Flanked by verdant mountains on one side and the blue sea on the other, the trail along Vietnam’s South Central Coast is easily the most picturesque in the country. This route stretches over 800 kilometres from Binh Thuan to Da Nang, passing through a series of astonishing beaches and bays.
Wedged between the imposing Truong Son Range and the East Sea, the narrow coastal plains of South Central are destinations in their own right. Here, the blue sea, sandy beaches, and lush mountains are harmonised, creating remarkable landscapes. Dotting along this beautiful coastline are fishing villages and legacies of the Champa – a maritime kingdom that had controlled this region for centuries.
Ke Ga Cape
The first stop on my South Central Coast journey is Ke Ga Cape in Binh Thuan. Despite the name, it is actually a windswept island connected to the mainland via a strip of sand. At high tide, the “bridge” submerges and Ke Ga turns back into its isolated state. Only some bushes, Australian pine trees, and centuries-old plumerias can survive on this rocky landscape.
Standing tall on the island is Vietnam’s oldest lighthouse which was built in 1899. At the time, the surrounding water was extremely dangerous for ships due to strong winds, hidden rocks, and sandbanks. Yet it links Phan Rang and Vung Tau – two vital ports along the coast. That’s why the French erected a lighthouse in this exact location. The 35-metre tower is made entirely of imported granites. They are so resistant that little to no damage has occurred after all these years. Another interesting fact is that no plaster was used in the construction of this lighthouse. The stones are fitting together like lego bricks, representing the excellent skill of the stonecutters.
A short drive down the coast from Ke Ga Cape brings me to Phan Thiet – the capital of Binh Thuan province. Many tourists tend to skip this ordinary-looking town and travel directly to the beach. But little did they know this place is one of Vietnam’s busiest fishing ports, with hundreds of boats come and leave daily. Despite the rise of tourism, fishery and manufacturing of fish products still serve as a source of income for many people here.
Frankly, a trip to Phan Thiet is a multisensory experience. You can hear the waves splashing against the boats and the cheerful sound of fishermen. Your eyes and hands will be amazed by the day’s catch being brought ashore. And your palate will be pleased by some truly fresh seafood. At the same time, your nose might be overwhelmed by the strong odor of fish sauce. But believe me, Phan Thiet fish sauce is among the most flavourful in the country.
Thuy Tu Temple
As their life centred around the sea, people living along the South Central Coast have developed some sea-related habits and traditions. One custom that I found particularly compelling is whale worshipping. According to Vietnamese fishermen, the whales and their kin are luck bringers. They are believed to guide sailors through storms and raging sea. Therefore, hunting is considered a taboo. Additionally, if a whale is washed ashore (dead or alive), it will be treated as a family member. Some whales are even worshipped as gods.
An outstanding example of this tradition is Thuy Tu Temple in Phan Thiet. Constructed in 1762, this temple is home to about 100 sets of whale bones, with the largest measures 22 metres and weighing nearly 65 tonnes. 24 skeletons even received titles from the Nguyen Emperors, signifying the important role of whales in the Vietnamese culture. These days, the whale skeleton is the source of inspiration for the Fishermen Show – a performance depicting the life and legends of Phan Thiet.
Not far from the city of Phan Thiet is Mui Ne – a popular beach destination filled with hotels and resorts. Unlike Phan Thiet which is a hive of local activity, the former fishing village is dedicated to tourists. But Mui Ne doesn’t always look like that. Before 1995, it was just a sleepy backwater ignored by both domestic and international travellers. There was nothing here, except the beach, endless lines of coconut trees, and vendors selling seafood. Things started to change in 1995 when the solar eclipse was visible in Vietnam, and Mui Ne had the optimal viewing spots. Thousands of visitors flocked here to witness the once-in-a-lifetime experience, leading to the development of tourism.
The Sand Dunes
But the beauty of Mui Ne is not limited to the beach. This coastal land also boasts two majestic sets of sand dunes: the Red Sand Dunes and the White Sand Dunes. As its name implies, the Red Sand Dunes are of an amber colour. They are formed as a result of high wind carrying fine sediments landward. The dunes look most magnificent during sundown as they radiate a fiery red tone.
Meanwhile, the White Sand Dunes display a vanilla colour. They stretch for several kilometres and can reach as high as a three-storey building. These dunes were created in the same way as the Red Sand Dunes. But instead of sediments, the wind transports more sand. The White Sand Dunes also look impressive in the afternoon when the sun casts shadows on the desert-like landscape. They undulate down over a blue lake, creating an awe-inspiring scene.
