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.
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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.
Many Vietnamese beach areas have seen recent surges in popularity, but Mui Ne takes the biscuit. Not so long ago this was a sleepy backwater ignored by domestic and international tourists alike, but the beach is now largely invisible from the coastal road, thanks to 10km of wall-to-wall resorts. The fact that Highway 1 juts inland before Mui Ne was the main factor behind it keeping off the radar for so long, but the secret was fully unveiled during an eclipse of the sun in the mid-1990s, which had its optimum viewing spot here. Now it’s popular as a weekend retreat for expats living in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as a favourite with upmarket visitors happy to pay $70 or more per day to lounge around in a luxurious resort. Many of these visitors are Russian – this is one of the only places in South East Asia in which Cyrillic text vies for supremacy with Roman.
There’s no doubt that its laidback atmosphere is one of its best features, but Mui Ne is also something of a tourist enclave, separated as it is from any Vietnamese community. This probably won’t bother you if you’re looking for unadulterated beachside relaxation, but if you crave interaction with locals or a higher-octane nightlife scene, you’d be better off heading on up to Nha Trang. Another potential problem at Mui Ne is that the strong winds and surf tend to erode parts of the beach between August and December, so you might just find the waves lapping onto the garden of your chosen resort. However, good stretches of soft sand can always be found with a little exploration.
Mui Ne is stretched along one main road – resorts make up most of the seaward side of the road, especially to the west of the curl; these peter out further east, where budget hotels start to pop up. All along, the non-seaward side of the road is made up of restaurants and cheap hotels. Heading further east, the beach finally disappears too, before the road reaches the actual village and harbour of Mui Ne, where fishing boats cluster together in their hundreds.
Anyone for golf
There are two decent golf courses in the Mui Ne area. First is the Ocean Dunes Golf Club, on the grounds of the Novotel in Phan Thiet. Larger and newer is the Sealinks Golf and Country Club, which sprawls across the hills at the entrance to Mui Ne. Both boast fabulous ocean views, and cost a shade under $100 per round, including caddy.
Though the number one activity at Mui Ne is relaxing on the beach, the place also attracts wind- and kitesurfers when the wind is up between August and April, and Mui Ne even hosts an event in the Asian Windsurf Tour each February. There are a number of establishments that offer equipment rental; the following also give lessons in windsurfing and kitesurfing, with an hour’s instruction costing around $40 for the former, and $60 for the latter.
Jibes 90 Nguyen Dinh Chieu w windsurf-vietnam.com.
Storm Mia Resort w stormkitesurfing.net.
Xuan Uyen 78 Nguyen Dinh Chieu t 062 384 7476.
Phan Rang and Thap Cham
Although PHan Rang is an unlovely place, whose western limits have fused with the neighbouring town of Thap Cham, the area is rich in historical attractions. The name of the latter, meaning “Cham Towers”, gives a clue to the primary reason for stopping here. This region of Vietnam once comprised the Cham kingdom of Panduranga, and the nearby remnants of Po Klong Garai are some of the best preserved in the country. The excellent Po Re Me towers – nearly as good – are also in the area. Tuan Tu, one of Vietnam’s most appealing Cham villages, lies near Phan Rang, as does Ninh Chu Beach, a glorious sweep of wide sand that is sometimes deliciously quiet on weekdays, but often overrun with Vietnamese at weekends.
The weathered but beguiling towers that punctuate the scenery upcountry from Phan Thiet to Da Nang are the only remaining legacy of Champa, an Indianized kingdom that ruled parts of central and southern Vietnam for over fourteen centuries. From murky beginnings in the late second century, Champa rose to unify an elongated strip from Phan Thiet to Dong Hoi, and by the end of the fourth century Champa comprised four provinces: Amaravati, around Hué and Da Nang; Vijaya, centred around Quy Nhon; Kauthara, in the Nha Trang region; and Panduranga, which corresponds to present-day Phan Thiet and up to Phan Rang. The unified kingdom’s first capital, established in the fourth century in Amaravati, was Simhapura ("Lion City"); nearby, just outside present-day Hoi An, My Son, Champa’s holiest site and spiritual heartland, was established.
