Ever since Vung Tau, Phan Thiet and even Nha Trang became full of tourists and concreted over, trying to find an unspoilt beach has been increasingly hard. There’s just too much money to be made from this country’s coastline. But thanks to photos of Phu Yen Province taken by my brother on a trip one week earlier, and to Vietjet Air for offering cheap flights, I headed straight up to this forgotten area of Vietnam just north of Nha Trang.
Tuy Hoa Airport was originally a US-built military air base which was abandoned for over two decades in 1975. In 1996, it greeted its first domestic flight from Ho Chi Minh City, operated by Vietnam Airlines. Now it’s used for both military and domestic purposes. I landed in Tuy Hoa around 9am and quickly got on the bike that had been delivered to the airport. As the airport is situated to the south of Tuy Hoa, the province’s main city, I headed south on the first day.
The Southern Coast
Heading south there are few tourist attractions — the only standouts are Mui Dien and Vung Ro Bay. Mui Dien is around 24km away from Tuy Hoa and 5km north of Vung Ro Bay. It was an easy ride, as the road is in good condition and the signposting is clear.
To reach Mui Dien, I passed through Ngang Pass with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. Enchanted by its beauty, I pulled my bike over several times to take photos. My watch showed just after 11am as I bought a VND10,000 ticket to get inside Mui Dien.
“You can leave your backpack here and you should take a bottle of water while climbing up to the lighthouse,” advised the woman in the ticket booth.
The lighthouse was built in 1890 by the French. Coloured grey, it’s 26.5m high and its operation was started and stopped several times before officially returning to daily use in 1997. It is also the most easterly point in mainland Vietnam and the first part of the country to catch the light of sunrise.
I walked around the lighthouse feasting my eyes on the views — the white sand dunes of Bai Mon in the distance, the rocky mountains, patches of jungle, palm trees, the turquoise sea and the occasional silver-white waves. It was stunning.
Leaving Mui Dien I headed south to Vung Ro Bay. As I turned a corner, once again my jaw dropped as the landscape unfolded in front of me. Mountain after mountain embraced the sea and boats ran back and forth from the shore carrying tourists to fish farms floating on the sparkling water. There was something picture postcard about this place, and for a moment, a fleeting moment, I thought I should pack up everything, leave the big city and settle in this untouched, secluded enclave of Vietnam.
Tuy Hoa is a small city, the same size as one district of Ho Chi Minh City. The land on which it was built was formed from silt flowing downstream on the Da Rang River. According to Vy, my university classmate from Tuy Hoa, the best way to enjoy the city is through its food, although she also asked on Facebook if I’d checked out the Cham Tower on Nhan Mountain.
It took only 10 minutes to get to Nhan Mountain. As bikes are allowed to drive through, I didn’t need to work up a sweat reaching the top. The Cham Tower was built in the late 11th century and is said to be the result of a competition between a Cham general and a Vietnamese military commander. At the top, the whole city lays itself out before your eyes, with an endless skyline and miniature houses and streets.
Vy also gave me a list of must-eat dishes in Tuy Hoa including one-day dried beef, steamed mackerel, oyster porridge and chicken rice. Although the hotel manager had told me that most of the chicken rice places only opened during the day, I went out to try my luck at around 7pm. Tuy Hoa is cold at night, and my long-sleeved t-shirt didn’t help me much for the 2km drive from my hotel to the centre. The manager was right, nowhere was open. I ended up resorting to a plate of chicken rice for VND20,000 at a street food stall.
There are two ways to go north to Xuan Dai Bay, you can either follow National Highway 1A or the beachfront road. As I wanted to see Bai Xep, Ganh Yen, Bai Phu Thuong, Bai Tram and Ganh Da Dia (meaning Stone Plate Bay), I chose the latter. The beachfront road is largely untouched, taking you through Vietnam as it would have looked 50 or even 100 years ago. Mountains, lakes and rice fields were on one side giving a fresh and cool feeling while the ocean breeze blew across from the other. In parts isolated and silent, you could hear the ocean waves crashing against the shore.
