Some 20km southeast of Phan Rang-Thap Cham City in the central province of Ninh Thuan, the Nam Cuong sand dunes stretch out like a golden silk carpet next to the East Sea, the colour of the landscape vibrant under the heat of the sun.
As the driest province in the country, with annual rainfall of 700-1,100mm, Ninh Thuan is endowed with a beautiful coastline, deltas, mountains, rivers and sand dunes, including Nam Cuong, which remains in its natural state.
En route to the sand dunes, one can see cacti with red and yellow flowers, which are hardy enough to survive in this otherwise barren environment.
Visiting the dunes on windy days like today allows one to see how the landscape changes form within the blink of an eye, as the incoming sea breeze gently nudges and reshapes the graceful slopes of these undulating hills of sand that seem to almost match the movement of the sea’s own waves.
The 700ha of sand dunes hold the ethnic Cham people’s Tuan Tu Village in Ninh Phuoc District.
Hidden behind some of the dunes are oases that provide fresh water for herdsmen to water, feed and rest their goats or sheep.
Charming young Cham women, dressed traditionally in a long skirt covering their heels and a colourful head scarf minus a veil, walk here, silhouetted against the soft sand.
Tourists and photographers flock to the area to capture images of the women carrying jars of water on their heads at dawn and herdsmen gathering their cattle to return home at dusk.
From the tops of these dunes, tourists have a panoramic view of the imposing Cha Bang mountain range, which is typically described as a giant hammer.
There is also a shrimp farming village nearby where tourists can observe and learn about the daily life of the local villagers, local tour guide Nguyen Van Lai said.
“At Nam Cuong, visitors can watch the colours of the sand change as the sun sets,” he said. “It’s very impressive to see the sand changing from white to yellow to red. It’s the perfect time for admiring the sand dunes.
“Another interesting thing about Nam Cuong’s sand dunes is the way (the landscape’s) face changes every hour of every day because the wind never stops blowing.”
Sandboarding is a popular game amongst both tourists and the local children. All you need is a flat plastic board to join in the fun.
Catching the dong (sand lizard) is another activity popular in the area. Although this animal is shaped like a chameleon, its skin is not lumpy but smooth and green with yellow spots.
They run very fast and live in holes in the sand, hiding from the sun and the hunters.
The locals use hoes to dig up these holes and capture the lizards, which are then bound with string.
Lizards are considered a speciality as the meat is very tasty. They can be added to a mixed salad, grilled, roasted with peppers and lemongrass, steamed or cooked in porridge. Lizard eggs are considered a luxury food by gourmands and are always in demand.
Lai is a skilled lizard hunter. He shows us a lizard’s tracks in the sand and finds its hole. Such searches must take place quickly before the tracks are erased by the wind.
The Nam Cuong sand dunes are still relatively untouched because they haven’t been exploited for tourism, unlike similar dunes in the coastal provinces of Binh Thuan, Quang Binh and Khanh Hoa.
Ninh Thuan Province houses many ancient architectural works and traditional handicraft villages of the Cham people. After stopping to admire the splendid scenery of Nam Cuong, tourists can visit areas inhabited by the Cham people to learn more about the local culture.
Destinations of note include the Poklong Garai Towers, where the gods of the Cham people are worshipped; Bau Truc Pottery Village; the green vineyard with inviting clusters of red fruit; Vinh Hy Bay and Ninh Chu Beach.
Tourists visiting in April will have the chance to attend the Po Nai festival on Cha Bang Mountain, which features folk music and special dance programmes by the Cham people, reflecting the farmers’ wishes for good weather.
Nam Cuong is a wonderful place to enjoy the peace and tranquility of nature.
My feet sink into the soft, warm sand as I walk in the light of the setting sun. It almost feels as if the dunes want to cling onto me, leaving me with an indelible memory of this moment.