I’m a beach snob.
I’ve spent the better part of my life and unreasonable amounts of money hunting down the world’s most perfect beaches. If it’s on a Top 10 Best Beaches list somewhere, I’ve googled it, read travel blogs about it, and most likely tried to figure out how to get there by any means necessary. I’ve ticked off Magen’s Bay in St. Thomas, Lanikai on Oahu, Hanalei Bay on Kauai, Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, Nungwi on Zanzibar, and countless islands in the Caribbean.
So I was excited to recently visit Nha Trang again, Vietnam’s premier beach destination, extolled in song for its fine white sand and the first beach any Vietnamese thinks of. In fact, you’d think Vietnam, blessed with 3,260km of coastline embracing the Gulf of Tonkin in the north, the South China Sea in the south and the Gulf of Thailand in the west, would have some amazing beaches. After all, seasoned travelers would have no problem rattling off famous world-class beaches in neighboring Thailand with an almost identical 3,219km of coast. I mean, if you can get a movie made about you simply called The Beach, I think that pretty much says it all.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case with Vietnam. Vung Tau and Mui Ne are popular more for their proximity to Saigon than as worthy destinations unto themselves (unless you’re a connoisseur of huge Jesus statues, and I mean, c’mon, who isn’t?). And without the breathtaking rock formations, the Ha Long Bay area beaches would probably merit a pass. And while certain islands are being developed as the next “it” destination, like Phu Quoc (just miles from Cambodia) and Con Dao, they’re years from gaining worldwide recognition.
Until that happens, Nha Trang, just over 186 miles (300km) north of Ho Chi Minh City, reigns as the Queen of Vietnam’s beaches. And while it doesn’t have the crystal clear water of the Caribbean or the glitz of Hawaii or the laid back chic of Bali, a recent trip reminded me why Nha Trang is still worthy of face time.
First, there’s a great city beach smack in the middle of downtown shared by locals and tourists alike – just at different times. Arrive on a Saturday afternoon and have the 6 miles (10km) long white sand beach practically all to yourself. But come early in the morning (starting at 3am!) or at dusk, and the beach will be packed with local Vietnamese, frolicking en masse fully-clothed in the waves. Traditionally, Vietnamese associate darker skin with poverty (ie. farm work), while light skin is the marking of the elite. Come and watch the women wait until the last possible moment to shed their long cotton driving gloves, face masks, and even stockings before getting into the water.
Lots of Vietnamese don’t know how to swim, so parents towing kids clad in bright orange life vests is a common sight. You might also try some of the dry, chewy roasted squid dipped in chili sauce (just be prepared for a sore jaw in the morning…), or perhaps a freshly cut mango or pineapple. While the beach gets crowded at these times, you can always find a stretch of sand to people watch and just take in the family-fun vibes.
The Kite Runner
Immediately adjacent to the main beach downtown is the April 2 Square, anchored to the north end by the iconic lotus-shaped Tram Huong Tower. On this wide stretch of concrete, boys play pick-up soccer games, lovers sit hand in hand watching the waves roll in, and kids of all sizes fly kites, everything from home-made paper ones to fancy trick kites. I can’t even remember the last time I saw someone flying a kite. Simply a great place to relax with the locals.
Across the street is the cultural center where free art performances are held on certain nights outside on the steps. And around the corner is the night market, a space where kitschy souvenir stalls stand side-by-side with street food vendors.
Getting Down and Dirty
Just 2.5 miles (4km) from the center of town are the Thap Ba Hot Springs — a great way to spend a half-day wallowing in various liquids said to rejuvenate your skin.
Start by placing all your valuables in a locker as you really wouldn’t want to lug a bag with you. It’s messy. Trust me. (Photographers are on hand if you simply must document your experience. Prices are reasonable and they’ll laminate and deliver to your hotel for free if there’s not enough time to pick it up at the end of your stay.)
For the normal package (aka “Hot Mineral Bath Privately”), you and your closest friends are ushered through a warm shower, then into tubs of various sizes filled with warm mud. After your 20 minute soak, where you’re free to douse yourself with the slick, slightly sulfuric smelling sludge, it’s off to a warm bath in clear mineral water via a shower gauntlet. Then you’re on your own to laze around the two mineral water swimming pools (one heated, one not) and wander around the small grounds which house a man-made waterfall and a decent restaurant.
Prices are very reasonable and depend on how many people share a tub. Vietnamese love to do everything in large groups (an 8-person tub works out to just over $8USD per person for the whole day, but not recommended for the squeamish. Slick mud + a smooth tub = lots of sloshing around, so count on rubbing up against whoever’s in your tub, which may or may not be a good thing. Consider yourself warned.).
The Happiest Place in Vietnam
If Disneyland is supposed to be “the happiest place on earth”, Vinpearl Land has to be “the happiest place in Vietnam.” Built on Hon Tre Island, right off Nha Trang’s coast and connected by one of the longest over-water cable cars in the world, Vinpearl is a bewildering mix of a water park, carnival rides, an aquarium, 4-D theaters, a large video game arcade complete with mechanical bull and bumper cars, and shops. An all-in-one ticket (Adults ~$21.50USD, kids under 1.4m ~$14) includes the round-trip gondola ride and unlimited access to all the fun and games, including various animal shows and musical performances.