Bai Xep, where the movie Hoa Vang Tren Co Xanh (Yellow Flowers On Green Grass) was filmed, has become a phenomenon after last year’s release. There was even a signboard mentioning the movie placed on the road leading to the beach. Like other beaches in the area, Bai Xep is worth visiting for its crystal-clear water, pristine white sand and sense of solitude.
Since Ganh Da Dia is the main topic of conversation every time someone mentions Phu Yen, I wanted to check if it really was what people had been saying. To me it looked like both a giant beehive and a pile of stone plates surrounded by cacti. It was also full of tourists. Knowing that I couldn’t take any better photos than my colleagues and given that it took nearly 10 minutes for me to get a shot of the place without any tourists wandering into my viewfinder, I quickly gave up. Yet as I was leaving I noticed a lighthouse standing on the beach opposite. I like lighthouses.
“It doesn’t have a name, people here just call it Bai Da (Stone Beach)”, said a street vendor while handing me a ca phe sua da. If I gave Ganh Da Dia two stars for its beauty, I would give five stars to this nameless beach, mainly because of its absence of tourists.
“You should go to Xuan Dai Bay through Cau Go (Wooden Bridge) as it’s quicker and the views are stunning,” continued the vendor. Cau Go is handmade from small wooden planks and only about 1.5 metres wide, crossing the Phu Ngan River. Driving across it is scary.
Xuan Dai Bay is a 13,000-hectare piece of coastline stretching from Tuy An District to Song Cau town, and is formed by the 15km-long Co Ngua Mountain Range which runs into the sea and creates a peninsular. Listed as a ‘National Relic’ in 2011, despite its rise to ‘natural beauty’ prominence, the place remains raw. Mountains shoot into the sky, palm trees and rocks embrace each other, and an archway forms over a strip of white sand.
Surrounded by beach after empty white-sand beach, this undiscovered patch of central Vietnam is so enticing that as I headed to the airport for my flight back to Saigon, I knew that the last place I wanted to go was home.
Mang Lang Church
Lying 3km from the highway and 35km north of Tuy Hoa, this gothic church was built in 1892 by French missionary Father Joseph Lacassagne — the area was the native parish of Blessed Andrew of Phu Yen, beheaded in 1644. Since the day that Blessed Andrew was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2000, the church has held his feast day and become a place of pilgrimage every Jul. 26, the anniversary of his death.
The church is also home Alexander de Rhodes’ Cathechismus in Octo dies (The Catechism explained in Eight Days) in Latin and Vietnamese (quoc ngu). Printed in 1651, de Rhodes was a missionary who learnt Vietnamese in six months and was the creator of the Roman script that is used today. The book is stored in an underground vault in a hill next to the church.
How to Get There
Vietnam Airlines and other airlines including Vietjet Air and Jetstar have flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to Tuy Hoa every day. Buses and trains offer another option for those who have more time. Visit vietnam-railway.com for trains and vexere.com for buses.
Where to Stay
Tuy Hoa has a wide range of hotels and guesthouses that are mainly located on Hung Vuong Boulevard. You could either stay at the five-star CenDeluxe Hotel (2 Hai Duong), the four-star Kaya Hotel (238 Hung Vuong) or get more basic at Khanh Hoa Hotel (625 Hung Vuong) for VND150,000 per night.
What to Eat
Com ga (chicken rice): Thien Huong (211 Le Thanh Ton) or Tuyet Nhung (189 Le Thanh Ton)
Banh canh he (noodle soup with chives and fish cake): 32A (32A Le Trung Kien) or street vendor at corner between Le Loi and Phan Dinh Phung.
Banh xeo (crispy pancake): Banh Xeo Le Thanh Ton (20 Le Thanh Ton)
Nem nuong (grilled pork meatballs): Nem Nuong — Cha Dong (92 Nguyen Cong Tru)
Seafood: The seafood area is along Bach Dang