While most travelers to the beachside resort city of Nha Trang come to relax on the 6km-long stretch of white sand, others take the opportunity to step back in time to reﬂect upon the Cham Empire that once dominated parts of the region.
Less than two decades ago, tourists to this part of the world landed at the military airport situated within the city limits, but now they have to fly into Cam Ranh, some 30km to the south. A 2004 tourist guide reference to Nha Trang describes it as “a sleepy coastal town that sprouted from a fishing village and the sights and sounds of water sports such as jet-skiing are not to be heard”.
If there’s one thing to be said about Vietnam, it’s rapidly changing, and this country’s little holiday secret is no more. Today Vietnam attracts global holidaymakers. Extensive tourist facilities now include spas, restaurants serving a smorgasbord of international cuisines, tourist operators and shops selling Vietnamese handicrafts alongside designer labels.
Ancient kingdom of Champa
While Nha Trang has only been a holiday destination for a few decades, it has a history dating back centuries. The Cham Empire ruled from the 7th to the early 12th century, and there are relics of the Cham people in and around Nha Trang, with Po Nagar Towers – located just north of the city and Cai River – being the most significant site.
This Hindu kingdom flourished in Central Vietnam, and budding archaeologists can learn more by visiting Po Nagar, or Po Klong Garai Cham near Phan Rang and the airport at Cam Ranh.
Beaches and islands
Most visitors travel here to relax on the beach and visit the offshore islands. Hotels hive off a section of the beach in front of their property and set up deck chairs and parasols, while staff diligently organize snacks and drinks. Nha Trang Beach is now not dissimilar to many other Asian destinations, with cafés, bars, massages and the inevitable trinket sellers.
The diving is best around Hon Mun (Ebony Island), and responsible diving is the mantra in the protected area...
A marine plan has been developed for the offshore Hon Mun Island Marine Protected Area (hon means ‘island’). Here, the waters around Mun, Rom, Cau, and Vung islands are protected zones with no development and limited activities.
The diving is best around Hon Mun (Ebony Island), and responsible diving is the mantra in the protected area, as it should be in all diving sites. Instructors explain that touching and standing on coral is unacceptable and correct finning and buoyancy control are vital. All visitors should avoid buying coral and shell products and should not feed the fish as they can feed perfectly well without human assistance. Indeed, as any diver will tell you, do not touch anything and leave with only photos and memories.
Open-water dive accreditation with theory, pool lessons, and several open-water encounters is a rite of passage for many. Instruction in several languages is offered, and it’s best to shop around and be taught by an operator you are comfortable with as safety is paramount when it comes to diving.
Island hopping is also recommended as visitors can hire a boat or join a tour to experience different islands and beaches. Many boats provide snorkeling equipment, but scuba diving needs to be done with a professional dive company. Respected operators include Rainbow Diver, Mark Scott’s Diving Vietnam, and Sailing Club Divers, with a three-day course and four open-water dives being the minimum requirement.
Hon Noi and Hon Ngoai are two islands north of Nha Trang, famous for birds’ nests made by swiftlets (in two colors: red and white) and harvested for consumption as a dining delicacy and for medicinal purposes.
Offshore waters are a marine playground, with parasailing, jet-skiing, snorkeling, windsurfing and wakeboarding available. The five-star-rated sea-walking experience, where you walk across the sea floor wearing a helmet, is a great experience for those nervous about scuba diving, or without the time to learn.
Hon Tre (Bamboo Island) is the largest of the islands, as well as the most developed with a plethora of five-star hotels. To get there, jump on a ferry, or take the world’s longest over-the-sea cable car (3.3km). It’s home to a family-friendly fun-filled entertainment, accommodation and tourism complex with Vinpearl Land Amusement Park at its heart. While many visit Vinpearl Land just for the waterpark – with attractions including a wave pool, Lazy River, Giant Boomerang, and a 120m-high speed slide – there’s much more on offer, including the vast Underwater World, live shows, a shopping mall and the Food Village.
Food glorious food
Vietnamese food is acclaimed the world over and Nha Trang doesn’t disappoint. Being the tourist destination it is, an array of global cuisines is also available.
Fishing is an important industry, with the main fleet moored in the sheltered river mouth of Cai River just below Po Nagar Towers. Naturally, dining on fresh seafood is another good reason for traveling here, and visitors can see how fresh it is by visiting markets like Cho Dam (Dam Market). Some recommended restaurants include Ngoc Trai Restaurant with its garden setting and dishes such as grilled prawns and clams with garlic and butter sauce, and Hoan Hai Seafood for grilled prawns and tamarind crab.
Galangal is also a popular restaurant, where diners rave about the banana flower salad, spring rolls, grilled pork wraps and cocktails befitting the seafront location. Louisiane Brewhouse is a trendy beach café with an open and airy dining space where international and Vietnamese cuisine is served. Its sushi bar is popular, and if you can’t decide on a suitable beer, order the tasting tray.
