A short break in Nha Trang

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First published 23rd May, 2007

A bustling urban centre or a quaint seaside town? An enchanting retreat or an irritating tourist trap? Our man in Saigon, Jon Hoff had a poke around Vietnam's premier beach destination -- here's his report.

One thing's for sure, Nha Trang is one of the most scenic towns in Vietnam. Surrounded by mountains and paddy fields, and with a sandy stretch that runs many kilometres across it's beautiful bay, a weekend in Nha Trang can be anything you want it to be -- but for most, it's a beach destination fine enough to satisfy even the most demanding sun worshipper.

Nha Trang has a vast selection of guesthouses and hotels, mostly catering to the lower to mid range budgets. Backpackers need look no further than a US$10 room at Dong Phuong 1 (101-103 Nguyen Thien Thuat St), while flashpackers should head over to AP (34 Nguyen Thien Thuat St) which is a great option with modern, spacious rooms in the $10-$20 range. Mid-range travellers should try Phu Quy 2 (1 Tue Tinh St), near The Sailing Club, with rooms costing $20-$50 depending on how good a view you hanker for. For those travelling on the boss's expense account, drop by Asia Paradise (6 Biet Thu St), a four star pad with a fantastic location just two minutes from the beach and nestled in amongst the eat and drink scene. Rooms here go for $50-$90.

One of the reasons you're in Nha Trang is undoubtedly to spend some time soaking up the rays on the city's municipal beach, but we'd suggest you leave that for later and commence your Nha Trang experience instead partaking in the city's most famous tourist attraction -- the boat trip.

The various boat-trips all run a standard itinerary, mainly involving swimming and snorkelling, a fresh seafood lunch onboard followed by a floating bar in the afternoon and a couple of stop offs on the way home. The alcohol tends to flow fast under the glaring South China sun and the results are often all too predictable -- and messy -- very messy. If you only have a weekend, consider if this will be your cup of tea, as the trip departs early at 07:00 and returns around 16:00. One of the more reputable trips is Mama Linh (23C Biet Thu St).

If typical backpacker shenanigans don't float your boat, skip it, but remember the only other means to explore the outlying islands is to join a scuba diving trip. While most of the snorkelling spots visited by the backpacker boats are decidedly mediocre, the scuba boats travel further afield -- and it's worth the effort -- Nha Trang isn't renowned as one of Vietnam's top dive destinations for nothing. Swing by Rainbow Divers (90A Huong Vuong St) to enquire about their daytrips and 'discover scuba' dives (no qualifications necessary).

For those lund lubbers whose idea of fun isn't a day on the rolling ocean, hit the countryside. Khanh Hoa's hinterland is stunning, with verdant rice paddies stretching to the foot of towering mountains. You can explore the area by hired motorcycle or car and just within reach for an afternoon trip are the waterfalls of Ba Ho, some 20km away. It's not Niagara, but getting to the three levels of falls involves a pleasant stroll through the forest, and the waterfalls are pretty enough.

After a day of exploring, swimming, snorkelling, diving and baking, it's time to throw yourself into Nha Trang's culinary scene. Being a seaside town, Nha Trang's focus is on seafood and when it comes to down and dirty seafood BBQ, Lac Canh (44 Nguyen Binh Khiem St) is the definition of a popular, cheap and cheerful Vietnamese restaurant. Around the beach area try one of the three Truc Linh Restaurants (11 & 21 Biet Thu St and 80 Huong Vuong St) displaying their aquatic wares. For the after-party, try a happy hour and a game of pool at either Red Sun Bar (72 Nguyen Thien Thuat St) or Red Apple Club (54 Nguyen Thien Thuat St). Past midnight, it's either home to bed or off to the Sailing Club (72-74 Tran Phu) for more drinks and dancing.

If you skipped the Sailing Club the night before, you'll have no trouble peeling yourself out of bed early to head out sightseeing before the mercury climbs too far. Start at the Cham Tower -- an ancient shrine and temple built by the erstwhile ruling Cham people. Nearby is Long Son pagoda, where you can climb up to a majestic sitting Buddha and take in the scenic views over Nha Trang city. From the summit, you should be able to spy your next stop, the Oceanographic Institute. Housed in a huge complex of old French colonial buildings, the Institute is an interesting place to stroll around, not least for some of the gruesome exhibits. Think big glass jars and vinegar.

If you can stomach lunch after that, try Cyclo Bar (5A Tran Quang Khai St), one of the longest established eateries in the area. An extensive menu of Italian and Asian food is available, including some delicious pasta dishes.

For the final afternoon, have some relaxation planned. On the beach, plenty of umbrellas and sun loungers are available for day-long rental. Unfortunately the glaring sun doesn't deter a steady stream of vendors, who'll approach you with offers of sweet pineapple, beach massages or a disco ball but unfortunately no vendor-repellent.

If you don't feel like the beach, head out of town to Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre. Easily reached by taxi, here you can wallow in your own private mud bath, or share one with someone else -- preferably someone you know. The local mud is said to be exceptionally good for the skin. Also within the complex is a swimming pool, spa and a sauna -- remember to wash off the mud beforehand.

Come the evening, try a roadside BBQ of fresh lobster and shrimps, washed down with a local beer. You'll find these stalls along Tran Phu St. Alternatively, Omar's (96A/8 Tran Phu St) provides some very well thought of Indian food, and if that's not the ticket then try Same Same But Different (111 Nguyen Thien Thuat St), whose menu covers almost anything else.

While direct international flights remain (for now) non-existent, Vietnam Airlines fly from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other domestic airports to Nha Trang -- bear in mind the airport is 30km out of town by Cam Ranh Bay. The train station is far more convenient, with the new five-star express service bringing the Saigon to Nha Trang journey time down to seven hours.

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