I have lived more than two years in Vietnam, but I may now have a new idealized mental picture of the country. That picture has a name: Phú Yên.
Pronounced “foo ee-en,” this coastal province in central Vietnam contains some of the world’s most picturesque coastlines, coconut groves, and rice paddy plains framed by majestic green mountains. It’s host to the easternmost point in the country’s mainland, a rocky promontory with a tall lighthouse from which you can see out onto the endless expanse of the South Sea (don’t call it the South China Sea here). The endless stands of coconut trees that dot the landscape give it that quintessential tropics vibe. And the ocean is a gorgeous bright blue.
But nature alone doesn’t make a Phú Yên the apotheosis of Vietnam. What ices the cake are the carefree streets full of amiable, generous people. Tuy Hòa, the province’s capitol and largest city, is home to over 200,000 people. Back home in the American West, I’d consider that the cusp between a midsize and large city. Here in Vietnam, however, it’s ‘small.’ And indeed, it has the atmosphere of a small town. Though the city square is huge, and a large, brand new thoroughfare runs through town, the other streets are narrow, and I daresay often quiet. It’s quite a change from the constant din and impersonal bustle of Saigon (and even places like Nha Trang). Upon getting out of town, too, everything exudes a homeliness that’s sorely lacking in many places.
Tuy Hòa has begun to renovate itself, anticipating tourism, but as of yet, there’s relatively little, particularly from foreigners. It has a lot to offer. There’s another Cham tower more impressive than Nha Trang’s. The aforementioned lighthouse at Mũi Điện, and the even more attractive Gành Đá Đĩa are both within easy driving distance of the city, and the town of Sông Cầu further north is renowned among locals for its beauty.
It was Gành Đá Đĩa that most excited the nerd in me. It’s a patch of natural basalt columns on the seashore similar to the infamous Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. A cursory glance would suggest they’re artificially carved, but in fact the long polygonal pillars are a natural consequence of slowly cooling basalt magma. When it cools at the right rate, the upper surface of molten basalt cracks as it contracts, in much the same way as drying mud. Unlike mud, however, the cracks continue to propagate downward as lower layers of magma solidify. It leaves long perfectly arranged columns that are not strongly connected to each other and can thus shift up or down with the tectonic forces below. After the eons that process has arranged many of them into a natural staircase, and has laid others on their side. It’s a beautiful reminder of the wonders that physics and chemistry work all around us.
Our stay wasn’t all geology, though. We were hosted by Trang’s old roommate and her family. They treated us to several fantastic home-cooked meals (squid and snakehead fish) and also took us out for bánh xèo. We had heard from multiple sources that Phú Yên bánh xèo was far superior to the version found in Saigon. Our sources were correct. Bánh xèo is typically translated as “Vietnamese pancake,” but it’s not an apt description of anything but the shape. A batter is fried with various seafood, veggies, and spices, and served along with plates of fresh greens, rice paper, and various sauces. To eat it properly, the ‘pancake’ and greens of your choice should be wrapped in dampened rice paper and dipped in whichever sauce suits your fancy. It’s a fantastic combination of flavors that I highly recommend.
We shoehorned in a stop to another of Trang’s friends – this one an English teacher – so that we could talk to some of her students. In contrast to my high school experience, these students were all quite excited about their subject. But, like any group of teenagers, some were certainly more outgoing than others. I suspect part of that has to do with me – for most of them this was probably their first face-to-face with a “tây,” a Westerner. I can’t vouch for how much was learned during that hour, but there were lots of smiles all around.
One final side trip our hosts brought us on was a short drive to their son’s cantaloupe farm. Cantaloupes are expensive in Vietnam, so he does quite well. While there we had a nice chat with the elderly couple from whom he rents the land. Their ten children have since moved to the city, but they are happy where they are. Again, it was a nice chat and lots of smiles – a common thread wherever we go.
Phú Yên tempted us to stay longer, but the road beckons. We’ll see you again soon!