Guest blogger James Pham has spent the last 20 years being a citizen of the world. Work and travel has taken him from his hometown in Fairfax, Virginia to Canada, Cambodia, Thailand, and now Vietnam, with stops in about 60 countries along the way. He has a background in publishing and educational management, but his guilty pleasure is obsessive travel planning. He spends way more of his savings on travel than is reasonable. After a 10 week overland photographic safari in Africa in 2010 and a 12 week trip around the world in 2011, James is currently taking time off to write and explore his native Vietnam. You can find more of his musings at flyicarusfly.com or follow him on Facebook at Facebook.com/FlyIcarusFly.
With nearly 3,500km of coastline, Vietnam is blessed with a plethora of scenic beaches—everything from the more than 2,000 islands of Ha Long Bay in the north (nominated as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World), to Vung Tau, the French colonial playground just an hour outside of bustling Ho Chi Minh City to laid back Phu Quoc island, barely a dozen kilometers from the Cambodian mainland.
But in a kingdom of beaches, Nha Trang is still Queen. Located about 320 km north of Ho Chi Minh City and 1,035km south of Hanoi in Khanh Hoa Province, Nha Trang is often a welcome stopover for tourists traveling the length of this beautiful country of contrasts. Whether you're splurging or on a budget, Nha Trang has a little bit of something for everyone.
Budget: The area is known for its take on the grilled pork kebab, locally known as nem nuong Ninh Hoa, a skewer of grilled meat, lightly spiced. An order comes with a heap of local herbs, crunchy green mango and pickled carrots and radish, all meant to be wrapped up in rice paper, not unlike an Asian burrito. What makes this dish unique to the region is the crispy deep-fried rice paper and the dipping sauce made from ground glutinous rice, carrots, tomato and pineapple. A meal of nem nuong will set you back less than USD 1.50 at the multi-level Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa Dang Van Quyen at 16A Lan Ong near Dam Market.
Splurge: Known for its fresh seafood, dozens of cook-to-order seafood restaurants line the main street just north of town beyond the Tran Phu bridge. The locals flock to Mudi Do (6 Pham Van Dong) at dusk, selecting live seafood in tanks and letting the staff know how you want it cooked. My favorite is the tamarind crab which will have you licking the tangy sweet and sour sauce right off the crab shells. Equally delicious are the clams and scallops, grilled with a topping of scallion oil and peanuts. The typical dipping sauce is a simple mix of salt and pepper and lemon—refreshing without overpowering the sweet meat. A filling dinner with bottles of local beer averages about USD 10 per person.
Budget: Nha Trang is blessed with nearly 10km of city beaches. Try visiting early in the morning (starting at 3-4am) or at dusk on weekends to mix with the locals who come out for a swim without the danger of getting a dreaded tan (locals often prize light skin as a sign of affluence, ie. not being a farm worker). While I haven't spotted any facekinis yet, locals will often wait until the last minute to shed panty hose and long driving gloves before jumping into the surf almost fully clothed. The beach atmosphere is vibrant, fun and family-oriented, with kids and adults alike flying dozens of kites over the main square and vendors hawking dry roasted squid snacks to beach-goers. Go between 10-4 and you'll practically have the beach to yourself.
Splurge: For a pretty, clean beach, take the 3,311m cable car ride over to Vinpearl Land, located on Bamboo Island. A slightly cheesy version of Disneyland, complete with a huge arcade, amusement park rides and an underwater aquarium, it also boasts a nice stretch of beach from where you can gaze at the Nha Trang skyline. Arrive early to secure a beach hut and lounge chairs. Entrance to the park is about USD 20 but includes the round-trip cable car, and all activities including the rides, 4-D movies and a decent water park.
Budget: Despite no less than five upscale hotels under construction along Nha Trang’s main beach road, deals are still to be had. Instead of staying at a property right on Tran Phu, head one or two blocks back, away from the beach, where hotel rooms with air-conditioning can be had for as little as USD 15 per night. An added bonus is the proximity to local street food for less than USD 1 a meal. Try La Suisse Hotel (34 Tran Quang Khai), less than a 10 minute walk from the beach but close to shops, bars and mini-marts.
Splurge: Bed down like the 1% at the top rated five-star An Lam Villas at Ninh Van Bay. Accessible only via speed boat from the resort's private jetty 20kms north of the city center, the property is situated on a private horseshoe bay, set against a gorgeous backdrop of forested mountains. Your only dilemma will be choosing from a beachfront villa or a hillrock one (think luxe treehouse). Either way, you'll have your own butler and plunge pool fed from a nearby waterfall.
Budget: One of the best values around are the many Four Island all-day snorkeling tours sold at every travel agency in town. For less than USD 8, you're loaded onto a boat with about fifty other passengers to head out to some of the offshore islands to explore caves, do watersports, snorkel, and visit a decent aquarium with in-sea enclosures. The cost includes snorkeling equipment (poor to average quality), a filling communal lunch, a very limited floating bar (one of the guides pouring shots of local brew from an inner tube) and wacky entertainment (think loud karaoke in 10 languages while dressed in drag) put on by the boat's crew. All island stops are optional and tickets for each activity are around USD 1-2.
Splurge: Snorkel or dive with the longest established dive center in Vietnam, Rainbow Divers. Get your PADI certification starting at USD 250 or for complete beginners, do a Try dive, where a trained staff member will guide you on two dives for USD 80. Snorkeling tours stop at two locations and a guide is on hand to point out brightly colored star fish and hard-to-see octopus amongst the hard and soft coral.
For a bonus activity, head out to the mud baths at Thap Ba, just 5km north of the city. For just USD 5, soak in the mineral rich mud, go for a swim in the heated mineral water swimming pool or laze under the waterfall. Prices are higher for private mud pools.
Whatever your budget, Nha Trang makes for a great beach getaway. Get there before it becomes the next Pattaya.
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