At daybreak, the fishermen were crouching around a smoky wood fire underneath a pot of boiling water at the back of their boat. One of the men threw a handful of the squid caught during the night into the pot and waited until the skin turned reddish before handing out one squid each to the other crewmembers with his chopsticks. They ate the tender squid whole with their fingers-head, ink sack and all-and finished breakfast with a shot of rough rice brandy out of the bottle’s screw cap. This marked the end of another night at sea, not as successful this time with a catch worth only US$25.
Another of the wooden boats with their distinct yellow trims and red prows anchoring just off the beach of Mũi Né village near Phan Thiết had better luck. Fishermen dragged eight oversized stingrays to shore in a traditional basket boat, which was almost sinking under the heavy load.
On the beach, where the sand is hidden under a thick layer of old seashells, women in conical hats sort the fish according to size. The fish market here is a no-nonsense affair with the locals going about the business of preparing the fish for sale with swift efficiency. All through the morning, motorbikes with oversized bamboo baskets strapped to pack racks filled to the brim with shrimp and oxcarts full of plastic bags of fresh cuttlefish, leave the market for the restaurants and resorts in the area.
It is mostly the sea that sustains this stretch of dry coastal land between Nha Trang and Phan Thiết, providing food and employment. The only agriculture to speak of is dragon fruit, which grows on prickly succulents thriving in the harsh conditions. In fact, half of all dragon fruit grown in Việt Nam comes from the Bình Thuận province near Phan Thiết. The juicy white flesh of the dragon fruit which is hidden under the fire-engine-red leathery skin is a refreshing snack in the hot and dry climate of the coast.
Not long ago Phan Thiết, Mũi Né, and Nha Trang were just quiet fishing towns. A few state-owned guest houses catered mainly to Communist Party cadres and Russian foreign expats, and only a trickle of backpackers were making their way to the pristine beaches of the region. Now the beaches are the main attraction for local and international tourists alike, who come here for swimming and diving, the excellent fresh seafood and to visit the Cham temples in Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm, which dot the landscape with their unique red-brick towers.