By Matt Cowan
May 27, 2022
AS THE REUNIFICATION EXPRESS sounds its horn for departure and its driver releases the brakes on the rattly red, white and blue carriages bound for Hanoi, the first beads of sweat begin to trickle down my face. I’ve only just stepped down from my soft seat premium carriage with air-conditioning into the shade of an awning barely wide enough to shield me from the blazing noonday sun on the Phan Rang-Thap Cham Railway Station platform.
It foretells of the furnace-like conditions ready to greet me in the small parking lot outside the gates where my ride to Sorrento Beach Club & Kite Centre awaits. Perhaps you’ve heard of Mui Ne, a Vietnam beach town a three-if-you’re-lucky-hour drive from Saigon famous for kitesurfing and sandboarding. Well, it turns out Phan Rang, three-plus hours further north up the coast from Mui Ne, is also crazy kite-friendly, thanks to conditions where wind blows more often than not and up to as much as 40 knots. Think of Phan Rang as the kitesurfing equivalent of surfing’s Pipeline in Hawaii or Teahupo’o of Tahiti – but in an underrated, barely known nook of Vietnam steeped in a rich history primed for exploring. The town was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Champa.
I’m the last of a small posse of passengers to leave the station because I’m weighed down with camera equipment and a bag I’ve regrettably overpacked. But all bodes well: I can’t see any other tourists around.
By the time I get to my waiting car, the other travelers to Phan Rang have seemingly evaporated into thin air, like I imagine water does on the baking hot salt pans that can be found near here on the south-central coast of Vietnam.
My driver takes me through the small city center of Phan Rang-Thap Cham, known simply as Phan Rang, a Vietnamese adaptation of its original Chamic language name, Panduranga.
Just two kilometers from the railway station in the opposite direction is the Cham tower complex of Po Klong Garai, estimated to be more than 800 years old and one of the few remnants of the Champa civilization – which dominated between the second and early-19th centuries – left in Vietnam.
The Cham people, of whom there are said to be close to 200,000 living in Vietnam, have ancestral connections to the seafaring peoples of current-day Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia who brought Hinduism to this part of the world, although most Cham these days adhere to Islam.
Eventually, my driver comes to the northern city limits of Phan Rang (kitesurfing requires the coastline, after all) and it’s here that the immense natural beauty of this part of Vietnam becomes apparent. On both sides we are flanked by stunning vistas.
On my right are the cerulean waters of the East Sea begging me to dive into them at the next bridge crossing, while on the left hand side, spectacular arid rocky mountainscapes that delicately balance boulders larger than the locomotive that got me here tell me this place really is prehistoric.
It now becomes clear why the province is known for its goats, and I’m informed that hikers are rewarded for their efforts by the sublime waterfalls of Cau Nuoc Ngot in the hinterland.
In fact, it’s this Mediterranean-like topography that inspired Australian Andrew Hatherley and his Vietnamese wife Kim to name my accommodation for the next three nights partly after Sorrento in Italy and partly as a homage to bayside Sorrento in Andrew’s hometown of Melbourne.
Since opening in 2017, Sorrento Beach Club & Kite Centre quickly made its little corner of Vietnam an international kitesurfing mecca. During the high season between November and March each year, kiters from around the world queue up to fill their sails with My Hoa Lagoon’s stiff salty winds that happen to blow straight into my room just meters from the beach.
Personally, I’m not actually into kitesurfing, but the resort has two swimming pools, beautiful tropical gardens, spa treatments and a menu with some of the best local and Western items I’ve come across on my travels in Vietnam. Around the next hairpin corner of this breathtaking coastline is the quaint fishing village of Vinh Hy, with its harbor that reminds me of Japan, the rugged Nui Chua National Park and nearby Sea Turtle Conservation Area. Next time I return, I like the idea of roughing it at Vietnam Surf Camping or popping into one of the many vineyards along the way to sample some local vino.
At 7 a.m. back in town the next day, Phan Rang Central Market is a hive of activity. I discover a vibrant alley filled with a cacophony created by gossiping market ladies cooking up a breakfast storm, including the local staple banh canh cha ca, a fish noodle soup (VND15,000), banh can Phan Rang, a moreish local take on the small circular fried rice cakes found up and down the central and southern coastlines (VND10,000), and a dish I’ve never eaten before: banh tai dat, gloopy bite-size dumplings with dried shrimp encased in rice starch served up cold in a savory fish sauce (VND15,000).
The ladies cackle with delight that I’m dining at their modest stalls and marvel at my ability to pronounce most of their dishes’ names and answer in Vietnamese, albeit stilted, the obligatory questions about age, marriage, and country of origin.
I also discover that I can buy a live duck for just VND120,000, but I’m concerned it might quite literally fly off the back of my motorbike on the way back to the hotel.
When I visit Po Klong Garai (entrance fee VND20,000), I’m drawn to the vertical stone slabs on either side of the portal that leads into the complex’s main tower (there are three). Inscribed into them are long passages written in ancient Chamic script, while above the entrance, there’s a well-preserved relief of the Hindu god, Shiva.
While I’m sitting under the shade of a tree observing the wedding photoshoot of a local Cham couple dressed in stunning traditional attire, Mr Tien, a Cham local and guide introduces himself and gives me an impromptu lesson on the basics of Chamic language, which bears a striking resemblance to Indonesian and Filipino.
“Salam, Mr Matt,” he says, before waiting for me to repeat it and then bidding me farewell as spontaneously as he had arrived.
Sorrento Beach Club & Kite Centre; doubles from VND1.35 million
Reunification Express train; one-way Saigon to Phan Rang VND245,000