Nha Trang: Escapism in Vietnam
I take a journey to Nha Trang, to discover probably the most famous resort town on the whole Vietnamese Coast. A cocktail of beaches, bubbling mud spas, and panoramic gondola rides awaited…
You'll hear the name Nha Trang in whispers throughout Vietnam. People will speak of its charm, its energy, its hedonism, its sparkling beachfronts, jungle-dressed hills, rejuvenating mud spas, dangling cable cars, and beautiful tropical character. I decided I couldn't miss out on all those things. I headed there ready to be revived by all the R&R that the fabled jewel of the Vietnamese coast could throw at me….
The trip into town
There are only a handful of other beach towns in South Vietnam that are spoken of in the same revered verses as Nha Trang. No, scratch that. There are only a handful of other beach towns in the whole of Southeast Asia that are spoken of in the same revered verses of Nha Trang. I've heard my fill of eulogies to the beautiful setting beneath those green-hued hills. I've heard enough about the rolling waters of the South China Sea. I've heard plenty of the palm-shaded coastal parks and the way the sunrises glow like sodium in liquid across the wide, open bays.
I decide it's time for me to visit this fabled place. Nam's classic "VIP" buses are my ticket into town. It's a long, 13-hour-or-so overnighter that takes me there. We dip and stomach-lurch over the pot-holed roads of the Vietnamese coast close to Hoi An. We swerve to avoid stray dogs on the sidewalks. We stop now and then in soy-scented kitchens where the pungent aromas of sizzling chicken skewers mingle with peanut satay and duck. Everyone tries to sleep. They try but the purr of the engine, the heat of the Southeast Asian night, and the driver's aversion to the brake pedal get in the way. I'm content watching the tropical beaches and silhouetted hills roll by outside the window. Content knowing that it's Nha Trang's sun-kissed sands that await for me at the end of this haul.
Soon, the sun's peaking its head over the horizon. Because the main highways in Vietnam follow the inlets and contours of the coastline of the country for virtually its whole length, I can see the sunrise as a broadside from my bus bed. I know it's just a taster of what's to come across the open bays of Nha Trang but it's still wonderful. It still sunders into a chromatography of deep reds and yellows before casting its white light across the South China Sea.
Then the bus swings in Nha Trang bay. It continues to hurtle on down the highways, now whizzing past salt-stained boulders that are sat just 20 meters above the sloshing of the ocean. There are groves of stooping coconut palms reclining into the breezes. I see pockets of sand encased between craggy headlands of rock here and there. We are entering the ocean's domain, I feel it.
Another corner down and Nha Trang itself looms. Like a pearl hidden in an oyster shell it glistens and glimmers in brilliant white between the rugged peaks that surround. They are spiked rocks topped with jungle, or gnarled, Grinch-like mountains that stand shrouded in the morning's plumes of mist. They wall in the great city by the sea, creating an amphitheatre of bulwarks to encase this escapism from the fray; this extraction from the high-paced life that carries on elsewhere in Vietnam.
We cross the Cai River, seen wiggling like a great snake down from the karst mountains, past the rickety fishing jetties that dot the brackish shores, and out into the deep blue of the sea. We shoot over a bridge and purr along the great arc of a boulevard that runs like a palm-leafed scythe around the shorelines of Nha Trang. You could mistake it for Miami, or Venice Beach. That is, you could if it wasn’t for the multitudes of clicking bicycles and trishaws, the sporadic bursts of the pungent scent of sizzling noodles (I'm never sure where they come from in Nam', but I don't mind!), and the ramshackle markets that line the blocks.
Beach days in Nha Trang
Fast forward a day. I've slept off all hazy remnants of that 13-hour overnighter and am ready to explore Nha Trang. I prep my day pack, trade in the boots for the flipflops (that's thongs, Aussies), and head out to see, first, of course, the beach.
My recollections of Miami come flooding back as soon as I hit the sands. Running for what must be miles around the coast, this stretch of powdery, brown-yellow beach slopes down into an ocean that froths with whitecapped waves. It's backed by a forest of skyscrapers and high rises that could easily be plucked from the Magic City. Only these are distinctly of the Magic City of Vietnam only. They lurch above groves of coconut palms and steam-emitting street food vendors. They look out across a vista that's positively tropical – think jungle-blanketed mountains, cloudless skies of Greek blue, and, to their back, rising peaks where plumes of humidity and mist coalesce in the valleys.