Leaving the sand dunes of Mui Ne behind, my South Central Coast journey continues on to the capital of Ninh Thuan province, Phan Rang. The name is the Vietnamese pronunciation of Parang, an acronym for Panduranga – the last capital of Champa. This kingdom of seafarers had dominated the South Central Coast for centuries before it was annexed by Vietnam in the early 19th century. Today, Phan Rang closely resembles an enclave of Cham people, with the largest Cham community in Vietnam residing here. They own lands, orchards, cattle, and maintain much of their traditional living style, including the matriarch system.
Bau Truc Village
Before reaching the city of Phan Rang, I made a brief stop at Bau Truc – the oldest extant pottery village in Vietnam. This settlement of Cham crafters is believed to be formed before the 12th century and even possibly before the 9th century. It is known as Pali Hamui Craok in the Cham language and comprises more than 400 households.
Bau Truc Pottery
Bau Truc pottery is known for its unique making method which involves only five simple materials: clay, sand, firewood, straw, as well as rice husks for firing. It is only fired outside, and thus kilns are not necessary. Most of the clays come from the nearby Quao River. The supply never runs low thanks to the sustainable use of the residents. Unlike other pottery villages, artisans in Bau Truc don’t use the rotating table to make their products. Instead, the clay is kept in a stationary position as the artisans walk countless concentric circles around it, carefully shaping it with their fingers. The crafters then utilise wet cloths to smoothen the surface before decorative patterns are added.
As the whole strenuous process is done completely by hand, the production capacity is minuscule in comparison to that of other pottery villages. However, Bau Truc has established a niche market, with many gardens, cafes, hotels, and seaside resorts in Vietnam are furnished with this pottery. Recently, a new generation of artisans has breathed a new life into the pottery with contemporary designs. Yet their works still reflect the essence of Cham culture and belief.
Po Klong Garai Towers
Rising dramatically above Phan Rang is Po Klong Garai Towers – the greatest legacy of the Panduranga principality. It was constructed at the beginning of the 14th century to honour the legendary Po Klong Garai. According to local lore, this man started life as a lowly cowherd but became a hero and then the king of Champa by destiny. Under his reign (1151 to 1205), the kingdom was able to fend off the Khmer invaders. Therefore, he is worshipped as a guardian of the Cham people, as well as a water deity thanks to his immense contribution to the irrigation system.
Though this never attained the flamboyance of Angkor, Po Klong Garai Towers is an architectural masterpiece of the Champa kingdom. The complex consists of three brick structures: a smaller gate tower, an elongated repository with a saddle-like roof, and the 25-metre kalan (main sanctuary). All of them are well preserved and are characterised by solid outlines. They are also simply adorned, with bas-reliefs of Shiva and other deities etching around the kalan, and wing-formed clayworks framing the arches and roofs.
Following Nation Highway A1 northward, I made my way to Nha Trang – the last leg of this South Central Coast journey. The route passes through vineyards, shrimp farms, and photogenic salt flats which reflect sunrays like giant mirrors. It then winds along the beautiful bay of Cam Ranh before reaching the lively coastal city. Here, a sweeping crescent of soft yellow sand appeared in front of my eyes. It embraces the aquamarine bay dotted with several tropical islands. The shoreline is backed by a leafy promenade where locals and tourists mingle for sports, drinks, or simply socialising.
That magnificent setting is the icon of Nha Trang. Since the French era, this place has been among the top resort towns in Vietnam. It is big enough to bustle but small enough to retain a relaxing atmosphere. For those who want to escape the crowd, there are beautiful coastlines just outside of the city. Many of which remain relatively untouched, for example, the beaches along Ninh Van Bay.
Po Nagar Towers
Apart from the heavenly beaches, Nha Trang is also home the sacred Po Nagar Towers. Built between the 7th and 12 centuries, this hilltop tower complex is dedicated to the Cham goddess Yan Po Nagar who is said to have taught agricultural and weaving skills to the locals. However, present-day historians identify her as another version of the Hindu deity Durga, the Mother Goddess.
Po Nagar consists of three levels, with the highest encompasses two rows of towers. Originally, there could be six or seven structures, but only four are still standing. They are made entirely of red bricks, just like those in Phan Rang. Yet decoration is more elaborate, with bas-reliefs and sculptures at nearly every corner. Their shape is also varied, ranging from humans, animals to celestial beings. Unfortunately, many artworks were lost throughout history and they were replaced by dull cement figures. Aside from its role as a worship place, Po Nagar Towers serves as a source of knowledge of the bygone kingdom. The towers house multiple engraved steles depicting life and important events from various Cham dynasties.
To be continued…