Established as a port town in the 1920s, once sleepy and unknown Nha Trang now has a population approaching 300,000, largely due to a two-decade boom in tourism. As Vietnam's premier beach destination (at least until Phu Quoc begins to develop). Nha Trang serves as capital of Khanh Hoa province and fishing is the major industry now being supplanted by tourism. Nicknamed the "Waikiki of Vietnam," Nha Trang is one of the finest and most developed of all the beaches in Vietnam. In contrast to Thailand's coastal regions, there is limited diving equipment rental and windsurfing though a few nice off-shore dive sites exist. Nha Trang is pleasant for cycling, with wide boulevards though bustling traffic and the town is also a standout for the country's finest seafood.
Aside from lazing on the beach or at the pool, there are some cultural attractions nearby we feel are worthwhile and unique to the area, including the vibrant morning fish market and Long Son Pagoda with dramatic views over the area.
Po Nagar Cham Towers
On the north side of Nha Trang, across Xom Bong Bridge, are the best-preserved Cham towers in central Vietnam, the sanctuary of Po Nagar. If visiting Nha Trang, we recommend you save a side trip to the Cham ruins at My Son from Hoi An, Po Nagar being a superior site. The towers were constructed between the 7th and 12th centuries. In the 9th century, warriors believed to hail from the Srivijaya kingdom of Sumatra ransacked the temple, plundering a lingas of precious metal. Later, marauding Khmers removed a gold lingas and other items. In the 16th century Nha Trang was the last stronghold of the Cham before they were overrun by powerful Viet forces from the north. Today, only four of the sanctuary's original eight towers remain. The octagonal pillars that formed the original entrance have been completely rebricked. Though there is a lot of obvious new brick and concrete reconstruction on the north tower, the lichen-coated portions are clearly original masonry. The towers all face eastward. There are magnificent views of the surrounding area from the hill from mountains to sea.
A small on-site museum displays early plans of the site, as well as photos of French excavations. But the site itself is no museum: these smoke stained towers are still used for spiritual purposes. Pilgrims make a circuit of the shrines, the main object of devotion the Uma statue in the north tower. Three of the towers shelter lingas-phallic sculptures symbolic of Shiva and royalty, and popular objects of devotion in Chain art. A lingas is usually coupled with a yoni, representing the female organs and symbolizing fertility. The lingas and yoni structure has spouts and drains for carrying water away in ceremonies.
The main shrine is the north tower, which originally sheltered a gold lingas. The precious lingas were stolen by the Khmers; in its place, a statue of Uma was constructed in the 11th century. The 23-meter-high tower is a masterpiece of Cham art; its richly decorated roof remains relatively intact. At the entrance to the tower stand two huge sandstone pillars covered with inscriptions describing offerings to the goddess within; above the entrance doorway are three carved apsaras (celestial dancers). The Uma shrine is of the "wish granting" variety-patronized not only by Cham Hindus, but also by Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists. The shrine is considered a source of miraculous cures and attracts its share of beggars. Visitors make offerings of fruit, flowers, incense, and candles; some prostrate themselves before the Uma statue while an attendant hits a large brass bowl with a soft mallet, producing an eerie reverberating sound.
Uma is believed to be the female state of Shiva, called Po Nagar (goddess mother) by the Cham. The Uma statue here is made of a large piece of black stone. The face is painted brown, with red lips and black eyebrows and hair. The head sup-ports a jeweled crown and the body a bright yellow embroidered and sequined coat. Additional costumes and jewelry are kept in a glass wardrobe near the back of the interior. The head is a copy-the original was lopped off and now sits the Guimet Museum in Paris.
Uma's ceremonial clothing covers an extra-ordinary figure-with legs crossed and breasts bare, and carved neck and shoulder decorations. Uma is a 10-armed deity: four arms attached at the back of the statue hold the ritual implements of dagger-gong, arrowhead-tusk, iskconch, and spearhead-bow; four arms rest at the sides; and two arms protrude from the front of the statue, palms resting on the knees. Above Uma's serene face looms a fierce stone guardian with fangs. Dragons are carved on either side of the headpiece. The entire statue sits on a lotus pedestal above a meter-high stone yoni-base, sheltered by four ceremonial parasols. To the left and right stand small elephant statues.
