Covering much of the ancient Kingdom of Champa, South Central Vietnam has a densely populated coast scattered with fishing towns and beaches, and a hinterland inhabited by indigenous peoples.
Under the steady influence of seaborne trade, Champa emerged during the 4th century AD as a powerful kingdom. At its peak, it extended from the Ngang Pass in the north to present-day Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong River Delta in the south. From AD 1000, its power dwindled. By the late 18th century, only tiny Panduranga, extending from Phan Rang to Phan Thiet, held out, but it too fell to the Vietnamese in 1832. Today, Champa’s remains, in the form of towers and temples, cluster in the hills of the South Central region. Cham peoples still live in the old region of Panduranga.
A bustling city and major fishing port, Nha Trang is also Vietnam’s primary beach resort. The busy Cho Dam market is at the city’s heart, while the outside town is the hot springs of Thap Ba and Ba Ho.
Long Son Pagoda
The most revered pagoda in Nha Trang, Long Son sits on the summit of Trai Thuy Hill. Destroyed by a typhoon at the beginning of the 20th century, it was restored several times, most recently in 1940. It is dedicated to the memory of the numerous Buddhist monks who were killed during or died protesting against the repressive regime of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem (1955–63). Today, it remains a functioning pagoda, with monks in residence.
The pagoda is distinctly Sino-Vietnamese in style and is decorated with elaborate dragons and ceramic tiles. The main sanctuary is dominated by a giant white sculpture of the Buddha, dating from the 1960s. Seated behind the temple at the top of the hill, the sculpture is reached via 150 steep steps. From here, there are panoramic views over Nha Trang and the neighboring countryside. Another large white Buddha, this time reclining, is located halfway up the steps on the right. It was sculpted by an artisan from Thailand in 2003
Nha Trang Cathedral
The seat of the Catholic Diocese of Nha Trang, this church was built in provincial French Gothic style in the 1930s. Stained glass windows look onto colonnaded cloisters running the length of each side of the building. The three cathedral bells, cast in France in 1786, are still in fine working order.
Nha Trang has a fine beach, almost 4 miles (7 km) long and sheltered by headlands to its north and south. Tran Phu Street follows its entire length, providing a lovely promenade with great views across the bay. The Esplanade area has many hotels and restaurants on the inland side, and numerous cafés and food stalls between the road and the sea. Note that in high season the beach may be less pristine than at the off-peak time.
Alexandre Yersin Museum
The Swiss physician Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943) moved to Vietnam in 1891 after studying in Paris under the renowned microbiologist Louis Pasteur. He quickly became fluent in Vietnamese and was involved in the founding of Dalat as a hill station in 1893. Yersin introduced cinchona trees to the country for the production of the anti-malarial drug quinine. His most significant achievement came in 1894 when he identified the microbe that causes bubonic plague.
The museum, located in Yersin’s former office within the Pasteur Institute, displays his lab equipment, desk, and books. Still operational, the institute produces vaccines and conducts medical research.
Po Nagar Cham Towers
Dedicated to the goddess Yang Ino Po Nagar and one of the most important Cham sites in Vietnam, Po Nagar dates to the 8th century, when it was built by the kings of the Cham principality Kauthara. Although a Cham goddess, Yang Ino Po Nagar is now very much a patron goddess of Nha Trang, venerated by ethnic Viet and Chinese Buddhists, as well as by local Cham Hindus. Of the original eight towers, four remain standing. Built in 817, Thap Chinh, the North Tower, is the most impressive. It houses an image of the Hindu goddess Uma in her incarnation as Po Nagar. At the entrance, her consort, the Hindu god Shiva, dances on the back of his holy mount, the sacred bull Nandi. The columns of a ruined meditation hall also still stand and a small museum displays Cham artifacts.
AROUND NHA TRANG
Ba Ho Stream
A terrific spot for a picnic, Ba Ho Stream or Suoi Ba Ho rises on the flanks of Hon Long Mountain and then runs east to the South China Sea. The river widens into three adjoining pools, which make for excellent but cold swimming, and each pool is linked to the next by a tumbling cascade of water. There are very few facilities, so take along food and drink. On weekends, the area here can be very busy as it is popular with locals.
