But in Quy Nhon I drew a blank. The locals knew nothing. Even the legendary Barbara of Kiwi Backpacker’s Cafe — an encyclopaedia of local information — was in the proverbial dark. Fortunately I was able to buy a map of Phu Yen, but even that took a trip to three bookshops. The province to the south was just not on the itinerary.
At a loss, I hired a motorbike and decided to hit the road. But quickly I became aware of not just the physical but mental boundaries created by the province border. Even though Quy Nhon is only 20km from Phu Yen, north of the border no-one had heard of the bay. But just a few kilometres into the next province down the responses from people along the road changed. Yes, they’d heard of this place. It was called “Da Dia” and was somewhere past Song Cau. Producing my map I found my location.
A couple of wrong turns and 70 kilometres of tarmac later I wound up on the top of a rocky promontory jutting out into the sea. While below the terrain mixed paddy field plains with tropical forested hills, here it was grassland grazed to the quick by cattle and all around were clumps of cacti. In the desert-like confines of Cam Ranh and Phan Rang, the hardy cactus is a normal sight. But here it was incongruous.
And then in front of me appeared the fabled Ganh Da Dia. The rocks were as they had been described and except for a couple of fisherman hauling in nets, I was satisfied and alone.
Over the last three years, Phu Yen’s principle town Tuy Hoa has been given city status. The province has also just celebrated 400 years since marauding Vietnamese forces engulfed this parcel of land formerly occupied by the Cham. And in tandem with the desire to bring in the tourists, Ganh Da Dia has now been elevated into national folklore. When infomercials showing the visual wonders of Vietnam hit CNN airwaves or are screened on the national airline, images of Ganh Da Dia appear alongside those of Halong Bay, Phong Nha Caves and the Perfume Pagoda. And not surprisingly, the tourists have started to arrive. Not in their dizzying droves — Phu Yen remains the back end of nowhere — and not even in large enough numbers to warrant a café or restaurant next to the bay. But Ganh Da Dia has now made it into the guidebooks. And for Tuy Hoa, a city dwarfed for so long by Quy Nhon and Nha Trang, it’s finally a reason to visit. Or at least, one reason.
My present trip to Phu Yen was once again a trip of discovery. Was there more than just rocks out here? Heading to Ganh Da Dia alone is a long trip from either Quy Nhon or Nha Trang. My previous journey had lasted a matter of hours, but it had taken me through soaring valleys, along rocky coastlines and above white sand beaches. Cows still pulled carts, wearing a motorbike helmet was give or take and the local, countryside dialect was almost unintelligible. Enough, I thought, to warrant a return.
Another draw was a more recent excursion out of Nha Trang to Dam Mon peninsular (known locally as Dong Mon) 50km to the south of Tuy Hoa. We had spent the day on a floating seafood farm in the lagoon off Dung Xuan and on the way I had seen spotless, untouched white sand beaches, spectacular cliffs and uninhabited bays. This was the land that time, or more aptly, tourism forgot. I knew there was stuff to see.
Now or Never
For anyone who craves adventure and has the zest to explore, there is much here for the avid traveller. Some of the beaches, valleys to the north and rocky enclaves along the whole coast are truly astonishing. Even the unfinished Doc Lap Street, Tuy Hoa’s version of the Nha Trang seafront, is a welcome change. The street stretches for about 2km with only one development — the still-not-completed Thuan Thao Resort. And then it disappears into a dirt road with Alpine-like scrub on either side, before emerging again after a turn or two as tarmac which, if followed, takes you through sand dunes, along Long Thuy Bay, over the wooden bridge and seafood restaurants at An Hai and past O Loan Lagoon before arriving at Ganh Da Dia. The lack of development here is refreshing.
But it has its downside. For anyone obsessed by service, avoid Phu Yen. You’ll be disappointed. There was an issue with almost every meal I had — from not putting chilli into my Bolognese sauce through to replacing the artichokes on my pizza with mushrooms and charging me for drinks that hadn’t been drunk. But the people here are friendly — despite the obvious poverty almost everyone was quick to smile — and the hotels, especially the five-star Cendeluxe, are such good value, that any expectations of perfection should be pushed aside.
