HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Paradise City

This past weekend Vietnam celebrated back-to-back public holidays: April 30th is Liberation, or Reunification, Day: i.e., the day the U.S. and South Vietnam lost the war; while May 1st is International Workers' Day. With all schools closed for at least three days, many teachers took the chance to take a domestic holiday, and I chose to go to Nha Trang with a group of my friends.

Located about halfway between Saigon and Da Nang, Nha Trang has a rather bipolar reputation: it is widely considered to have the best beach in Vietnam, and the city's bay is often cited as one of the most beautiful in the world. However, National Geographic recently named Nha Trang the world's worst beach destination, and complaints relating to construction, trash, crowds, and general mismanagement are widespread. With all of that in mind, I wasn't really sure what to expect once I got there.

After just a few hours in Nha Trang, though, I had already decided that I loved the place. For starters, these were the views that greeted me when I first got to the beach:
Stunning Nha Trang Bay

It's hard to understand how such a beautiful place could possibly be considered the worst beach in the world. Despite the fact that we were there over a national holiday, the crowds were light; plus the water was crystal clear, and the sun was shining brightly.

After lounging around for an hour or two, several of us rented motorbikes from our hotel (the highly recommended Pho Bien, just off the beach), and headed north to check out the area surrounding Nha Trang. We stopped at Po Nagar, an ancient Cham temple complex built around 780 AD, perched on top of a hill overlooking the city and the bay. The temple was very similar to the Cham ruins at My Son, although the best part of the stop was the sign at the entrance listing rules for visitors:
What counts as a "dangerous murderously weapon"?

Great view

Po Nagar temple
After our stop at the very interesting temple, we cruised onto the new coastal road that runs out of Nha Trang, where we were treated to an endless stream of stunningly gorgeous natural scenery. I'm not sure if I've ever seen water as blue as Nha Trang Bay was that day; mountains towered over the sea almost everywhere you looked; and the azure blue sky was strikingly clear. This was, quite simply, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I'll upload more pictures in another post, since I don't want to make this one too long.


Also, here's a video I took while driving along. I still can't get over these views.
video
Later that night, I had a couple of interesting interactions with locals, something that seems to happen everytime I go somewhere new in Vietnam. A few of us were throwing a light-up frisbee on the beach, when a little Vietnamese boy that couldn't have been older than 3 suddenly appeared and sat in the sand near one of my friends. For the next 10 minutes he just sat there, watching us, until he got up and started heading towards the water. I was standing at the ocean's edge, and as he approached I stopped him, took his arm, and walked him just far enough so that the surf got his legs wet as it came in. I then took him back to the sand and told him "no more water," but he was pointing at the sea and looking at me pleadingly. He was about to charge back in when a relative appeared out of nowhere and led him away. Not sure what his family was doing, but he can now tell his friends that his first experience in the ocean was with a foreigner.

We continued throwing the frisbee around, when a group of kids joined our circle to play along. It was clear that none of them had ever used a frisbee before, but we had a great time trying to get the growing crowd, which eventually included about six Vietnamese kids and an American couple, involved.

On our last day, we went on a snorkeling trip that took us to a few of the islands that dot Nha Trang Bay, something that I highly recommend, if you're ever in the area. The snorkeling company provided everything, and the water conditions were absolutely perfect; visibility in some areas was probably close to 40 or 50 feet. Thailand is far more famous for its underwater scenery, but the waters around Nha Trang were even better than what I experienced on Koh Tao, one of Thailand's southern islands.

I saw many types of fish that I had never seen before, as well as some amazing coral formations. There were brilliantly colored fishes in shades of orange, purple, blue, yellow, green, black and brown; sometimes all on one fish. There was one big fish that would swim around, stop, and open its mouth, while two little fish cleaned the inside. Ocean life is absolutely fascinating to observe.
We were also treated to a massive, delicious lunch on the boat, which included stir fried noodles with tofu and vegetables, chicken, rice, water spinach, fish cooked in tomato sauce, omelettes, steamed squid with green peppers, fried spring rolls, and bananas. I was so full after the meal that I expected to sink right to the bottom once I got back in the water.
The final thing that was great about the snorkeling trip was the scenery: we were able to take in the panorama of mountains stretching across the horizon, with Nha Trang's high rise hotels rising up above the beach along the bay.

Now, there are some problems with Nha Trang, so I can understand where some of the criticism comes from: there is trash in the water and on parts of the beach, the main road running between the hotels and the beach is heavily trafficked and difficult to cross, and the sidewalk hawkers can get pretty annoying. However, you have to look past that while you're there. The food is, for the most part, outstanding, and most places have great drink specials every night. It's not that difficult to find a quiet spot, especially since the Vietnamese tourists avoid the beach like the plague between 9am and 5pm, when the sun is at its brightest, and the area surrounding the city is drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, Nha Trang is now one of my favorite places in the country.

Ah, I nearly forgot to mention how miserable the bus ride back to Saigon was. The roads leading south from Nha Trang are simply horrible, so it takes 11 hours to cover what is probably less than 200 miles. On top of that, I wasn't able to get a ticket on a sleeper bus, so I had a regular chair, the asshat in front of me reclined his seat as far as it could go, so he was practically laying in my lap; the temperature inside the bus kept switching between cold and very hot, which was only exacerbated by the fresh sunburn on my back that was getting more painful by the hour; a guy in the back row sounded like a chainsaw once he fell asleep; and the girlfriend of the guy in my lap chatted away on her phone for the first two hours of the trip. And my Ipod ran out of batteries. Fortunately, my three days in Nha Trang were so much fun that the misery of the interminable trip back quickly faded. I'm already trying to plan a return to the beautiful beach.

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