A coastal resort city in southern Vietnam, Nha Trang is having an explosion of hotel construction spreading from the Cam Ranh International Airport to the city along its golden shores. The 40-minute drive is spectacular as it weaves around the dramatic coastline into the bustling and chaotic streets of the city where little old ladies push large wooden carts stacked high with goods into the middle of the traffic, in what may seem a daring maneuver to cross the road amidst the chaos.
It is a city seething with humanity displaying more than a touch of pseudo Gold Coast Australia in the 70's. The main road of Tran Phu is a neon strip fronting onto the beach's long stretch of curving bay complete with wide promenade of hotels and seafood restaurants all nestled at the feet of the surrounding hills. It's a party town with plenty of nightclub action, happening either high in the sky on hotel rooftops or in underground dungeons that you may think twice about entering.
You can grab a boat and head out to the nature reserves of Hon Mun and Hon Tam Islands to chat to the local fish as they play amongst the coral reefs, take a seat on the aerial cable car and cross over the water to Hon Tre Island with its garish huge Ferris wheel of lights, or while away an afternoon sitting on the beachfront at the Sailing Club Nha Trang where in the afternoons an acrobatic ocean floorshow is put on by the local kite boarding enthusiasts, as the winds whip up.
You can gawk at pagodas, temples and meander through museums or be a bit adventurous and check out the backstreets that are more often than not quirky alleys of eclectic cafes swamped in kiddies furniture of the plastic variety for patrons to sit on. Barber shops spring up everywhere, but the term "shop" is used very lightly, as they consist of a chair on the sidewalk with sometimes the luxury of a handheld mirror. Motorbikes clutter sidewalks where every step you take could be your last due to cracks and holes in the paving. Butcher shops are benches on the sidewalks with bloodied boards and old scales. Everything that you can imagine is stacked on the back of chugging motorbikes whizzing past in a haze of fumes. The smell of hot motors combines with heady aromas wafting from hawkers' carts or fruit for sale that is sitting in the sun. It is hot, sweaty and dusty meandering the streets, but the psychedelic sights are worth it.
The beach promenade with its lush garden parks and decorative statues is the hub for the locals every morning and night, as they do not want to be in the sun during the day. There is a stampede of walkers, swimmers, joggers and people having their breakfast picnic each day. The sand is indented from a thousand footprints along the shoreline in the wee hours just before the most brilliant red sun rises like a fiery god out of the sea. When the sun climbs into the sky the hordes of locals desert the beach leaving it to the odd tourist who is into sun worshipping. The beach invasion happens again at dusk when locals happily swing on gymnasium equipment that is dotted along the grassy banks, gather in groups merrily chatting or fly kites if the wind is blowing.
You can play the slug on holidays and wallow in mud baths, indulge in decadent spa treatments or take a leisurely river cruise. There are plenty of boutique shops to thrash your credit card at and brilliant restaurants to gorge on local or international cuisines. Euphoria for the shopaholic on holidays is the Dam Market where you can literally buy anything from fresh produce such as frogs to plump ripe mangoes, clothing, household goods plus souvenirs of whatever sort you want. Make sure you go in the mornings though, as by the afternoon this mini-city is more awash in refuse than anything else.
For the adventurous soul who likes the thrill of a motor bike going up, down and around mountains, Nha Trang is the perfect place to jump on one and head to Da Lat, the food and flower bowl of the region nestled in the hills. You can even indulge yourself in a 2-day or longer trip if your rear end can take it. You can get up close and personal with the sights, sounds, smells and the locals out in the countryside. You may have the odd experience of roadblocks along the major highway where every vehicle is backed up for about an hour. The whole event becomes a motorbike convention and when you are eventually allowed to pass, it is a roaring race of bikes lined up at the start line for some mythical race up the mountainside. You will zap past lush green rice paddies disappearing into the horizon, see the misty blue of heavily forested mountains that dip and swell like a curvy female and pigs loiter in the middle of rustic villages paved in dust with one-way wooden bridges spanning stunning waterways.
You should take time out to see the really quirky and eclectic Lin Phuoc Pagoda, also known as the Ve Chai Pagoda, that sits outside the city of Da Lat. It has been constructed from 12,000 bottles and has a dragon's head that is 7 meters high. An architectural treat not to be missed, it is often referred to as the pagoda of broken glass. Da Lat is an ocean of green houses fringing crazy curvy roads where the odd house can be seen squatting between the huge plastic tunnels basking in the sun. This is where the flowers, the fruit and the vegetables are grown in abundance.
It is an amazing site of definitely a different way to farm en masse. Make sure you get to one of the oldest restaurants Vinh Lo'i, once you hit the wide streets of the city, as you will be able to watch the matriarch as she flawlessly creates the dumplings that will appear in your soup. Check out the central market that is a showcase for the abundance of beautiful flowers and fresh vegetables grown in the area.
The writer stayed at the award winning Intercontinental Hotel Nha Trang, where you don't even have to worry about crossing the road to the beach by yourself, as there is staff on hand to stop the never ending whizzing traffic for you. A stunning hotel property sitting opposite the main beach in the middle of the city, where your every whim is catered for, the Intercontinental Hotel Nha Trang has a perfect blend of local charm and extraordinary service, plus plenty of dining options created from fresh local produce to keep a smile on your face.
Intercontinental Hotel Nha Trang Website: nhatrang.intercontinental.com
For motorbike touring, Easy Rider Travel is the best, whether you want to be a pillion passenger or ride it yourself with a guide.
Motor Bike Tours: Easy Rider Travel - ask for Mr Pop as your guideWeb: nhatrangeasyrider.com/
NB: Check with your hotel and maybe arrange transportation if you don't want to run the gauntlet of taxi drivers at the airport. Do be aware that there is a set price (at the time of writing this it was VND 300,000 from the airport to the city) and don't let the driver take advantage of you.
All images © Gail Palethorpe