Sheltered in the lee of Chut Mountain or Nui Chut, Cau Da is a suburb of Nha Trang and is the main pier for ferries and boat trips to the islands. Boat trips are operated by many companies and can cost less than $10 including lunch and snorkeling equipment (this does not include extra fees to go ashore on some islands, and boats are often crowded)
The Oceanographic Institute, housed in a colonial mansion near the pier, displays an extensive collection of marine specimens.
Hon Chong Promontory
Just north of Nha Trang, a stack of boulders named Hon Chong thrusts into the sea, creating a headland that shelters the beach. One of the rocks bears five indentations, said to be the handprint of a giant. The bay is picturesque – though unsuitable for swimming because of several fishing villages in the area – with views of Nha Trang Bay to the south and the mountainous coastline to the north. Nui Co Tien, or Heavenly Woman Mountain, said to resemble the female physiognomy, is to the west. As well as superb views, Hon Chong is a great place for affordable seafood.
Thap Ba Hot Springs
Locals and visitors alike gather to wallow in the hot, muddy waters of Thap Ba. The mud is full of sodium silicate chloride and is thought to be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. It is also said to promote general relaxation. Bathers make a point of rubbing the curative mud all over their bodies and sit in the sun until it dries and cracks. They then wash the mud off with clean, hot mineral water. Various types of water massage are also on offer, and mineral water swimming pools are available for a postmudbath dunk.
BEACHES AROUND NHA TRANG
At the northern end of a long sandy peninsula, Dai Lanh is an idyllic, practically deserted beach mostly surrounded by mountains. It was clear, calm water, which offers safe swimming conditions.
Sheltered by Van Phong Bay, Hon Ong, or Whale Island, is isolated, pristine, and known for fine diving. It’s a good place to see plenty of marine life.
Still relatively untouched by tourism, Doc Let is a magnificent white-sand beach. Jungle Beach, popular with backpackers, is a short motorbike ride away.
About 1 mile (2 km) off the coast, Hon Lao, popularly known as Monkey Island due to its large population of wild monkeys, has a lovely beach with calm water.
Dominated by a 600-ft (180-m) hill, Hon Tre or Bamboo Island is the largest of the islands near Nha Trang. On the northeast coast, the white sands of Bai Tru Beach are home to the luxurious Vinpearl Resort.
Regular ferries link Cau Da with the fishing village of Tri Nguyen on Hon Mieu, the closest of the islands in the archipelago. The local aquarium is more of a fish farm, with a café serving seafood overlooking the concrete pools. A gravel beach is nearby at Bai Soi.
Renowned for the best snorkeling in the archipelago due to a large number of coral reefs, Hon Mun is the place to see a wide variety of tropical sea life.
Also known as Silkworm Island due to its green silkworm-shaped appearance, this island of tropical forests, stunning beaches, and clear water, is home to a large eco-resort.
The smallest island in the Nha Trang gulf, Hon Mot is popular for snorkeling due to its shallow waters and coral reefs.
With its cool climate, Dalat was a popular summer retreat for French colonists seeking an escape from the heat of the plains in the early 20th century. Today it draws tens of thousands of Vietnamese honeymooners and holidaymakers, who come for the clean air and beautiful scenery, plus the abundant fresh produce, wine, and local crafts. A short drive away are several impressive waterfalls.
Xuan Huong Lake
This crescent-shaped lake right in the town center was created by a dam in 1919 and rapidly became the central promenade for the Dalat bourgeoisie. Once called Le Grand Lac by the French, it was later renamed in honor of Ho Xuan Huong, the celebrated 18th-century Vietnamese female poet whose name means Essence of Spring. Paddling around the waters in a swan-shaped pedal-boat or a more traditional kayak is the most popular activity on the lake. A pleasant walk or cycle along the 4-mile (7-km) shore passes the town’s Flower Gardens on the north shore.
