Note on series title:
It’s a play on a Vietnamese famous travel novel, roughly translated into English as “Get your backpack and go” (“Xách balo lên và đi” as it is in Vietnamese). I just don’t have that luxury – I have a full time job as a financial analyst with tight deadlines, I have a family that I need to ask for permission if I want to go on any journey, and above all, I need money for my travels. So no… I don’t need just my backpack. I need a Visa credit card with full credit limit to fuel my traveling whim.
Part 1: The long forgotten love
My attention, sometimes I even feel like love, for the sandy land of Ninh Thuan started when I was only a 17 year-old girl having just read chị Cát Thư’s touching college application essay about her grandpa’s vineyard. (She later went to MIT, by the way.) Her words, at that time so deep and huge, now to me seem amazingly simple yet inspiring, just like her – a teenage girl shaped by the sun, the sand, and wind of that South Central Vietnam land. Years later, after having traveled the world and more than half of my country, I looked at the Vietnam map again and spotted that humble piece of land laying unnoticed amid a myriad of neighboring touristy provinces. As if to make up for an overdue promise, I asked for leave days, booked my train, made dozens of phone calls, and packed, all within a few days, getting ready for a traveling plan so long forgotten.
But it wasn’t all smooth and easy as it sounded. November wasn’t the best time of the year to visit Ninh Thuan. In fact, it was the peak of the rainy season there. The land that could only thrive in scorching sun and aridity had just endured 20 consecutive days of rain. Their renowned vineyards, what I was most excited about, suffered most and all died from abundance of water. When I called the tourism companies in Ninh Thuan, they all said it was very unlikely that they could find a vineyard with grapes. The sea wasn’t the postcard turquoise blue gleaming under the bright sun and spotless sky either. All the phone calls sounded gloomy and unpromising. The only good thing – hotels and airlines offered irresistible deals during this low season that I couldn’t refuse.
Ninh Thuan is a coastal province in South Central Vietnam, surrounded by famous tourist attractions. To its North is the long-developed tourist hub Nha Trang with herds and flocks of Chinese and Russian travellers no matter what time of the year. To its West is the even more famous highland city of Da Lat, where everyone rushes to enjoy the cool weather and sceneries only found in European fairy tales. After all, Da Lat was the favorite vacation city for the ruling class and the rich during Vietnam’s French colony time. To its South is the least famous neighbor, yet it still hosts the big name – Mui Ne beach, which joined the A-list in 1995 when the rare total solar eclipse could be watched most clearly there. The peaceful town suddenly drew much attention, and the gorgeous beach shyly hiding in a shallow bay was discovered, by tourists and investors alike.
With its neighbors moving forward in terms of tourism, leaving Ninh Thuan behind, the province, for decades, was known only for its grapes and sand, its sun and wind, its poverty and underdevelopment. Being one of the poorer provinces of a developing country was not the proudest title to hold. However, recently, when Nha Trang, Mui Ne, and Da Lat became too popular, crowded, and commercial and gradually lost their appeal to avid travellers who aspired for some place fresh and pristine, Ninh Thuan emerged as a promising destination with several newly discovered names, one of which being Vinh Hy bay. A very small bay mainly untouched by humans, Vinh Hy offered a wonderful retreat for wanderers and boosted Ninh Thuan’s position in the tourism map of Vietnam.
Despite its recent development, Ninh Thuan remained quiet, to some extent boring. There were not many hotels, although the supply was always more than enough for the demand. Its night life was almost non-existent – no night markets, no bars, no clubs, with the exception of quite a few coffee shops (that served real coffee, not weed) that opened until around 10 pm. The process of how I found the most suitable hotel also demonstrated the less professional tourist activities here.
The heart of Ninh Thuan was Phan Rang-Thap Cham, and the heart of Phan Rang – Thap Cham was the few hundred meters around 16-4 (read “April the 16th”) park and 16-4 square. That was the area where I wanted to stay the night, with hope to find as much people and life as possible. However, there was only 1 motel listed on Agoda in that area. Living in Vietnam almost all my life, I understood what it meant to be a “motel”. In reality, you could find quite a few hotels in the area, if you cared to search on Google Maps. With a bit of time, some devotion, and about 5 phone calls, I found Phung Hung hotel, located at 262 Ngo Gia Tu street, with its more than perfect location that could kind of compensate for its less than decent facilities.
Getting to Ninh Thuan was another struggle. It wouldn’t have been one if I hadn’t travelled with a rather old lady who wouldn’t fancy more than 5 hours sitting/lying on the bus or train. But Ninh Thuan doesn’t have any airports. Flying to Ninh Thuan means flying to Nha Trang and then going 70 kilometers South in a less-than-comfortable and more-than-pricey airport shuttle. A few days of consideration and the rather old lady’s decisiveness, a night train was our choice.
An awakened feeling, a rough idea of what to do, where to go, a bunch of bills and credit cards, I, again, got my Visa card and went on another adventure.