|Golden moment: Popular Hoai Hai beach in Hoai Nhon District, in Binh Dinh Province. — VNS Photo Dao Tien Dat
|A long stretch: Viet Nam's longest bridge spans Thi Nai Lagoon.
|Queen Beach: Hoang Hau (Queen) Beach near Quy Nhon City, was named after King Bao Dai's consort Nam Phuong.
|Hats off: Women make conical hats in Phu Gia Village, Phu Cat District.
|Charming Cham: Duong Long Towers built during the Cham civilisation. — VNS Photos Dao Tien Dat
Visitors to Thi Nai Lagoon in Binh Dinh Province find irresistible the aquamarine sea, stunning vistas and mild weather that is both sunny and cool – to say nothing of the local delicacies. Ha Nguyen
Andrea Antonio and his wife from Italy recently chose Thi Nai Lagoon in Binh Dinh Province as their first destination in an idyllic trip along the coastal areas of central Viet Nam.
"It was an excellent holiday as we could enjoy the fresh air by the sea, up in the mountains in the forest," said Antonio. "We felt the caress of the sea, basked in the tropical sun and ate the special dishes of the region."
Antonio says the lagoon was the perfect setting for a laid back and carefree holiday.
"You can contemplate the purple sunset over the sand dunes and visit the picturesque village near the seaport," he said.
"It made me feel in tune with nature, with the clear sky and peaceful clouds."
Antonio said he was happy to lay down in the shade of one of the trees that line the shore to simply relax and take in the scenery. But what he liked most was fishing at the nearby lake, which he said was full of fish, prawn, lobster and squid.
The lagoon, which is said to be the largest in Binh Dinh, is situated between two low mountain ranges that merge with the blue sea, offering stunning vistas and mild weather that combines sunshine with the cool breezes blowing out of the forests from the mountains.
To reach the lagoon, travel down the road going from Quy Nhon to the neighbouring province of Phu Yen. Make a turn on the first downhill road to the left and follow it.
The lagoon is fantastic because people of all walks of life can enjoy it, Antonio said.
"We visited a small temple called Thay Boi situated west of the lagoon. A local told us that the temple had been built by fishermen so they could have a place to worship the whale, who they believe is a protector for fishermen out at sea," Antonio said, adding that his wife also paid her respect's to the patron saint at the temple to pray for a safe and lucky trip.
The couple then visited local resident Huynh Van Thang, who told them that Thi Nai is also well-known for its seafood, especially the delicious Vong and Gai anchovies.
"Most of local households in the area earn a living from catching fish. They are healthy and their children are intelligent because they eat the a lot of seafood every day," said Thang.
He added that many households also dry fish for sale and make nuoc mam (fish sauce), a centuries-old tradition.
"Those who visit Binh Dinh will never forget the taste of Go Boi fish sauce which is made from Thi Nai anchovies," he said.
The next day the couple travelled to the east of the lagoon. They passed through Mui Rua on the west and Ganh Ho on the east of the Phuong Mai Peninsula.
From a distance, the peninsula looks like a large dragon whose body stretches to the north, with its tail to the south. There are hundreds of small caves along the peninsula, but be careful when venturing inside as some are difficult to traverse.
"These caves are good nets for swallows," said tour guide Nguyen Huy Hoang.
The peninsula is linked with the 2km-long Trieu Chau Mountain range.
Legend has it that in ancient times water from Thi Nai Lagoon didn't run into the peninsula as it does today. One day, a giant came here to build a dike to catch fish in the lagoon. Suddenly, a big perch fish jumped out of the lagoon and landed in the sea nearby. The giant tried his best to run after the fish but failed.
He became so angry that he jumped up and down on the mountain and made part of it collapse. His footprint is now the part of the sea west of the Trieu Chau Mountain.
The Phuong Mai Peninsula is surrounded by mountains which are full of obstacles and very difficult to access. But these mountains make way for valleys that provide a picturesque location for Nhon Ly, Nhon Hoi and Nhon Hai villages, where locals farm the land or make a living from aquaculture.
These villages are set in an enthralling landscape, with the nearby mountains covered by jungles. A scattering of small tile-roofed houses and even some ancient pagodas complete the scene, Antonio said.
A short walk from Nhon Ly Village is another beach fringed by a verdant, green forest and strangled shaped rocks. It's a secluded place to hide away from the rigours of daily life, said Antonio.
He said he would recommend Binh Dinh as a holiday destination to his friends in Italy, as it has clean and fairly good hotels and restaurants that charge affordable prices.
Touring the peninsula, Antonio said the couple were delighted to find swallow's nests while exploring the small caves that dot the area.
"We've never seen them before," he said, adding that they will try eating swallow's nests, a strange but tasty delicacy of the region.
Tour guide Nguyen Huy Hoang said Thi Nai Lagoon and Phuong Mai Peninsula had been the site of major military bases used by fighters in the Tay Son insurgency. These historical sites are located about 55km from central Quy Nhon Town.
The couple next visited the 300-year-old Linh Phong Temple in Phu Cat District's Cat Tien Commune. It was built in 1702 and its back stands against a high mountain, with the front looking out to sea.
The temple was once called Dung Tuyen, but in 1733, Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu issued an edict to allow local people to upgrade the structure and change its name to Linh Phong.
The temple was managed by Buddhist monks Ong Nui and Tinh Giac Thien Tri. According to legend, one day King Ming Mang dreamed of a monk who gave him medicine to treat his daughter, and this led the king to issue an edict to upgrade the temple in 1829.
There are many valuable things in the temple such as a bronze bell cast in 1805 and a sign board printed in 1813.
The couple's tour of the area also included a stop at the Tay Son Shrine in Phu Phong Village, Tay Son District, about 40km from Quy Nhon City to the north-west.
People come to this place to worship three brothers, Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Hue and Nguyen Lu, who rose up in a rebellion at Tay Son against the Qing invaders.
Next to the shrine are two priceless relics: an ancient tamarind tree and a centuries-old well.
Local tour guide Huynh Ngoc Mai told the couple and the tourists in their group that Nguyen Hue and his brothers were regarded as playing an important part in building the nation. Starting out as the leaders of a group of rebellious farmers, the three brothers led the nation by the late 18th century.
In 1789, the Tay Son troops marched on Thang Long (now Ha Noi). In a matter of days they were victorious, and a grand fete was held to celebrate the triumph that saw Nguyen Hue later become King Quang Trung.
Now Nguyen Hue is still remembered for putting an end to the war between the Trinh and Nguyen Courts and reunifying the country, chasing the Siamese invaders out of the country, and salvaging Viet Nam from the domination of the Chinese Qing invaders, the tour guide said.
"The story moved us very much," said Antonio, adding that they would stay in the province to join the Dong Da-Tay Son Festival on the fifth day of the first lunar month.
Van Trong Hung, director of the Binh Dinh Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said the province is calling on local and foreign businesses to invest in tourism development at Thi Nai Lagoon, Hoi Van hot springs and Nui Mot and Dinh Binh lakes as well as in upgrading cultural and historical sites in the area.
The province last year granted licences for 33 foreign-invested projects with a total registered capital of US$422 million, 60 per cent of which was invested in tourism, said Hung.
The Vinh Hoi Tourism-Hotel Complex alone, which has a registered capital of $250 million, is expected to become one of the most luxurious accommodation options in the province, he added.
The province received more than one million visitors last year and is expected to welcome 1.5 million this year, Hung said. — VNS