Home to Vietnam's best beaches and dive sites, the coastal city of Nha Trang is a magnet for those seeking sunshine and underwater adventure. Backdropped by mountains and cityscape are white sandy coves sheltering lovely bays and distant islands. The capital of Khanh Hoa province, Nha Trang lacks the culture found in neighboring areas but still has a few temples and such to remind you that you're in Vietnam. But don't be surprised to find signs written in Russian—more than 10,000 Russians come here each month. Now is the time to visit Nha Trang; Bai Dai Beach is slated for development, and by 2018 it won't be so pristine. Nha Trang can easily be explored in a single day, and most of the sites are a short taxi ride away. Start the day with culture at the Po Nagar Towers and Long Son Pagoda, followed by a tour of traditional villages and rice paddies near Cai River. By midafternoon, you'll be ready for a swim or snorkel at one of Nha Trang's beautiful beaches. Watch the sunset at the trendy Sailing Club, the best spot to sink your toes into the sand while sipping a cocktail. If you've got the time, use Nha Trang as a base to explore neighboring hot springs, mud baths, and waterfalls like Ba Ho, Yang Bay, and Fairy Spring.
Like most resort towns, Nha Trang has dozens of dining options ranging from beachfront stalls selling fresh fish to formal restaurants offering every type of Western cuisine imaginable. Catering to French residents is a handful of bistros that have created a fusion of Vietnam-meets-Paris. If time is limited, opt for local cuisine to experience authentic Vietnamese dishes like pork spring rolls, cha ca (fish patties), and seafood cooked in clay pots.
Fantastic service, a pleasant setting, and authentic Southern Vietnamese dishes are what make Lanterns one of Nha Trang's most popular restaurants. Adorning the open-air dining room (the retractable roof closes on rainy days) are orange paper lanterns that match the traditional dress of the endearing wait staff. The six-course prix fixe is remarkably inexpensive, or you can opt for such house favorites as slow-cooked shrimp, beef served in a clay pot, or whole red snapper grilled on a bed of coal and then wrapped in foil to capture the flavor. Vegetarians have a designated menu, and there is an on-site cooking school for those who want to learn the secrets of the kitchen.
Le Petit Bistro
Catering to the 300 French residents that permanently reside in Nha Trang, this little bistro might just make you forget where you're vacationing. Bypass the bar for a table on the quaint garden patio, where imported pâté, Camembert, and Brie are served with a platter of cold cuts. Pricey by Vietnam standards, the menu includes French favorites like roasted duck, cordon bleu, and filet de boeuf, each served with a side of creamy au gratin potatoes. Only those who speak French will be able to hobnob with the talented chef-owner, Claude Durand, who frequently mingles with guests. Wine connoisseurs will enjoy the adjacent boutique du vin, the main distributor of blends to Nha Trang's hotels and restaurants.
For the most romantic dining experience in Nha Trang, reserve a table for two at this beachfront barbecue restaurant just a stone's throw from the water—you can even sink your toes into the sand. Tiki torches and lanterns surround your private table; nearby, a chef prepares fresh lobster, squid, scallops, lamb, and chicken on a fiery grill. Be prepared to get a little messy, as most seafood dishes require peeling and prying with your fingers. Private dining on the sand is not available on windy or rainy days, and must be booked two hours in advance. Isolated from the main Sandals dining room, this is a true VIP experience.
At this tiny log cabin replica, you're greeted by French owner Pierre Dimitri and his Vietnamese wife, Thien, who have created a menu highlighting the best of both their worlds. Start with the goat cheese salad, spring rolls, or potato dumplings, a recipe handed down from Pierre's grand-mère. The cordon bleu, oozing with cheese, has a perfect breaded crust and is served with a pile of sautéed potatoes and roasted vegetables. Portions are plentiful and most dishes—like the tender crocodile or frog legs—are heavy on the cream. If you aren't bursting at the seams after the main entrée, try the chocolate mousse, made with 75% cocoa. It pairs nicely with La Grolle, a coffee liquor seasoned with cinnamon and orange. This French Alp tradition is served in a wooden "friendship bowl" with eight drinking spouts for parties to share.
Nha Trang Xu'a
For a taste of authentic Vietnam, head 6 km (4 miles) outside the city center to this 300-year-old house surrounded by rice paddies and lotus ponds. Brick pathways lined with clay pots and antique scooters lead to low picnic tables under palapa roofs. The menu, handwritten on cardboard, features banana flower salad, braised shrimp rolls, crispy prawn pancakes, and Asian spinach soup with basil-seasoned rice. For a unique dessert, try the white rice and mung bean in coconut sauce. Prices are reasonable at this local favorite, but don't expect too much in the way of customer service since the staff doesn't speak a word of English. This place is difficult to find on your own, so if you plan to arrive by rental car or scooter, make sure you have exact directions.
There is no shortage of resorts in Nha Trang, but only a select few offer a beachfront location with unobstructed views. If you plan on enjoying local sites, restaurants and bars, stay close to the action near the center of town. For something a bit more private, choose one of the more remote resorts that offer daily shuttle service into Nha Trang.
