Compared to Nha Trang to the north, and Mui Ne beach to the south, the beaches in Ninh Thuan province like Ca Na and Ninh Chu aren't as postcard-pretty, but if you're looking for a half-decent stretch of sand and don't want to share it with other travellers, then you're in the right place -- few travellers have heard of Ninh Thuan and even fewer overnight in the province. Aside from the twin towns of Phan Rang Thap Cham and the beaches, there's fishing and craft villages, pagodas, cham temples and diving opportunities to keep boredom at bay.
Ninh Thuan gets barely a mention in most travel guides and the Open Tours slow down on the way through Phan Rang Thap Cham just long enogh for a drinks break at the Cham towers before pressing on to bigger, brighter and far far busier destinations to the north and south. This means if you're keen on seeing the less-travelled Vietnam and don't mind a lack of creature comforts, then this province is worth having a bit of a poke around in.
The two sister cities of Phan Rang Thap Cham on the southern coast of Vietnam are seven kilometres apart. Phan Rang is the favourite sister, and Thap Cham is very much the neglected step-sister -- there's no place to stay there and little reason to visit. You may pass through it on your way to Po Klong Garai Tower and you'll see what we mean.
Phan Rang is typical of the 'large town' hubs that are found throughout Vietnam, providing a sizable central market and a variety of services useful to locals living in the region. It's often recommended as the place to stay if you're interested in the surrounding sites, but we'd recommend staying on Ninh Chu beach seven kilometres to the east rather than in town.
Surrounding sites on offer include a few worthwhile Cham towers -- in fact a lot of Cham people still live in the area -- you'll notice the men, in particular, going about their business wearing their traditional white headdresses. You can try impressing them with a greeting of saalam, rather than xin chao.
Other than the towers, we found Phan Rang to be a good stop for craft lovers -- there are two Cham villages nearby, one specialising in weaving and the other in pottery -- and it also serves as a base if you are interested in exploring beaches like Ca Na or Cam Ranh Bay.
If you're a fan of dragon fruit, you're in the right place -- Phan Rang is said to grow the best in Vietnam.
Phan Rang is mostly clustered around Thong Nhat St which runs north-south. In the middle of town is the market, inside and behind an imposing white edifice. It would make sense to base yourself here, though we only found one place to stay in the area, and we found better places to eat near the rest of the accommodation, a kilometre to the south, past the roundabout. Head north out of town to reach the craft villages, Po Ro Me Tower, the Tra Cang Temple, and 32km from town, Ca Na (Vinh Hao is another 21km further). Head south on Thong Nhat St and take a right for Ninh Chu beach and a left to get to the Po Klong Garai Cham Tower.
Like any market town, Phan Rang is well-provided with banks, mostly near the central market. We couldn't find anyplace that would cash travellers checks, but foreign exchange is widely available at the banks and the gold shops along the street. If you're staying near the roundabout, there's an ATM with the Plus system just to west on the east side of the street at the Eastern Asia Money Transfer Company -- if that doesn't work head for the market ATMS which definitely take Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and other cards. Western Union offices are also widely available.
The town is well wired with internet starting at 3,000 VND per hour. The Thong Nhat Hotel has WiFi.
Agribank: 540-544 Thang Nhat St. T: (068) 830 075, F: (068) 822 716. Hours: 07:00 to 11:00 and 13:30 to 16:30. 24-hour ATM--might not take all cards.
Eastern Asia Money Transfer Co: 465 Thong Nhat St, Phan Rang. T: (068) 921 508, F: (068) 921 510. 24-hour ATM -- might not take all cards.
Incombank: 468 Thong Nhat St, Phan Rang. T: (068) 839 140. Hours: 07:00 to 11:00 and 13:30 to 17:00. 24-hour ATM, Visa and MasterCard debit cards.
By Don Morgan