Tens of millions of years ago, there were more than a few places on Earth with intense volcanic activity. After the volcanic eruptions, hot lava pools met the cold water of the sea and hardened. They contracted, creating deep cracks all along the surface, which in turn finally connected, forming columns and seen today as hexagonal basalt columns.
This rare magnificent natural wonder, fortunately, can be seen at Ghenh Da Dia in south-central Phu Yen province, which is one of only four places in the world to boast the columns, together with Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Los Órganos in Spain, and Fingal in Scotland. This reason was enough for us to feel excited about our trip to Phu Yen to contemplate the unique gift of nature and, surprisingly, uncover much other beauty in the unfamiliar place.
Peaceful little city
Not as popular among foreign visitors as Danang, Nha Trang or Mui Ne, Phu Yen has become a new destination for domestic travellers in recent years. After the local movie ‘Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass’ was screened in 2015, many people came to visit its massive yellow daisy fields and beautiful landscapes.
Prior to 2015, the most popular way to get to Phu Yen was a one-day train trip from Hanoi or a 12-hour train or bus trip from HCMC. After the movie increased its popularity, it’s now more convenient and faster to get to Tuy Hoa, the provincial capital, with one and a half hour flights from Hanoi and one hour flights from HCMC introduced by Jetstar Pacific and Vietjet Air.
From the airport it took just 15 minutes by taxi to reach our hotel next to One-Quarter (1/4) central square and opposite the beach. A twin room cost only VND320,000 ($15), a little bit higher than average but still amazing for the location and facilities.
Wind and fresh air welcomed us as soon as we walked out to the beach in the late afternoon. A series of colourful ‘boxes’ queuing in line along the beach caught our attention. They were actually electric mini-cars and kids were enjoying driving them. An old man asked my American friend, Michael, to try it, but he refused, worrying his 115-kg frame might break it.
More appealing was the aroma from stalls nearby and our stomachs urged us to find its source. We were soon sated by yummy grilled skewers of thinly-sliced pork and meatballs wrapped in Piper lolot leaves.
As soon as darkness arrived, the square became more lively from the mini-car lights and ‘beep beep’ sounds as a load of kids arrived after dinner. People stayed until 10 or 11pm, when we returned to the hotel to get some energy for the next day’s exploring.
Legends of the sea
Our first destination the next day was the unique basalt cliffs at Ghenh Da Dia, about 35 km from Tuy Hoa. Renting a motorbike and heading north along the beach, we passed by some small sand dunes. There was a resort being built there but we could still put our bare feet in the sand, feeling as though we’d strayed into a desert.
On the way we stopped at O Loan Lagoon for its well-known fresh and delicious seafood, particularly blood cockles, which have higher nutritional value than those from elsewhere in Vietnam. Grilled on charcoal until the cockle shells open and some fluid seeps out, you just take the insides, dip it in a prepared sauce of salt, pepper and lemon juice, and eat it with some aromatic herbs and grilled rice paper. It has a tasty blend of greasy cockle, hot pepper, and savoury herbs and spices, and we tucked in while admiring the view of small houses and boats on the lagoon from the floating restaurant.
From O Loan Lagoon, it’s about a 20-minute drive to Ghenh Da Dia. It used to be quite difficult to reach, on bumpy country roads full of dust and tiny rocks, but now the road is smooth.
Looking down stone stairs, the cliffs stick out of the sea like a giant black beehive, with hexagonal and circular cross-sections about 60 to 80 cm high. The rocks crowd each other in the tight space, but in other places they can look like plates overlapping each other, which gives the area its name, with Ghenh Da Dia meaning plate-shaped rock in Vietnamese. One legend has it that they were made by a giant to connect two areas, while another posits the rocks used to be treasure, but turned into rocks to protect themselves.
Despite ‘transforming’ into rocks, they remain a treasure. The columns look different depending on the sunlight. Their black colour is covered by yellow sunlight in the early morning then a coral pink sunset in the late afternoon, with white foam from the waves playing with the cliff and boats sitting calmly in the background, creating a magnificent view.
