Vietnam’s most popular beach destination, Nha Trang, the capital of Khanh Hoa province, is located on the south central coast of Vietnam, just over 400 kilometres northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. A train journey of as little as seven hours or 45 minutes by plane delivers travellers to the best city beach Vietnam has to offer. But those who yearn for a variety of scenery and pace need only venture outside to find rice paddies, quiet scenic roads along the ocean and a fortress of mountains that shields this bustling city.
The beach is the star attraction, and the fact that the city is conveniently located right on the beach helps draw both domestic tourists and international visitors of all budgets. The downtown core stretches along six kilometres of palm-fringed white sand and the brilliant turquoise waters of Nha Trang Bay – and it’s all free.
What Nha Trang does so well is give visitors from all walks different options so when it comes to accommodation, beaches, food and transportation, there is something for everyone. Whether you choose an international five-star, a backpacker hostel or something in between, everywhere in the tourist centre is walking distance to the beach. If you get tired of the crowds at Nha Trang beach, easy day trips to Bai Dai, the deserted northern Cam Ranh peninsula area and gorgeous Doc Let deliver a totally different experience.
An emerging segment in the accommodation scene is fully furnished serviced apartments at a flashpacker or midrange price. They’re worth considering if you plan on spending more than a few days in Nha Trang, though you can rent one for just one night. Rates drop considerably for longer stays. There’s a convenience store and minimart on every block for all your self-catering needs including milk, cheese, bread, instant noodles and booze. Lots of booze.
It’s easy to get around Nha Trang (again, options!). You can rent a bicycle or motorbike. Walking around the downtown core is doable as the city is flat, major streets have footpaths and there is a beautiful promenade along the beach – though any form of exercise can be very uncomfortable in the midday heat (which is why you find most locals napping during this time). Xe om (motorbike taxis) hang out in every corner. Taxis are also plentiful. You can go by meter but most locals we spoke to recommended agreeing on a fixed fare upfront or risk being driven around in circles. Or if you’re not in a rush, cyclos (three-wheel bicycle taxis) are a classic, fun way to tour the city in the evening.
Our favourite is the cheap, air-conditioned city bus that costs only 7,000 VND per ride. There are six routes in total but bus #4 (Hon Xen – Vinpearl) is the most helpful to visitors as it runs north-south straight through the tourist centre and it gets you to within walking distance of the major sights Vinpearl, Cho Dam market, Po Nagar Cham Towers, Chong Rocks and the excellent oceanview seafood restaurants just south of the rocks. Read more about the bus in our transport section.
The pay-by-weight fresh seafood is a must try in Nha Trang, as are some of the delicious local eats found outside of the tourist bubble. Nha Trang is famous for its nem nuong Ninh Hoa, grilled pork meatballs that you make into wraps with fresh lettuce, herbs, rice paper and sweet-spicy peanut dipping sauce. Another local specialty is bun ca, a simple noodle soup with rice vermicelli, fish broth and fish paste meatballs. Tired of local food? You can find every kind of international food imaginable, and a lot of Russian fare.
The elephant in the room is Nha Trang’s reputation for attracting a lopsided amount of Russian tourists. Russia-based Pegas Touristik has a near monopoly on the Russian market and they have built an empire bringing in tourists by the plane full. According to Thanh Nien News, in 2013 there were 730 charter flights carrying Russian travellers and Pegas was responsible for 720 of them. Another one of their mega-resorts is currently under construction just north of Cam Ranh airport. Many of these visitors are on all-inclusive packaged tours and they don’t stray from the behemoth hotels specifically catering to them. But many do — wander around the tourist centre, look at the signs and menus, and you may wonder if you really are in Vietnam. There are also a number of independent travellers from Russia, there to have a fun, safe time just like everyone else.
If lying on a beach and eating fresh seafood gets too boring, again, there are plenty of options for sightseeing around Nha Trang, though some are better than others. Ask any Vietnamese outside of Nha Trang what you should do in the city and they will enthusiastically declare “Vinpearl Land!” Located on Hon Tre Island, Vinpearl Land is the Disneyland of Vietnam. Get there via the world’s longest oversea cable car (3,320 metres) — the ride over is included in the general admission. Look to the cable car towers lit up at night and you’ll notice they are mini Eiffel Towers. There are rides of the up and down or round and round variety, as well as an aquarium, waterpark with slides, beach with watercrafts, shows and a massive resort. It’s quite well run and a rubbish-free place to have fun and stretch your legs without having to worry about being hit by a motorbike. One local told us the whole Vinpearl operation had more than 2,000 employees, and we believe him.
