Located 200 kilometers east of Ho Chi Minh City, Phan Thiet lured us with the promise of culture, beach and comfort, an idyllic mix that seems to be vanishing from other destinations on the Asian travel circuit. As a community known more for its fish sauce than its nightlife, the name of Phan Thiet has yet to enter most vacationers' itineraries, save for those of a few Vietnamese and clued-in French tourists.
Phan Thiet lies on one of Vietnam's finest stretches of sun and sand, and the French-colonial presence still lingers in the town's slow, relaxed atmosphere. Binh Thuan province, where the town is located, was part of the Cham kingdom until the late 1600s. The Cham Towers, the largest monuments built by the Cham people, still stand on a hill overlooking the town.
Apparently our guide doesn't want us to see the towers, as he has us hightailing along in the opposite direction. "Red canyon," he shouts, calling for the jeep driver to halt. There isn't a single souvenir stand or roadside restaurant in sight. He points left, and we finally see his objective. Towering red sandstone formations soar before us in the late afternoon sun like a miniature Grand Canyon.
It's beautiful, we admit cautiously, but why is no one else here? Our guide insists this is fast becoming a popular place. "Five or six years ago, a local family had visitors and brought them here. They had a big barbecue, then went back to their homes and told three people about it, and those three told nine and..." he shrugs, smiling and motioning to the top of the canyon. "Now we go up!"
Vietnam's tourism board is hoping Phan Thiet, promoted as the country's Hawaii, will likewise catch on. At the moment, fishing remains the main source of income for locals, who live along prime beachfront real estate and spend their days plying the waters of the South China Sea. Instead of hawking trinkets on the beach, the town's children are commercial fishermen, too, venturing out to sea in thung chai, two-meter-wide circular baskets made of bamboo and pitch that can only be paddled standing up. Old superstitions linger: before a new boat makes its maiden voyage, families paint eyes on its bow. If left unpainted and hence blind, they believe, their vessel will never find fish.
Hoteliers have arrived with their eyes on the prize. Resorts are springing up alongside the fish-sauce stalls that line the town's only paved street. While the place may yet become a Phuket or a Boracay, Phan Thiet is currently at the lux-backwater stage, with comfortable hotels that are still relatively affordable. The Victoria Phan Thiet resort offers air-conditioned bungalows, each with a sea view and most with a balcony, for $113-$154 a night; call (84-62) 813 000 or go to victoriahotels-asia.com for reservations. The similarly styled Coco Beach resort, located in the center of town, also rents out bungalows for $70-$170 a night; call (84-62) 847 111 or click on cocobeach.net to book.
Meanwhile, back at the canyon, we follow our guide up a sandy path that slashes through crevices in the cliff face. Once we reach the top, we gaze out over the red, rain-beaten peaks; below us, a half-full tour bus pulls up behind our jeep. Watching the foreigners spill out, we realize that after following the herd for years, we are discovering what it feels like to get somewhere first.