To honour their gods, Cham kings sponsored the construction of the religious edifices that still stand today; the red-brick ruins of their towers and temples can be seen all along the coast of south-central Vietnam. While they never attained the magnificence of Angkor, their greatest legacy was a striking architectural style characterized by a wealth of exuberant sculpture. The typical Cham temple complex is centred around the kalan, or sanctuary, normally pyramidal inside, and containing a lingam, or phallic representation of Shiva, set on a dais that was grooved to channel off water used in purification rituals. Having first cleansed themselves and prayed in the mandapa, or meditation hall, worshippers would then have proceeded under a gate tower and below the kalan’s (normally) east-facing vestibule into the sanctuary. Any ritual objects pertaining to worship were kept in a nearby repository room, which normally sported a boat-shaped roof.
Cham towers crop up at regular intervals all the way up the coast from Phan Thiet to Da Nang, and many of them have been restored in recent years. A handful of sites representing the highlights of what remains of Champa civilization would include: Po Klong Garai towers; Thap Doi towers; Po Re Me Tower; My Son; Po Nagar towers.
Ninh Chu Beach
5km northeast of Phan Rang is Ninh Chu beach, a more indolent alternative to trekking around Phan Rang’s Cham towers. The beach is a reasonably clean and wide crescent of sand – soft, if not exactly golden. Ninh Chu doesn’t have the same pulling power for foreigners as Mui Ne or Nha Trang, but its beach is popular for swimming, sunbathing, beach games and jogging too. With several resorts located here, it’s worth considering as a place to rest up, particularly midweek, when it can be very quiet. If you’re here at a weekend, be prepared for crowds of families and noisy teenagers.
Po Klong Garai
Elevated with fitting grandeur on a granite mound known as Trau Hill, the Po Klong Garai Cham towers are a cut above anything in the town centre. Dating back to around 1400 and the rule of King Jaya Simharvarman III, the complex comprises a kalan, or sanctuary, a smaller gate tower and a repository, under whose boat-shaped roof offerings would have been placed. It’s the 25m-high kalan, though, that’s of most interest. From a distance its stippled body impresses; up close, you see a bas-relief of six-armed Shiva cavorting above doorposts etched with Cham inscriptions and ringed by arches crackling with stonework flames, while other gods sit cross-legged in niches elsewhere around the exterior walls.
Push deeper into the kalan’s belly and there’s a mukha lingam fashioned in a likeness of the Cham king, Po Klong Garai, after whom the complex is named. In days gone by, the statue of Shiva’s bull (Nandi) that stands in the vestibule would have been "fed" by farmers wishing for good harvests; nowadays it gets a feed only at the annual Kate Festival (the Cham New Year), a great spectacle if you’re here around October. On the eve of the festival, there’s traditional Cham music and dance at the complex, followed, the next morning, by a lively procession bearing the king’s raiment to the tower.
Slender Quang Ngai, clinging to the south bank of the Tra Khuc River some 130km south of Da Nang, is about as pleasant as you could expect of a town skewered until recently by Vietnam’s main highway. Though Highway 1, which once ripped through Quang Ngai, now skirts it to the east, the town is still a buzzing little place. The area had a long tradition of resistance against French rule, one that was to find further focus during American involvement. The reward was some of the most extensive bombing meted out during the war: by 1967, American journalist Jonathan Schell was able to report that seventy percent of villages in the town’s surrounding area had been destroyed. A year later, the Americans turned their focus upon Son My Village, site of the My Lai massacre.
Son My Memorial Park
In the sub-hamlet of Tu Cung, the site of an infamous massacre of civilians by American soldiers on March 16, 1968 is remembered at the Son My Memorial Park. Pacing through this peaceful and dignified place, set within a low perimeter wall, you’ll be accompanied by a feeling of blanched horror, and a palpable sense of the dead all around you. Wandering the garden, visitors can see bullet holes in trees, foundations of homes burnt down (each with a tablet recording its family’s losses), blown-out bomb shelters, and cement statues of slain animals. One path ends at a large, Soviet-style statue of a woman cradling a dead baby over her left arm while raising her right fist in defiance. Once you’ve seen the garden, step into the museum to view the grisly display upstairs, though be warned that it’s a disturbing place for anyone with a sensitive disposition. Here, beyond a massive marble plaque recording the names of the dead, family by family, and a montage of rusting hardware, a photograph gallery documents the event.
