The sleepy Vietnamese region of Nha Trang offers blissful beach action along with authentic food and cultural highlights
The landscaping is a work of art in itself, and an army of 50 gardeners work daily to maintain it. For many, to lie languidly on the beach, by a private plunge pool or beside one of the resort’s three pools is all that’s necessary for the perfect getaway – with a good book to dive into between dips and tasty snacks and refreshments from the Anam’s Indochine restaurant or Saigon Bar.
But with this type of resort, there’s a variety of activities too; the Anam boasts a water sports centre with jet skis, sailing boats, kayaks, snorkelling gear, etc, plus a beach club with a small gym, yoga room, pool and fusbol tables, a tennis court, badminton net on the waterfront lawn and volleyball court on the beach. Electric buggies are available to whisk you silently around the resort if you don’t fancy walking, a comprehensive spa offers both Vietnamese and Balinese treatments, and a movie theatre shows two films a day (a kid’s film in the afternoon and one for adults in the early evening).
Over breakfast with general manager Herbert Laubichler-Pichler, I learn of the major plans in play for the Cam Ranh Peninsula, as international brands such as Movenpick and Westin construct largescale resorts farther down Long Beach. Existing properties like the Cam Ranh Riviera, Diamond Bay and Mia resorts, either on Long Beach or between it and Nha Trang town, cannot match the Anam for luxury and style. “There’s no one like us in this area, and we measure ourselves against benchmarks like the Nam Hai in Danang or Six Senses Ninh Van Bay,” Laubichler-Pichler says.
The Anam’s owner is a savvy Vietnamese businessman with a background in the travel industry and a clear idea of where he wants his resort to be positioned.“We want to be the best resort in Vietnam,” says Laubichler-Pichler. “Danang and Hoi An have developed the fastest, but Cam Ranh is still a bit of a secret, and I think it will be the next hotspot in Vietnam.”
Foresight and aspirations are one thing, but it also helps to have a range of interesting sights and tourist attractions within easy reach. The city of Nha Trang (it’s more of a large town) is just 25 minutes away by road, and free shuttle vans and private cars are available to bring guests into the downtown beachfront area.
Nha Trang Bay was named one of the “most beautiful bays in the world” by
Forbes; tall, forested hills look down on the town from the landward side, and its long, gentle arc of sandy beach fronts onto calm waters that are protected from the open ocean by the large Hon Tré Island and a smattering of smaller islets, which together make up a marine national park.
The beach promenade is busy with tourists, mostly Russians and Japanese, as well as a smattering of backpackers. Grand hotels face the water, both international brands like the Sheraton and Intercontinental, and independents such as the Premier Havana, Starcity and the French colonial splendour of the Sunrise Hotel. The streets running back from the central waterfront area are a warren of bars, seafood restaurants, budget hotels, travel and tour operators – all the trappings of backpacker and package tourism that’s the result of an economic boom here in the last 15 years.
Over on Hon Tré Island is the massive Vinpearl Resort and theme park – linked by a cable car from the mainland via little Eiffel-like towers strung across the water that light up at night. To the south on smaller Hon Tam Island plans for the 2020 launch of a Courtyard by Marriot have recently been announced – clearly this is still a rising destination for international holiday-makers.
During the day the heat keeps activity slow and muted, the oppressive sun suitable only for beach lounging for the majority. I, however, am determined to explore the town’s cultural sights. First on my list is the Buddhist Long Son Pagoda, first created in 1889 on top of a hill but rebuilt at its southern foot after a storm destroyed it in 1900. The main hall contains a 600kg bronze statue of Gautama, while a 24-metre, gleamingwhite Great Buddha statue has capped the summit of the hill since 1964.
A short ride back into the town centre brings me to another small hill, this time topped by Nha Trang Cathedral. Vietnam has Southeast Asia’s second-largest Catholic community, and this attractive pillared building with its stained-glass windows, shady walkways and great city views is in constant use by faithful devotees. On another rise of ground beside
the river at the northern end of the main beach are the Po Nagar Cham ruins – four picturesque red-brick towers built between the eighth and 11th centuries by the rulers of the Hindu Champa kingdom that controlled central and southern Vietnam (the Chams were contemporaries of the Khmers who built Angkor Wat).
Needing sustenance, I return to the tourist area, where you can choose between Indian, Armenian, Russian or Italian restaurants if you wish – though for me a steaming bowl of pho is the best way to resuscitate yourself after sightseeing, or a strong Vietnamese coffee and baguette.
Afterwards I wander down towards the beachfront, minding the traffic, which is Vietnam’s peculiar form of vehicular chaos, with vehicles regularly driving the wrong way up dual carriageways or on the wrong side of the road. Don’t wait for them to stop – they won’t; instead, walk slowly and confidently across the road, and allow the mopeds and cars to flow around you – it’s unnerving at first but speeds are kept deliberately low and the system seems to work.
Fronting the beach are dive shops – scuba diving in the marine park is a popular draw – and a mix of bars, restaurants and clubs. The Rabbit Hole nightclub promises “freak shows and go-go girls”, but the Sailing Club and Louisane Brew House are more high-class establishments, boasting live music and DJs (Bob Marley and UB40 are a common musical theme). Night-time can be rowdy as the holidaying Russians party hard.
I settle for a more serene late-afternoon and evening pastime, taking an Anamarranged art tour with Nguyen Hong Van, who used to own a gallery in the downtown tourist area, but now works as a guide since rents there quadrupled to US$1,500-2,500 per month, pricing local entrepreneurs out of the market. (Van is now preparing her own home to be a gallery.)
We visit four local artists – all paint or sculpt through a need to express themselves through their work. Sales are rare, but the work is excellent; while ex-soldier Ngo Thai Binh produces sometimes tortured, sometimes hauntingly beautiful outpourings of his inner grief or dreams, Le Huynh paints expressive landscapes from his travels throughout his beloved country.
Sculptor Bui trung Chinh uses unusual materials such as aluminium sheets, which he beats into symbolic pictures of local life and fires to create colour tones in the metal, or ground ostrich egg “sand” funnelled onto intricate sketches of transparent glue to create vibrant images. Then there’s husband and wife team Luu thanh Qua and Tran thi Bao Tran, who have managed to place some of their boisterously colourful work in hotels in Nha Trang – they sell from a few hundred US dollars upwards to US$1,500, but Luu still works in the army to make ends meet.
Refreshingly, I notice that these Vietnamese artists switch styles with ease, moving from abstract to classical forms confidently. A consistent theme throughout is a bold and joyful use of colour in all the artworks we see – a reflection of the vibrancy of the natural world in this lush tropical country.
Clockwise from far left: Hotels line Nha Trang beach; The Anam’s lagoon pool; Nha Trang Cathedral; local artists Luu thanh Qua and Tran thi Bao Tran; and the Po Nagar Cham ruins