67. Serendipity on the Beach at Nha Trang

The oceanside beach city of Nha Trang delivers golden sands, thrilling water sports and wonderful new friends.

Danphi paces the shore at Bai Tranh island, searching for shells for her nephew. (JGA photo)

Travel is at its absolute finest when it meshes with serendipity — “the occurrence and development of events by chance, in a happy or beneficial way,” according to my Oxford dictionary. That’s been my life ever since I arrived in Nha Trang, the seaside resort capital of southern Vietnam, early on Saturday morning.

You might not have thought that, had you seen the scowl on my face when I disembarked from an overnight “sleeper” bus after an nine-hour ride from Ho Chi Minh City. “Sleeper”? I should have been so lucky.

As it turned out, my 5 a.m. arrival forced me to take a long midday nap, which led later that same afternoon to an unintended conversation with a driver who was exactly the person I needed to know. Minh took me to the local historical and cultural sites that were at the tơp of my visit list. Better yet, he knew somebody who knew somebody. Isn’t that the way it goes?

On Monday, as a direct result, I got my very first taste of scuba diving, long after some of my best friends had taken up the sport. Although I’ve snorkeled since I was 17, I may never be satisfied with mere snorkeling again.

Serendipity also led me to a gypsy like myself, a beautiful and well-traveled Vietnamese woman who previously lived in the United States. To say we “hit it off” would be an understatement. That first night, after diving with her sister and nephew, we met for dinner along with her mother and young son. The next day, Tuesday, Đanphi took me home to the family farm, where I met other aunts and uncles and cousins. Now I feel as though I’m practically a member of the family.

Beachfront hotels in Nha Trang, many built by Russian and Chinese investors, have suffered during the Covid pandemic. (JGA photo)

A glorious morning

If you know me, you know that I’m not a morning person. Eight a.m. ís an early wakeup call. When I got to my hotel, not even the night watchman was awake. So I left my bags and walked a couple of hundred meters to Nha Trang’s celebrated beach.

The municipal strand at Nha Trang (pronounced nyaa-chang) extends for 6 kilometers (about 3.7 miles) down the shore of the South China Sea, known to Vietnamese as Biển Đông, the East Sea. It’s a golden crescent of gently sculpted coastline, buffered from a hotel strip by a beautifully landscaped promenade. It reminds me of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki Beach — not today’s boulevard, but the one I experienced when I lived in Honolulu as a young man in the 1970s and Vietnam was not a place I wanted to go.

My initial, pre-dawn impression was necessarily obscure. It was dark, after all. But I wasn’t alone. Dozens of early-morning fitness addicts were already running, doing calisthenics, and practicing yoga or tai chi. A Falun Gong club were synchronizing their steps to martial music. The shadows of stealthy swimmers rippled across the crests of gentle waves lapping the sands. Vietnamese don’t like strong sunlight, but they love the beach.

If there ever was a right time for an interlude of meditation, this was it. And as I sat cross-legged in the sand, mindfully breathing, gazing across the seas to the east, the buttery glow of a glorious sunrise began to present itself. It framed Hôn Tre island like a Creamsicle, banana yellow wrapped in papaya orange. This daybreak I won’t soon forget.

Minh offers a victory salute outside the venerated Long Son pagoda. (JGA photo)

In like Flynn

I had set out at Christmas time to devote a couple of months to exploring the length of Vietnam, armed with several magazine assignments focusing on the nation’s history. After leaving Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Nha Trang was my first stop. In this city of half a million people, my special interest was Po Nagar, a millennium-old Hindu shrine that is a remnant of the ancient Cham empire. It stands atop a low bluff overlooking the Cai River at the north end of the city. I’ll talk about it in my next blog.

That first day in Nha Trang, I struggled from my hotel bed around 2 in the afternoon and found my way to a local noodle shop, where I was revived by a healthy bowl of phở tái nạm. Considering it too late to trek across the city to the Cham ruin, or even to the acclaimed Long Son pagoda, I was headed back to the beach when I struck up a conversation with Vietnam’s answer to Errol Flynn.

Not only was Minh fluent in English; he had swagger, a trait that suited this 57-year-old. With his white hair and pencil-thin mustache, he was dapper even in open-toed sandals. After I told him what I wanted to see in the city, he suggested I climb aboard his motorbike, and off we went. He welcomed the opportunity, he said, to escape his “dragon lady” wife for a few hours. “She was a nice girl when I met her,” he apologized, “but five children later … ”

Over the next two days, Minh took me all over Nha Trang as he described the impact the Covid virus has had upon business here. With international tourism at a standstill, many of the leading hotels — products of Russian, Chinese and Korean investment — are currently closed, marginally open with skeleton staffs, or under suspended construction. There is hope they may be fully reopen again in mid-2022. (As an aside, if you want a tour guide for your visit to Nha Trang, drop me a line and I’ll share Minh’s phone number.)

John, Danphi and Nobito listen to a dive master’s instructions before donning scuba gear. (Cam Quyen photo)

Six hours, four islands

I told Minh that I would like to get out on the water during my Nha Trang visit. The bay was framed with beautiful wooded islands that were calling my name. I wanted to leave the urban jungle for just a few hours. Did he know anyone with a boat?