The My Lai Massacre
The massacre of civilians in the hamlets of Son My Village, the single most shameful chapter of America’s involvement in Vietnam, began at dawn on March 16, 1968. US Intelligence suggested that the 48th Local Forces Battalion of the NVA, which had taken part in the Tet Offensive on Quang Ngai a month earlier, was holed up in Son My. Within the task force assembled to flush them out was Charlie Company, whose First Platoon, led by Lieutenant William Calley, was assigned to sweep through My Lai 4 (known to locals as Tu Cung Hamlet). Recent arrivals in Vietnam, Charlie Company had suffered casualties and losses in the hunt for the elusive 48th, and always found themselves inflicted by snipers and booby-traps. Unable to contact the enemy face to face in any numbers, or even to distinguish civilians from Viet Cong guerrillas, they had come to feel frustrated and impotent. Son My offered the chance to settle some old scores.
At a briefing on the eve of the offensive, GIs were told that all civilians would be at market by 7am and that anyone remaining was bound to be an active Viet Cong sympathizer. Some GIs later remembered being told not to kill women and children, but most simply registered that there were to be no prisoners. Whatever the truth, a massacre ensued, whose brutal course Neil Sheehan describes with chilling understatement in A Bright Shining Lie:
The American soldiers and junior officers shot old men, women, boys, girls, and babies. One soldier missed a baby lying on the ground twice with a .45 pistol as his comrades laughed at his marksmanship. He stood over the child and fired a third time. The soldiers beat women with rifle butts and raped some and sodomised others before shooting them. They shot the water buffalos, the pigs, and the chickens. They threw the dead animals into the wells to poison the water. They tossed satchel charges into the bomb shelters under the houses. A lot of the inhabitants had fled into the shelters. Those who leaped out to escape the explosives were gunned down. All of the houses were put to the torch.
In all, the Son My body count reached 500, 347 of whom fell in Tu Cung alone. Not one shot was fired at a GI in response, and the only US casualty deliberately shot himself in the foot to avoid the carnage. The 48th Battalion never materialized. The military chain of command was able temporarily to suppress reports of the massacre, with the army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and even the New York Times branding the mission a success. But the awful truth surfaced in November 1969, through the efforts of former GI Ronald Ridenhour and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, and the incontrovertible evidence of the grisly colour slides of army photographer Ron Haeberle. When the massacre did finally make the cover of Newsweek it was under the headline "An American Tragedy" – which, as John Pilger pointed out, "deflected from the truth that the atrocities were, above all, a Vietnamese tragedy".
Of 25 men eventually charged with murder over the massacre, or for its subsequent suppression, only Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty, though he had served just three days of a life sentence of hard labour when Nixon intervened and commuted it to house arrest. Three years later he was paroled.
It’s all too easy to dismiss Charlie Company as a freak unit operating beyond the pale. A more realistic view may be that the very nature of the US war effort, with its resort to unselective napalm and rocket attacks, and its use of body counts as barometers of success, created a climate in which Vietnamese life was cheapened to such an extent that an incident of this nature became almost inevitable. If indiscriminate killing from the air was justifiable, then random killing at close quarters was only taking this methodology to its logical conclusion.
Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, whose Four Hours in My Lai remains the most complete account of the massacre, conclude that "My Lai’s exposure late in 1969 poisoned the idea that the war was a moral enterprise." The mother of one GI put it more simply: "I gave them a good boy, and they made him a murderer."
The Ba Ria Coast
As you move up the coast of Ba Ria province from Vung Tau, the beaches gradually get more enticing. Since the region is near to Ho Chi Minh City, you have to go quite a way before you escape the hordes of domestic tourists who head for the area at weekends and on public holidays, though weekdays can be blissfully quiet.
