Phan Thiet for Families
Hordes of international tourists head to Mui Ne each year, bypassing the little fishing village of Phan Thiet.
This quirk of tourism fate has left Phan Thiet largely unspoiled, making it an interesting and authentic place for adventurous families to visit.
Just four hours by train from Ho Chi Minh City, Phan Thiet has a range of budget options, as well as a few higher-end places to stay.
Phan Thiet has its own foodie street, Tuyen Quang Street, full of teeny-tiny local eateries serving fantastic mi Quang (central Vietnamese noodle dish), banh xeo (sizzling pancake) and cha cuon, a wrap and roll dish that includes pork, sausage, egg spring rolls, a basket of herbs and a platter of rice paper to be used as wrappers.
The local versions are each a little different to how the dishes are served elsewhere, as Phan Thiet is in an area that's sometimes considered the southern part of central Vietnam and other times the northern part of southern Vietnam. So the locals serve central Vietnamese dishes with a southern twist and southern Vietnamese dishes with a central twist.
In Phan Thiet the mi Quang, a pork and prawn noodle dish, is more soup-y and more spicy than in its birthplace of Hoi An in central Vietnam (and you need to specify “không huyết” if you don't like blood cubes). The local version of banh xeo is also different, with the pancakes smaller in size, thicker in girth and chewier in texture. That might not sound so appealing, but chunks of banh xeo wrapped in mustard leaves and dipped into the tangy dipping sauce are a taste sensation not to be missed.
Tuyen Quang Street is also home to Phan Thiet's quirkiest cafe, an open-air place that only serves great coffee and has an unusual feature - pet lizards. The owner of Pet Cafe at 28 Tuyen Quang is a lizard-fancier who decided to share his hobby with paying guests. If you arrive early, you get to see a variety of lizards, including iguanas, being groomed and prepared for their day of lizardly lounging.
Phan Thiet also does fabulous seafood. There's a strip of seafood restaurants in Pham Van Dong Street, facing the river. Even though these places have menus in English and Russian, foreign tourists are still a novelty, so expectto receive a lot of attention from staff and other customers.
A late afternoon stroll along Nguyen Tat Thanh Street will take you past many seafood carts, and local families sitting at plastic table and chairs snacking on crabs, snails and other crustaceans. The beach at the end of the street is a great spot to watch the sunset, while the locals do their evening exercises. From here, it's an easy stroll along some back streets to the seafood places in Pham Van Dong Street.
Phan Thiet's attractions will take a few days to explore, and Mai Linh has a fleet of reliable taxis that make getting around town quite easy. You can also negotiate a day rate for a taxi, making longer excursions easy for those who don't want to hire motorbikes to get around.
Phan Thiet is quite spread out, so walking between attractions isn't always feasible, especially if you have young kids.
The town's fishing fleet moors near the Tran Hung Dao Bridge, which provides a pleasant vantage point to watch the fisherfolks' comings and goings in the mornings, before the day heats up too much. From the bridge, it's an easy walk to another maritime marvel, the Whale Temple, also known as Van Thuy Tu.
The Whale Temple, which shuts for a few hours in the middle of the day, is home to a 22-meter-long whale skeleton in a large side-building. The temple itself is small but quite colourful, with a miniature ship that may or may not prompt a discussion about pirates.
Another interesting attraction along the river is the Duc Thanh School, where Ho Chi Minh himself apparently taught as a young man, before leaving Vietnam for France. The pretty little school, renovated several times since Uncle Ho passed through, is best explored when it's deserted. If you're unfortunate enough to encounter a tour group at the school, just cross the road and spend some time exploring the Ho Chi Minh Museum before venturing back to the school.
Allocate a full day to visiting the Reclining Buddha on Ta Cu Mountain, 30 km from Phan Thiet. The 49-metre-long Buddha is part of a sprawling complex on the side of the mountain, and access is via a cable, then a lot of steps. Make sure you carry some water for the long hot climb up to the Buddha. When you're there, remember it is a religious icon, so show respect to those praying and lighting incense at the various shrines. When visiting the complex, and any other religious site in Vietnam, knees and shoulders should be covered.
A much more ancient religious site exists in Phan Thiet, a relic from the mysterious Hindu kingdom of Champa that ruled Central Vietnam for 900 years. The PoshaInu Towers, 7km northwest of Phan Thiet, were built in the 8th century. Appreciating the three hilltop towers, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, may require a bit of imagination, as most of the time the site is desolate and deserted. Local Cham people hold festivals at the towers, and some local fishermen visit the shrines to ensure their safety at sea.
Barbara and her husband Vu lead street food tours in Ho Chi Minh City's back streets through Saigon Street Eats. Since their first bundle of joy arrived five years ago, Barbara, a former journalist, has become a family travel expert. Follow Barbara's blog here.