THE SOUTHERN COAST || NHA TRANG
Big enough to bustle, yet small enough to retain its relaxed air, the delightful city of NHA TRANG has, despite increasingly stiff competition, earned its place as Vietnam’s top beach destination. A grand 6km scythe of soft yellow sand is lapped by rolling waves on one side and fringed on the other by cafés, restaurants, hotels and some unusual modern sculptures. Hawkers are on hand to supply paperbacks, fresh pineapple and massages, while scuba-diving classes and all kinds of watersports are available. Local companies also offer popular day-trips to Nha Trang’s outlying islands, combining hiking, snorkelling and an onboard feast of seafood. Bear in mind that the rainy season, around November and December, sees the sea get choppy and the beach loses much of its appeal.
There’s far more to Nha Trang than sea and sand. The culinary scene is noteworthy, as is the range of accommodation amongst some stylish boutiques and bars. Then there are a few sights, both in and around the city, with the intriguing Po Nagar Cham towers of greatest appeal – by the time Nguyen lords wrested this patch of the country from Champa in the mid-seventeenth century, the towers had already stood here for over seven hundred years. Beyond the centre, you’ll find hot springs in which you can wallow in mud, the world’s longest cross-sea cable-car ride, and more besides. Last, but not least, is the city’s huge and hugely photogenic fishing fleet, which moors just north of the centre – a place of salty, local appeal in a city that has been embracing change for decades.
Beach-bumming certainly takes precedence over sightseeing in Nha Trang, but there are a clutch of worthwhile places to visit in the city itself, including the Alexandre Yersin museum, and a beautiful pair of religious buildings.
Mud mud, glorious mud
A side-road heading west just to the north of the Po Nagar Cham towers takes you through suburbian Nha Trang to the Thap Ba Hot Springs (Daily 7am–7.30pm; t 058 383 4939, thapbahotspring.com.vn). The main attraction here is the opportunity to wallow in mineral-enriched mud – allegedly good for the skin, but great fun too. You’ll be encouraged to buy a “private” bath (around 250,000đ per person), though in practice foreigners going for the “communal” bath option (100,000đ per person) get exactly the same thing. After washing off, you’re free to have a swim in pools filled with water rich in sodium silicate chloride, said to have beneficial effects on stress, arthritis and rheumatism. There are a number of other options available, including spa treatment, massage, and meals – it’s even possible to stay the night. To get here, it’s best to grab a cab from the Po Nagar towers.
A Swiss-French scientist who travelled to Southeast Asia in 1889 as a ship’s doctor, Alexandre Yersin developed a great love for Vietnam and learned to speak Vietnamese fluently. He was responsible for the founding of Da Lat (he recognized the beneficial effects of the climate there for Europeans), and settled in Nha Trang in 1893. By the time of his death in 1943, Yersin had become a local hero, thanks not to his greatest achievement – the discovery of a plague bacillus in Hong Kong in 1894 – but rather to his educational work in sanitation and agriculture, and to his ability to predict typhoons and thus save the lives of fishermen. Significantly, his name is still given to streets, not only in Nha Trang but around the country, sharing an honour generally only granted to Vietnamese heroes.
There’s a museum (Mon–Fri 7.30–11am & 2–4.30pm; 26,000đ) in the centre of Nha Trang, and it’s worth visiting, stuffed as it is with books and other paraphernalia formerly belonging to Yersin.
Activities in the South China Sea
Nha Trang is the dive centre of Vietnam, as is well evidenced by the number of dive companies that operate here. It’s best avoided October to December, when the strong currents stir up the silt and reduce visibility, but during the dry season (Jan–May) there are dive boats kitting out and casting off every day to one of over twenty dive sites in the region. A typical day out, including a couple of dives and lunch, costs around $80, with snorkelling around $25; PADI courses are also available, from basic Discover packs (around $100) to Open Water (4 day; $360).
There are well over a dozen operators in Nha Trang and some are downright dangerous – there have been cases of divers left behind, and even a couple of deaths since the turn of the millennium. The places listed below have stellar reputations; both also offer PADI courses.
If you’d rather get your kicks above water, various points on the beach rent out watersports equipment (the section by the Louisiane Brewhouse is best). For a mere $10 you can scare the wits out of swimmers by zapping them with a jet-ski spray for thirty minutes, but keep in mind that you will be held responsible for any injuries or damages. Less environmentally disastrous are the sports of parasailing ($16), windsurfing ($30) and riding a banana boat ($35/boat), with prices varying according to activity.
Boat trips to the islands
Several companies in Nha Trang offer day-trips to a selection of islands, including a stop for snorkelling and a seafood lunch on board – all for around $6–8 per person. However, to fully enjoy the day, you’ll need to fork out for several extras if you don’t want to sit on the boat and wait till everyone comes back. Some boat rides, particularly those booked through backpacker guesthouses, can be quite wild and alcohol-fuelled, while other operators run gentler tours.
On a typical island day tour, you’ll be picked up from your hotel, taken to Cau Da Wharf, 6km south of the town centre, and shuffled on to one of many boats jostling in the harbour. As the boat casts off at around 9.30am, you’ll pass beneath the cable car to Hon Tre, then chug between islands for about half an hour to Hon Mun (Black Island), named after the dark cliffs that rear up from it. There’s no beach to speak of on Hon Mun, but the island boasts one of the best places for snorkelling in the area, with some great coral. Boats hang around for an hour or so while people snorkel over the corals or sunbathe on the boat, and there are frequently diving groups here too. There’s a 40,000đ charge to snorkel in this “protected area”, though it’s not clear quite how it’s being protected.
After a break for lunch in the shelter of Hon Mot, boats head for Hon Tam, where there’s a small beach (10,000đ entry), and you get the chance to stretch on the sand or splash about in the sea for an hour before heading for the final destination, the Tri Nguyen Aquarium (25,000đ) on Hon Mieu. The setting here is wonderfully kitsch: visitors approach the site through giant lobsters and past cement sharks, and the strange building that houses the aquarium looks like a galleon dragged up from the depths and draped in seaweed. Inside, the tanks feature black-tipped sharks, bug-eyed groupers, hawksbill turtles and colourful sea anemones. Finally the boat heads back to the mainland and visitors are whisked back to their hotels.