Of course he did. He knew Tj Lê. Tj owns a tidy tour company that welcomed the opportunity to take me on a six-hour tour (the Minnow times two) for the price of 700,000 Vietnam dong (about US $30). The “Four Islands Tour” was just what I was looking for.

I didn’t know it until I had arrived at Tj’s agency, but he had invited three others to join the trip: his cousins Đanphi, 42, and Quyên, 35, and Quyên’s 8-year-old son Nobito. Within five minutes, we had bonded.

From Nha Trang’s Cau Đa harbor, just around a low headland at the southern end of the city beach, our small motorized launch voyaged past tiny Hôn Môt to Hôn Mun, where we pulled up alongside a fully equipped dive boat. I had anticipated that we might snorkel a bit. Instead my new friends immediately encouraged a new adventure.

Danphi emerges from her first scuba diving experience with a smile on her face. (JGA photo)

Far from the shallow now

I don’t know why I never took up scuba diving as a younger man. Perhaps I was always too busy to invest the time. Now, I had no such excuse. Even before Đanphi, Nobito and I listened to our dive master’s words on procedure and safety, I had already slid into an extra large-sized wetsuit.

I was fitted with a weight belt, a mask and a regulator for breathing, which I clenched between my teeth much like a snorkel. I didn’t need gloves, fins or a depth gauge, as I would be accompanied by a personal instructor, and we wouldn’t be going deeper than 6 meters (20 feet). I backed down a ladder and slipped into a vest with an air tank. (SCUBA is an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.”) In the buoyant salt-water environment, it wasn’t at all heavy.

We swam together toward a coral bank. A stunning, cobalt-blue sea star briefly stole my attention. Soon, we approached a mantle of lilac-purple coral overlying a rocky reef. Schools of tiny but colorful butterfly fish flitted above staghorn fragments that covered the sea floor.

It was beautiful, to be sure, though not as prolific in sea life as I had experienced when snorkeling in Hawaii or along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But my perspective may have been colored by aural discomfort in deeper water. Although I did as my instructor advised, and held my nose while breathing to relieve pressure, I only got relief when I surfaced. After three or four rounds of this, and perhaps 15 minutes in the water, we returned to the boat. Now I’m ready to try it over again.

We had lunch at a floating fish farm off Hòn Tằm island, choosing a handsome squid from an open tank and having it prepared three ways. Then we cruised to the isolated Bãi Tranh island resort, where Nobito busied himself with shell-collecting and Quyên relaxed in the shade as Đanphi and I swam in the tranquil surf.

Nobito plays on the Bai Tranh beach looking toward Hon Tam island. (JGA photo)

The farmer’s daughter

A couple of hours after our return to Nha Trang, rested and cleaned up, Đanphi called me. “Let’s have pizza,” she said. And we did, with the whole family.

The next morning, a half dozen of us piled into a taxi and drove 30 minutes out of the city to the farm. Bright green carpets, the shoots of young rice, rose above acres of flooded padis as soon as we left the urban grid. Lone farmers wearing nón lá, traditional cone-shaped, palm-leaf hats, trod the dikes between each field, monitoring the crops. Snowy cattle egrets, almost indistinguishable from fluttering white marker flags, searched for their meals of insects, frogs and freshwater crabs in channels that kept the plants nourished.

“This is my family’s rice field,” said Đanphi, who grew up here. She was raised through high school in the farming village of Diên Đồng. Aunts and uncles and cousins live in a string of modern Viet-style houses, surrounded by fruits and vegetables and farm animals.

As soon as we arrived, she introduced me around. One aunt immediately took me by the arm and pointed to a mural of Jesus Christ on the wall of her home. “Do you know him?” she asked with her few words of English. “Of course,” I replied. “I love him so much,” she said. In this heavily Buddhist nation, I had found a family of Christians.

Danphi’s aunt displays pear-sized green guavas, freshly picked in her farm’s orchard. (JGA photo)

Đanphi’s mother asked me to help with the cooking. Quyên would have none of that. So I relaxed until lunch. Our dining table was the kitchen floor. We gathered for a feast of rice, green vegetables from the garden, chicken and eggs from the farm, soup boiled with pork from the market.

In the afternoon, after a short nap, we visited other relatives. I had a Saigon Special Beer with one cousin, a master woodworker, now 33, whom Đanphi told me she had often babysat when he was a child. I met another, a young woman, who asked Đanphi if I could help find a man for her, too.

I drove a cousin’s motorbike to the farm, where we picked fresh guavas (Ổi) and ate them green, sliced and dipped in a mixture of salt and dry ground chilies. Five small dogs gathered at our feet, competing for table scraps. Two haughty white geese kept intruders from the chicken and pigeon coops. One of them waddled boldly up to me, grabbed my T-shirt with its bill, and began yanking. I laughed.

“Please come back for the Tet holiday,” Đanphi said. “The Lunar New Year is the first of February this year.” Perhaps I will.

John squats on the floor with the rest of the family to enjoy a hearty Vietnamese farm lunch. (Danphi’s mom photo)
The sun rises over Nha Trang beach and Hon Tre island. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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