local travel sites. This crescent-shaped beach, which is 10km in length, is popular among locals in Ninh Thuan, yet still remains unspoiled and deserted. We both are not big fans of yellow sand beach, so we were not very impressed with Ninh Chu. However, we still think it is worth visiting if you fancy some tranquil time. Plus, we heard from the locals that the sunset on Ninh Chu beach is pretty amazing.
7. Take a long walk on the scenic sand dunes
Phan Rang is blessed with a variety of landscapes. In addition foggy mountains, pristine blue water and interesting rock formations, Phan Rang also boasts desertscape with beautiful sand dunes located just 10km South of the city. Nowadays, many local travellers come here to enjoy a Jeep ride, go sand sliding or catch the beautiful sunset. Moreover, located within Cham residential area, Nam Cuong Sand Dune is an important connection point to their everyday’s activities. Here you can see Cham people cross the sand dunes at different time of the day to go to work, tend their crops, visit the church, etc.
8. Admire Poklong Garai – Remnants of Champa Kingdom
Alright, let us now catch up with some history. Sadly, physical evidence of Cham culture is disappearing in Vietnam. Cham temples are among a few standing proofs of a once-glorious kingdom.
Sitting beautifully atop Trau hill, Poklong Garai is a pretty well-maintained complex, compare to its counterparts in other parts of Vietnam. It is totally worth a climb for those intrigued by history, culture and architecture.
If you happen to visit Phan Rang around late September or early October, don’t miss out on Cham’s Kate Festival taking place here(the exact date changes yearly according to Cham calendar). Kate Festival is their most important festival which is celebrated with prayers, rites, games, music, dance, competitions, etc. for several days. Not only this festival is the way Cham people commemorate Poklong Garai and Po Rome – their deified kings, but it also offer the opportunity to pay respect to their ancestors and strengthen ties with the community.
9. Meet the skilful Cham people at Bau Truc Pottery Village
Bau Truc is the oldest pottery village in South East Asia. While artists elsewhere have relied on modern technology, skilful Cham counterparts at Bau Truc still create beautiful art pieces with their clever hands and rudimentary tools. The style used in their pottery products is said to be passed down by Po Klong Chan, one of their ancestors from the olden time. Nowadays, in order to survive and then to compete on the market, they have added collections of products that are more suitable for modern living and usages. Additionally, apart from observing their work process, you get to create your own pottery pieces here too!
10. Count sheeps on An Hoa Sheep Fields
In case you haven’t had enough of adorable sheep on your way to Vinh Hy Bay, why not pay a visit to An Hoa Sheep Fields?
Located 16km Northwest of Phan Rang, An Hoa Sheep Fields is among the largest in Ninh Thuan Province. This attraction has a very romantic, picturesque and serene setting: long mountain range, dreamy lakes, endless meadows where thousands of sheep grazing and roaming freely. Moreover, you can experience the nomadic lifestyle of local shepherds if you stay overnight at their homes or simply set camp on the fields. Don’t be shy, Cham people are very friendly and hospitable, you should just ask them for permission.
11. Try kitesurfing at Phi Kite School
16 km Northeast of Phan Rang, Phi Kite School is situated on My Hoa Lagoon, which is protected by coral reefs creating shallow flat water on the inside and beautiful rolling waves on the outside. Kitesurfing is definitely an unforgettable experience for daring water-sport lovers. If you think this may be too much, we suggest embarking on a SUP tour to see the beautiful scenery of the lagoon.
12. Spoil yourself with local cuisine
Phan Rang has a variety of sumptuous dishes mostly celebrated freshly-caught seafoods from the local waters. During our stay, we spoiled ourselves generously with platters of numerous types of snails cooking in different styles. Additionally, we recommend trying fish and jellyfish noodles and Vietnamese seafood pancakes.
Apart from sea delicacies, Phan Rang boasts also delicious dishes made from lamb and goat meat. Goat hotpot is no doubt perfect for a rainy evening!
Last but not least…
We love Phan Rang – Thap Cham and believe this beautiful seaside city should deserve more attention from fellow travellers, especially international tourists. At the same time, we kind of hope Phan Rang stay a hidden gem, unspoiled and unique.