That's not to say there's none of the Miami blood in Nha Trang. There is. Indisputably. I see volleyball courts packed with smiling locals. I see cyclists whizzing up and down the paved promenade. There are bikini-clad fashionistas strutting their stuff on the sands. There are rows of regimented deckchairs spilling out of the chic hotel lobbies and straight onto the beachfront.
All the reasons this one's hailed as Nam's most successful beach resort suddenly come into focus. I can see it. I can feel it. I can sense the happy vibes of this enclave of sun, sand, and sea. It's far away from the hectic energy of Ho Chi Minh City. It's miles from the pulsating morass of Hanoi. Good though they are, this is the antithesis of all the things that are stressful and mind-boggling about Southeast Asia.
Nha Trang's cultural side
I soon discover that Nha Trang isn’t just about kicking it on the beaches. It's also packed with cultural pursuits and thought-provoking sights. I decide to head to one of the most acclaimed: The National Oceanographic Museum of Vietnam. It's not only one of the premier attractions here, some say it's one of the premier attractions in the whole of the country.
I'm soon wandering between the hulking skeletons of mysterious sea creatures, gawping at multicoloured fish that look like over-used dartboards because of all the spikes and spines that poke from them, and meeting sea turtles in the little splash ponds. I think I've seen plenty of these creatures over my time in Asia. Perhaps I casually snorkelled past them in the Gili Islands a month ago? Maybe I saw them splashing over the swells of Koh Samui a couple of weeks back? According to the info on the tanks, that's very much a possiblity.
Next, I decide to channel my inner tourist and ride the swinging cable car that connects Nha Trang with the famous resort island of Vinpearl. Named – appropriately – the Vinpearl Cable Car, it creaks across the wide channels of Nha Trang's bay before depositing passengers between clutches of scintillating beaches and untouched hills, 5-star resorts and even theme park attractions. I take one look at the entry fees for some of the places that hide over on the far coast and decide I've just got enough for the ride. Still, it's been recommended and in just a couple of minutes I'm dangling over the sloshing waters of the South China Sea.
3.3 kilometers of gondola start to reveal some beautiful views of the Nha Trang basin. I can see the city as I've not seen it before. Its whitewashed skyscrapers and high-rise hotels stand proud like a row of gems along the seafront. Behind it, the urban jungle slowly fades into real jungle, occasionally sprouting cookie-cutter blocks of residential buildings and apartments – some of the most coveted in Vietnam, no doubt. Behind them, even further in the distance, the rugged peaks of the Vietnamese backcountry take over, rising and rising like dragon teeth to defend the hinterlands of Southeast Asia.
After alighting on Vinpearl, I spend some time hiking the walks that weave and wiggle next to the sea. I look on, probably enviously, at the entranceways to luxurious, uber-opulent resorts. I go scrambling over clusters of coastal boulders and catch views across the water. Looking out to the horizon to the south, I try to think of the next mass of land I'd reach if I were to start swimming. It would be orangutan-hosting Borneo, I think. Or it would be the recluse Riau Islands of Indonesia, remote and untrodden – if I ever managed to find them, of course.
Mud-splattered endings in Nha Trang
My last day in Nha Trang. I decide to leave behind the beach and hit the Thap Ba Hot Springs. They are another famous attraction of this relaxation-loving town, and the perfect opportunity to make sure all the stress and toxins of my Southeast Asian travels have left me for good before I resume life on the dusty road.
Sat on the north side of the Cai River, they beckon with babbling steams of water, mineral-rich mud pools, and various bathhouses that are supposed to rejuvenate and revive. I hand over a wad of VND – around 150,000 if I recall – and am soon revelling in a warm shower. Next, it's on to the terraced rows of mud baths to hop between the various healing salves. Wooden placards herald their medicinal powers. I'm in and out quickly. Then I'm being sloshed around hot spa ponds. Then I'm drying like a coffee bean – or, at least, the same color of a coffee bean – under the glowing tropical sun.
As I sit there, wallowing in my newfound serenity and waiting for the healing properties of the earth of the Vietnamese mountains to kick in, I cast my mind back to Nha Trang and its beachfront. I think of the chilled mornings spent dipping in and out of the South China Sea. I think of the long cable car jaunts across to Vin Pearl. I think of my encounters with sea turtles et al. It's been a very different, much more relaxing, stint, than I'm used to from Vietnam. And for that, at least, I think, Nha Trang lives up to its reputation.
Nha Trang is just one of the many awesome places we visit on our travels through this great backbone of Indochina. We spend up to two nights hopping between Vin Pearl Island and wallowing in the mud baths on the banks of the Cai River. We'd love you to join us – just check out our top itineraries: Vietnam Explorer, Orient Express, Best of Both Worlds…