From Champa Kingdom capital to kitesurfing mecca, Phan Rang is quickly looming large on Vietnam’s must-visit list
As the Reunification Express sounds its horn for departure and its driver releases the brakes on the rattly red, white and blue carriages bound for Hanoi, the first beads of sweat begin to trickle down my face.
I’ve only just stepped down from my soft seat premium carriage with air-conditioning (one-way VND245,000) into the shade of an awning barely wide enough to shield me from the blazing noonday sun on the Phan Rang-Thap Cham Railway Station platform.
Think of it as the kitesurfing equivalent of surfing’s Pipeline in Hawaii or Teahupo’o of Tahiti
It foretells of the furnace-like conditions ready to greet me in the small parking lot outside the gates where my ride to Sorrento Beach Club & Kite Centre (doubles from VND1.35 million) awaits.
I’m the last of a small posse of passengers to leave the station because I’m weighed down with camera equipment and a bag I’ve regrettably overpacked. But all bodes well. I can’t see any other tourists around.
By the time I get to my waiting car, the other travellers have seemingly evaporated into thin air, like I imagine water does on the baking hot salt pans that can be found near here on the south-central coast of Vietnam some 350 kilometres northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.
My driver takes me through the small city centre of Phan Rang-Thap Cham, known simply as Phan Rang, a Vietnamese adaptation of its original Chamic language name, Panduranga, from the time when the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Champa somewhere between the 2nd and the early 19th centuries.
In fact, unbeknown to me as we dodge other road users and observe shopkeepers readying themselves for their afternoon siesta, just two kilometres from the railway station in the opposite direction is the Cham tower complex of Po Klong Garai estimated to be more than 800 years old and one of the few remnants of the Champa civilisation left in Vietnam.
The Cham people, of whom there is said to be close to 200,000 living in Vietnam, have ancestral connections to the seafaring peoples of current-day Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia who brought Hinduism to this part of the world, although most Cham these days adhere to Islam. Around these parts, however, adherents still worship Hindu gods.
Indeed, when I visit Po Klong Garai the next day (entrance fee VND20,000), I’m drawn to the vertical stone slabs either side of the portal that leads into the complex’s main tower (there are three towers). Inscribed into them are long passages written in ancient Chamic script, while above the entrance, there’s a well-preserved relief of the Hindu god, Shiva.
While I’m sitting under the shade of a tree observing the wedding photoshoot of a local Cham couple dressed in stunning traditional attire, Mr Tien, a Cham local and guide introduces himself and gives me an impromptu lesson on the basics of Chamic language which bears a striking resemblance to Indonesian and Filipino.
“Salam, Mr Matt,” he says, before waiting for me to repeat it and then bidding me farewell.
As we drive past Phan Rang Central Market, I notice it’s not the hive of activity I expected it to be, but at 7am the next morning before my visit to Po Klong Garai, it’s a whole different story.
I discover a vibrant alley adjacent to the market filled with a cacophony created by gossiping market ladies cooking up a breakfast storm, including the local staple banh canh cha ca, a fish noodle soup (VND15,000), banh can Phan Rang, a moreish local take on the small circular fried rice cakes found up and down the central and southern coastlines (VND10,000), including a dish I’ve never eaten before, banh tai dat, gloopy bite-size dumplings with dried shrimp encased in rice starch served up cold in a savoury fish sauce (VND15,000).
The ladies cackle with delight that I’m dining at their modest stalls and marvel at my ability to pronounce most of their dishes’ names and answer in Vietnamese, albeit stilted, the obligatory questions about age, marriage, and origin.
I also discover that I can buy a duck (alive) for just VND120,000, but I’m concerned it might quite literally fly off the back of my motorbike on the way back home.
Eventually my driver comes to the northern city limits and it’s here that Phan Rang’s immense natural beauty becomes apparent. On both sides we are flanked by stunning vistas.
On the right hand side are the cerulean waters of the East Sea begging me to dive into them at the next bridge crossing, while on the left hand side, spectacular arid rocky mountainscapes that delicately balance boulders larger than the locomotive that got me here tell me this place really is prehistoric.
It’s also clear now why the province is known for its goats and I’m also told hikers are rewarded for their efforts by the sublime waterfalls of Cau Nuoc Ngot in the hinterland that I’ll have to explore next time.
In fact, it’s this Mediterranean-like topography that inspired Australian Andrew Hatherley and his Vietnamese wife, Kim, to name my accommodation for the next three nights partly after Sorrento in Italy and partly as a homage to bayside Sorrento in Andrew’s hometown of Melbourne.
Sorrento Beach Club & Kite Centre has quickly become an international kitesurfing mecca since it opened in 2017 owing to kite-friendly conditions where wind blows more often than not and up to as much as 40 knots. Think of it as the kitesurfing equivalent of surfing’s Pipeline in Hawaii or Teahupo’o of Tahiti.
During the high season between November and March each year, kiters from around the world queue up to fill their sails with My Hoa Lagoon’s stiff salty winds that happen to blow straight into my room just metres from the beach.
I’m not a kiter, but the resort has two swimmings pools, beautiful tropical gardens, spa treatments, SUPs and snorkelling for the odd days the wind doesn’t blow, and a menu with some of the best local and Western items I’ve come across on my travels.
There’s plenty here to keep me happy, including discovering more of what’s around the next hairpin corner of this breathtaking coastline, like the quaint fishing village of Vinh Hy 15km away with its harbour that reminds me of Japan, the rugged Nui Chua National Park and nearby Sea Turtle Conservation Area and perhaps roughing it at Vietnam Surf Camping.
Who knows, I might even pop into one of the many vineyards along the way to sample some local vino, but I’ll need to hurry before others get wind of this most underrated destination in Vietnam.
Sorrento Beach Club & Kite Centre; doubles from VND1.35 million
Reunification Express train; one-way Saigon to Phan Rang VND245,000
A version of this article first appeared on travelandleisureasia.com
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