Scuba diving is another big draw to the city. The shallow waters of Hon Mun Marine Protected Area in Nha Trang Bay is one of the best places in Vietnam to learn how to dive and several centres offer fun dives or PADI certification. The best time to dive or snorkel is April to October – most optimal in July and August. You can expect fair visibility and a wide variety of small colourful tropical fish, though no big ticket animals like reef sharks or turtles. The swim-through tunnels will appeal to more advanced divers.
If going underwater isn’t your thing, join the masses floating on top with a boat trip, considered a Nha Trang backpacker rite of passage. The cheap boat trips cover four islands and it’s a good day out if mixing, mingling and drinking floats your boat.
We’ve chosen not to include coverage of a few highly touted tourist sights because of their use of trained animals as entertainment or animals kept in poor conditions. These include Yang Bay Waterfalls tourist park, Orchid Island, Monkey Island and the National Oceanographic Museum of Vietnam/Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography.
Nha Trang is only growing in popularity – or that is the hope. According to Tuoi Trei News, as of 2014, Nha Trang had 4,000 rooms spanning 20 four or five-star hotels and by the end of 2015, six new luxury hotels are expected to add 3,200 more rooms. This means intrepid travellers will have to work that much harder to escape the tourist bubble and venture further afield.
Go for a rugged hike at Ba Ho Waterfalls. Head to Tran Phu bridge for a picturesque view of fishing boats against a backdrop of hills and a glowing sunset. Check out the local fishing village at Doc Let and hire a boat to snorkel the archipelago. Wander the completely deserted wild beaches south of Cam Ranh and motorbike the Vinh Hy-Bien Tien pass. It’s possible to still find paradise just outside this tourist city.
Nha Trang has a train station, bus station and it’s a major stop on the “open-bus” lines. It is serviced by Cam Ranh International Airport (CXR), 30 kilometres south of the city, 50 minutes by taxi. The old Nha Trang airport in the middle of the city is no longer in use, but from there you can take the 65,000 VND airport shuttle to CXR.
Wide and busy Tran Phu Boulevard stretches along the entire six kilometre coast, dividing the downtown core from the ocean. The tourist centre is concentrated in the middle of the strip (look for the pink Lotus Tower, public square and night market here), with the hotels, restaurants, agencies and nightlife clustered along Nguyen Thien Thuat, Hung Vuong and Biet Thu.
Nha Trang does have a rainy season, with risk of typhoon from October until January. Though it doesn’t get cold, if the sole reason of your vacation is beach, you’re better off going elsewhere. Run-off from the rains turns the typically blue waters murky, conditions are not ideal for scuba diving and life at a resort can be very boring during heavy rainstorms. February to September is dry season. July and August is school holidays and peak season, with many Vietnamese families exploring their own country. Places to stay and sights are brimming during this time.
ATMs are plentiful but finding one that works with your card, even if the machine has a sign with your network, could take a few tries. We’ve always had success with Sacombank. For most ATMs the limit per withdrawal for foreign cards is still a frustratingly low 4,000,000 VND, with a fee per transaction.
The Tourism Information Centre is in a small booth on the beach road across from Novotel. There are a few brochures but nothing that you couldn’t find at any agency or guesthouse in town. But the staff speak English. It's open daily 08:00-11:00, 14:00-17:00 and 19:00-21:00.
Shops sell all things beachy – swimsuits, boardies, souvenir T-shirts and cover-ups. Convenience stores and minimarts sell everything a burnt tourist needs (check out the aisle devoted to aloe gel) at slightly inflated prices. If you’re doing a significant amount of grocery shopping, buy fresh fruit at local cho Xom Moi market or head to the Big C supermarket on 23 Thang 10, west of Long Son Pagoda. Nha Trang Center Shopping Mall, at Tran Phu Boulevard and Ly Tu Trong in the north end of the downtown core, also has a well-stocked grocery store, some branded stores and a boring food court with an awesome view of the ocean. Around town you’ll find numerous shops selling pearls.
The immigration office is located on Ly Tu Trong, 600 metres west of Nha Trang Center Shopping Mall on Tran Phu Boulevard, just 100 metres east of the big roundabout. The building is marked as both 5 and 47 Ly Tu Trong. The Nha Trang immigration office processes visa extensions but in terms of wait times and cost, we couldn’t get a firm answer as were told it depended on individual circumstances and nationality. Office hours are Monday-Friday 07:30-11:00 and 13:30-16:00, Saturday 07:30-10:30. T: (058) 691 249.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 14th October, 2016.