Phu Yen province plays second fiddle to Khanh Hoa to the south, with the tourist magnet of Nha Trang as its main draw. You may catch a glimpse of Phu Yen's mountains, rice fields and wide lagoons while in transit -- the views are especially good from the train (if you happen to be awake when you pass through). But what most passers-by don't realise is that just over the horizon to the east is 189km of coastline, some incredible natural beauty, and so many gorgeous, deserted beaches the Vietnamese don't know what to do with them all.
Very little infrastructure exists, and the people still make their living primarily off the sea. The fish praying festival, every lunar March, is the main annual event -- a three-day marathon of feasting and supplication to the 'Gods of the Sea' for a safe and profitable catch. In the heavily-forested interior of the province can be found 30 different ethnic minorities, including some villages that specialise in weaving and pottery, and half a million square kilometres dedicated to forestry, the profits from which, presumably, quickly leave the province after being made.
The provincial capital Tuy Hoa is hardly a pleasure palace, and it's not set up for western tourists -- at all -- it's barely set up for Vietnamese tourists. The major tourist development here is the Eco and Entertainment Centre, which lies 2.5km west of the beach, on highway 1A, and we're still trying to figure out exactly what the name means, since it isn't all that entertaining, nor in any appreciable way ecological.
There are only two hotels on the beach itself, and neither is a particularly good deal -- the places along the highway are a better choice, though truck noise can be a problem.
But, don't write the place off just yet.
If you love to go up real high and look way down, Tuy Hoa has two great options in town and one just to the south. There's Nui Bao Thap, a 14-th century Cham tower that sits high on a hill in the centre of town, Chop Chai Mountain along Route 1A -- a steep, 300 metre ascent with some truly amazing views of the ocean, the endless patchwork of rice fields, and the mountains in the distance, and 27km outside of town to the south is Da-Bia -- an unusually-shaped rock standing alone on top of a hill -- most tourists only get a glimpse of it, but it's an easy climb to get up-close-and-personal with the monolith, and be treated to the best views of all.
The surrounding areas provide a much more convincing reason to give this province a visit: Vung Ro Bay, which is slated for development at some point as a resort location, is breathtakingly beautiful. Da-Bia, otherwise known as Gravestone Mountain, 27km to the south, provides a good day trip -- as well as a great view of the surrounding countryside and the sea. Dai Lanh Beach, ten kilometres further south, is not recommended for an overnight, but is a beautiful location nonetheless. Add to that one amazing, deserted beach after another where you'll find hardly a footprint in the sand.
Downtown Tuy Hoa stretches from Highway 1A, eastward to the coast. It's laid out in an L-shape -- Nguyen Hue and Tran Hung Dao Streets head east-west, and beach development sits between Hung Vuong and Doc Lap, which follow the water. The wide Da Rang river delta borders the town to the south, with the only bridge crossings at route 1A and further inland. Everywhere else, rice fields as far as the eye can see. If you're getting around under your own steam, a map is highly recommended -- trying to navigate by instinct is likely to put you on a long, lonely road to nowhere.
If you're going to spend any significant time here, try to get the Vietbooks Yellow Map for Phu Yen province before you arrive. Otherwise, maps are hard to find -- there's a decent map on the back of the Quynh Hoa Hotel brochure, which is available around town -- we found one at the 03 Guest House on Doc Lap road across from the beach. It's written in Vietnamese, and some of the street names have changed, but it's still helpful.
Internet is available, though not ubiquitous -- if you're having trouble finding a place, head to the train station and then east on Nguyen Hue Road -- there are a few good places on the first block. Rates hover around 3,000 VND per hour, and service is basic but functional. The Vinh Thuan Hotel has two internet terminals that are free to guests. You can also head to the main post office.
For banking, head to the Incom Bank on Hung Vuong Street, at the intersection with Nguyen Hue. It has an impressive range of services for a town that doesn't receive many western tourists -- traveller's cheques are cashed for a 2% commission, and credit card advances are available for a 3% charge -- foreign exchange is also available, as well as a 24-hour ATM.
The main post office is on Nguyen Hue Street, at the roundabout to the east of Hung Vuong. There's a 24-hour BIDV ATM here that takes foreign cards, in addition to postal and long-distance phone services. It's also a great place to head for internet -- there are a generous number of terminals and there are no video games, so most of the local kids here are doing homework and it's blissfully quiet. At 2,000 VND per hour, it's hard to beat the price.
Motorbikes are easy-as-pie to rent in Tuy Hoa -- most of the hotels seems to have bikes to rent for 60,000 VND per day, but if you strike out at your hotel, try the Viet Huong or the Da Giang on Highway 1A.
Incom Bank: 236 Hung Vuong St, Phu Yen. T: (057) 823 695, F: (057) 823 520. Open weekdays: 07:00 to 17:00.
Post Office: 17 Nguyen Hue St, Phu Yen. T: (057) 821 924, F: (057) 825 292. Open: 06:30 to 21:30.
By Don Morgan.