Hong Chong Harbor
Fish Market & Hon Chong Headland
Due east of the Cham towers are a scattering of fishing villages. Before dawn around 6AM at the north side of Xom Bong Bridge beneath the Po Nagar Cham towers, a colored flotilla of fishing boats arrives with the previous night's catch. It's an amazing spectacle to the dozens of ships offloading large catch, which is then sliced and diced on the spot, packed into boxes along with crushed ice. Giant prawns are haggled over and distrubuted around the city by bicycle and scooter. Cockfights are sometimes staged here. A must visit for any culinary enthisiast.
To the northeast of the towers is Hon Chong Promontory where hundreds of boulders are balanced on top of one another. The massive boulder at the tip of the promontory is called Chong Rock and various legends are associated with this boulder, which is said to bear the imprint of a large hand. There are shrimp farms in the vicinity and various lookouts, providing wide views over the bay.
To the west of the towers are the small docks for river trips along the Nha Trang River, with stops at fishing villages, Coco islet, and other sites in the area.
Long Son Pagoda
Long Son Pagoda
On the northwest side of Nha Trang is Long Son Pagoda, an active temple featuring an unusual red brass Buddha on a wooden lotus pedestal. On top of a hill behind the pagoda is a massive white Buddha on a lotus throne. Embedded in the octagonal base are seven stucco likenesses of Buddhist martyrs, monks, and nuns who died protesting the repressive Diem regime. Several immolated themselves. The white Buddha was built in their memory in 1963. From atop the promontory, there are panoramic views of the area.
At the north end of Tran Phu Boulevard behind Nha Trang's Pasteur Institute is a small but fascinating Yersin Museum, open daily except Sundays and holidays. All captions are in French, but your guide will explain pictures. The site of the museum is Yersin's former library and office.
Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) left France in 1890 as a ship's doctor. In Hong Kong, in June 1894, after six exhausting days of research, he isolated a plague bacillus, now called Bacillus yersinia pestis. In 1895 Yersin journeyed to Nha Trang and established a laboratory at the present site of the Pasteur Institute. He also began a cattle farm on the outskirts of Nha Trang for the manufacture of serums and vaccines. Serum was sent as far away as China and India, and his lab became known as a center of medical research and treatment of domestic animal diseases. In 1902 he went to Hanoi to establish a university of medicine; once this task was completed, he returned to Nha Trang to conduct further research.
Yersin was a Renaissance man. Apart from pioneering medical research, he was an explorer, botanist, biologist, and entomologist, and was interested in photography and astronomy. He explored the Dalat area and recommended establishing a hill station there; he voyaged to Stung Treng in Cambodia and overland to Phnom Penh. In his later years he devoted much time to the cultivation of tropical plants, namely orchids. Yersin introduced to the area coffee, cocoa, rubber, coconut, and quinine trees-another medicinal connection as quinine was used at the time to treat malaria. However, he did not introduce the "coca-cola" plant as indicated on the museum's leaflet.
Yersin led a simple life in Nha Trang, devoting himself to research and his other interests. He rode a battered bicycle and lived next to a fishing village. He used his powerful telescope to warn fishermen of approaching typhoons. He died at the age of 80 and is buried outside Nha Trang; his medical library and personal effects were bequeathed to the Pasteur Institute.
It was on Yersin's recommendations that his laboratory in Nha Trang and Dr. Albert Calmette's laboratory in Saigon were upgraded to the level of Indochina Pasteur Institutes, the first established outside Paris. Pasteur Institutes later appeared in Hanoi and Dalat, and microbiology labs opened in Hue, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh. The Pasteur Institutes in Vietnam continue producing vaccines and conducting research, but the budget is limited and the equipment old. Work continues now at Pasteur Institutes on a greater riddle, AIDS, though here it's probably limited to testing the Vietnamese for the presence of HIV infection.
On the other side of the tracks, east of the railway station, is Nha Trang Cathedral, complete with stained-glass windows and French Gothic lines. It was built in the 1930s; daily masses are held early morning and late afternoon.
Diving the Islands
Marine and water sports pursuits are the chief draw in Nha Trang — lazing around the beach soaking up the rays, taking a day trip by boat to outlying islands. A smattering of other sights include the Cham towers to the north of Nha Trang. We suggest skipping the Oceanographic Institute to the south. It may once have been a center of marine study, but today it offers only a motley collection of stuffed and pickled sea life and a few live specimens. Displays are poorly presented, and half the tanks are empty.