Ho Coc Beach
The new road continues to wind along the coast, fringed by casuarinas and sand dunes, until it reaches Ho Coc Beach. Ho Coc is a spellbinding, 5km stretch of wonderfully golden sand, dotted with coracles and large boulders, lapped by clear waters and backed by fine dunes. It’s still in the early stages of development, but you’ll be able to find a simple place to stay. As with most places around here, it gets crowded with day-trippers at the weekend but is practically deserted during the week.
The Con Dao Archipelago
Vietnam is book-ended to the south by the admirably unspoilt Con Dao Archipelago, a confetti-like spray of sixteen emerald-green islands, cast adrift in the South China Sea some 185km south of Vung Tau. The sleepy nature of the archipelago belies some tumultuous history – under French occupation, Con Dao was home to the most feared prison in the country, and haunting remnants of that time are still visible. However, more come here to get away from such negative thoughts, and since regular flights began early this century, the archipelago has taken its first steps to welcoming tourists.
Con Son island, the largest in the group, is a laidback get-away with some striking colonial buildings, alluring beaches and challenging treks in the rugged hills of the national park. Trekking in the national park, diving off the surrounding islands, watching sea turtles laying eggs and lounging on the uncrowded beaches are some of the alternative activities.
Brief history of Con Dao Archipelago
The British East India Company established a fortified outpost on Con Son in 1703. Had this flourished, the island may by now have been a more diminutive Hong Kong or Singapore, given its strategic position on the route to China. But within three years, the Bugis mercenaries (from Sulawesi) drafted in to construct and garrison the base had murdered their British commanders, putting paid to this early experiment in colonization. Known then as Poulo Condore, Con Son was still treading water when the American sailor John White spied its “lofty summits” a little over a century later, in 1819. White deemed it a decent natural harbour, though blighted by “noxious reptiles, and affording no good fresh water”.
The island finally found its calling when decades later the French chose it as the site of a penal colony for anti-colonial activists. Con Son’s savage regime soon earned it the nickname “Devil’s Island”. Prisoners languished in squalid pits called “tiger cages”, which featured metal grilles instead of roofs, from which guards sprinkled powdered lime and dirty water on the inmates. As the twentieth century progressed the colony developed into a sort of unofficial “revolutionary university”. Older hands instructed their greener cell-mates in the finer points of Marxist-Leninist theory, while the dire conditions they endured helped reinforce the lessons.
Hiking and Biking on Con Son
A hike along one of the island’s many trails in the national park may be more appealing than a tour of the prison. Some trails, such as one heading straight north to Ong Dung Beach, are well marked and can be followed independently, while others, such as to Thanh Gia Mountain, the island’s highest peak at 577m, require the services of a guide. Birdwatchers might be lucky enough to spot rare species such as the Red-billed Tropicbird or the Pied Imperial Pigeon. Make sure to take plenty of water and food, as there is nothing available outside the town. The Con Dao National Park headquarters are located north of the town centre at 29 Vo Thi Sau, and have information about hiking trails – it’s also possible to hire a guide here.
It’s also quite tempting to rent a scooter for the day, particularly if the relentless traffic elsewhere in Vietnam has so far put you off the idea. The roads are virtually empty, even in the middle of the village, for most of the day. You basically have two options: heading north from Con Son Town, you’ll pass the Six Senses resort and the airport before reaching Dam Trau beach, located down a side-trail branching off to the west. Alternatively, it’s an easy journey south to Ca Map Cape, at which point you’ll swing northwest towards the small settlement of Ben Dam where most of the fishing boats dock. Its population is an interesting mix of mostly sailors and prostitutes.
Connected by hydrofoil to Ho Chi Minh City, and therefore a default weekend bolt-hole for its stressed-out inhabitants, Vung Tau is a scruffy, and slightly seedy, but likeable place. “The Bay of Boats”, as its name translates, is located some 125km southeast of Ho Chi Minh City on a hammerheaded spit of land jutting into the mouth of the Saigon River. Once a thriving riviera-style beach resort, the city’s offshore oil industry and steadily growing port have transformed it into a more business-oriented conurbation, though residents of Ho Chi Minh City still flock here on weekends, when hotel rates rise. Locals are fond of swimming on the town’s beaches, but they’re all second-rate despite recent attempts to clean them up. However, the boardwalk along Bai Sau, known to seasoned expats as “Back Beach”, remains a pleasant place for an evening stroll, and perhaps a light seafood meal; “Front Beach”, where the ferries arrive, has more traffic and less appeal.
