This really is a tale of two cities: Phan Rang hugging the shoulders of Hwy 1 and Thap Cham straddling Hwy 20 as it starts its long climb to Dalat. Anyone travelling Vietnam from north to south will notice a big change in the vegetation when approaching the joint capitals of Ninh Thuan province. The familiar lush green rice paddies are replaced with sandy soil supporting only scrubby plants. Local flora includes poinciana trees and prickly-pear cacti with vicious thorns. The area is famous for its production of table grapes, and many of the houses on the outskirts of town are decorated with vines on trellises.
The area’s best-known sight is the group of Cham towers known as Po Klong Garai, from which Thap Cham (Cham Tower) derives its name. However, with the advent of a new mountain highway between Dalat and Nha Trang, this temple sees far fewer visitors than in the past. There are many more towers dotted about the countryside in this area and the province is home to tens of thousands of Cham people. The Cham, like other ethnic minorities in Vietnam, have suffered from discrimination and are usually poorer than their ethnic-Vietnamese neighbours. There are also several thousand Chinese in the area, many of whom come to worship at the 135-year-old Quang Cong Pagoda (Ð Thong Nhat), a colourful Chinese temple in the town centre.
With two major highways (1A and 20) intersecting in the town, this area makes a good pit stop on the coastal run. As the twin towns of Phan Rang and Thap Cham are both industrial and not particularly attractive, consider basing yourself at nearby Ninh Chu Beach, 6km to the east.
(Thap Cham; admission 15,000d; 7am-5pm) These four brick towers date from the end of the 13th century. Built as Hindu temples, they stand on a brick platform at the top of Cho’k Hala, an exposed granite hill covered with cacti. It can be furnace-hot here.
Over the entrance to the largest tower (the kalan, or sanctuary) is a beautiful carving of a dancing Shiva with six arms. Note the inscriptions in the ancient Cham language on the doorposts. These tell of past restoration efforts and offerings of sacrifices and slaves.
Inside the kalan ’s vestibule is a statue of the bull Nandin, vehicle of the Hindu god Shiva. Nandin is also a symbol of the agricultural productivity of the countryside. To ensure a good crop, farmers would place an offering of fresh greens, herbs and areca nuts in front of Nandin’s muzzle. Under the main tower is a mukha-linga sitting under a wooden pyramid. Liquor is offered and incense burned here.
Inside the smaller tower opposite the entrance to the sanctuary, you can get a good look at some of the Cham’s sophisticated building technology; the wooden columns that support the lightweight roof are visible. The structure attached to it was originally the main entrance to the complex.
Po Klong Garai is just north of Hwy 20, at a point 6km west of Phan Rang towards Dalat. The towers are on the opposite side of the tracks to Thap Cham train station. Some of the open-tour buses running the coastal route make a requisite pit stop here.
(admission free, donation welcome) Po Ro Me is one of the most atmospheric of Vietnam’s Cham towers, thanks in part to its isolated setting on top of a craggy hill with sweeping views over the cactus-strewn landscape. The temple honours the last ruler of an independent Champa, King Po Ro Me (r 1629–51); his image and those of his family are found on the external decorations.
The temple is still in active use, with ceremonies taking place twice a year. The rest of the time it’s locked up, but the caretakers at the foot of the hill will open the sanctuary for you. Consider leaving a small donation with them and don’t forget to remove your shoes.
The occupants of the temple aren’t used to having their rest disturbed, and it can be a little creepy when the bats start chattering and swooping overhead in the confined dark space. Through the gloom you’ll be able to make out a blood-red and black centrepiece – a bas-relief representing the deified king in the form of Shiva. Behind the main deity and to the left is one of his queens, Thanh Chanh. Look out for the inscriptions on the doorposts and a stone statue of the bull Nandin.
Note the flame motif repeated around the arches. This is a symbol of purity, cleansing visitors of any residual bad karma.
The best way to reach the site is with your own motorbike or a xe om. The route is tricky. Take Hwy 1 south from Phan Rang for 9km. Turn right at the turn-off to Ho Tan Giang, a narrow sealed road just after the petrol station, and continue for a further 6km. Turn left in the middle of a dusty village at a paddock that doubles as a football field and follow the road as it meanders to the right until the tower comes into sight. A sign points the way cross-country for the last 500m.
(Thap Cham; 7am-5pm) At the base of the Po Klong Garai towers, this large modern structure (built in attractive, vaguely Cham style) is dedicated to Cham culture. There’s some superb photography of Cham people, village life and customs exhibited here, as well as paintings, pottery, traditional dress and agricultural tools.
It’s a good reminder that while the Cham kingdom is long gone, the Cham people are an important minority in this region.
There are also numerous souvenir stalls.
This Cham village is known for its pottery and you’ll see several family shops in front of the mud and bamboo houses. On the way to Po Ro Me turn right off Hwy 1 near the war memorial, into the commune with the banner ‘Lang Nghe Gom Bau Truc’. Inside the village take the first left for some of the better pottery stores.
The Cham New Year (kate) is celebrated at Po Klong Garai in the seventh month of the Cham calendar (around October). The festival commemorates ancestors, Cham national heroes and deities such as the farmers’ goddess Po Ino Nagar.
On the eve of the festival, a procession guarded by the mountain people of Tay Nguyen carries King Po Klong Garai’s clothing to the accompaniment of traditional music. The procession lasts until midnight. The following morning the garments are carried to the tower, once again accompanied by music, along with banners, flags, singing and dancing. Notables, dignitaries and village elders follow behind. This colourful ceremony continues into the afternoon.
The celebrations then carry on for the rest of the month, as the Cham attend parties and visit friends and relatives. They also use this time to pray for good fortune.
Com ga (chicken with rice) is a local speciality. There are com ga restaurants on Ð Tran Quang Dieu, the best is Phuoc Thanh (3 Ð Tran Quang Dieu; mains 25,000-50,000d), located just north of Ð 16 Thang 4, the road to Ninh Chu Beach.
Another local delicacy is roasted or baked ky nhong (gecko), served with fresh green mango. If you prefer self-catering and have quick reflexes, most hotel rooms in Vietnam have a ready supply.
Phan Rang is the grape capital of Vietnam. Stalls in the market sell fresh grapes, grape juice and dried grapes (too juicy to be called raisins).
( 058-392 0333; 363 Ð Ngo Gia Tu; r 275,000-550,000d) This fancy-pants hotel is highly visible by night when it’s lit up like a Christmas tree. Inside things are more subdued, with attractive well-furnished rooms with power showers.
Phan Rang bus station (opposite 64 Ð Thong Nhat) is on the northern outskirts of town. Regular buses head north to Nha Trang (47,000d, 2½ hours, every 45 minutes), northwest to Dalat (71,000d, four hours, hourly), and south to Ca Na (20,000d, one hour, every 45 minutes) and beyond.
Car & Motorbike
Phan Rang is 344km from HCMC, 147km from Phan Thiet, 104km from Nha Trang and 108km from Dalat.
The Thap Cham train station ( 068-388 8029; 7 Ð Phan Dinh Phung) is about 6km west of Hwy 1, within sight of Po Klong Garai Cham towers, but only slower trains stop here. Destinations include Nha Trang (around 2½ hours) and HCMC (around eight hours).