Vietnam’s convex southern coastline is lined with seemingly endless beaches that, for many, are reason enough to visit the country. The main resort areas of Nha Trang and Mui Ne have seen their popularity explode, and are now adding culinary sophistication and top-drawer accommodation to their coastal charms. There are also a number of less-heralded beaches to track down, and even a few islands, but the region also has historical significance – this was once the domain of the kingdom of Champa, whose magnificent ruins still dot the coast.
An Indianized trading empire, Champa was courted in its prime by seafaring merchants from around the globe, but steadily marginalized from the tenth century onwards by the march south of the Vietnamese. These days a few enclaves around Phan Thiet and Phan Rang are all that remain of the Cham people, but the remnants of the towers that punctuate the countryside – many of which have recently been restored – recall Champa’s former glory.
Despite the influx of tourism, sea fishing is the region’s lifeblood and provides a living for a considerable percentage of the population. Fleets of fishing boats jostle for space in the cramped ports and estuaries of the coastal towns, awaiting the turn of the tide; and fish and seafood drying along the road are a common sight. The fertile soil blesses the coastal plains with coconut palms, rice paddies, cashew orchards, sugar cane fields, vineyards and shrimp farms. One of the most commonly seen fruits here, especially around Phan Thiet, is the dragon fruit, which grows on plants with distinctive, octopus-like tentacles.
Vietnam’s southernmost beaches are not on the southern coast at all, but on the former French prison islands of Con Dao. While many beaches are now experiencing high-octane development, Con Dao retains a laidback, unhurried air that tempts many to stay far longer than they’d planned. Back on the mainland, the first town of note is Vung Tau, once a French seaside resort, and now a smart, oil-rich town with passable beaches; much better beaches can be found further up the coast at places like Ho Coc. In reality, few travellers have the time or inclination to meander along the beaches between Vung Tau and Mui Ne, but with your own transport and an adventurous spirit you’ll find somewhere to pace out a solitary set of footprints in the pristine sand.
You’ll never be alone at Mui Ne, a short skirt up the coast. Very recently, this was virtually unheard of, but its transition from being the country’s best-kept secret to one of its most high-profile resorts happened almost overnight. It’s perhaps a sign of things to come for Vietnamese tourism – slick resorts rubbing shoulders along a fine sweep of soft sand, looking out over aquamarine waters. This tourist enclave attracts a steady stream of overseas visitors, as well as providing an idyllic short break for Ho Chi Minh City’s expats and growing middle-class. Those for whom a day sunbathing is a day wasted will prefer to make a little more headway, and rest up around Phan Rang, site of Po Klong Garai, the most impressive of the many tower complexes erected by the once-mighty empire of Champa. The nearby beaches at Ninh Chu and Ca Na aren’t quite in the same league as Mui Ne, but both make appealing options for a bit of peace and quiet.
North of Phan Rang, Highway 1 ploughs through sugar-cane plantations, blinding white salt flats and shrimp farms on its way into Nha Trang. Here travellers can enjoy the best of both worlds – a combination of Cham towers and beach activities, the latter including diving and snorkelling trips. Nha Trang also has the southern coast’s greatest range of accommodation and restaurants, and is a deservedly popular place. Other more secluded beaches that warrant an expedition further north include Doc Let and Sa Huynh, while for a little more civilization, Quy Nhon makes a useful halt above Nha Trang. The scars of war tend not to intrude too much along this stretch of the country, though many visitors make time to visit Quang Ngai, where Vietnam’s south-central arc of coastline culminates, and view the sombre site of the notorious My Lai massacre perpetrated by US forces in 1968.