Danang and Nha Trang can feel a world away from Vietnam’s well-trodden destinations like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Though both towns have been mainstays on the backpacker circuit in the past, today they’re making a broader name among all kinds of travelers as two of the country’s up-and-coming destinations.
Both cities are blessed with stunning natural environments, great sweeps of white-sand beaches, island-studded waters and dramatic mountain ranges. The influx of international tourists to each city in recent years, due to major airport upgrades, has seen them develop more sophisticated and varied travel experiences.
This is no longer fly-over country and should be an essential part of any tour of Vietnam.
On the shores of its eponymous bay, Nha Trang is Vietnam’s version of a glitzy stretch of coast — a stripped down Miami Beach or Australia’s Gold Coast. High-rise developments line the shoreline, and almost endless traffic streams along its beach road.
Clusters of umbrellas and deck chairs occupy Tran Phu beach, each vendor jealously guarding his territory. They can be rented for around $10 a day, and most of the operators sell drinks, food and access to water sports like surfing, jet skiing or paragliding.
Nha Trang is famous for its seafood, particularly its oysters and lobster. Most of the countless local seafood restaurants display their wares in tanks out front, so it’s a simple matter of choosing what you want and how you want it prepared.
For something more stylish, Steam ‘n’ Spice at the Sheraton Nha Trang Hotel & Spa serves up Pan-Asian cuisine from its two show kitchens. One of these kitchens is dedicated to making fresh dim sum to order and hand-pulled lo mein noodles.
An old-school bar in the heart of Nha Trang’s nightlife district, Crazy Kim’s beer is cold and the soundtrack is classic rock. It’s worth stopping in as the proprietor is something of a local legend for her decades of work running programs supporting local disadvantaged and at-risk youth.
A few years ago Crazy Kim’s teamed up with Rainbow Divers, another local institution now located in the same building. The self-proclaimed first dive shop in Vietnam, Rainbow Divers offers a full range of dive training courses and day trips to the surrounding islands.
Sailing Club is the place to be on the weekend. Akin to a European beach club, it serves modern Western and Vietnamese cuisine. Sip a cocktail on one of the comfy lounges or dance on the sand as DJs perform atop the beach stage.
Danang’s center straddles the Han River, while the eastern part of the city stretches all the way to My Khe Beach. It’s often referred to as Vietnam’s “model city” because of its modern skyline; wide, well-planned streets; and progressive administration.
The city is famous for its seven bridges, particularly the Cau Long, or Dragon Bridge. 7 Bridges is also the moniker of a local craft brewer and taproom. The craft beer scene has exploded in Vietnam, yet 7 Bridges is the first home-grown brewer outside of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.
Mountains ring the city’s northern perimeter, and the road to the Hai Van Pass is one of the world’s most stunning coastal drives, as it curves its way along the dramatic coastline. Some hardy souls make the trip by bicycle, but the breathtaking vista is worth the effort.
To treat yourself afterward, head to Sheraton Grand Danang Resort’s Shine Spa. The seven treatment rooms and beachfront location with views of the South China sea are made for pampering, and the service is beyond indulgence.
The An Thuong neighborhood in the city’s southwest is coming into its own as hip, quirky places to eat and drink pop up. Cohibar is a funky venue with an extensive cocktail and wine list, while nearby Minsk Bar exudes a relaxed reggae vibe with its thatched roof and Bob Marley memorabilia.
Tucked away down a small lane, Taco Ngon is the work of an enterprising group of young Vietnamese people. A hidden gem, it is all about tacos (“ngon” is the Vietnamese word for delicious). The crispy fish taco with wasabi slaw is positively life changing.