Nha Trang, Vietnam: Spa, Sand, Simpsons-esque Starfish, and the Deeply Satisfying Resolution to my Search for Veggie Pho

A short, hourlong flight from Saigon landed us in the southeastern town of Nha Trang for the beach portion of our trip (pause to note I hardly find a trip worth taking if I don’t find a beach on some part of it. You can take the girl out of California, but…)

Quick backgrounder on Nha Trang: it’s a vacation destination populated by tons of international tourists, largely Russian (on account of the communist connection? Not totally sure). It’s also a huge draw for backpackers, and though we are beyond our backpacking years (no, wait, I was born past my backpacking years), it has a fun, youthful, lively energy. You will also find at night a healthy (“”) selection of bars offering “buckets,” basically copious amounts of cheap alcohol designed to inspire bad decisions among 22 year olds for under $1 US.

Also, remember those zillions of motorbikes that threatened our demise in Saigon? Oh man, did Nha Trang also have its share. Cross the street at your peril. Think more Vietnmese Miami than sleepy beach town. Totally alive.

Anyway, we checked into the Six Senses Evason Ana Mandara (more on that later) and waited for our dear friend Melissa to arrive; she was coming off a Habitat for Humanity project, building homes for poor Vietnamese families. We were all ready for some major spa, sun, and sand (sweet alliterative cliche!), and in four days we felt we mastered what was on offer in little Nha Trang, where we had a terrific time. Here’s what I know…

Hey yo! We got to dive in water that was squarely in its liquid state and not threatening to become ice at any moment, a la our dive certification experience in California. We chose Rainbow Divers, which is well established and came highly recommended, versus the glut of miscellaneous outfits around town.

We hopped on a 7 a.m. bus for a quick ride to the harbor, from where we set off with a group of only about 10 divers (Melissa, the eleventh passenger and not certified, was on board for the snorkeling). It was a totally civilized boat with a warm and welcoming staff, who did this little introduction routine in the morning that was like a cross between welcome-to-summer-camp and Star Search in its forced but earnest (and appreciated!) humor.

The first dive site had super lousy visibility. There was awesome stuff to see, like these very Marge Simpson-evocative cartoonish blue starfish, and these wild black anemone with white dots that look like eyeballs but aren’t, probably. You just had to get up on top of them for a good look. I paused to get a closer look at an anemone for about 10 seconds and that was too much time. In one-meter visibility, my dive group was no where to be seen. OK, Dubin, you learned about how to do this, and how not to panic. And I didn’t. I waited for a couple minutes and then surfaced. I’d worried if I’d come up a bit too quickly because I didn’t understand the depth gauge (it wasn’t like the equipment we trained with, and I had no dive computer — although overall it should be noted the rental gear was really nice). But we were only at about 10 meters depth at that time, so a careful safety stop was less critical.

Second dive: much better visibility. Really cool anemones, more Simpsons starfish, lobster, a bunch of colorful and undulating things I need to look up later, and a neat trumpet fish. Really fun outing with a lively group, including Aussie backpacker Jess who told us all about how her broke boyfriend was tending bar in Thailand to try to scrape together enough money to afford a ticket home to tend to his festering full moon party injury, precipitated by diving into a pool filled with broken glass or something, which had required 10 days in the hospital — and 10 stitches that were becoming more infected by the day. (She also told us about other Thai full moon party injuries she witnessed, including a foot lopping by machete after a fight). Hey, I’m glad I’m not 22 and totally without at least minimally good judgement — thanks for that reminder! Did like that Jess though, but she needs to ditch that zero. Anyway.

Food and Culture
Here’s something definitely worth doing: Go check out the Long Son Pagoda topped by a giant white Buddha that looms large high on a hill. A mystical-feeling climb of 152-steps eventually gets you to the top, where you can enter the temple and light some incense. Outside are really evocative rows of mausoleum walls through which you can walk, and views of the city that might as well have been Brazilian favelas: colorful shacks inhabited by very poor people, dotting a landscape layered with hanging laundry, gorgeous turquoise waters, and pristine islands scattered like so many crumbs around the bay.

As you ascend, make a point to stop at another giant Buddha, this one lying down. You’ll also pass a huge gong, and a monk will invite you to come sit inside while he rings it three times. I’m glad David was the guinea pig, since we all were wondering, naturally, if such a move might cause permanent hearing loss. Nothing of the sort, it turns out. It was a spiritual little moment during which I considered my dreams and wishes in much the way I do when I blow out birthday candes or see the clock at 11:11 or pass the moment designated for private prayer in synagogue during high holidays. (What do other travelers do/think when they visit religious or spiritual sites outside their own faith, or if they are not people of faith? I wonder that sometimes.)

