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NINH THUAN - MOST BEAUTIFUL HIDDEN PROVINCE IN VIETNAM?
By Mark Gwyther
Could Ninh Tuan Province and Phan Rang City qualify as one the best-kept travel destinations in Vietnam?
Ninh Thuan Province is the newest province in Vietnam. It was split away from Binh Thuan in the South and Khanh Hoa in the North back in 1993. People finishing their geography classes before that time may not even be aware the province exists. Being the personal private beach for the last President of South Vietnam didn’t exactly help it gain publicity or early popularity.
Exasperating the problem is the inconsistent naming:
- The nearest airport is Cam Ranh International Airport, better known as Nha Trang Airport despite the fact it sits nearly halfway in between the two provincial capitals.
- Less understandably, the local train station where nearly all North/South trains stop is called Thap Cham Station. Thap Cham is the historical capital of the Cham people but it has been swallowed up by the city of Phan Rang.
- The main beach – called Ninh Chu Bay, Ninh Chu Beach, and Binh Son Beach – falls just outside of Phan Rang’s jurisdiction. Seven resorts offer two to three-star rooms, but even these businesses add to the confusion; the largest resort is called Saigon-Ninh Chu Hotel and the second largest is named after a pottery village 30 km to the south.
Ninh Thuan / Phan Rang is not branded as a travel destination
Phan Rang, the capital of Ninh Thuan, has an identity problem. Or more accurately, it has a lack of identity problem. The city is located exactly in the middle of the tourism triangle formed by Phan Thiet, Dalat, and Nha Trang. But it might surprise you that in 2014, twice as many tourists and foreign tourists visited it compared with the much better-known destination of Phu Quoc. Most people are also surprised to find out that the coastal city of Phan Rang has a larger population than Phan Thiet. So why is Phan Rang’s tourism less established than its neighbors?
Lack of Marketing to Promote Tourism in Ninh Thuan
The resorts’ complete indifference to marketing is the biggest problem in building awareness. The locally-owned resorts don’t care about individual travelers or foreigners; they make money working with tour groups and those wonderful corporate team-building trips that every company seems to have during the summer. Not a single one of them uses advertising, and none seem to care much that Tripadvisor does not even list Ninh Thuan as a province.
The aforementioned Saigon-Ninh Chu Hotel’s listing is in the Mekong Delta! Currently, the only internationally managed resort is located 30 km north, in Vinh Hy Bay: the Amano’i operated by the prestigious Aman Group. Unbeknownst to most, Amano’i’s customers are extremely rich and famous and the resort prefers not to be noticed by the unrich and unfamous. For example, did you know it is possible to take a private Gulfstream jet from Thailand to Cam Ranh (at a price of $58,888), be picked up in a luxury SUV at the airport and delivered to your $8,000 per night room overlooking beautiful Vinh Hy Bay?
Other Misconceptions Hurting Tourism in Ninh Thuan / Phan Rang
It is difficult to travel to Ninh Thuan
You might be surprised to know that the tourism center of the province is faster to reach by airplane, train, and bus than most of Nha Trang. The Cam Ranh International Airport rests nearly in the middle of Phan Rang and Nha Trang. By rail, the Thap Cham station is positioned 10 km from the beach and nearly all the trains stop at the station. The resorts are a five-minute drive off Highway 1A.
Ninh Thuan is the hottest province in Vietnam
Ninh Thuan’s northern coast is one of the very few locations in Southeast Asia that qualifies as a Mediterranean climate; meaning fairly moderate year-round warm temperatures, low humidity, and dry. It has the least amount of rain in Vietnam. Dalat wines are made with Ninh Thuan grapes and places with the climate to grow grapes are also among the top tourism destinations in the world. While inland Ninh Thuan is hot, Phan Rang’s average high temperatures during the summer are less than Ho Chi Minh City’s, Hanoi’s, and Danang’s. It doesn’t hurt having a cooling wind every day, either.
Ninh Thuan is one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam
While this is true, it is because of the low level of urbanization. With only one city of any significant size, most of the population works on farms or fishing. Phan Rang is actually quite affluent (as many provincial capitals are) and the province has been receiving significant money for infrastructure from Hanoi. The roads near the beach are very wide and public utilities are reliable and meet demand. More businesses are investing in Phan Rang each year (a huge Maximart just opened).
Why You Should Visit
Now that you know why you have not visited, it is time to explain why you seriously need to see this place.
After the new coastal road opened, adventurous kite surfers from Mui Ne immediately traveled up the coast and discovered several world-class kite surfing spots free of congestion. The wind blows all year and the conditions are so good that it is rumored the Kiteboarding Tour Asia (KTA) will hold an international competition at Ninh Chu Bay next year. Moreover, the northern coastline has perhaps the best waves for surfing in Vietnam and sailboats are beginning to be spotted in Vinh Hy Bay.
