The Southern Coast Travel Guide

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Beaches are, for many travellers, the primary reason for a visit to Southeast Asia, and in Vietnam they’re most prevalent along the country’s convex southern coastline. The main resort areas of Nha Trang and Mui Ne have both seen their popularity go through the roof of late, with ubiquitous Cyrillic- and Chinese- language signage showing that the area’s popularity has transcended the West; to sate this demand, each of these places have added plenty of culinary sophistication and top-drawer accommodation to their existing coastal charms. There are also a number of less-heralded beaches to track down, and even a few islands, but the region has ample historical significance too – 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 became steadily marginalized from the tenth century onwards by the march south of the Vietnamese. Discover the best of what this region has to offer, with our Southern Vietnam Travel Guide.

Southern Vietnam’s top cultural attractions

Seven of the best things to see and do from our Southern Vietnam Travel Guide.

  1. Con Dao Archipelago

    These islands once hosted Vietnam’s most feared prison, but now welcome divers, trekkers and beach bums alike.

  2. Mui Ne

    Stay in a fancy resort at Mui Ne and spend your time kitesurfing in the breezy bay.

  3. Ca Na beach

    Everyone knows about Nha Trang and Mui Ne, but the southern coast still has a few virtually deserted beaches – this pristine stretch being one such example.

  4. Cham architecture

    Get up close to the impressive Po Klong Garai towers, just outside Phan Rang, or check out the other Cham structures in the region.

  5. Underwater activities

    Snorkel or dive in the clear waters off the islands near Nha Trang.

  6. Mud baths

    Soak in a mud bath at the Thap Ba Hot Springs near Nha Trang.

  7. Quy Nhon

    Spend time exploring this unsung beach city, which has great seafood, some of the coast’s best Cham ruins and a chilled-out vibe.

What to see in Southern Vietnam

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 also 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 the Con Dao Archipelago. While many beaches elsewhere 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 place of note is Vung Tau, once a French seaside resort, and now a smart, oil-rich town with passable beaches – much better ones can be found further up the coast. 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. Other more secluded beaches that warrant an expedition further north include Doc Let, while 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.

Just a short way up the coast, you’ll find it impossible to be alone in Mui Ne itself. It was almost unheard of until very recently, when 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, and also provides an idyllic short break for Ho Chi Minh City’s expats and growing middle-class. Those who feel that a day sunbathing is a day wasted will prefer to rest up around Phan Rang, site of Po Klong Garai, the most impressive of the many tower complexes erected by the once-mighty Champa empire.

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.

Vung Tau

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 several interesting ways to while away the time in Vung Tau.

Watersports

Vung Tau Beach Club - This team rents out watersports equipment, and also offers classes through their “Surf Station”.

Greyhound racing

If you enjoy a flutter and are in town on a Saturday or Sunday night, head for the Lam Son Stadium at 15 Le Loi, Vietnam’s only venue for greyhound racing.

Golf

The Paradise golf course is a decent 27-hole range off San Beach.

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.

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.

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.

Mui Ne

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.

Mui Ne Outdoor Activites

Though the number one activity in Mui Ne is relaxing on the beach, there’s a lot more to do besides. The place has become hugely popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers, and there are also a couple of good golf courses (including a crazy one) in the area. And, though it’s not an activity as such, you may find it hard to pass up the chance to wallow in mud at a local hot springs. The sand dunes near town also allow for quad-biking and dune-buggying excursions – ask any travel agency in town, or even at your accommodation. We’ve listed some of the best companies offering outdoor activities in Mui Ne below, to help plan your visit to Southern Vietnam.

Watersports

Mui Ne is heaving with wind- and kitesurfers when the wind is up between August and April; the strip even hosts an event in the Asian Windsurf Tour each February. There are a number of establishments that offer lessons for windsurfing and kitesurfing. It costs less if you’d simply like to rent the equipment, and Mui Ne is the perfect place to hone your skills – the winds here can be gusty and aggressive, so anywhere else will seem easy by comparison.

Jibes

Quality operator with savvy instructors, excellent equipment and the best surfing bonhomie in town.

Manta

Dedicated sailing school with all the relevant international accreditations. They also offer wakeboarding lessons, and have accommodation for longer-term students.

Sailing Club

A little pricier than the rest, but expert instructors and top-end equipment don’t usually come cheap.

Golf

There’s a decent golf course in the Mui Ne area, plus a fantastic crazy golf course on the strip itself.

Sealinks Golf and Country Club

Excellent course sprawling across the hills at the entrance to Mui Ne.

Mud Baths

Mui Ne may only have one mud-bath centre compared with Nha Trang’s three, but it’s a real winner.

Mui Ne Hot Mineral Mud Centre

Located a short xe om ride north of town, this place is very fancy, right the way down to the underwater seats encircling the pool’s cocktail bar.

Cooking Classes

With its great restaurant scene, it stands to reason that Mui Ne should form an appropriate place for culinary instruction.

Mui Ne Cooking School

This is a hugely popular cooking school, with lessons that follow a pleasing routine – market visit, cooking lesson, mealtime.

Ca Na

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.

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.

Cham Architecture

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.

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.

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.

Nha Trang

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. Find out more about Nha Trang.

Quy Nhon

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.

Quang Ngai

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. 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, 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, where American soldiers and junior officers shot old men, women, boys, girls, and babies.

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. The military chain of command was able temporarily to suppress reports of the massacre. But the awful truth surfaced in November 1969. 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.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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