Nha Trang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am

1 Nha Trang beach

A few kilometres north of Cam Ranh Bay, where US naval forces were stationed in the 1970s, sits Nha Trang, an archetypal sleepy coastal town that's sprouted from a fishing village. The village of old is now served by an international airport 45 minutes away by road; flights from Hong Kong, with Cathay Pacific or Vietnam Airlines, operate via Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Nha Trang's prize draw is a long sweep of pristine, postcard-perfect beach. Six kilometres of gently curving bay lined with fine powdery white sand is what first brought tourists to this central Vietnamese dot on the coast. The sea is generally calm and the water clear, and the sights and sounds of water sports such as wakeboarding and jet-skiing are nowhere to be seen or heard - yet. Accommodation ranges from five-star seaview villas to modest 'mini hotels' in town, where rooms can be had from US$10 a night. The southern tip of the beach fills up with families and teenage moped-riders, who hang out there well into the night. The eagerness of some teens to practise English, combined with the fact that they are strangers and it is dark, means this is not the best stretch for moonlit strolls.

2 Boat trips, snorkelling and diving

Although not directly off the main beach, there are good snorkelling and reasonable diving to be had in clear, clean waters that are home to colourful fish and coral, mainly off small nearby islands. A handful of tour operators in town, such as Khan Hoa Tourism (1 Tran Hung Dao; tel: [84] 058 822 753), offer boat trips lasting up to a full day with lunch thrown in. Prices start at about US$15 a person for half a day's snorkelling, including hire of gear. Prices fluctuate according to group numbers and time of year (July and August are peak season, dive operations close in November and December for the local rainy season). Five-star hotels offer exclusive marine escapes that can include a drop off at an uninhabited island with a picnic and snorkelling equipment, with collection at sunset.

3 Po Nagar Temple complex

Sections of this ancient Cham-era ruin date back to the 7th and 12th centuries. The largest of the four remaining towers was built in honour of Po Nagar, also known as Lady Thien Y-ana, or Goddess Mother; she spent part of her life teaching weaving and agricultural skills. The 22.5-metre tower contains a statue of her sitting cross-legged on Buddha's throne. The central coastal plain is one of the few areas in Vietnam where Hinduism made inroads, and the remaining towers are dedicated to different gods. That built for Cri Cambhu has become a fertility temple much visited by childless couples.

4 Longson Pagoda

Built in commemoration of the monks and nuns who died while fighting the Diem government (1954-63), this Buddhist pagoda (23 Thang 10 Street) is accompanied by a nine-metre-tall white statue of Buddha on a hill with splendid views of Nha Trang town and bay. Near the foot of the hill is the Catholic Cathedral, an imposing, European-style granite block edifice built in 1933.

5 Massage, sir?

Bona fide Vietnamese massage is offered around town from a few US dollars. Traditional manipulation involves applying pressure along meridian lines and draining toxins from muscles with big, sweeping motions. The spa at the Ana Mandara Evason Resort (Tran Phu; tel: [84] 058 829 829) is Nha Trang's most luxurious, with an inner courtyard of treatment areas and post-treatment chill-out zones that look to the sea. Though all beaches are public in Vietnam, this beach's few strolling vendors steer clear of Ana Mandara's thatched umbrellas, wooden sun-loungers and soft hammocks.

6 Seafood

When not viewing them live through goggles in their natural environment, most visitors derive much holiday pleasure from consuming the reasonably priced and pollution-free fish, molluscs and crustaceans of local waters. One of the most popular establishments is Hoan Hai Seafood Restaurant (6 Phan Chu Trinh; tel: [84] 058 823 133), whose grilled shrimps burst with sweet freshness. Its tamarind crab is a signature dish, as is sauteed cockles with lemon grass and chilli. Snapper, sole, mussels, clams and more are available in restaurants everywhere.

7 Dam Market

A dawn wake-up call is a fair price to pay for a visit to central Nha Trang's Dam Market, where the stars of the show are swarming buckets of live seafood. Dried and freshly cut seafood and meat, and an unfathomable array of fruit, vegetables and fresh herbs, also feature. Grab a bowl of pho, the national dish of noodle soup with beef or chicken, and a strong local coffee with condensed milk. The whole town is at its busiest from 5am to 8am.

8 Long Thanh Gallery

Nha Trang is not a noted destination for collectors of Vietnamese art, so it is surprising to find this small but contemporary gallery, owned by, and displaying the stark black and white works of, respected local photographer Long Thanh. Most of his pictures focus on the human figure - many are portraits of Vietnamese villagers - although landscapes and urban scenes are also moodily captured (126 Hoang Van Thu Street; tel: [84] 058 824 875).

9 Living it up

Nightlife is not in itself a reason for visiting Nha Trang's stretch of the Vietnamese coast: all the restaurants and bars seem to have a laid-back vibe in the evening ... at least until midnight, when they close. An exception is the Nha Trang Sailing Club (72 Tran Phu. Tel: [84] 058 826 528), with its split-level, open-sided lounge. Friday and Saturday nights there make for outstanding people watching, with resident Vietnamese and westerners, tourists and a smattering of 'ladies of the night' all happily mingling over games of pool and far too many drinks.

10 Mudbaths

For those who like trying local therapeutic treatments, alfresco bath houses in the hills around Long Son Pagoda offer soaks in gender-divided pools filled with mineral-rich mud. The baths buzz with visitors - mainly Vietnamese - so steep and socialise. As the Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre (25 Ngoc Son, Ngoc Hiep. Tel: [84] 058 830 090; www.thapbahot spring.com.vn) declares on its sign: 'Soaking in mineral mud is very interesting'. It is also very messy. Forty-five-minute soaks start at US$2; US$4 hires you a private tub.