Part 9: Yummy dinner, quiet uneventful night, and visit to a Cham site before leaving.
Across the street from our hotel was, luckily, one of the most famous restaurants in Ninh Thuan – Hang Duong Barbeque and Restaurant. From outside, it looked like a tiny, run-down family food stall. But when we stepped inside past a narrow corridor, which was utilized for a couple of tables as well, we arrived at a spacious outdoor dining garden.
Since we started dinner a bit earlier than usual that evening, there weren’t many customers at the restaurant when we got there. We ordered a simple 3-course Vietnamese meal from their a la carte menu. To clarify, 3 courses here consisted of a stir-fried vegetable dish, a main protein-rich dish, and a soup. As we learned from our trip earlier that day that asparagus was one of the specialties in this land, we decided to try their stir-fried asparagus with prawns. I had never been a fan of asparagus before, but their dish was so outstanding that since then I had been repeatedly trying to replicate it at home, but all to no avail.
Half way through our delicious dinner, the restaurant quickly filled up. I could tell immediately from the number of customers all arriving at the same time that they went as an organized tour group. Tour agencies in Vietnam always partnered with certain restaurants to enjoy ample discounts, while the restaurants could sell more food and advertise their names more widely. It’s a win win and no one, even the tourists, complains. I was right when we left the restaurant and saw 3 tour buses parking outside on the street.
That night was rainy, making it illogical to stroll around the neighborhood which was supposed to be the center, most crowded and most exciting area of the whole province. In the rain, the streets looked sleepy, almost deserted. I had wanted to try Banh Can, another specialty of this land made from rice flour and beaten egg yolks and cooked over charcoal. It could be served with just those 2 ingredients, or added minced pork, prawns, or squid bits. Typically a street snack, it was sold mostly from late afternoon until night. But since it was raining rather heavily when we finished dinner, I had to find another chance to try this amazing-looking dish:
We spent the night quietly in our hotel room. If it had been a big city with vibrant night life, we could have had other options. I guessed many would have gone to a cafe and tried the coffee, but all three of us couldn’t drink coffee. So instead, my aunt watched her favorite Taiwanese show, my mom crashed onto bed and passed out almost immediately, and I, after an hour or two browsing the web, also fell asleep in the sound of raindrops knocking on the leaves and window glass outside.
Next morning, we explored another noodle shop also just steps from our hotel front door – Nhuong noodles, another that appeared on multiple lists when I googled “Good restaurants in Ninh Thuan”. This one was, as I expected, crowded, with lots of tourists arriving in their minivans. The atmosphere was so different from the noodle shop we tried yesterday. Yesterday, they were all locals finishing their breakfasts quickly before going back to their blue collar workday; there was no picking what to eat, no talking at the tables, no lingering after finish. Today, here, everyone took their time, looking at the menu (which was just a printed piece of A4 paper on the wall), considering and choosing what to have, commenting on the broth, the meat, the noodles while they ate, and discussing which sites they were visiting. The atmosphere was different, and the food was not the same either. The touristy shop was better, honestly. It was more famous for a reason.
After the breakfast, we went back to our hotel room to pack, ready to leave the city of Phan Rang, Ninh Thuan. But before going to the train station, we had to take a walk around our hotel – to the nearby 16/4 square and park.
Yesterday, when Huy drove us past this square, he introduced that this area would be filled with street food stalls and locals going for a walk at night. This square was the center of, if not the only, Ninh Thuan night life. But today, when the sun still hadn’t penetrated the clouds yet, when puddles of water from last night rain still scaterred the ground, there was literally no one there, except the three of us. Without the street food, there was nothing much to see of amy square. There was just this fairly impressive war monument that commemorate women during wars, and across from the square was a rather unique city museum.
The Poklong Garai, a Cham worship site built in the late 13th – early 14th century, was our last stop before leaving the city. It was located just 5 minute by car from the train station, so it made perfect sense to stop there before heading to the station, especialy when there was nothing else to see.
The complex consisted of 3 worship towers perched on top of a hill and a museum.
The museum was not impressive or informative in any way, mainly just selling souvenirs at unreasonable prices. But the 3 towers, after a quick climb up steep stairs, offered many pretty angles.
The 3 towers include a main tower or shrine, a gate tower, and a tower to worship the god of fire.
The main tower, as the name suggested, was the largest, tallest, and most impressive of all. It was built in the 13th century as a site for Cham people to worship their king – King Poklong Garai, thus giving name to this site.
The gate tower was the smallest one, and the only one you could walk through.
And the shrine for the god of fire was the last one within the complex.
Talking of Cham architecture from hundreds of years ago, we had to mention their bricks and the honey-like gel to link them. Even now, with modern technology, we still couldn’t figure out what they used to keep the bricks stick together for such a long time, withstanding harsh weather of south central Vietnam for centuries. Kind of like the pyramid of Egypt.
About 1 hour before our train departure time, we went back to book a taxi. There were a few parking idly within the perimeter of the complex, but when the drivers knew we were only going to the train station 1 kilometer away, they all politely and cunningly refused by saying they were waiting for other tourists who were sightseeing. Seriously, what is it with drivers refusing to take passengers on short distance trips?
My aunt suggested walking there. Possible, but not the most convenient option. So I called the taxi company, requested a taxi. That way, the driver had no idea where we would be going, and after driving from some place else, they knew it better to just take us anywhere we asked, no matter how close by it was.
One and a half day in Ninh Thuan, we had leisurely visited all sites, and still had bundle of time for a quick and cheap lunch at the train station while waiting for our train to arrive.