Vietnam constantly surprised me. As a somewhat naive teenager, setting out on my first real, parent-free travelling experience, I had expected something more raw; I thought Vietnam would be the Thailand of 30 years ago – quiet and unexplored, with the first green shoots of tourism just starting to bud up beneath the surface.
The Vietnam I found was very different. One of the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies, Vietnam was zooming along at a breakneck speed. Tourist hostels had popped up on every corner, with established backpacker districts in the bigger cities like Saigon. Driving up the coast past Da Nang, huge swathes of ocean vistas were obscured by construction sites with hoardings emblazoned with the logos of five star hotel chains and computer generated images of infinity pools with swim-up bars. Whilst there were tranquil, sleepy areas, you had to seek them out – the Vietnam we discovered was a very different beast.
With that said, it was still an incredible, complex country, and one I’d recommend wholeheartedly – the sooner, the better. However, it was a jarring experience – and none more so than the city of Nha Trang.
Pic credit: Wiki Commons
Pic credit: Ivuvu
Our first experience of Nha Trang came at the end of a long, hot bus service from Mui Ne.
From this sleepy little tourist town, we landed in the loud, brash resort of Nha Trang. Moto drivers surrounded us as we grabbed out rucksacks, shouting the names of this hostel or that, competing for our trade. We started walking and quickly found a cheap, modern hostel by the main strip. After checking in, we went to explore. The town was very developed, with endless rows of bars – irish pubs, glitzy beach bars and seedy sports bars – lining the streets. On every corner, we found a sign advertising booze cruises, bedecked with images of backpackers in rubber rings drinking fishbowls of booze. This was a backpacker’s Ayia Napa. This was not what we came for.
Slightly deflated, we retreated back to the hostel for the night.
The following morning, we set out for the beach. It didn’t disappoint – a vast expanse of golden sands gently sloping into glittering turquoise waters. We set up beneath the dappled shade of palm trees, reading and napping the day away. We quickly decided to forgo the usual trappings of Nha Trang – the booze cruises and the theme park over the water on Hon Tre Island. Nha Trang developed as a resort due to the incredible natural beauty of the area, and we wanted to see this for ourselves.
The following morning we rose early and jumped in a taxi to the port. There, we weaved around the masses of tourists heading for their booze cruises, and found a small stand in the corner. Explaining to the owner that we wanted to hire a boat and driver for the day, we carefully negotiated the language barrier and the price (which worked out at roughly the same per person as the booze cruises would have). Eventually, we were ushered into a tiny boat, all peeling cobalt paint and deflated tyre bumpers, with a stuttering engine which belched fumes as we put-putted out of the port.
Our first port of call was the Hon Mun Marine Park – a marine protected area located off the coast. As the rocky coastline of the park came into view, I was already enthralled by the kaleidoscopic show going up beneath the boat. We quickly jumped over the side, into a whole different world. Tiny fish of a thousand different colours, shapes and sizes darted around us. I was already a comfortable scuba diver at this point – but snorkelling here was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Pic credit: Vietnam Packages
Suddenly, I was aware of the boat driver – captain seems a strong word for such a tiny vessel – gesticulating and shouting, as another boat approached. We quickly swam back to see what was happening. The driver didn’t speak a word of english (and our vietnamese was non-existant, beyond hello, goodbye and thank-you), but we rapidly surmised that the approaching boat was the police. It seems that you need a permit to visit Hon Mum – a permit we were definitely lacking. Fortunately, the police were incredibly understanding, and allowed us to buy a permit on the spot.
After that hiccup, we were back in the water for a morning of chasing fish and spotting coral of every possible shade. Around lunchtime, we’d worked up quite an appetite and we jumped back into the boat. The driver took us over to a tiny wooden shack, floating seemingly unmoored in the middle of a bay. The shack was surrounded by nets reaching into the ocean and filled with large fish. We jumped onto the floating platform, to discover the most unusual, unexpected restaurant ever. Floating in the middle of the sea, shaded from the fierce midday sun by a palm frond roof, I watched as two men hoisted up the nets, lunged into the water and grabbed a large red snapper. Dispatching the snapped with a rapid dash to the head, they sandwiched it between mesh plates and grilled it on an open fire. Five minutes later, this was served up on a plate with a zingy, herby sauce and nothing else. It was absolutely incredible – as fresh as could be, wild fish served piping hot with no fuss or trimmings. I think that meal will stand out in my memory forever.
In the afternoon, we visited a few more swimming spots. At one of these, I noticed the water around me become suddenly cloudy…. Focusing my eyes, I made out millions of tiny, tiny, little objects in the water. My skin started to sting. I realised I had swum into a cloud of minuscule jellyfish – my absolute worst nightmare! I swam back to the boat as though a shark was chasing me. Luckily, the teeny jellies were harmless.
As the sun dipped lower in the sky, we reluctantly headed back to shore.
That evening, exhausted from a long day of swimming, we stayed close to home. The heat of the day had intensified and the sky turned an ominous grey. We wandered to one of the many street food traders lining the streets, grabbing corn cobs freshly charred over the grill and topped with a spicy, peppery marinade, served wrapped in a piece of paper torn from a maths exercise book. As the first rumbles of thunder arrived, we bought ice cream cones and headed to the beach. Nha Trang is located in a steeply sloping bay, blocked in to the east by the hills of Hon Tre island. This keeps many of the storms and weather systems stranded out in the bay. We sat on the cool sand of the beach, eating custard apple and guava ice creams, watching jagged lightning strikes tear through the midnight sky as the storm blew itself out in the bay.
The next day was our last in Nha Trang. After a surprising first impression, this became one of my most enduring, incredible memories of the trip. From the aquarium-like waters and white sands to that thunderstorm – we found exactly what we were looking for, in the most unexpected of environs.
If you’re heading to Nha Trang, here are my recommendations:
- Try the breakfasts at Veranda. We actually ended up eating breakfast here twice! They offer a delicious set menus of fresh Vietnamese coffee, juices, tropical fruit salads of local guava, dragon fruit, mango and pineapple, and homemade muesli, eggs or pancakes for a bargain price.
- Eat the street food. This applies to pretty much everywhere we visited in Vietnam, but the hot, crispy corn cob in Nha Trang was amongst my favourite street food dishes of the whole trip.
- Load up. Nha Trang is roughly halfway up the coast, and if you’re travelling on a budget, you’re bound to be getting a long distance sleeper bus – or train – soon enough. One of the benefits of such a developed resort is the shopping – take the opportunity to stock up on road snacks, new books, replacement towels and toiletries before reading to more remote areas.
- Seek the unexpected. Avoid the tourist traps and do things your own way. Nha Trang is located amidst the most incredible natural beauty – go discover it for yourself.
Have you been to Nha Trang before? What did you think? Let me know your favourite spots in the comments below! x