For those who like their sports on dry land, the area around Phan Rang offers up plenty of adventure. A small resort is being developed near the Mui Dinh sand dunes and will be hosting off-road vehicle adventures. Looking up into the hills and rock formations, it is easy to imagine a cottage industry of hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. Trekking tours through the Nui Chua mountain range can already be joined, and the area has great potential for river rafting.
The new coastal road from Cana to Cam Ranh
Those looking for more passive diversions will enjoy the spectacular sightseeing. Most of the coast of Ninh Thuan province has never been accessible up until now. A new 116 km coastal road was just completed that begins in Cana, passes through the sand dunes of Mui Dinh, along Ninh Chu Bay, past Vinh Hy Bay, and cuts back inland after Binh Tien beach to reconnect with Highway 1A just south of Cam Ranh. With the coast being isolated up to now and much of the route inside the Nui Chua National Forest, dozens of undeveloped beaches line the road and you can stop and enjoy your own paradise. Better hurry, it won’t be long before it’s developed.
Temples, pagodas, monasteries, and churches
Like most provinces, Ninh Thuan has its fair share of religious sites – both old and new. Po Klang Garai is a 700-year-old Cham Temple that is still in use (go in October to witness the Kate Festival) and well maintained. Plenty of parking, nice gift shops, and easy access from the train station or Highway 1A help make this a better excursion than most Cham temples in Vietnam.
For a truly unique experience, make your way up to the top of the Truc Lam Tinh Vien temple complex located on a hill behind the center of Ninh Chu Bay. A 10 minute hike (carry some bricks up if you need good karma) will result in amazing views of the area. Don’t stop at the large temple, pathways behind it lead to the twin summits. At that point you will have an unforgettable 360 degree vista of rice fields, Ninh Chu Bay, and the Central Highlands. Witnessing the sunrise or sunset from the top of the hill is unforgettable.
Ninh Chu Bay Beach
The most obvious reason to travel to Phan Rang is the beach. Ninh Chu Bay, a splendid 10 km crescent, is considered one of Vietnam’s nine most beautiful beaches. It is safe to swim most times of the year and during the daytime it is nearly deserted. Sunrises are spectacular and it is quite enjoyable to come out and watch the locals go through morning exercises.
Most of the resorts lack nice beach facilities and thousands of Vietnamese come out from nowhere in the late afternoons, so the best spot to go is a couple kilometers across the bay to Ninh Chu Bay Beach Club & Bar where they have a private beach, cabanas, beach chairs and good Western food and drinks.
Conclusion: Ninh Thuan could be the next big travel destination in Vietnam
Phan Rang is different because it is so normal. It is not some undiscovered primitive spot – ATMs, metered taxis, high speed internet are readily available. But neither is it full of the bars, massage parlors and typical touristy trappings found in more popular locations. The expats who make their way to Ninh Chu Bay almost unanimously say that it will be the next “big thing” in coastal tourism for Vietnam, but development has been slow.
Being late to the party may turn into the area’s greatest strength, however. Learning from other locations’ mistakes and developing the tourism infrastructure before the tourists arrive may give the province a long-term advantage over its neighbors.
Those of us who live in Phan Rang love it but we see change coming. It will be a struggle to keep the uniqueness of the area while more resort projects begin opening along the coast. The plan from both the government and many of the developers is to leverage the wonderful characteristics of the area and promote what I have termed third-generation tourism in the province. Likely the focus will be on adventure travel and wind sports along with smaller resorts focusing on niche markets – such as the Amanoi. But still, if you want to see easily accessible yet unspoiled beautiful coastline, now is the time to go.
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NOT ANOTHER HIDDEN GEM - NINH THUAN PROVINCE
Ninh Thuan province still has so many unknown travel gems for you to discover.
If you read a great deal about traveling in Vietnam, you are bound to hear so much about “hidden gems” that you might think going to Vietnam is one big mining expedition. Many of these “gems” are difficult to reach, take you far from your other objectives, and provide so few amenities that the effort and hassle spoil the entire experience.
Ninh Thuan is an exception. The province is located in the middle of the south-central tourism triangle of Phan Thiet/Mui Ne, Dalat, and Nha Trang. In the heart of the province are the adjoined cities of Thap Cham and Phan Rang. Thap Cham is the historical capital of the Cham people. Phan Rang, the capital of Ninh Thuan, is a mid-sized modern city near the ocean. From Saigon, the drive is only an hour or two longer than traveling to Mui Ne, and it is two hours closer than Nha Trang. If you are flying into the Cam Ranh Airport, it is the same drive time as if you were going north to Nha Trang. Nearly all the visitors to this area stay at Ninh Chu Bay, which is five kilometers from Phan Rang.
