Many places lay claim to being the best bay in the world, but Nha Trang has serious qualification and is a real contender. It is called the best beach in Vietnam, in a country full of beaches and is frequently ranked by travel magazines as among the best bays in the world. Locally it’s also known by some as the Pearl of Vietnam and by others as the Riviera of the South China Sea.
Nha Trang is beautiful and pleasant, having the lowest humidity in the country. I was told by expat residents it has a “Mediterranean climate but in the tropics” but climatologically it’s more accurately defined as a tropical savanna – the antithesis of the climatic tropical monsoon which is largely the norm hereabouts. I noticed the all-day sun glistening off the South China Sea where the water is always seemed calm. It has history, charm, great weather and good food. I liked it already.
The city sits in a country in one of the most coveted parts of the world where geo-strategists will tell you “the great powers collide”. There is always China, from the first century BCE to now and the rising tensions in the South China Sea. There were the European imperialists and the French colonialists. British soldiers occupied Saigon in 1945 and in going well beyond their remit, killed Vietnamese. There had been Japan and then the US, the latter bogged down in a multi-billion dollar televised war we’ve all heard about and many remember first-hand.
In the 1400s, Nha Trang was part of Kauthara in the Champa Empire, then conquered by the southern expansion of the Nguyen Lords who, with their rivals; the Le Dyansty, and the Trinh Lords ruled what is now Vietnam. Briefly, there were the Tay Son (meaning “Western Mountains”) brothers who defeated the Nguyen clan and battled Siam. For before French colonialism there was Vietnamese expansion in a country more often divided than it has been unified.
Nha Trang once bordered the Khmer Empire, and was called Khanh Hoa before becoming part of French Annam. Once it was the southernmost province of the mighty Tang Dynasty and ruled from its capital of Xian. Later it was part of the short lived Republic of Vietnam. Some think the name comes from the corruption by Vietnamese of Ya Trang or Reed River, the name of the nearby Chai River in the Cham language.
Once upon a time, the area of Nha Trang was devoid of people and full of wildlife. Back then it was the domain of creatures such as the tiger. By the time the French arrived it turned from a hamlet to a town to a provincial capital with all the trappings of colonial administration. Nha Trang became urbanised under capitalism in the 1950s, and turned into a city under the communism in the 1970s. Since then it’s spiraled into a city of 500,000. Tourism came in the form of foreign backpackers and Vietnamese who travel much in their own country, and now by package holidays popular especially with Russians. They come here like the English go to Marbella, though usually without the associated drinking culture.
I first came here in 2006. The beachfront was all parks and gardens. Large gaudy hotels seemed to have largely been avoided thus far, though Best Western and Novotel have apparently decided to attempt give it their best shot with new developments underway. One concrete edifice spoiled the vista, a 12-storey monstrosity yet to be finished and looking unlikely to be. At intervals there were beach cafes and deckchairs sitting under thatched sun umbrellas. Coconut palms line the beach as far as the eye can see. It’s all picture postcard stuff. Offshore there is a collection of high bush covered islands and a marine park offering diving and snorkeling. One of the islands has the word “Pear” in large letters in a clear-felled patch clearly visible from the mainland.
I’d come the 219kms from Mui Ne by bus, a journey that took 4 hours. Land travel in Vietnam can be slow and painful. Driving habits rarely inspire confidence. Road safety standards must be appalling. Drivers seldom look before overtaking, vehicles sit with one wheel on the median line in both directions, and the sight of two vehicles approaching the oncoming traffic on a two lane road side-by-side occurs all too frequently. Cyclists and motorcyclists clog the sides of the roads and farmers ride trailers pulled by livestock in lanes together with the motorized traffic. Traffic, of all descriptions enters the flow and attempt to cross intersections with little care with often predictable and sometimes fatal consequences. As many houses are often close to roads on both sides, people wander across the traffic sometimes in their pajamas, barely bothering to look for vehicles. It’s different to say the least but then that’s why you’re here, or I am.
All along the coast north from Mui Ne the sand has encroached on the land, the soil where visible is a reddish colour—terre rouge. There were fields full of dragonfruit grown on inverted looking cactus and resembling something from the movie of John Wyndham’s science fiction work ‘The Day of the Triffids’. The fruit are a luxurious purple on the outside, and look like fluffy dice on the inside, a fibruous white with black dots and largely tasteless. Originating from South America and grown in tropical lands from Guatemala to Southeast Asia, dragonfruit adorns many a hotel fruit salad, is used in traditional medicine, and adds interest to contemporary use of alcohol (namely vodka) mixed in Dragon's Blood Punch and the ‘Dragontini’ cocktail.
On entering Nha Trang the bus stopped to refuel at a petrol station. This being the signal for every smoker on the bus to get off and light up as close to the petrol pumps as possible, flicking their ash generously about. Smoking seems popular in Vietnam, even among some women, which is unusual in Asia. Outside the Hanh Café a queue of overnight buses heading in both directions was assembled all with their engines running, spewing diesel everywhere. It was one lot of passengers off and another on, both domestic and international. Vietnamese travel in their own country. Some had time for a meal before carrying on with their journey. The Hanh Café was doing a good business, and they also owned the hotel, restaurant and travel agent at the stop.