This is after all a land that has little industry besides agriculture and as such, is only just coming to terms with the modern world. When I discussed the situation in Phu Yen with two of the handful of non-Vietnamese living in Tuy Hoa, we generally agreed that life here was akin to the Saigon of 15 years ago. Which all makes a trip to Never Never Land feel a bit like a pioneering mission. Even the guidebooks haven’t quite got there yet.
Places to Visit
Ganh Da Dia
These coin-shaped basalt rocks are more than worth the 40km trip out of Tuy Hoa. Either take the coast road north past Long Thuy and O Loan Lagoon or hit the highway, turning right in Chi Thanh just before the bridge. On the next bay down is a lighthouse which can be visited free of charge
An Hai Seafood Restaurants
Sitting on the coast road to Ganh Da Dia, a wooden bridge takes you across the entrance to O Loan Lagoon. On the water are four local seafood restaurants on stilts said by locals to be the best place to get your fix of lobster and other saltwater delicacies available in the area
15km north of Tuy Hoa this white sand bay surrounded by black volcanic rock has to be one of the cleanest and most attractive beaches in Vietnam. A restaurant with all amenities is already there and a resort is coming sometime next year, apparently. Get there while you can
Bai Long Thuy
A Mui Ne-like bay in An Chan with the same white sand as Bai Xep, this stretch of coastline is in effect a working beach. A few restaurants have taken up a beachside location already, but they remain very local, serving mainly seafood. Close by is Thanh Luong pagoda housing a female Buddha statue that was found floating in the bay. The statue is supposed to bring good luck to the local villages
An island off Long Thuy, this ‘rock’ can be reached by local fishing boat for between VND100,000 and VND200,000 per trip. Great white sand beaches and perfect for a day away from civilisation
Chop Chai Mountain
A jungle covered mountain overlooking Tuy Hoa, the road winding up to the top can be found just after the big Buddha on Nguyen Tat Thanh about 6km out of town. This is an army base, so photos are not allowed, although when I reached the top I was told to go down the slope a bit and snap away there out of sight of the people manning the tower. The views are worth the steep ascent
A Cham-built tower on a hill overlooking Tuy Hoa, Thap Nhan remains the only remnant of the former overlords of Phu Yen. Similar structures can be found all the way from Hoi An down to Phan Thiet. This one, although a perfect example of Cham architecture, is probably the least lauded of the lot
Mui Dai Lanh
Just north of Vung Ro bay and close to Deo Ca pass on the road to Nha Trang, the view here from the lighthouse is said to be worth the trip alone. Down below Bai Mon beach is believed by locals to be one of the best in the area
Dam Mon Peninsular
A slither of land jutting out into the sea in the next province down, its proximity to Tuy Hoa makes it perfect for a day trip. A road has just been built along the peninsular that on one side takes you to the white sand beaches facing north and on the other leads to the village of Dung Xuan and the seafood farms of Dam Mon lagoon. Tourism has yet to make it here although there are high hopes. So get here early
Places to Stay
Located on the edge of the town, this five-star edifice is surprisingly cheap — a superior room starts at US$50++. The Sky Lounge on the 17th floor has sweeping views of the city and the surrounding plains
Hung Vuong Hotel
Massage, swimming pool, a decent restaurant and clean, spacious rooms at this two-star hotel in the new part of town. A single room starts at VND220,000 a night
Long Beach Hotel
Set opposite the stretch of sand that doubles up as the city’s municipal beach, this slightly out-of-the-way hotel has spacious rooms starting at VND350,000++ for a double. Don’t hire a motorbike here, though. The prices are extortionate
Bai Tram Hideaway
Located in the north of the province closer to Quy Nhon than Tuy Hoa, this exclusive resort has a small number of private villas located on a beautiful stretch of yellow-sand beach. Book well in advance
Daily flights to Tuy Hoa with VASCO airlines (a branch of Vietnam Airlines) run from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
The trains on the Saigon to Hanoi route — SE6, SE8 and TN2 — all stop at Tuy Hoa. There is also a daily train from Tuy Hoa to Nha Trang. Go to saigonrailway.com.vn or vr.com.vn for more information