Photo: Just another beach.

Coastal drive Phan Rang to Ca Na

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While backpackers often scurry between Mui Ne and Nha Trang, there’s a whole lot of coast to be explored in between. The relatively new coastal road between Phan Rang and Ca Na begs for travellers to slow down, get off the bus, get off Highway 1 – and get onto a motorbike. On one side of the road, dramatic desert landscape; the other side ocean blue. And in the middle of the journey is one seriously spectacular beach.

We said we were serious.

We said we were serious.

The most direct way from Phan Rang to Ca Na is via busy, charmless Highway 1A, a straight 35 kilometres. Taking the road along the coast takes 45 kilometres, and it’s worth it. Be sure to allot time for the beach and for photos. This can also be done as a day trip from Phan Rang or Ca Na, though there are no motorbike rentals or official motorbike taxis in Ca Na.

Easy Riders, take notice.

Easy Riders, take notice.

From the southeastern edge of Phan Rang city, head south and cross the river over An Dong bridge (Cau An Dong). Head south along this road which follows the coast, passing baby shrimp farms, seafood factories and the sand dunes. The landscape transitions, becoming more empty and desert-like, civilisation fades and the smooth, unwaveringly flat and desolate road stretches out to a fortress of craggy mountains on the horizon. This area is an oven, the stifling wind like a dragon breathing in your face – Ninh Thuan is the hottest and driest province in Vietnam.

The road itself is a curiosity. The four-lane highway is obviously a more recent construction, and a wide footpath with struggling saplings flanks both sides – for who, we’re not sure, as there is almost nothing along this road. Built under the “if we build it they will come” philosophy of Vietnamese development, perhaps one day there will be resorts and theme parks, but so far no one is coming – and that’s a good thing for adventurous travellers.

Road to nowhere.

Road to nowhere.

Thirteen kilometres on from the bridge in Phan Rang is the small fishing village of Song Hai, eking a living in such an isolated spot. Another seven kilometres, just before the road rises, twists west and begins to snake along the coast, is a promontory of land that is the highlight of the journey. You’ll come across a pop-up stand selling drinks – you can’t miss it as it’s a random cafe in the middle of nowhere. Park your motorbike for a few dong and load up on water because it’s a 20-minute slog across a sea of scorching sand down to the cove. By the end, it feels like you’re in a movie as the haggard bearded fellow lost in the desert with vultures circling overhead. Just when you think you’ll collapse and let the elements take you, the water appears like a mirage. Could this be real? It is. Dive in.

I guess this is ok.

I guess this is ok.

The cove is glorious, and despite being so out of the way, there are two cafe tents (this is still Vietnam after all). A pile of boulders juts out; scramble up for a picture. If you have enough energy, climb the trail up to Mui Dinh Lighthouse for another great view. We only found out after we departed that it’s possible to stay overnight up there. We were told there’s a basic solar powered guesthouse, but the person we spoke to wasn’t sure if foreigners were allowed to stay – lighthouses tend to be a touchy place for the government, who are ever weary of foreign spies in their on-going spat over ocean territory. If you do manage to stay there, let us know.

View of Mui Dinh from the road.

View of Mui Dinh from the road, the lighthouse just visible.

We were dreading the climb back up to the road when we saw another surreal sight: a tractor pulling a wagon arriving to the beach. A family had hired it from the village and we were able to hitch a ride back. It can be hired for 500,000 dong one-way; 600,000 dong round trip. The driver Tuny: (016) 7871 7495 (no English).

It’s 19 kilometres west to Ca Na and this is where the drive gets lovely as the road follows the coast closely, often with nothing but a barrier and a sheer drop to the water.

Eyes on the road.

Eyes on the road.

For us, this off the beaten track beach was well worth the extra day and the overnight in Ca Na. We hired a motorbike taxi in Phan Rang who took us to Ca Na for 450,000 dong, and that included the long stop. If hiring a driver, just be clear you want to go by the coast and not Highway 1A. From Ca Na, we easily caught the Tam Hanh bus passing through to Mui Ne.

On your own motorbike? Note: there is no infrastructure along this route so you’ll want to be fairly self sufficient in dealing with potential flats or breakdowns. Also check the latest situation about the road. Before our journey, it had been closed for a while to clear a rockslide that blocked the way and we skirted around several work crews still removing rubble and fixing downed power lines.

Essentially, this section is part of a 270 kilometre scenic drive along the coast from Mui Ne to Nha Trang, much of it new roads that see little traffic. The highlights are the desert sand dunes of Mui Ne, this Ca Na to Phan Rang Thap Cham route, the stunning Vinh Hy-Binh Tien Pass to Cam Ranh, and Cam Ranh to Nha Trang.

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