Last updated December 2016 | Words, photos and film by Vietnam Coracle
A sandy, boulder-strewn bluff separates the beach town of Phan Rang and the fishing village of Ca Na, on Vietnam’s south-central coast. Hiding wild, windy and isolated beaches, the landscape here is striking, arid and deserted: People say this is where dragons came to die, and the earth scorched itself in grief. A stunning new coast road now connects Phan Rang and Ca Na, at once cutting out a boring section of Highway 1 and opening access to a tremendous, and previously inaccessable, section of coastline. The riding is easy and the scenery is superb. This new coast road links seamlessly with the Sand Dune Highway to the south and the Nui Chua Coast Road to the north, thus creating an uninterrupted coastal route between Mui Ne and Nha Trang, avoiding Highway 1 for all but 20km.
GUIDE: DRAGONS’ GRAVE-YARD COAST ROAD
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 50km
- Duration: 1-2 days
- Route: Phan Rang to Ca Na on empty & spectacular coast roads [MAP]
- Road Conditions: excellent new coastal highways
- Scenery: beaches, rocky cliffs, sand dunes, fishing villages, arid hillsides
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
On this page, I’ve written a description of the Dragon’s Graveyard Coast Road from Phan Rang to Ca Na, including directions, a route map, and suggestions of places to stay and eat, and things to see and do along the way. I’ve written this guide going from north to south (from Phan Rang to Ca Na), but obviously you can ride it in either direction. The total distance is only 50km (or 100km return) so it’s easy to complete this road trip in one day. You should be able to find motorbikes to rent for the day from your accommodation in Phan Rang or Ca Na. However, as I mentioned in the introduction, it’s a good idea to extend this road trip via the Sand Dune Highway to the south (Ca Na to Mui Ne) or the Nui Chua Coast Road to the north (Phan Rang to Nha Trang). The weather is good pretty much year-round as this is one of the driest regions in the country. However, to see the Dragon’s Graveyard at its arid, burnt-out best, go during the height of the dry season (January to March).
The Dragon’s Graveyard Coast Road: Clinging to the cliffs from Phan Rang & Ca Na:
View in a LARGER MAP
Phan Rang to Ca Na: (Note: this video was filmed before the completion of the new highway)
Watch on YouTube
THE ROAD TRIP:
Phan Rang’s long, arcing beach is known as Ninh Chu Bay, and there are plenty of places to stay on either side of Yen Ninh beach road. If you’re on a mid-range budget try the beachside bungalows dotted among shady gardens at TTC Resort (formerly Bau Truc Resort). If you’re looking for cheaper digs, try the hotels and guesthouses on the non-beach side of the road or at the northern end of the bay (Minh Duc Guest House and Huong Bien Hotel are good options) or camp on the beach at the excellent Ninh Chu Bay Beach Club. In the evenings, street food vendors set up stalls on sections of Yen Ninh Street. Two of Phan Rang’s favourite dishes are bánh xèo and bánh căn, both of which are small, rice flour pancakes with savoury fillings cooked over an open flame. After dinner, try the King Beer Club for a drink by the ocean. A night or two in Phan Rang is very pleasant, but the arid headland, visible in the distance, is just waiting to be explored on two wheels.
Take Yen Ninh beach road south out of Phan Rang until it crosses a new bridge over the Cai River. Not long after crossing the bridge the scenery begins to look like desert, and the road turns into a new, four-lane highway with absolutely no traffic on it. Big shrimp farms line the ocean-side of the road, while sand dunes and rock-piles rise on the inland side. The wide, empty highway through this desolate landscape is a surreal sight.
The landscape here is characterized by sand, cacti, boulders, arid mountains, and blue seas. Even before I started exploring this area, I always got the feeling, whenever I passed through its rocky, burned landscape, that there was something magical about it. The intense heat and the bright light reflecting off the boulders, sand and sea give the impression of an ancient and vast land – the kind of place you’d expect to stumble upon a dinosaur skeleton or forgotten temple buried in the sand.
The prickly cacti that dot the terrain are called xương rồng in Vietnamese, which means ‘dragon bones’. People believe that this is where dragons came to die: their ‘bones’ littered the earth which then scorched itself in grief, leading to the desert-like landscape you see today. Riding through the giant mounds of boulders and cacti – which appropriately look like tombstones – it’s easy to imagine this place as a dragons’ graveyard.
As the road continues, the shrimp farms disappear, the wind picks up, sand blows across the tarmac, and kilometres of empty, tantalizing coastline comes into view. This, of course, is the real reason for the construction of the new road: Sometime in the future, fancy resorts and golf courses will probably line these beaches. But, for now, the only settlement in the area is Sơn Hai fishing village, a dusty, dry little place on the coast. Blue, wooden fishing boats and giant coracles cluster in the harbour; it’s a very scenic spot, except for the town’s trash collecting in the bay. Sơn Hai’s narrow streets appear rough and living conditions look pretty poor, but there’s a surprising amount of activity and life, especially around the market near the seafront. In the late afternoons – as in most Vietnamese coastal villages – there’s a pleasant buzz as kids come out of school and food vendors set up on the roadside. Get here at the right time of day and you might find yourself charmed by this rustic fishing settlement.
Turn right at the seafront for a tiny concrete lane that leads along an empty beach where the water is a beautiful clear blue. This lane eventually winds all the way up to the French colonial-era lighthouse at the top of Mũi Dinh Promontory, but it’s usually impassable by motorbike due to large sand drifts. Walking is a better option, but most people now choose to start the trek (which takes at least 1 hour) from the drinks shack by the gigantic boulders just a few kilometres further south on the main coast road from Sơn Hai. The lighthouse was built by the French in the early 1900s and the views from the top are wonderful. There’s a small cove at the bottom of the promotory with a perfect crescent of white sand and turquoise water. You can camp on the beach or up at the lighthouse if you have your own equipment, but you may be asked for a negligible fee. (Parking is at the drinks shack by the giant boulders – again, a small fee may be charged for this.)
From Sơn Hai fishing village continue straight on the empty new highway as it leads up, over, and around the entire rocky promontory, all the way to Ca Na beach, where it meets Highway 1. From Sơn Hai to Ca Na it’s only 30km, but you might find it takes well over an hour, because the views are so good you’ll be stopping every few minutes to admire them. The new road clings to the cliff-side; the sea is the colour of amethyst, and the sandy, rocky, cacti-studded headland is a rich, toast-gold in the burning bright sunshine of Ninh Thuan Province. Take your time and enjoy this fabulous new stretch of road. (Note: although traffic is extremely light, this road can be very dangerous because of the risk of rockfall from the hillsides. The road surface is pockmarked from where boulders have tumbled down in landslides. Ride carefully.)
As the road descends into the fishing port of Ca Na you’ll see the whole coastline unfurling all the way down to Lien Huong and Mui Ne beaches in the distance. A grand, new boulevard (empty, of course) leads past enormous salt flats to join Highway 1. Turn left (due south) onto the highway for Ca Na beach, where there are a handful of hotels clustered on the beach-side of the road. Ca Na Hotel is good value for its little seafront bungalows, or try the comfortable but pricier rooms at Hon Co Resort. There are a handful of rather overpriced seafood restaurants along the highway for dinner. If you’re not heading back to Phan Rang the next day, consider extending your road trip southeast on the new Sand Dune Highway to Mui Ne. (See Related Posts for links to more great road trips in the area).