South Central Vietnam covers the coastal region from Quang Ngai province in the north, to Binh Thuan province in the south following Highway 1 along the coast. The star tourist draw of the region, the Marilyn Monroe of Vietnam, is Nha Trang and Mui Ne, both famed for their beaches.
Nha Trang in Khanh Hoa province takes the award as Vietnam’s most popular beach destination. The fact that the city is conveniently located right on the beach helps draw both domestic and international tourists 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.
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, head to Whale Island, jaw dropping and virtually deserted Cam Ranh Bay or gorgeous Doc Let for a totally different experience.
With Saigon a mere four hours away, Mui Ne makes for attractive option for travellers looking for a quick beach holiday. The consistent cross onshore winds means it’s a popular destination for wind and kite surfers. If you can peel yourself off the beach blanket, check out the sand dunes, the other key attraction.
Several provinces in South Central Vietnam were once part of the Champa Kingdom. It is believed that the Cham people descended from the Sa Huynh, who inhabited the same area from 1000 BC to the second century AD, when Cham culture began to develop. The empire’s golden age between the sixth and 15th centuries saw the kingdom span Vietnam, eastern Cambodia and Laos, and their highly desired precious metals, gem stones, spices and wood were traded across Asia and as far as India, the Middle East and North Africa. The empire eventually declined and was conquered in the struggle with the Khmer Empire and the Dai Viet kingdom.
Dating back to the seventh and 12th century, the Po Nagar Cham Towers in Nha Trang are the best remaining Cham ruins in Vietnam (the other famous ruin is the temple city of My Son near Hoi An). Additionally, there is one outside Phan Rang Thap Cham and near Phan Thiet.
Another historically significant (and sobering) site is My Lai in Quang Ngai province, where, in 1968, US soldiers raped, massacred and mutilated as many as 504 unarmed Vietnamese peasants, including babies and the elderly. This is one of the most disturbing and moving of Vietnam’s post-war displays. Read about the massacre and the frustrating lack of justice for this war crime in the New Yorker article published on March 30, 2015.
If you’ve got the time and inclination to explore beyond the usual tourist towns, there’s plenty more worth checking out. The twin towns of Phan Rang Thap Cham and nearby Ca Na beach combine both beaches and Cham towers, while the coastal fishing town of Qui Nhon offers still more beaches. Each of these towns attracts barely a handful of foreigners compared to the bigger ticket destinations, so if you’re finding the popular beaches too crowded, don’t fret. There are many others to choose from.