Nha Trang Beach
Nha Trang's palm-fringed beach front stretches for five kilometers. Bored of the pool? Hop on a bicycle, cruise along Tran Phu Boulevard. Beach front cafes provide shelter and drinks; a number of places rent beach umbrellas and deck chairs. The "civilized" end of the beach is from Hai Yen Hotel northward; south of that, the beach is more pristine. Roving vendors sell fruit and seafood; others offer beach massages (watch your wallet and camera closely). The water is slightly surly in Nha Trang. Watch out for the rip tide — this is the rough, wind-swept Pacific Coast. The beach drops off very quickly.
Islands Near Cau Da
Hon Tre (Bamboo Island) has beaches and sandy coves where fishing communities live-you can see people repairing nets. They use a basket boat (thung chaff) to commute between the fishing boats anchored offshore and the beach. The thung chaff is made of woven bamboo strips covered with tar; it's puzzling how these round coracles are steered.
On Hon Tam, a resort has been set up, with a small hotel, beach umbrellas, kayaks, and personal watercraft. The tour boats drop in here on their rounds. Only one square kilometers in size, Hon Mun (Black Island) harbors some of the most pristine coral reefs and marine life in the area-somehow it has managed to escape the dynamite fishing that has destroyed many nearby coral reefs. The World Wide Fund for Nature, based in Switzerland, is lobbying to establish Hon Mun as a marine park.
Vietnam is gifted with a 3,200-kilometer coastline, harboring a diverse range of marine resources, but these habitats are under severe threat. Many coral reefs have been destroyed by dynamite fishing, coral mining, overfishing, pollution, and coastal development. The local government turns a blind eye to these practices; the Marine Resource Protection Department does not even have a patrol boat.
To the north of Nha Trang is Hon Cu Lao, an island off the coast with a monkey-rearing farm. Up to 100 monkeys live on the island, bred for export to Malaysia and Singapore and destined for use in traditional medicine.
Another traditional medicine ingredient highly sought after in Nha Trang is the swallow nest, which, consumed in the famous soup, is reputed to be therapeutic although others claim it's an aphrodisiac. Off the coast of Nha Trang are a number of small islands-Hon Cau, Hon Pyramide, Hon Noi, Hon Ngoai, where sea swallows (salanganes) make their nests. Both the male and female bird secrete a gel-like substance in their saliva that is used to build nests on a cliff crevice or in a cave. The bird chews, retches, and smears its spit to mold a small cup-shaped nest. The nests are usually white, though rarer varieties are orange and red. When the nest is completed, the female lays two white-and-blue speckled eggs. The nests are collected only twice a year, in spring and fall. Nest harvesting is a precarious venture. Harvesters rappel down rock faces to reach the nests, steering clear of the poisonous snakes that feed on swallow eggs. The motivation for risking life and limb is the high return on nests-they can fetch up to $2,000 a kilogram on the open market.
Nha Trang has little in the way of the sporting hardware associated with beach resorts in Thailand, but windsurfing and kite-boarding equipment can be found. Fishing tackle and boats can also be arranged. Diving equipment is limited-you can rent reliable French equipment at the Blue Diving is also popular off the islands. The foreign dive masters here offer instruction for PADI diving courses, and for those who want to test the waters there is a "try-a-dive" program. Coral around Nha Trang is often broken and unspectacular, a victim of dynamite-fishing, typhoons and boat anchors. Some of the better dive spots are the northeast side of Hon Tre, the area around Hon Mun, and the south side of Hon Lon.
VISITING THE ISLANDS
Day tripping to offshore islands is popular in Nha Trang. You can swim and snorkel, dine on seafood aboard the boat, and visit a beach and fishing village. We can arrange chartered boats with varied itineraries for half- or full-day boat trips, taking in the three to five islands off the coast, including Hon Tre, Hon Mun, Hon Mot, Hon Tam, and Hon Mieu.
Haphazard development has left Nha Trang with a beachfront that resembles so many others, a myriad of towers and small resorts built over the last couple of decades in all manner of design and styles. Corruption, national bureacracy, and local and international mafia all vied for control over Nha Trang. Straight of a spy novel, at one point Accor pulled out of their Sofitel property on Hong Tre Island just off the coast and the property evidently under Russian mafia control has become a Macua-like gambling resort.