Brief history of Vung Tau
Portuguese ships are thought to have exploited the city’s deep anchorage as early as the fifteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth, French expats, who knew the place as “Cap Saint-Jacques”, had adopted it as a retreat from the daily rigmarole of Saigon, and set to work carving colonial villas into the sides of Nui Lon and Nui Nho, two low hills near the coast. Shifts in Vietnam’s political sands duly replaced French visitors with American GIs. With them gone, and the Communist government in power, the city became a favoured launch pad for the vessels that spirited away the boat people in the late 1970s.
Activities in Vung Tau
There are a couple of interesting ways to while away the time in Vung Tau.
Other than hiking on top of the hills of Nui Lon or Nui Nho, you can head to Ocean Park (daily 6.30am-5.30pm; free), which occupies a 700m beach frontage on Bai Sau, rents out watersports equipment, offers beach games, lifeguards, showers and a smart restaurant.
If you enjoy a flutter and are in town on a Saturday night, head for the Lam Son Stadium at15 Le Loi, Vietnam’s only venue for greyhound racing.
The Paradise golf course (t 064 382 3366) is a decent eighteen-hole range off Bai San; a round will cost about $95, including caddy.
The southern Binh Thuan coast
Binh Thuan province boasts but one popular tourist draw – the sands and resorts of Mui Ne. Most bypass the southern Binh Thuan coast entirely, but for those with their own wheels – or willing to brave the scarce public transport – there are a few things to see. From the Ba Ria coast, Highway 55 follows the windswept coast to Ham Tan, passing through cashew orchards with glimpses of huge sand dunes to your right. This route is so far off the beaten track that ox carts are almost as common as motorized vehicles. Occasional dirt tracks lead down to some fantastic stretches of deserted beach, where a few coracles pulled up beyond the tide level hint at human habitation. After passing Ham Tan, the coast road continues eastward; the landscape is beautiful, with remote fishing villages sheltered by coconut palms, and dragon-fruit orchards lining the road. This eventually veers away from the coast in the form of Highway 712 to join the unrelenting traffic of Highway 1 about 30km before Phan Thiet, a bustling yet essentially uninteresting city that few give any regard to on their way to Mui Ne.
Given its proximity to the highway, Ca Na is a more relaxing place than you would ever think. Hardly more than a wide spot in the road, this small town might even tempt you into staying overnight. Beyond the coracles parked along the beach the water is invitingly clear and snorkelling is a possibility, though you’d be wise to ask locals where to wade in as the coral here is razor sharp. If you crave a little more solitude, a spine of decent dunes back up another good stretch of sand 2km south; a fifteen-minute walk east of the resort area is Ca Na village itself, characterized by the blue fishing boats typical of coastal Vietnam.
A likeable little seaport town, Quy Nhon is set on a narrow stake of land harpooning the South China Sea. It’s a good place to get away from tourists – few come here, thanks in no small part to the fact that the local beach is both less dazzling than others along this coast, and a bit shallow for swimming. For more adventurous travellers, however, the lack of foreigners only adds to the town’s intrigue, and there are a few places worth checking out in the nearby area, including some superbly restored Cham towers. The beach makes a lovely place for a breezy evening stroll.
North of Quy Nhon, and within easy day-trip distance, are the Banh It towers, and the Cha Ban Citadel – both important remnants of Cham rule.
Brief history of Quy Nhon
Quy Nhon’s origins lie in the Cham migration south, at the start of the eleventh century, under pressure from the Vietnamese to the north. They named the empire they established in the area Vijaya, meaning “Victory”; its epicentre was the citadel of Cha Ban, though it was Quy Nhon – then known as Sri Bonai – that developed into its thriving commercial centre. Centuries later, the Tay Son Rebellion boiled over in this neck of the woods. During the American War the city served as a US port and supply centre, and was engorged by refugees from the vicious bombing meted out to the surrounding countryside.