Profile: Nha Trang Beach, Vietnam

Vietnam's first modern beach destination is poised for a comeback. We give this exotic destination its moment in the sun

In 1992, Ryan Coughlin was as poor as a backpacker. He rode a bus to Nha Trang,
shared a room with two mates from Oz and snorkeled off one of Mama's junks, marveling
at the stunning coral formations in one of the world's most beautiful bays. That
was then. Today, Coughlin's as well-to-do as a banker. He drives a Lexus, and his
wife keeps a social calendar — his, theirs and their two children's. One thing hasn't
changed — his love for Nha Trang.

"I was smitten in 1992, and I've kept coming back, but Nha Trang hasn't exactly
kept pace with my expectations," said Coughlin. "It's great that so much remains
the same, but at the same time, with the happy little vegemites, I'm looking for
a few more options."

Options have been slow in coming, despite Nha Trang's break from the gate after Vietnam opened
to foreign tourism in the early 1990s and despite its reputation as gateway to one
of the world's most beautiful bays (www.world-bays.com).

Six Senses opened Ana Mandara here in 1997. Afterward, Nha Trang fell into a slump
that's lasted more than a decade. New hotels opened, but none provided the polish,
the personality and the trustworthiness of a world-class operation. The enthusiasm
moved south to Binh Thuan province and the beach at Mui Ne, and the big money headed
north for the now booming stretch of strand between Hoi An and Danang

"I was smitten in 1992, and I've kept coming back, but Nha Trang hasn't
exactly kept pace with my expectations," said Coughlin. "It's great that so much
remains the same, but at the same time, with the happy little vegemites, I'm looking
for a few more options."

Today, Nha Trang is tired of playing second fiddle. In 2008, the Miss Universe
pageant flew in contestants from around the world and crowned their 2008 winner
here, touching the city like a wand. All of a sudden, Nha Trang was back in the
spotlight.

Meanwhile, serious hoteliers were digging in. In January, the Novotel opened up.
And in September, the Sheraton Nha Trang Hotel & Spa assumed a commanding, 30-storey
front on the bay of Nha Trang. Like a bellwether of better days, the Sheraton stands
as the first internationally renowned 5-star experience on the beach in this pioneering
beach town.

"Our bay's the bay of bays in Vietnam, say what you will about the bay of Danang," said
Scott Hodgetts, general manager of the Sheraton Nha Trang. "Look at that bay, those
islands, these mountains, and then take a deep breath and consider all the cultural
assets — the museums, the architectural ruins from the Cham to the Nguyen, the pagodas
and cathedrals. It's a complete package."

It's Hodgett's job to be bullish on Nha Trang, but a few days in town proves the
point: There's stuff to do in Nha Trang. It's so much more than a pretty beach.

A Bay for Play

Nevertheless, the bay is the place to begin. As you approach the city from the
headlands to the south, its visual appeal is immediate — the seven-kilometer crescent
of sandy beach, the vast expanse of waters that turn aquamarine in the right light,
the rugged, mountainous backdrop and the island-studded bay.

Near the villa complex built for Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, wide-beamed
wooden boats cast off daily, bound for the islands and the garlands of coral that
surround them. In the protected waters off Hon Mun (Black Island), more than 350
species of coral rival 1,000 species of fish as underwater attractions.

Back onshore, the legacy of colonial French curiosity is on display at the Oceanographic
Institute, built from 1923 to 1943. Outside, tanks of clownfish, anemones, squirrel
fish and others echo what you may or may not have seen in the bay beyond. In yet
another building, the Institute's most impressive display is the hundreds – nay,
thousands — of jars of pickled fish specimens.

"Kids will love this," said Hodgetts, on a fact-finding mission for family friendly
diversions from his fledging hotel. "But this is what I love." He stands in a room
that must have served as a study for naturalists in the colonial era. "Look at these
seafaring books," he says, marveling at the obvious antiquity. Indeed, some of the
books date as far back as the 18th Century.

In 2009 alone, 25 new hotels have opened in Nha Trang. Most are modest, and most
wouldn't satisfy Coughlin's need for accommodation commensurate with his bankroll.
But the acceleration of interest in Nha Trang should rectify that. The local tourist
authorities reckon that 1.6 million visitors called at Nha Trang in 2008, including
253,000 foreigners.

"Tourism in Nha Trang is alive almost all year 'round," aid Truong Dang Tuyen,
Director of Khanh Hoa Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The same cannot
be said of other destinations in Vietnam, all of which lies entirely in the tropics
but parts of which can be downright cold in winter.

Beyond the Bay

Nha Trang's sunny disposition wooed and won Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943), the
town's favorite colonial-era son and the only man, apart from Louis Pasteur, whose
name survived the nomenclature purges of 1975. To wit, the country's leading biological
institute is named after Pasteur, and many of Vietnam's larger cities claim an avenue
named for Yersin.

Along the beachside boulevard of Tran Phu Street, the Yersin Museum surveys the
life of a biologist who in 1896 discovered the pathogen that causes the bubonic
plague, who discovered the plateau of Vietnam's southern highlands that now supports
the thriving 1,500-meter town of Dalat and who lived for 30 years in Nha Trang.
While most museums in Vietnam, even in Saigon and Hanoi, suffer from shoddy stewardship,
the Yersin is finely tuned and wonderfully evocative. From Yersin's microscope to
the hand-drawn maps of his Highlands explorations in the 1890s to copies of the
regular weekly letter he penned to his mother decade after decade, the exhibits
do what exhibits do best — whet the appetite for more.

But if Yersin's connection to Nha Trang is writ large, he can't claim greater
fame on the world-wide stage than another colonial Frenchman with a Nha Trang connection — Jacques
Cousteau. In 1933, Cousteau was a sailor in the colonial French Navy, mapping the
coast of Khanh Hoa Province. That much we know is true and is easy to verify. The
unsubstantiated story goes like this: Cousteau, in the course of his cartography,
began diving near Nha Trang and sowed the seeds of his lifetime passion for the
underwater world.

Pre-Colonial Wonders

While the bay's barb lures more than a few travelers out onto and into the water,
more travelers  end up actually visiting the Po Nagar Cham Towers, a temple complex
that dates back to the 8th Century. The temple is anchored by four 1,000-year-old
brick structures dedicated to the memory of Po Nagar, or Bhagavati, a maternally
minded goddess who taught the now vanished Cham people to plant rice and weave. Angkor this
is not, but then nothing else is. If not for Angkor, these towers – like many of
the Cham towers dotting the littoral — would be ranked among the marvels of Southeast
Asian antiquity.

While the Cham chose a picturesque rocky promontory above the Cai River to worship
their Hindu gods, the Vietnamese Buddhists laid claim – centuries later – to a prominent
in-town hill where Long Son Pagoda stands today. From all over the city, the pagoda
broadcasts its presence from the beacon of an immaculate 24-meter high Buddha, installed
in 1964 as a protest against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his repression
of Buddhism. Around the base of the monument, the bronze busts of eight monks greet
visitors, each a martyr to their cause. In the bad old days of the Diem regime,
each of these monks immolated himself rather than make concessions to Diem.

Nha Trang's cultural assets run deeper than the odd temple, pagoda, institute
or museums. In the late 18th Century, Vietnam's Nguyen Lords built a Citadel at
Den Khanh, some 10 kilometers from the beach in Nha Trang. Its walls are gone,
but the gates and some of old earthworks endure.

There are the picturesque salt fields, a majestic Catholic Cathedral and the
villas of the last emperor. But eventually, you return to the bay in Nha Trang.
Just like Coughlin.

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