Nha Trang


Nha Trang is Vietnam's only real seaside town, with a long, golden beach. The centuries- old fishing settlement nestles in the protective embrace of the surrounding hills and islands at the mouth of the Cai Estuary. The light here has a beautifully radiant quality and the air is clear: colours are vivid, particularly the blues of the sea, sky and fishing boats moored on the river. The name Nha Trang is thought to be derived from the Cham word yakram, meaning bamboo river. Certainly, the surrounding area was a focal point of the Cham Kingdom , with some of the country's best-preserved Cham towers located nearby.

Nha Trang's clear waters and offshore islands won wide acclaim in the 1960s and its current prosperity is based firmly on tourism. Word has spread and Nha Trang's days as an undiscovered treasure are over. The town is now a firmly established favourite of Vietnamese as well as foreign visitors. There is a permanent relaxed holiday atmosphere, the streets are not crowded and the motorbikes cruise at a leisurely pace. There are, in reality, two Nha Trangs: popular Nha Trang, which is a sleepy, sedate seaside town consisting of a long, palm and casuarina-fringed beach and one or two streets running parallel to it, and commercial Nha Trang to the north of Yersin Street, which is a bustling city with an attractive array of Chinese shophouses.

Known as Thap Ba, the temple complex of
Cham Ponagar
 is on a hill just outside the city. Originally the complex consisted of eight towers, four of which remain. Their stylistic differences indicate they were built at different times between the seventh and 12th centuries. The largest (23 m high) was built in AD 817 and contains a statue of Lady Thien Y-ana, also known as Ponagar (the beautiful wife of Prince Bac Hai), as well as a fine and very large linga. She taught the people of the area weaving and new agricultural techniques, and they built the tower in her honour. The other towers are dedicated to gods: the central tower to Cri Cambhu (which has become a fertility temple for childless couples); the northwest tower to Sandhaka (wood cutter and foster-father to Lady Thien Y-ana); and the south tower to Ganeca (Lady Thien Y-ana's daughter). The best time to visit the towers is in the afternoon, after 1600.

En route to the towers, the road crosses the
Cai River estuary
, where you'll see Nha Trang's elegant fleet of blue fishing boats, decorated with red trim and painted eyes for spotting the fish. The boats have coracles (
cái thúng
) for getting to and from the shore and mechanical fish traps, which take the form of nets supported by long arms; the arms are hinged to a platform on stilts and are raised and lowered by wires connected to a capstan which is turned, sometimes by hand but more commonly by foot.

The best known pagoda in Nha Trang is the
Long Son Pagoda
 built in 1963. Inside the sanctuary is an unusual image of the Buddha, backlit with natural light. Murals depicting the jataka stories (birth stories of the Buddha) decorate the upper walls. To the right of the sanctuary, stairs lead up to a 9-m-high white Buddha, perched on a hill top, from where there are fine views. The pagoda commemorates those monks and nuns who died demonstrating against the Diem government, in particular those who, through their self-immolation, brought the despotic nature of the Diem regime and its human rights abuses to the attention of the American public. Before reaching the white pagoda, take a left on the stairs. Through an arch behind the pagoda you'll see a 14-m long reclining Buddha. Commissioned in 2003, it is an impressive sight.

The
Alexandre Yersin Museum
 is contained within the colonnaded
Pasteur Institute
founded by the great scientist's protégé, Dr Alexandre Yersin. Swiss-born Yersin first arrived in Vietnam in 1891 and spent much of the rest of his life in Nha Trang. He was responsible for identifying the bacillus that causes the plague. The museum contains the lab equipment used by Yersin, his library and stereoscope through which visitors can see in 3-D the black-and-white slides, including shots taken by Yersin on his visits to the highlands. The museum's curator is helpful, friendly, and fluent in French and English.

The
Cho Dam
(central market) close to Nguyen Hong Son Street is a good place to wander and browse and is quite well-stocked with useful items. In the vicinity of the market, along
Phan Boi Chau Street
for example, are some bustling streets with old colonial-style shuttered houses.

Long Thanh is one of Vietnam's most distinguished photographers and has a
gallery, in his native Nha Trang. Long Thanh works only in black and white and has won a series of international awards and recognition for his depictions of Cham children and of wistful old men and women, who have witnessed generations of change in a single lifetime. Many of his famous pictures were taken in and around Nha Trang. Long Thanh speaks English and welcomes visitors to his gallery.

Thap Ba Hot Springs

www.thapbahotspring.com.vn.

A soak in mineral water or a mud bath is a relaxing and refreshing experience. Baths and pools of differing sizes are available for individuals, couples and groups. The water is 40°C and is rich in sodium silicate chloride. Steam baths and massages are available.

Islands around Nha Trang

The islands are sometimes known as the
Salangane
islands after the sea swallows that nest here. The sea swallow (
yen
) produces the bird's nest from which the famous soup is made.

There's an uninspiring aquarium on
Mieu Island
but no other sights. The islands (including
Hon Mun
,
Hon Tam
and
Hon Mot
) are usually a bit of an anti-climax for, as so often in Vietnam, to travel is better than to arrive; it's often a case of lovely boat trip, disappointing beach. The best part is anchoring offshore and jumping into the cool water while your skipper prepares a sumptuous feast and chills some beers.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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