I went for a walk down Tran Phu Street, the long boulevard that is Nha Trang’s beachfront avenue. “You want massage boom, boom, good lady, cheap for you.” A moto rider had seen me and swung around in busy traffic to deliver this tremendous piece of information. It was 9:20 on Sunday morning and my bliss had been shattered. Despite telling him I was uninterested he persisted in following me along on his bike, asking where I was going and what I was doing. The fact he was in the wrong lane and going against the flow of traffic, appeared not to be an issue. It had taken 35 minutes the previous evening, my first in town, to be offered the three “M’s”, though to be fair I’d had dinner first. To escape I went into a shop to buy water.
In many countries there are perils for women travelling alone whereas in Southeast Asia male tourists are constantly targeted, particularly if you’re on your own. You have to get used to being a magnet for this kind of thing and try not to let it bother you, otherwise you’d never go anywhere or do anything, which would spoil the whole reason for leaving home in the first place.
Other encounters in Vietnam are more enjoyable. Groups of schoolchildren often follow me along the street taking turns to say hello. Every response in kind produces fits of giggles from those assembled. Eventually, one will pluck up the courage to ask my name and when I answer they all invariably fall about themselves laughing uncontrollably. Whenever I ask one of them their name it’s impossible to get an answer as they all are laughing too hard.
If you’re not into water sports and diving there are land-based features of interest. Long Son Pagoda is perhaps the most impressive sight in Nha Trang apart from the beach. It’s reached by climbing 152 steps, an effort in the midday heat. Orphans living with the monks at the pagoda approach you selling postcards to pay for their keep. The steps are lined with several beggars, all elderly women, except for one teenage boy, confined to a wheel chair at the summit, who appeared severely intellectually disabled and minded by his able-bodied sibling, a girl who held out her non la, the conical hat, for contributions.
The white Buddha figure is 14m high, adorned at its base with swastikas, a common sight in Vietnam on religious monuments often to depict the sun, and an ancient religious symbol in use long before corruption by the Nazis who copied and inverted the symbol to mean somethings else entirely. The site offers good views of the city. On the sides of the hill are shanty towns, the shacks constructed entirely of corrugated iron. Despite the elevated position and on shore breeze, I can only imagine living in these houses must be unbearably hot.
The city is home to Cham towers from between the 7th and 12th centuries. The Po Nagar site, overlooking the mouth of the Cai River, was used for religious worship as early as the 2nd century AD and continues to have religious significance. Originally, the site covered over 500sqm with seven or eight towers of which only four remain. The North Tower, the tallest at 28m and built in 817AD, is one of the largest Cham towers ever constructed and a superb example of Cham architecture.
The city is also home to a cathedral, Christ the King Cathedral and founded by French missionaries in the 1880s built in French Gothic style complete with medieval looking stained glass windows. Like many European colonialists on “civilising” missions, the French brought their religion with them and transplanted its monuments like Notre Dame Cathedral to Cambodia where it was also known as the Cathedral of Phnom Penh, and the other Notre-Dame Cathedral, also known as the Basilica of Saigon. The architectural styles differed. Phnom Penh’s version has been described as neo-Gothic with twin bell towers resembling Reims cathedral, whereas the Saigon cathedral is a neo-Romanesque in red brick. Nha Trang resembles the Phnom Penh version but with a single central tower though the latter didn’t survive the Khmer Rouge who had it demolished stone-by stone. Only the cast-iron bells remained because they couldn’t blow them up. The doors of Nha Trang’s cathedral were open on all sides of the building with a service being held inside. It was almost surreal looking through the doors to the South China Sea at a Vietnamese Catholic congregation worshipping in a church looking like it belongs somewhere in the French countryside.
On my last night before leaving Nha Trang, I bought some baguettes on the road side from a woman who must have been at least 70 years of age. She had a hand trolley, the type commonly seen on the pavements selling all manner of things. She gave me a small plastic stool to sit on while she went about filling the small bread rolls with cheese and vegetables and asking me beforehand what I wanted to go into it and when I indicated which ones, she smiled a toothless grin and said “good, good” and then packed it in to the roll.
While she was doing all this I sat there watching the traffic negotiate a typical Nha Trang roundabout, the type seen all over town. These consist of a 3000 or 4000 kilo concrete block painted white, with red trim and blue arrows indicating traffic direction. They are not illuminated. Judging by the fact that some of the paint is conspicuously absent, they have been less of a roundabout and more of hindrance, and that’s for traffic moving barely above 20kms an hour. I thought of all those boy racers from back home attempting to negotiate them at a tremendous rate of knots.
When my rolls were ready she smiled again and carefully wrapped each individually in somebody’s maths homework, each sheet covered in algebraic equations and cut from an exercise book, and then slipped a rubber band over each and away I went. I then moved across the street for some roadside fruit salad. Again I was given a little plastic stool by the woman and sat at an equally small table and was treated to a bowl of a dozen different fruits, only half of which I knew the name of, carefully prepared by someone I presumed was her daughter. There were: lychees; pineapple; banana; apple; about four different sorts of mango and I’ve no idea what the rest of them were. I told her I didn’t want the Triffid-like dragonfruit. It cost me about US$1 and was delicious. I was even given some ice cream for free, thereby making up for much of the unsolicited offers I’d received.