Vietnamese food has become more and more popular around the world. We’ve picked six essential Vietnamese foods everyone should try.
1. Banh mi
The French may have brought with them the baguette, but Vietnam takes it to a different level. They have made this sandwich entirely their own with fillings like pork belly, fish cakes, meatballs, pickled carrots, daikon and chilies.
2. Goi cuon
Vietnam’s most famous dish: light and healthy translucent rice paper rolls packed with greens, coriander and various combinations of shrimp, crab or minced pork served with fish sauce mixed with crushed peanuts.
Vietnam’s national dish and the country’s great staple is pho, a noodle soup eaten at any time of day but primarily at breakfast. This simple but hearty dish consists of a savory broth, fresh rice noodles, a sprinkling of herbs and chicken or beef.
4. Chao tom
Chao Tom is a traditional Vietnamese dish from central Vietnam. It consists of minced shrimp grilled on a sugar cane stick. It is often presented as a dish during large banquets such as weddings, holidays or special events.
5. Banh xeo
These enormous and filling sizzling pancakes are made with rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric then pan-fried altogether with meat, shrimp and a heap of bean sprouts. Best enjoyed straight from the pan.
6. Com tam
Com tam, or broken rice, is a dish made with fractured rice grains. The rice and grilled meat are served with cucumber, tomato and pickled vegetables, and fried egg as well as a small bowl of soup broth with chives.
7. Pho cuon (spring rolls)
Pho Cuon or fresh spring rolls made from thin rice paper, wrapped around vermicelli, mushrooms, meat and green vegetables, are one of Vietnam’s most recognized dishes. Chefs use the same rice flour as the famous soup called pho (pronounced fur) and serve them with a lightly spiced dipping sauce made from sugar, garlic, vinegar and fish sauce.
8. Ca Phe
Strong local coffee (ca phe), brewed through an aluminum drip filter (a phin) resting on top of a glass, is the beverage of choice for many locals. White coffee (ca phe sua) is served with condensed milk, and ice can add another dimension. For some locals, life starts at 5am with a coffee in the market. Coffee is important in Vietnam, with the country being the second largest coffee exporter after Brazil.
Another interesting thing to do:
- Ride the Vinpearl cable car from Nha Trang to an offshore amusement park.
- Many Vietnamese still wear traditional conical hats called non la.
- Most visitors travel to Nha Trang to relax on sandy beaches suitably decked out with loungers and generous parasols.
- The cable car ride over the water to Vinpearl Land Amusement Park on Hon Tre Island is a great start to a fun day.
- Vinpearl Amusement Park is a large-scale theme park with many thrilling rides.
- Thap Ba Hot Springs - Soothe away any stress at Thap Ba Hot Springs, where the mineral-rich mud pools are famed for their healing and therapeutic powers. After a 15-minute mud-bath, soak in the natural hot mineral water then enjoy a hydrotherapy session or choice of massage, acupuncture and beauty therapies.
- Visit Po Nagar, a Cham temple beside the Cai River. Po Nagar dates back to the 8th century.
- Watch lunar New Year dancers at Po Nagar.
- Have clothes made from fine Vietnamese silk.
- Buy fresh fruit from local vendors. Dine on fresh seafood prepared at beachside stalls. An array of fresh fish for sale in the markets.
- Snorkel and scuba dive at an offshore island. View colorful corals.
Cho Dam is the largest market in the city, but there is a smaller one called Xam Moi that is more a market for the locals. Bargaining is part of the experience.
Cho Dam sprawls over two floors, with a dry section for clothes and souvenirs and a wet section for meat, seafood, vegetables, and fruits. Nha Trang Centre is a new shopping mall where recognizable global brands, a grocery store, a cinema and international food court provide air-conditioned shopping comfort.
Vietnam’s charm is in part due to the influence foreigners have had in shaping the country, with French colonialism in particular reflected in the architecture and the food. It is also a country of many religions, and while most are Buddhists, others are Christians, and the Christ the King Nha Trang Cathedral of classic French Gothic design is a dominant feature of the cityscape with its 40m-high bell tower.
The Alexandre Yersin Museum is the former home of a scientist who worked under Louis Pasteur. The Swiss-born doctor developed a laboratory to manufacture a vaccine for the bubonic plague as well as identifying Dalat as a hill station and introducing rubber trees plus quinine-producing trees as a treatment for malaria. Now the Pasteur Institute is responsible for vaccines and hygiene programmes, and the museum showcases his books, medical equipment and letters to his mother.
Nha Trang has emerged as a year-round holiday destination with hot, dry weather from January through to late August, while the advent of seasonal rains in October and November ensures that prices are lower, yet the place is still busy.