Ninh Chu Bay is considered one of the nine most beautiful beaches in Vietnam. Prior to 1974, the ten kilometer crescent was used as the exclusive beach for the President of South Vietnam. Since that time, it has remained relatively unknown to those outside Vietnam. Seven resorts of various quality and character line the area between the wide roads and the beach and several more resorts are being developed. The city of Phan Rang is located far enough away from the coast so the area near the ocean is uncongested.
What makes the area a true “hidden gem” is the unique balance of traditional Vietnamese life combined with modern conveniences for travelers. It is a gateway to seeing how contemporary Vietnamese live outside the major tourist destinations, while also providing all the services tourists need. Two large metered taxi companies offer reliable transportation to visitors, ATMs, and banks line the streets, and high-speed internet access and international TV are available in all the resorts. Near the bay is one of the most modern buildings in Vietnam, an arrow-head-shaped museum that is part of a large park that is now the unofficial community center.
However, it is not unusual to see cattle being herded down the wide, six-lane road that connects the beach to Highway 1. If you have traveled around Vietnam for any length of time, you will notice several unusual things about this area that make it a welcome change. You will not be approached by people asking you to buy things or give money. You can walk on the sidewalks without the fear of motorbikes. Crossing the street is not life-threatening. The temperature is not humid and the ocean breeze cools you down. Getting in a taxi is safe, and the traffic is light. It is one of the easiest places in Vietnam to relax and just experience Vietnamese people as they truly live now and not how they lived in the past.
When to Go
If you want good beach weather almost guaranteed, then Ninh Thuan Province is for you. The province has the least amount of rain, the sunniest days, and consistently warm temperatures throughout the year. In fact, 95% of all grapes produced for wine are grown in this province. The rainy season is officially from mid-September to mid-December. However, when it rains it usually rains for about 15 minutes and stops. Phan Rang has 20% less annual rainfall than Nha Trang and Phan Thiet. Exceptions, like when a typhoon is near, are rare.
As the city is directly in the middle of major tourist destinations, you have several options for travel. The train is a safe and reliable method to travel to Phan Rang on a budget (but spend a little extra for a cabin bed). Almost all the north/south trains stop at Thap Cham Station, which is about a $7 taxi ride from Ninh Chu Bay. Metered Mai Linh taxis are usually waiting at the train station.
Taking a bus is also an easy alternative. Most tour buses going to Nha Trang are happy to drop you off and pick you up in Phan Rang. If you are planning on arriving in the middle of the night, make sure they drop you off so you can find a taxi to take you to your hotel.
Phan Rang is nearly the same distance from the Cam Ranh Airport as Nha Trang is, only south instead of north. The taxi ride will be more expensive since fewer taxis are willing to make this trip. You can expect to pay between $20 and $30. Once the new coastal highway is opened, the trip from the airport to the beach is going to be spectacular. The views from this highway are some of the best in the world. It is scheduled to open in the first half of 2013.
Taking a van, taxi, or bus from Phan Thiet, Nha Trang, or Dalat will take about 2 hours. A taxi from Nha Trang will cost approximately $50. Before the war, a railway connected Phan Rang to Dalat. The government plans to re-open this route in the next few years, which means Phan Rang will be the gateway into the south-central highlands.
Where to Stay
It is highly recommended you stay at one of the seven resorts located on Ninh Chu Bay. Mini-hotels in the city are an inferior alternative. The seven resorts range in price and service. Two-star options are available for $20 per night, but you will get what you pay for. Thai Binh and Con Ga Resorts are the best of these. For a slightly higher price, you can stay at Bau Truc (formerly known as Den Gion) which has both three and four-star facilities. Bau Truc is a nicely designed resort in the center of the bay with an open, outdoor restaurant right on the beach. They also have one of the largest swimming pools in Vietnam that they keep very clean.
Beds have new mattresses and linens that conform to western standards. Moving up in price, the next option is the Saigon Tourist owned, Ninh Chu Hotel. It is 8 floors and has many rooms with ocean views, as well as some beach bungalows. The Saigon Tourist hotel also has the most facilities such as a spa, game roomand a beach bar. Unfortunately, like many Saigon Tourist hotels, the service is subpar and the staffing is kept at a bare minimum.
For a surreal experience that will make you feel like you are in a Scooby Doo mystery, stay at Hoan Cau resort (really, don’t). The resort mixes Vietnamese folklore and Disneyland design, only it looks like it hasn’t been maintained for the last decade. But, if you feel like staying in a “tree trunk”, then by all means check it out (don’t). If you are traveling with a group, the new Aniise Villa resort recently opened and they have several beach villas with kitchens that can easily accommodate up to ten people.
Finally, the world-famous Aman Resort Group opened a stunning luxury resort on the cliffs above Vinh Hy Bay. The Amanoi Resort Vinh Hy Bay is one of Vietnam’s most prestigious hotels.