Anyway, here’s another don’t-miss thing about the experience: As you descend from the Buddha, you’ll see a vegetarian restaurant off to the right. Compete score. I was hoping for some pho on this trip, as we’re huge fans of Vietnamese food and I’d made a point to lay off Vien Cafe on Pico back home in the weeks before the trip to save up. But so far it had been a no-go: All pho we saw to this point had had animal-based broth. But this place offered an amazing veggie pho, which our trio shared as a snack along with an excellent lotus flower salad, a huge bottle of still water, and another of sparkling water. Total bill: about $2 US. (The delicious pho alone was 1,500 Vietnamese dong, or about $0.75).

One more note about food: Try Lanterns for dinner if you find yourself in Nha Trang. Lovely alfresco atmosphere decked with, duh, tons of overhead lanterns. Solid vegetarian options (we had coconut curry tofu, lemon grass tofu, fresh rolls, and David, the carnivore, had a chicken dish). All was delicious and portions were large. Melissa had two glasses of wine and David three of the local beers, called 333. (I was practically asleep on my plate after diving and massage and too tired to drink). Total bill: About $20 US. That’s about as big a splurge as you might find in town.

Ok you guys, yay. As of this moment, I’m on a Malaysia Airlines flight leaving Vietnam after six days there. During that time, we each had five massages. (Missing that one day was lamentable.) Everywhere you look in town are massage flyers and storefronts, most offering basic 60-minute treatments for about 190,000 Vietnamese dong, or approximately $9 US. We did several of these. Why not? Then we discovered the super high-end spa in town: Su Spa. And we were very, very happy.

Or first experience at Su Spa came after our day on the dive boat, when we were utterly spent from an early wake-up call, too much sun, and of course, diving. The ladies usher you in with ginger tea, and get you set up with robes and lockers. Koi ponds and foot bridges wind throughout. David and Melissa picked the 80-minute “Harmony of Energy” butt-kicking massages from the extensive spa menu, and I picked something fragrant and moisturizing and sunburn friendly. Oh my god, you guys. We came out of there so blissed out, we all kind of agreed we’d had transcendent experiences bordering on hallucinations. I guess that’s what they call a natural high. (Unless the ladies put rufies in our ginger tea.) The damage: $32 US apiece.

We were back the next day, natch. We all got massages again (Melissa tried cupping) and manicures. Melissa and I were crying laughing when we moved the towels aside from our eyes and noticed a small army of about four women focusing intently on each foot, manually placing each piece of glitter in my case with surgical precision. Total cost of mani/pedi: about $6.

This goes without saying, probably, but I don’t mess around with so-so hotels. I’m no backpacker Jess and her dumb-ass drunkard boyfriend at the full moon party — gross. So we opted for the six senses Evason Ana Mandara. It’s a great location, right on the beach, but also an easy five-minute walk into town. For that reason, I believe it’s the best-located property available, and gorgeous to boot.

We had villa No. 323, a lovely freestanding structure feet from the crashing waves, with a sweet lanai to watch it all. I often judge properties based on their bathrooms, and this did not disappoint. The outdoor sunken tub and connected shower was large enough to be a hot tub. And the decor all around the sprawling property was very mindful of and in keeping with the natural environment. In this way, it reminded me of two of my other favorite hotels around the world: Jake’s and the Rockhouse, both in Jamaica.

And then there’s the amenities. The staff each day leaves a little sheet in the room for you to check off your desired accoutrements. Choose from shaving and sewing kits, yes, of course, but also yoga mats, for instance, and a vast selection of tiny fragrant pillows meant to enhance your mood or relax you. I love stuff like that, you guys, I swear.

There are two pretty pools and two restaurants, one Vietnamese and one kind of international-fusion-western. Both delicious, both much pricier (by a factor of 10, maybe) than you’d find in town. But the food is delicious, convenient, and you can trust its cleanliness without hesitation.

Speaking of the food: The breakfast buffet has to be one of my favorites anywhere. Great mix of indulgent (hello chocolate croissants), local (hubby had daily pho for breakfast), and fresh (picture-perfect fruits and amazing fruit yogurts and juices). Thank you, yes, I will have that third cup of killer Vietnamese coffee! Cam on.

There’s also a nicely appointed library for checking email, and several shops that sell beautiful gifts and apparel. I was eyeing a pretty cotton dress and lacquer picture frame, both about $100 USD, which is approaching infinity compared to anything else around. Still, lovely, high-quality, locally made things.

All told, an A+ property that surely contributed in no small part to an excellent four-day stay in Nha Trang, marked by lots of laughter, indulgence, adventure, and perfect travel chemistry among friends.

And with that, we begin our descent into Indonesia for the last leg of our journey: Bali, Indonesia.


PS: Dude, I totally published this post on my iPhone! Apologies for any weird formatting.

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  • Reply sharon January 23, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    sigh….. sigh!!!! withdrawals from southeast asia in full effect over here. need to go to vietnam stat. cant wait to read about your bali experience! xo

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