Ana Mandara Poolside
An old favorite located on the beachfront sands. Once the finest hotel in Nha Trang, if not Vietnam, Ana Mandara established the Six Senses brand and raised the bar for other resorts in the country. The French joint-venture resort boasts 16 villas with a total of 68 rooms scattered over pristine beachfront doubles. Facilities include pool, tennis court, gym, and business center. An outdoor pavilion serves gourmet versions of local dishes. Eco and green are a theme the Six Senses introduced early to the country and remains a prominent theme throughout the resort.
Beachfront villas are not a must, the resort is rife with places to relax and lounge and you'll likely spend little time in your room.
For a more rural location, in recent years Six Senses developed the more remote and exclusive Six Senses Ninh Van Bay (formerly the Evanson Hideway), see below.
Six Senses Ninh Van Bay Vietnam's most exclusive beach resort (The Nam Hai outside Hoi An rivals, but the weather is typically far better further south here in Nha Trang). The secluded resort is aceesible only by motorboat, located at the end of a peninsula outside of the town. The 58 large villas (all over 1,500 square feet) are built on and around large boulders formations with a variety of unique styles, including water, hill top, and Presidential (right). Note that the resort fills far in advance of holidays.
Exclusive amenities include private chef and butler.
Dam Market has superb fresh produce, with a number of food stalls at the back of the markets on the northeast side. This place is a feeding frenzy. For vegetarian stalls, look for Corn Chay signs-you point at dishes of cauliflower, bean sprouts, or whatever else is in season, and assemble your meal. Meat dishes abound too, and you can buy excellent fresh fruit and fruit juices at the stalls. Here be dragons and durians-in February and March you can savor thanh long, or dragonfruit. This oval fruit is magenta in color, with a smooth skin sprouting green petals. Inside the pulpy and translucent white flesh is scattered with thousands of black crunchy seeds. The succulent flesh is a good thirst-quencher in juices but rather bland if eaten alone. Much tastier is another bizarre fruit, the spiny soursop (mang cau xiem), a longish fruit with a spiky, dark green exterior and a milky interior.
Seafood, naturally, is the specialty of Nha Trang. Seafood platters with squid, shrimp, lobster, and fish are available for quite reasonable prices. Near Dam Market is Lac Canh, at 11 Hang Ca, tel. 821391. It's always crowded, with lots of beggars hanging around the outdoor seating. Meat and seafood dishes are served; you can cook at the table with charcoal braziers. Try the delicious tuna steaks. Thanh Lich, around the corner at 8 Phan Boi Chau, tel. 821955, features similar fare and fewer beggars.
The area around the markets is a full of excellent restaurants. Hoan Hai, at 6 Phan Chu Trinh, tel. 823133, serves delicious marinated beef, vegetarian dishes with tofu, and possibly the best spring rolls in Nha Trang. At Ninh Hoa Nem restaurant, you can roll your own food. There are only two dishes here-pork and beef nem, and the waitress and other customers will gladly instruct you on the correct etiquette.
Also in the area is Thuy Trang Seafood, at 9A Le Loi, near Thang Loi Hotel. Vietnam Restaurant, 23 Hoang Van Thu, tel. 822933, is popular with travelers and serves a great hot and sour fish soup. Thanh The Restaurant, at 3 Phan Chu Trinh St., tel. 821931, serves seafood and Vietnamese dishes, as well as Western fare. Two other places to try in the neighborhood are Van Canh Restaurant and Coco Vert Restaurant.
At 64 Hoang Van Thu Street, Binh Minh, tel. 821861, serves good food at reasonable prices. Almost right opposite is Lys, 117A Hoang Van Thu, tel. 822006. If you fancy swallow saliva, you can order swallow-nest soup for $10 at Lys or Binh Minh. Across town at Khatoco Hotel Restaurant swallow-nest soup costs $25; another specialty served in this classy venue is braised sea cucumber.
Pizza has hit the beach in Nha Trang. For fine beachside dining, go to Casa Italia, right at the southern end of Tran Phu Boulevard,near Ana Mandara Resort, tel. 828964. The restaurant is run by an Italian and features a large menu of pizza, pasta, and steak. There's seating both indoors and under pine trees near the beach.
