We decided to get out of Saigon for a while and see a bit more of the country. We decided to go to a town called Phan Rang. It is a coastal town about and an hour and a half south of Nha Trang and about 350 km North East of Saigon. The two best options to get there are the train or the bus. We opted with the train as was a quicker at only six hours as opposed to eight on the bus. It cost 240,000 Dong, which is about $11. There are a few different options for the train, a sleeper or sitting down on hard or soft seats. The prices vary for each class and we opted for soft seats. We bought the tickets at a travel agent near Phạm Ngũ Lão, a main backpacker/tourist area of Saigon.
We arrived an hour early as suggested and waited for our train to leave. We were at central station in Saigon and it is the starting and terminating point for the trains. The train we were on went all the way to Hanoi and I was told it took a few days to arrive. The train was not very crowded. My two friends and I sat at the table in the middle of the carriage. Even though we had allocated seats, no one seemed to mind too much, even though a few people looked at their tickets then at us a few times. Once away the conductor checked our tickets and we were settled in.
We had a beer or two to keep us occupied along the way as it was my mate Ryan’s birthday. The train has a cart service with two ladies walking the length of the train selling snacks and drinks. They were stationed in the front carriage and we went and bought a few beers between their rounds. We also bought some fried chicken drumsticks and rice at one stage from here as well. I still am not sure if it was the staff carriage we invaded or if it was a dining carriage of some sorts. Either way the chicken was great, but perhaps that was only because I was so hungry.
We arrived at Phan Rang and showed our ticket to exit the station. As expected there were taxis there to meet the train and they took us the 15 minutes into town. The hotel we stayed in was quite nice and new and was only $10 a night. The staff are just a married couple and they looked after us for the time we were there.
Phan Rang is very spread out, so we hired scooters while we were there to save on taxi fare. From the stares that we got, the town does not get many westerners visiting, but most people were friendly enough. On the way to the centre of town is a huge monument to the war. The date 16-4 is prominent on the top which is the date that the North Vietnamese went through the town on their way south in 1975, and is called 16 April Park, funnily enough. The Statue has six figures on it that are about 10 metres tall and represent different occupations. A soldier and a teacher and a man holding some sort of tool, a farmer, as well as a lady and a child. It towers above a massive round about and faces another pyramid building which is a museum. Each night locals flock to this open public space to enjoy the company of friends and eat some food off the street vendors.
A main attraction of the town is the beach that sits on Ninh Chu Bay. If you are looking for a place that is away from the chaos of some of the bigger cities in Vietnam then Phan Rang is a nice spot to visit. When we first visited the beach it was desolate. Not a soul to be seen and it was 1 PM on a Sunday. I said to my friend if this were Australia the beach would be packed. The town is one of the driest in the whole country which made it even stranger there was no one here. Steve my friend explains that the beach comes alive a bit later when the heat of the day has passed, about 4 PM where people set up deck chairs and small tables and sell seafood and beer, so that’s exactly what we did. It was very relaxing, watching the locals frolicking in the clean water while enjoying some scallops.
Just back from the beach is a lookout. The climb up a mountain starts off easy enough with a pathway, which turn into stairs which lead to a Buddhist temple. The temple is still under some construction and is about two-thirds of the way up. Past this point there are less and less stairs and soon we are just climbing up rock, although when we reach the top it is worth it. We have a 360 degree view of the town and surrounds. The ocean and beach on one side and mountains off in the other. There are lots of rice farms as well and it is interesting to view the farms from this vantage point, to see the layouts in their entirety.
There are quite a few salt mines to the north following the coast line. Salt mines are nothing like I thought they would be. For a strange reason I thought they were underground, but makes sense they are slightly inland from the ocean. They are large fields that are covered in various amounts of water and they use evaporation to gather the sea salt. We took our bikes on a ride through the large national park and we saw many of these salt mines. As we continue along the coast the landscape changes into the rice fields that have become familiar on this trip. We have to negotiate the gravel on the road as well as animals such as herds of goat, sheep and cattle.
If you are looking for a slice of Vietnam that is less travelled then Phan Rang is just the place to visit. Naturally a beautiful place full of wonderment and the people were genuinely friendly. It is fairly cheap to get too and not too far from Saigon. We organise a sleeper carriage for the return journey. We board the train near midnight and sleep all the way back to Saigon, saving the cost of a hotel for a night. I enjoyed my time in Phan Rang and it was an eye opener to see how the locals live their day to day lives and would return in a heart beat given the opportunity.
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