Dedicated to St Nicholas and adding yet another French touch to this Gallic-inspired hill station, Dalat’s Catholic cathedral was established to meet the spiritual needs of the colonists and the many local converts. Construction began in 1931 and was not complete until the Japanese invasion of the 1940s, an event which signaled the beginning of the end of French Indochina. The church has a 155-ft (47-m) spire and vivid stained-glass windows manufactured in 1930s France.
Hang Nga (Nga’s Crazy House)
You will either love or hate the “Crazy House,” as this striking guesthouse is called by locals. Constructed first of wood and wire, it was then covered with concrete to form a treehouse. With giant toadstools, oversized cobwebs, tunnels, and ladders, it is a monstrosity to some and a charming miniature Disneyland to others, especially children. For a small fee, visitors can poke around unoccupied rooms, including one in the belly of a concrete giraffe. Dr. Dang Viet Nga, the owner, and architect, is the daughter of the former senior Communist Party hardliner Truong Chinh.
Bao Dai’s Summer Palace
The last Nguyen Emperor, Bao Dai, regarded as a powerless puppet of the French, lived in Dalat from 1938 until 1945, where he spent much of his time hunting and womanizing. The Summer Palace was built in 1933–8 in a curious, semi-nautical Art Nouveau style, and, with just 25 rooms, it is far from palatial. Visitors can browse the memorabilia on display, which includes Bao Dai’s desk and an etched glass map of Vietnam.
Dalat Train Station
Built-in 1932 in imitation of the station at Deauville in France, Dalat Train Station retains its original Art Deco design. Bombing during the Vietnam War closed the line, but after restoration, a Russian engine now travels the picturesque 5-mile (8-km) route to the village of Trai Mat four to five times daily if there are sufficient passengers.
Lam Dong Museum
This museum traces the rich history of Dalat and its surroundings. Exhibits include pottery from the Funan and Champa kingdoms, musical instruments, traditional local costumes, and photographs. The museum is located in front of a 1935 French-style villa, which was the home of Bao Dai’s wife, Empress Nam Phuong.
Thien Vuong Pagoda
Built by the local Chinese community in 1958, this hilltop pagoda, which has monks in residence, comprises three low, wooden buildings set attractively amid pine trees. In the main sanctuary stand three big sandalwood statues, with Thich Ca, the Historical Buddha, forming the centerpiece.
Linh Phuos Pagoda
This temple fuses Buddhist architecture with surreal elements reminiscent of Gaudí’s buildings. The whole pagoda is covered in bright mosaics. Within the grounds, you’ll find a large dragon with scales made from 12,000 empty beer bottles. The tall bell tower is inlaid with broken rice bowls and contains what is believed to be the heaviest bell in Vietnam.
Renowned for the large and rather bizarre statue of a cockerel that stands at its center, Chicken Village, known locally as Lang Ga, draws a large number of sightseers. It is inhabited by the K’ho people, who eke out a living growing fruit and coffee and making textiles. The village lies just off the highway between Dalat and the coast, and tour buses stop regularly to allow visitors to watch the K’ho women weave and to buy their wares.
Made up of nine hamlets, Lat Village is inhabited mainly by members of the Lat ethnic minority, part of the K’ho tribe, but also by the Ma and Chill. The villagers, once impoverished, are now better off as a result of tourism. The attraction here is the local weaving and embroidery. There are some fine bargains, but be prepared to haggle.
Dalat Cable Car and Thien Vien Truc Lam
The Dalat Cable Car hangs across 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of picturesque villages, farmland, and majestic mountain forests, providing panoramic views all the way to Thien Vien Truc Lam, or Bamboo Forest Meditation Center. This Zen monastery was built in 1993 and houses about 180 monks and nuns. The temple overlooks Paradise Lake, which offers an abundance of free picnic tables and chairs.
Set in the pineforested hills to the southwest of Dalat, Datanla Falls are only a short distance from town and a pleasant 15minute walk from Highway 20. The falls, which tumble down a ravine in two cascades, is a popular destination with Vietnamese tourists. You can either walk down to the falls or ride a roller coaster – for some, this is the chief attraction – that brings you lower into the waterfall area. The surrounding countryside of primitive rain forests is stunning. Note that it is not worth making the visit during the dry season.