Once upon a December ago, we spent Christmas in Đà Lạt. While it was the perfect place to spend the holiday, a week of chilly temps there left us eager for some sun, sand, and surf, so we set out for the beaches of Nha Trang.
Nha Trang used to be a sleepy little town situated on a relatively undeveloped stretch of coastal paradise – the kind of place people visit and never leave. We’ve heard from both locals and fellow nomads that the tallest building in town for many years was three stories. This Nha Trang sounded like the perfect place to ring in 2014.
Alas, the new Nha Trang is to urban development as Lance Armstrong is to cycling – that is, on major steroids. High-rises and sprawling resorts abound, having eaten away at the natural environment and local culture. It’s apparently been on this path for a few years, and, if we had done our homework beforehand, we would have known as much. Lesson learned.
That said, the road between Đà Lạt and Nha Trang is absolutely incredible. We experienced crazy fog (near zero visibility) and chilly temps going through the high passes near Đà Lạt. This made for some exciting (read: terrifying) conditions – massive tourist buses would appear out of thin air and then be gone a second later.
Once we came out of the fog, though, it was heaven. Towering mountains, waterfalls gushing down the hillsides, lush greenery, and the little ribbon of road snaking it’s way through all of this to the bottom. It was, as Jeremy Clarkson said in Top Gear’s 2008 Vietnam special, “staggeringly good.” You know that terribly cheesy phrase: “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? You’ve probably seen some iteration of it on a poster with a picture of a beautiful waterfall, some frolicking kittens, maybe a bucolic road – something like that. To the creators of such inspirational posters, I have the perfect visual for you: a picture of this heavenly road (the journey) next to a picture of Nha Trang (the destination).
So what’s an intrepid traveler to do? I have two suggestions:
Skip Nha Trang altogether and head to Jungle Beach Resort, which keeps popping up in conversations all over Vietnam. It’s about 60 km. north of Nha Trang and sounds like the Nha Trang of old – remote, rustic, and laid back. If we had known about Jungle Beach at the time, this is what we would have done.
Obviously, I can’t vouch for the place since we haven’t been, but if you’re looking for some unplugged downtime on a secluded coastline and are up for camping-like accommodations (including bugs), it sounds awesome and comes highly recommended. If that sound less than appealing, why not try…
Overnight in Nha Trang and do the following:
- Arrive in town around mid-day and head straight to The Shack on Bai Dai Beach. Bai Dai (also known as Long Beach) is 20 km. down the coast from Nha Trang and is a surfer’s beach that couldn’t be further from resort central (pro tip: take/rent your own motorbike or bicycle and enjoy the coastal views once out of town). The Shack, run by a young French couple, is aptly named – it’s a two-sided structure with a corrugated tin roof and lots of tarp (though the bathrooms have plumbing and TP!). Order one of their burgers – the best we’ve had in Vietnam. I suggest the one with bacon, onion rings, and BBQ sauce, though the fish tacos aren’t bad either. Spend the rest of the afternoon dozing in a hammock, surfing or SUPing (they offer rentals and lessons), swimming, or basking in the sun, cold beer in hand.
- Head back to town, shower (or not), and hit up the main drag along the beach for some people watching. Better yet, grab some beers from a mini-mart (yes, they are called that here) and knock ’em back on the beach as the sun sets on the skyline behind you.
- Mosey on over to Hy Lap Mini Restaurant for dinner, close to the main drag but tucked away at the end of a quiet little shopping alley. Run by immigrants fleeing the disaster that is the Greek economy, it’s been open a little over six months and is a Mediterranean gem in Vietnam (they make their own pita, yogurt, etc.). Their best dish is the pork souvlaki, though the moussaka is tasty as well. Friendly service to boot.
- If you’re in the mood to party, there is no shortage of clubs and backpacker bars to while away your evening. We opted to cap off our evening with a bottle of Vietnam’s finest red wine on our balcony back at the hotel. It was a good choice since we hit the road early in the am.
Of course, you could skip Nha Trang altogether, especially if you have limited time in Vietnam (i.e. a week or less). In fact, I’d recommend skipping the road too unless you are on a motorcycle or bicycle. It’s just not the same experience careening around the corners in a swaying bus – that just looks scary and nauseating.
As I mentioned, there are better beaches, and we keep hearing that the most beautiful part of the country is the rugged far north. Based on the photos we’ve seen, that seems like a fair assessment. We’re about to find out for ourselves when we head that way tomorrow.
Once we wrap up our time in Vietnam (in approximately a month or two), we’ll provide a full country report, including must-dos, must-sees, places to skip, food highlights, and more.
Peace, love, and happiness –