Nha Trang is Vietnam’s party town, and most people who spend at least a couple of weeks in the country plan to pass a few days exploring its beaches and nightlife. Located on the south-central coast about a third of the way from Saigon to Hanoi, it’s a bustling urban centre with a fine swathe of beach, and some of the best value food and drinks you’ll find in the entire country.
However, you shouldn’t arrive here expecting the French Riviera. The town’s architecture is mostly unattractive, and the monolithic hotels facing the beach could be anywhere in the world. Yet there’s a vibrancy about the place that makes many extend their stay, and plenty of attractions in and around town for days when you’re not hungover.
The big attractions for most visitors are the municipal beach itself and boat trips to offshore islands that offer snorkelling or diving opportunities. Nha Trang’s beach is as good as any you’ll find on Vietnam’s mainland; it’s broad, partly sheltered by palms and the sand is neither too fine or course. You can rent a recliner beneath a thatched umbrella and take your pick from the passing display of grilled shrimps, pineapple and chilled coconuts that vendors carry.
The offshore islands also have deserted strips of sand where tour boats heave to and guests amuse themselves snorkelling, diving or just soaking up some rays while the boat crew prepare a blow-out lunch. The more party-minded tours then clear the seats and get everyone dancing to rock ‘n’ roll classics. Most tour operators run such trips at less than US$10 a head, making for a cheap and fun-packed day out.
An important fact to keep in mind is that the weather in Nha Trang follows a different pattern to the rest of the country. It is frequently awful (windy and rainy) in November-December, when Hanoi and Saigon get some of their best weather. January-March is the best time to be around, especially to enjoy the beaches.
Several buildings and monuments around town are worth a visit, particularly the Po Nagar Cham towers at the northern end of town. The Cham people predominate along the south-central coast, and several of their towers, built over a thousand years ago, still remain. The design of these brick monuments brings to mind Khmer and Hindu architecture and act as a reminder of the diversity of culture in Vietnam.
A side road just beyond the towers leads to Thap Ba Hot Springs, which is hugely popular among Vietnamese for its healthy effects, and makes a novel experience for Western visitors, especially if you are not in the habit of taking a mud-bath every day. Here you can wallow in a bath of warm mud for half an hour, then shower off and take a dip in the pool.
Nha Trang’s most interesting museum, the National Oceanographic Institute, is a few kilometres south of the centre, next to Cau Da Wharf. It is housed in one of the city’s few remaining colonial mansions, and the exhibits include an 18-metre long whale skeleton as well as tanks and ponds containing odd-looking crabs, corals and sharks.
Other sights of interest in the city are Nha Trang Cathedral, built in the 1930s on a small hill above the train station. The cavernous interior boasts some huge stained glass windows that look particularly striking on a sunny day. Just down the road, the Long Son Pagoda, also set on a hill, was built in 1963 and dedicated to the monks and nuns who set fire to themselves in protest at President Diem’s anti-Buddhist policies.
In the vicinity of Nha Trang are several other beaches, waterfalls and other natural attractions that can be visited quite easily by signing up for a tour. However, for most visitors, the second-most important activity of the city, after lolling on the beach all day, is partying all night, which means few have the energy to get up early to head out of town.
Though Nha Trang is theoretically subject to midnight closing like Saigon and Hanoi, in practice several bars stay open till very late at night, or even until the sun emerges from the South China Sea. The most productive areas to cruise looking for late-night action are along Tran Phu (the seafront promenade) and Biet Thu, in the heart of the budget district. Single males should be wary of solicitous ladies on motorbikes, however, as they are famous for drugging their clients and cleaning out their pockets before making a quick exit.
Where to sleep in Nha Trang
Sunrise Nha Trang Beach Hotel & Spa: If nothing but the best is good enough, head for this swish place at the northern end of Nha Trang’s beach. The interior has a classic, modern/colonial design, and the top suites boast Jacuzzis on balconies overlooking the sea. Rooms from US$124; 12-14 Tran Phu Boulevard, Beach Front/North Tran Phu Street, Nha Trang… more details and booking
Phu Quy 2: One of the city’s best mid-range options, this place has a splendid beachfront location with great views from all 15 floors. Rooms are compact but well-furnished, and there’s a tiny rooftop pool. Rooms from US$28; 1 Tue Tinh street, Beach Front/Central Tran Phu, Nha Trang… more details and booking
More on Nha Trang hotels and guesthouses.
Where to eat in Nha Trang
Louisiane Brewhouse: Located right on the beachfront, this place has everything – great Vietnamese and Western food, imported and local beers, a swimming pool, a pool table and live music some nights. Open: 07:00–01:00 (daily); Lot 29, Tran Phu beach, Nha Trang, tel: +84 58 352 1948, +84 58 352 1831, website: www.louisianebrewhouse.com.vn.
Ngoc Suong: When you’re on the coast, seafood has got to be the choice, and the choice of seafood restaurant is this smart place towards the south end of the seafront. Take your pick from a fabulous display on ice, then listen to the mellow sounds of the musicians while waiting for it to be prepared. Open: 10:00–22:00; 96A Tran Phu, Nha Trang, tel: +84 58 352 5677, fax: +84 58 352 6677, email: email@example.com, website: www.ngocsuong.com.vn.
Truc Linh: This place also presents an appetizing array of seafood, but also offers a broad menu of other Vietnamese and Western dishes. It’s been so successful that there are now four branches to choose from. Open: 08:00–23:00 (daily); 18 Biet Thu, tel: +84 58 388 3802, hotline: +84 90 500 9535, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.truclinhrestaurant.com.
Getting to Nha Trang
Nha Trang is easily accessible by plane, train and bus from either Saigon or Hanoi. If you’re short of time, take the plane, as the train and bus are long, slow journeys. The airport is around 45kms south of Nha Trang, so the ride into town gives a good taste of the region’s landscapes.