Waving goodbye to the giant beehive, we headed to a cathedral nearby called Mang Lang. With a Gothic style, it’s like a small version of Notre-Dame in Paris but much more mossy. It was built in 1892 and has been restored a few times after being damaged by floods and war.
On the way back we turned onto a path to get to Bai Xep, one of the most beautiful beaches in the area. It was a bonus to see a small hill full of cactus and wild flowers next to the sea. The beach was small but second-to-none, as it was bordered on two sides by Ghenh Da Dia.
After playing in the water, we drove back to Tuy Hoa. People were gathered in the square, relaxing in the breeze and enjoying some grilled treats. The colour and noise again lulled us to sleep.
Where mountains meets the sea
The next morning arrived with a sense of excitement over our next bike trip, to conquer Ca Mountain Pass, about 35 km from Tuy Hoa. A local friend recommended a trip to the pass, saying it was the second-best thing in the area after Ghenh Da Dia. He was right. It was a beautiful bike ride, passing by vast green fields with small houses and quite similar to roads in Vietnam’s mountainous northwest, but made more special by the blue sea on one side and rocky mountains on the other. Compared to Hai Van Pass in Danang, one of the country’s most beautiful, Ca Mountain Pass is much shorter but still impressive, with stunning views and clean beaches below surrounded by multi-shaped vertical cliffs.
When we reached Dai Lanh Cape, Vietnam’s easternmost point, the view became even more magnificent, with a lighthouse perched on a mountaintop next to the ocean. Visitors can ask the lighthouse guards about staying overnight to catch the first rays of sunlight to hit the coast, and can also walk down the cape to Mon Beach for a morning dip at sunrise.
On from the mountain pass, we arrived at Vung Ro Bay, where fishing boats and floating houses lay peacefully on the water, surrounded by mountains and forests. Some little houses in the bay hide in the shade of trees, with chickens pecking around for food.
We really didn’t want to go back to Tuy Hoa, but our empty stomachs said otherwise. We tried to find the local speciality of chả dông, or fried spring rolls with the dông meat, a type of reptile. But the restaurant was closed as they’re only caught in summer. So we decided to try some grilled fish and scallops at Chuc Xiu restaurant, which has good reviews. I’m a big fan of seafood and, honestly, no coastal place in Vietnam has ever let me down. They are all delicious.
New experience on the old sea
Time flew by so fast and our last day had arrived. We decided it would be a relaxing day, with a trip to an island. Before heading out, though, we visited the Nhan Champa tower on Nhan Mountain. With a square structure and a height of nearly 24 metres, the tower comprises three main parts: the base, the body and the roof, all with unique ancient patterns and built in four floors, narrowing as it got higher, which is characteristic of architecture from the late 11th century.
Leaving the tower, we headed to Hon Chua, the most famous island in Phu Yen and just 7 km from land. We rode to Long Thuy Beach and asked some local people if anyone could take us out to the island. Michael noticed a cute thing about Long Thuy: all of the doors were light blue, like a Vietnamese Santorini.
The people were friendly and introduced us to an old man named Chin, who offered to take us out there for just VND100,000 each. Michael said he had visited many islands by motor boat but this was the first time he had really ridden on waves in such a small fishing boat. The big waves were a bit scary, but Chin knew what he was doing. He had fished all of his life and retired only a few years ago. As the number of tourists to the area has increased recently, he has a new job as a boatman. In the peak season, summer, he may make half a dozen trips a day.
After 15 minutes, the island welcomed us with its smooth sandy beach and a few little houses. As soon as we walked on to the beach we could see its clean blue-green water and strange black stones. Michael guessed they were pieces from volcanic eruptions. After a swim, we just sat on the beach and looked at the tiny houses raising shrimp on the water with a mountain backdrop, and listened to the waves until the sun began to go down. We shared the same wish at that moment: that time could stand still.