The best way to see Vietnam is to buy a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket or take the train along the coast, from North to South (or vice versa). The rich, historical Hanoi and the breath-takingly beautiful Halong Bay are the jewels of Northern Vietnam (and Sapa is definitely an untouched diamond). The bustling ex-capital city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is an overflowing centre of Vietnamese culture, food and traffic, along with being the gateway to the famous Cu Chi tunnels.
But in between the past and present capitals are a handful of exciting and exotic cities that should make it on to your itinerary: Hue, Hoi An, Danang, Da Lat and my new favourite city in the whole world: Nha Trang.
Given our time constraints we randomly decided to make Nha Trang our pit stop between the two major cities. The day we arrived in Nha Trang, I was already happy enough to have clean clothes (our luggage finally arrived) and a good-looking room without going broke (thank you Agoda). But while checking-in after sunset, little did I know that the next morning, in fact the next three days, were going to be the highlight of Southeast Asia trip.
The beach may not brag to be the cleanest along the Vietnamese coast, but it certainly shows off its playful waves, soft-pebbled sand, early sunrise and friendly breeze. A small army of Australian tourists will be basking in the crisp sun just a few meters away from local kids playing football in their rolled-up school uniform pants. A courageous American might even treat it like a nude beach, while local families wade into the ocean fully-clothed.
Along the beach runs the town’s main street, Tran Phu boulevard, which is decorated with expensive 5-star hotels, popular bustling pubs and local Vietnamese eateries. The road is populated with all kinds of two-wheelers, airport shuttles, rickshaws, rusting taxis and pedestrians. Two blocks west of the palatial hotels is the grungy local market selling unsanitary food products, mountains of knock-off goods, interesting Vietnamese souvenirs and daily confectionary items.
The juxtaposition of life unfolding in ever corner of Nha Trang is the real beauty of this place. The diversity and harmony between tourists and the locals lends a friendly, young vibe to this city.
A bottle of Saigon or Tiger is very easy to find anywhere in Nha Trang, but most tourists choose to (or somehow end up) either at the Sailing Club or Louisiane Brew House, located next to each other on Tran Phu. During the day, these places rent out lounge chairs for tourists and organize day trips and water sports. As soon as the sun goes down, the lounge chairs are locked away safely and more tables are gathered around the beachside bar. Music starts playing around 9 pm and gets louder gradually through the night. You are guaranteed a live DJ on weekends.
You have to check out both the locations but if for some bizarre reason you are in Nha Trang only for one meal (which is blasphemy) here is a quick comparison: Louisiane looks like an old cellar serving a variety of beers on tap along with some interesting tester half-pints, but the pool in the middle of the restaurant is the trump card for this hangout. The Sailing Club has a relaxed interior with a pool table you might have to line-up for, but while you wait, grab a very strong and reasonably priced mixed drink. If you are a vegetarian, you need to try the margarita pizza (and several frozen margaritas).
If you are young, don’t care too much about the vibe and are just looking for cheap drinks all night, head over to Why Not? Bar. You’ll make friends with people sitting on the table next to you and definitely be offered a free Why Not? shot on the house.
PS: Take advantage of the Happy Hour!
As amazing as the beaches and the bars of Nha Trang are, this is confession time – the Tien Tien Funny boat tour of four neighbouring islands is hands-down the best day trip ever invented. Our tour guide, Mister Obama (picture a Vietnamese Obama – That’s what our tour guide looked like!) picked us up from our hotel along with two dozen Vietnamese tourists and a handful of foreigners (two of them being Canadian from BC – hurray to new friends!) and took us to the docks on the south end of Tran Phu boulevard.
What happened then? I can’t even describe it in words so please take a look at the video:
Basically, a boat cruise to fours island, snorkelling equipment, free lunch, free and plenty of Vietnamese “wine” (rum and grape juice), Happy Hour in the Pacific Ocean… and much more for $6. Six dollars. Yes, six dollars each. I kid you not!
Therefore, if you are in Vietnam or planning a trip, please put Nha Trang on your must-visits and find Mister Obama of the Tien Tien Funny Boat tour – it will be the best $6 you’ll ever spend.