Finally, the moment Madison and I have been waiting for: the Vietnam coast! The chain of land-locked cities we traveled through up until this point were great and all, but after growing up near the Oregon Coast you can only keep us away from the ocean for so long. Vietnam has many incredible beaches on its eastern coastline along the South China Sea. Being such a long and narrow country from north to south, it’s super easy for backpackers to scale the coastline and hit all of the popular beaches. Our first beach town destination would be Nha Trang.
From Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) we decided to take a plane to Cam Ranh International Airport located just 45 minutes south of Nha Trang. After the three eight-hour bus rides we had previously taken between Bangkok, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Saigon, we decided it’d be a welcome relief to simply book a domestic flight from Saigon to Nha Trang. The flight was only an hour and cost us $55, which was just a little more expensive than taking a bus or a train. Departing from Saigon around 11:30am and arriving at our Nha Trang hotel around 1pm also meant we still had most of the day to enjoy.
Nha Trang ended up being a small, condensed city with bustling streets and heavy traffic along the main road just parallel to the coastline. On the side of the main road opposite of the beach stood countless hotels including many that were still under construction. Given the new international wing of the Cam Ranh airport, Nha Trang has quickly become a tourist hotspot, and often the first city people fly into when traveling to Vietnam. A pretty even mix of young and older travelers give Nha Trang a party scene that is also very family-friendly. At one point Madison commented that the main coastal road reminded her of Las Vegas with its line of brightly lit hotels, crowds of people and never-ending activity. As you travel further into the city it becomes less touristy and more quiet and authentic. Another interesting characteristic of Nha Trang is its high Russian population. Since the opening of an international wing at the Cam Ranh airport, direct flights from Russia have increased in frequency. Many Russians looking for a low-cost escape from their cold winters have found solace in the warm waters of Nha Trang beach. It’s to the point where Vietnamese shopkeepers and restaurant owners have put a larger focus on their Russian patrons over their European/American ones. Where normally we’d see English and Vietnamese written on business signs and restaurant menus, in Nha Trang almost everything was advertised in Russian as well. Being in the middle of Vietnam, we found this to be an interesting little quirk.
Our two full days in Nha Trang were mostly spent on the beach and at the rooftop pool of our hotel. On one of our days out at the beach, we met someone our age who was from the Czech Republic. He was the first foreigner we had the chance to really hang out and talk with; it was fun questioning him on his home country while we also answered some of his questions about America. During our second full day, we also made a quick pilgrimage to Long Son Pagoda where stood a 24-meter white statue of the Buddha. Our last night in Nha Trang also happened to be Halloween night in Vietnam. We were a little surprised to see that they celebrated Halloween over here but quickly realized it was mainly for the benefit of tourists. Still, it made for a very celebratory night. After dinner on Halloween, we decided to try out a popular club on the beach called The Sailing Club. Entry was free which felt amazing to us because Halloween night in our American hometown definitely would’ve meant excessively high cover fees for entry into clubs. It was still relatively early — somewhere between 7-9pm — but the club was lively. People of all ages were gathered around dinner tables that were placed both inside and out on the beach behind the club. Alcohol was ubiquitous and a few people were orbiting the laser-lit dance floor while the DJ threw down some hard-hitting EDM. Madison and I grabbed a couple of drinks and sat on a ledge where we could easily people watch. At one point a younger guy our age came and sat next to us and started a conversation. He turned out to be from Seattle, Washington and had been living in Nha Trang for three months! It was nice speaking with someone from familiar territory. About 30 minutes later the tone of the music changed and a few fire dancers entered the scene. The dancers soon drew attention from the entire club out onto the beach where they gradually stepped into a multi-act performance. It was a surprisingly spectacular performance complete with even more fire dancers and an epic Halloween tribute at the end. We were not expecting this at all and it was now even harder to believe that entry into this club was free. Soon after the performance ended we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel.
Nha Trang ended up being a great introduction to coastal life in Vietnam. While a bit touristy we were just happy to have made it to one of the warm water beaches we had been so looking forward to. The next morning we awoke early to have breakfast and catch a flight to Da Nang.
503 kilometers along the Vietnam coast north of Nha Trang is the much larger city of Da Nang. After another hour-long flight, we arrived at our new hotel in the early evening. The view from our room revealed Da Nang to be a flat city surrounded by water and mountains. A few skyscrapers peppered the skyline of the inner portion of the city, while near the coastline stood several tall hotels and resorts, similar to Nha Trang. Our hotel — The Seashore Hotel — was located at the northern portion of the main strip of beach near the base of a massive peninsula called Son Tra Mountain. Further north on the other side of Son Tra Mountain is the Da Nang Bay, but we never saw this portion of the city during our stay. Instead, our main focus was the longer shoreline directly east of Da Nang which included the popular My Khe and Non Nuoc beaches. As usual, our first evening here was spent searching for good food and exploring the areas surrounding our hotel. We ate at a delicious vegetarian restaurant called Tamarind Tree (which we’d ended up returning to twice more during our stay) before walking the beach until sunset.