Xq Dalat Historical Village
Located across from the main beach, this village-replica has several galleries showcasing hand-embroidered works from Nha Trang, Hanoi, Danang, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City. Even if you don't plan to buy anything, it's worth taking a peek at the on-site seamstresses as they guide their needles through cloth to create impressive painting-like works of art.
Dam and Xom Moi Markets
Test your bartering skills at the local markets, where you can find everything from clothing and food to souvenirs and electronics. With its knockoff brands and cheap trinkets, Dam Market caters toward tourists, while Xom Moi is more for locals who come for the fresh produce and dried goods. Xom Moi is at 49 Ngo Gia Tu St. Dam Market is on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Phan Boi Chau. Both are open daily 6–6.
Nha Trang Center
The area's only shopping mall includes a bowling alley, movie theater, grocery store, and more than 100 brand-name shops that sell everything from clothing and jewelry to souvenirs and sunglasses. The top floor has a food court for those looking for a quick bite while bargain shopping.
Nha Trang Beach
Located near downtown Nha Trang, Nha Trang Beach is more commonly known as "Tourist Beach," because travelers gather on this bustling stretch that starts north near the Sheraton Hotel and ends 5 km (3 miles) south at Bao Dai Villas. Plenty of amenities are available at the trendy Sailing Club, or you can simply bask in the sun on an open patch of sand and buy snacks from a passing vendor. This is the most centrally located beach, meaning it can get crowded on sunny weekends. Divers and snorkelers won't find much marine life here, since this beach is best for swimming, walking, or kayaking. To see clown fish, scorpionfish, and moray eels, it is better to organize a dive at the Sailing Club to the protected island of Hon Mun. Amenities: food and drink; showers; toilets. Best for: partiers; swimming; walking.
Long Son Pagoda
Climb the 150 steps, breaking halfway to view the 80-meter (262-foot) -long white statue of sleeping Buddha. At the top of the hill, visit the Long Son Pagoda and sitting Buddha. This site is free to the public—watch out for the hecklers and scammers asking for miscellaneous fees—and the panoramic views of rice fields and the city below are absolutely breathtaking.
Po Nagar Cham Towers
Perched on Cu Lao hillside overlooking the Cai River, the four remaining towers of an original seven are reminiscent of those found at Angkor Wat and offer a glimpse of the Champa Kingdom, who built the complex in AD 817 to praise their deity. The largest tower of the four stretches 23 meters (75 feet) high and contains a statue in honor of Goddess Ponagar, praised for her knowledge of agriculture and civilization; the center tower was built for Cri Cambhu, the god of fertility; the south tower to the god of success, Ganesh, recognizable by the human body and elephant head; and the northwest tower for the god Shiva. Visitors must cover knees and shoulders to enter the temple. If you happen to be in Nha Trang from March 20–23, attend the Po Nagar Festival that takes place near the ancient towers.
Bai Dai Beach
Located 20 km (12½ miles) south of Nha Trang near Mia Resort, this beach is definitely worth a visit sooner rather than later. Right now, Bai Dai Beach, meaning "Long Beach," is a favorite with locals, but beginning in 2018, 39 luxury resorts will be going up along this pristine stretch in the hopes of turning it into the next Cancún. On weekends, hordes of beachgoers gather at the seafood shacks for cold beers and the morning catch. The crystal clear water is shallow far past the shore, making this an ideal swimming spot. Jet Skis, surfboards, rafts, and kayaks are available for rent, and nearly every shack offers chairs, toilets, and showers with any food or drink purchase. This is one of the few spots where surfers can find waves through April. Bai Dai Beach continues 25 km (15½ miles) south to Cam Ranh Airport. The best section is on the north end at the protected bay.
Amenities: food and drink; showers; toilets; water sports. Best for: surfing; swimming; walking.
For a bit of chichi in your vacation, head to Nha Trang's hippest beach club where sunbathers cure last night's hangovers with massages, manicures, music, and Bloody Marys. For 40,000 VND ($2 USD), you can chillax on a beach chair and access all club amenities, including showers, lockers, kayaks, restrooms, and three restaurants. By sundown, the beach club morphs into a nightclub where international DJs spin hip-hop, house, and reggae until the wee hours, making it the largest (and most popular) nightclub in Vietnam. Since Sailing Club is in partnership with Mia Resort, guests can arrange trips between the two locations by way of the private yacht docked out front.
Amenities: food and drink; showers; toilets. Best for: partiers; swimming; walking.
Starting at the bridge near the Sheraton Hotel and running 30 km (18 miles) north beyond Nha Trang city are several beautiful beaches that together are commonly referred to as "North Beach." This area mostly draws in college students who attend one of the five nearby universities. The most picturesque stretch of beach can be found past Ninh Hoa City, where shallow waters and powdery sand beckon swimmers and sunbathers alike. A handful of surfers paddle to the point break that whips up decent waves between October and April. Amenities are offered to those who buy food or drink at neighboring properties such as Paradise Resort or White Sand Doclet Resort.
Amenities: food and drink; toilets. Best for: surfing, swimming; walking.