At the intersection of Yersin and Nguyen Trai Streets, several juice-bar cafes sell delicious concoctions of crushed fruit, ice, sugar, and condensed milk-called sink to in Vietnamese. Among the exotic fruit offerings are jackfruit, soursop, sapodilla, star apple, custard apple, and dragonfruit. You can also sample durian or coconut ice cream, banana splits, and fresh yogurt. The cafes are great for snacks and breakfast, serving bread and cheese, good coffee, and Lipton tea. Sit back and watch the ice-cream wars rage.
Nha Trang includes a sprinkling of seaside cafes. Opposite the Hai Yen Hotel is Four Seasons Cafe and Coconut Cove Resort. Others along this strip serve seafood, snacks, and beer, but the best place to lounge and soak up the sun is Nha Trang Sailing Club, at 74 Tran Phu Blvd., tel. 826528, a bar-restaurant with a back terrace-about the only cafe with beach-compatible architecture and good beach views. Alfresco dining in wicker chairs on the deck is the key attraction. This place fills the nightlife void in Nha Trang, so it's popular with round-eyes late at night, sometimes staying open till 0400 hours.
Down by the Can Da dock area lurk vendors of shell and coral items. These include shell jewelry and grotesque kitschy shell collages. There is a large souvenir shop on Tran Phu Boulevard, almost opposite Nha Khach 24, selling lacquerware and pieces inlaid with mother-of-pearl. If you wish to encourage the destruction of coral reefs, there are pieces fashioned from coral. Numerous items made of shell are also found here. Some may be fashioned with shells washed up on the beach, but many more are likely harvested from the sea-the creatures inhabiting them are destroyed in the process. All species of sea turtle are highly endangered.
SERVICES AND INFORMATION
Vietcombank, 17 Quang Trung St., will change major currencies in cash or traveler's checks. The main post office is at the north end of Nha Trang on Le Loi Street. The fax and phone center is a few kilometers south at 50 Le Thanh Ton Street, half a block from the beach. For TNT Express courier service, phone 821043. Nha Trang area code is 58.
SOUTH OF NHA TRANG
CAM RANH BAY
As recently as 1990, some 20 to 30 Russian warships, including submarines and an aircraft carrier, were based at Cam Ranh Bay. The two U.S.-made runways were home to 40 naval and military aircraft, including Tu-95 naval reconnaissance aircraft and a squadron of MiG-23 fighters. Some 7,000 Russian sailors and their dependents called Cam Ranh home, though it never developed the raucous atmosphere once associated with the American naval bases in the Philippines.
After the Americans pulled out of the Philippines, the Russians began to pack up and leave Cam Ranh Bay, and, in 1992, the Russian press reported that the last major battleship had sailed back to Vladivostok. However, in 1993 a Russian guided missile cruiser was sighted in the South China Sea. The Russians admitted the cruiser was indeed stationed at Cam Ranh Bay, claiming it was required to protect Russian merchant ships from pirates. Vietnam probably wants Russian cruisers in the area to deflect Chinese claims of sovereignty to the Spratly Islands and to ensure security for joint Russian-Vietnamese oil and gas explorations off the coast. There is a large signal intelligence station at Cam Ranh capable of monitoring the movements of the Chinese South Sea Fleet. The Russian Cam Ranh agreement with Vietnam was effective until 2000.
Phan Rang is hell on wheels-noisy, dirty, unpleasant. It's strung out along Highway 1, with trucks and buses barreling through day and night, spraying everything with dust and diesel fumes as drivers hit their air horns. In the midst of all this is a busy market, with a temple to one side. The 100-year-old temple has a pink exterior and bright red interior, and is dedicated to the deified Chinese General Quan Cong. A statue of blackbearded Quan Cong sits at the back of the temple; lining the way to the altar are Quan Cong's weapons, mounted on long poles. The main sight of Phan Rang, Thap Cham Towers, is six kilometers to the northwest; an equal distance to the east is Ninh Chu Beach. Both are worthy stops, Thap Cham having views of the surrounding area.
When to go?
Typhoons are a problem at Nha Trang and the season is roughly October to mid-December. The high season at Nha Trang is in July and August when Vietnamese vacationers arrive in droves. More on our weather chart.
See our Nha Trang interview in Inspire Magazine (pdf).
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