The next day we called a taxi and headed to one of the main attractions in Da Nang, the Marble Mountains. As the name suggests, the Marble Mountains are a group of marble and limestone mountains located towards the most southern portion of the city. All that we knew of these mountains upon arrival was that there were apparently several Buddhist shrines strewn throughout them, as well as a few viewpoints. Hiking through these mountains far exceeded our expectations. The entire trek was filled with picturesque temples, shrines, and networks of huge caves to explore. Inside these caves were even more shrines and statues depicting various Buddhist symbols. It was hard to put down our phones and stop taking pictures, but eventually we grew numb to all of the shrines and stair-climbing and decided to call it a day. We actually only made it through one of the five mountains that comprise the Marble Mountains, but it was the one mountain with the most to see and do. Attempting to hike all of the mountains is supposedly too ambitious for a single day.
Our last full day in Da Nang was spent lounging in and around our hotel pool and taking in views of the beach, as well as eating at our favorite restaurant and swimming in the sea around sunset. The next morning we prepared to hit our next destination, Hoi An. Before checking out of our hotel that morning we decided to walk further north up the beach to the base of Son Tra Mountain. We had planned on actually walking some distance up the mountain towards a really tall Buddhist statue that we could see from the beach, but we learned that the roadways were kind of dangerous to walk and were mostly inaccessible to anything other than motorbikes. On our way to the base of the mountain, however, we did pass by a fleet of fishing boats floating near the shoreline which made for some very picturesque moments along the beach. At around noon we finally decided to say goodbye to Da Nang, call a taxi and drive 45 minutes south to Hoi An where we’d be staying for a few nights.
Ever since landing in SEA it’s been a constant search for moments that make us feel like we are truly free of Western influence and immersed in authentic Asian culture. We had definitely found moments like that while in places like Siem Reap, but by and large, our trip up until this point involved the bigger cities that were culturally unique in their own right, but still kind of reminded us of home. Even in coastal cities like Nha Trang and Da Nang we had moments where we honestly felt like we could’ve been at any beach in the world. But then we entered Hoi An, a beautiful and enchanting little town just 45 minutes south of Da Nang. Hoi An is a city frozen in its ancient past. The main attraction is Old Town, a historically preserved quarter of the small city. Once we arrived in Hoi An and checked into our new accommodation, we immediately headed to Old Town. We ate a late lunch along the way, passed by locals going about their lives — greeting us kindly as we passed — and arrived in Old Town right around sunset. We were gradually drawn into the streets of Old Town by its liveliness and soft lighting. More and more foreigners could be seen the further down the streets we went. The buildings all began taking on a unique appearance, revealing its deep history of Chinese, French, and Japanese influences. Old Town’s charming atmosphere took complete hold of us as we finally entered the thick of it, and at this point, we were super happy we waited until night time to see it. Cars and motorbikes were no longer permitted this deep into Old Town. The streets became densely populated with pedestrians, and much quieter without the automobiles. Vibrant, colorful lanterns were strewn over the rooftops and walkways; people couldn’t help but to pull out their phones and attempt to capture the serenity that these lights offer. Chinese classical music played softly in the background. The streets were lined with shops and restaurants galore. A small river separates Old Town from another stretch of land where you can find the Night Market and even more restaurants and bars. All along the river, we could see little rowboats with colorful lanterns hung about them. For about $8 you can take a ride on one of these boats, which we ended up doing on one of the later days we were in Hoi An. We got dinner at one of the many restaurants in the area, walked around a bit more and headed back to the hotel for the night.
Thanks to the charm of the city and the random room upgrade our hotel gave us, we ended up staying in Hoi An for two more nights than originally planned. Over the course of the week that we spent in Hoi An, we were more active than we’d ever been in SEA. One day was spent exploring the rice farms and An Bang beach just north of the city. Another day was spent riding our bicycles (compliments of our hotel) seven kilometers to the Coconut Forest where we went on a personal basket boat tour on a narrow river. On our way back from the boat tour we stopped at An Bang beach again and swam in the sea until the weather turned ugly and we had to ride our bikes back in torrential rainfall. At one point, we also biked further south of Old Town and over a bridge to Cam Kim island where the face of tourism faded and a more authentic scene was revealed. Every night we made trips into Old Town for dinner, ice cream, and people-watching. We actually asked our hotel if we could stay one more night in our upgraded room but unfortunately, they were booked for the rest of the weekend. Reluctantly we booked our flight and hotel for our next destination and said goodbye to Hoi An.
The Vietnam coast was just what we needed after passing through some of the major cities of SEA. After Hoi An, the next city on our list was Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and after that is the legendary Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa. I’m actually writing the last bit of this post in the small mountain town of Sa Pa, our final destination in Vietnam, and I’m super excited to share our experience here!