Thap Ba Mud Springs: The mud springs offer a pick-up service for ~$1.50USD per way. If you’re traveling in a group, it might just be easier to flag down a regular taxi for the short ride. On the way there, check out the 1,000+ year old Po Nagar towers, built by the Cham people. They’re directly on your way to the baths, as you turn off the main road. There will be lots of taxis waiting outside to take you back to your hotel.
Vinpearl: The fast food venues, while not unreasonably expensive, serve up unappetizing fried foods. There’s also a sit-down restaurant, although it’s pricey for what you get. Instead, head on over to the small independently-owned Vietnamese restaurants just past the shops on your way down to the beach for some more filling fare. Visitors are not allowed to bring food or drinks (except for water) with them, and there is a cursory bag search before you get on the gondola.
Getting there: Nha Trang has an international airport with direct flights from Russia and Korea (which explains why signs around town are surprisingly half in Russian). However, the airport in Cam Ranh is 18.5 miles (30km) from town (small taxis are ~$12USD and there’s a scheduled shared bus into town).
If you’re traveling from Ho Chi Minh City, consider taking the overnight bus. Seats (in bunk bed formation) lay back comfortably, and your feet go into a well (if you’re taller than 5’10”, though, you won’t be able to stretch out all the way). Tickets are ~$11USD, leaving from the Eastern Bus Station for the 8-9 hr ride. Buy a few days in advance if possible to select your bunk. And bring a sleeping mask. The higher bunks happen to be at the same height as street lights.
Accommodations: The entire town runs parallel to the beach, and the main road “Tran Phu” is where all the high rise hotels are. Construction is booming, and visitors will see half a dozen sites of future high-end hotels in progress. At the middle end, each of the 125 rooms at the Nha Trang Lodge has a great view of the April 2 Square (doubles from $77USD). Or walk one or two blocks away from the beach to find budget accommodations in the $15USD range, including wifi and a/c. As with almost all properties in Vietnam, feel free to negotiate a bit on price, especially if you plan on staying a few days, or get breakfast included.
Just two blocks away from the main action is La Suisse Hotel, a clean 2-star property (doubles from $30USD) with friendly staff and just minutes away from restaurants and shops. Or for the ultimate in seclusion, An Lam Villas, perched in the perfect horseshoe Ninh Van Bay, is all about peaceful solitude. Accessible only by speedboat, time stands still at this stunning property, but being pampered like a rock star will cost you (doubles from $400USD).
Food: Being a beach town, a seafood meal is a must. Pick out your own live crab, shrimp, lobster, clams, etc. and have it cooked-to-order at one of the many restaurants along the main road, just a short 10 minute taxi ride heading north of the center of town, beyond the Dam Market and the Tran Phu bridge. Everything is priced by the kilo and includes the cost of cooking. Mười Đô (literally “Ten Dollars”) is a popular joint with locals (6 Pham Van Dong). A filling meal with a cold beer shouldn’t cost more than that per person. Try crab or shrimp with tamarind sauce (rang me), and you’re guaranteed to lick the sauce off shells, it’s so good. Or go simple and try seafood steamed in beer (hấp bia) and dipped in a simple condiment of salt, pepper and a freshly squeezed lime.
For a more regional repast, you can’t go wrong with Nha Trang’s own nem nướng Ninh Hòa, a Vietnamese version of a grilled pork kebab. While you’ll find grilled minced meat all around Vietnam, the condiments are what make this dish unique to the region. Lightly wet a sheet of rice paper, lay down a lettuce leaf and start building your roll by adding crunchy slices of green mango, fresh herbs, pickled carrots and white radish and the cigar-shaped tubes of crispy deep-friend rice paper. Wrap everything up like a burrito and dip it into the bright orange dipping sauce, a concoction of ground glutinous rice, and pineapple with carrots and tomato for color. Portions are easy on the budget, starting at VND 30,000 (~$1.50USD). Try the two-storied restaurant that specializes in this dish, Nem Nướng Ninh Hòa Đặng Văn Quyên at 16A Lãn Ông Street near Đầm Market. Taxis will know it.
Check out the following articles and resources to plan your trip to Vietnam:
- Read our Southeast Asia Indie Travel Guide
- Check out the Vietnam Indie Travel Guide
- Read Indie Travel in Vietnam for $30 Per Day
- Read How to Plan an Extended Trip in Southeast Asia
- Read Pho 101 – A Beginnner’s Guide to Vietnam’s Most Famous Dish
- Catch a flight to Hanoi
- Find a hostel in Nha Trang
- Check out adventure trips in Vietnam
Stay tuned tomorrow as we ask the question, “Can families travel indie-style on a tour?”
All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.