Thinking it might be fun if we did a boxing match-like information round-up on the two Vietnam beach towns we visited, we give you Quy Nhon vs Nha Trang.
Vietnam has some of the most beautiful beaches, not just in southeast Asia, but in the entire world. When we decided to travel the length of Vietnam by train, we wanted to ensure a couple of the stops along the way were for rest and relaxation on the beach. The two Vietnam beach towns we chose were Quy Nhon (also spelled Qui Nhon) and Nha Trang, spending three nights in each. Even though they’re only a day’s train trip apart, they’re very different from each other in several key areas. Let’s take a look:
In this corner: Nha Trang!
Nha Trang is described by several sources as the undisputed heavyweight champion of Vietnam beach towns. Situated on scenic Cam Ranh Bay, up until the early 20th century it was a rural area teeming with wildlife, such as monkeys and tigers. In the 1920s and 30s, Nha Trang evolved from a colonial administration center into a town comprised of several smaller ancient villages. During the Vietnam War, the combined United States and South Vietnamese Air Forces used the Nha Trang airport to support the busy naval base in Cam Ranh Bay.
After the war, Nha Trang was made an economic development zone by the Vietnamese government, focusing on tourism, shipbuilding, fishing, and lobster farming. Long a resort destination for Soviet and later Chinese tourists, Nha Trang’s tourist industry offers scuba and other water and wind sports. Hon Tre Island offshore is reached from the mainland by the world’s longest cable car, offering the Vinpearl theme and water park, and a five-star resort. Nha Trang is a popular hub with cruise ship routes, the annual Hong Kong yacht races, and other sailboat racing. The Nha Trang Oceanography Institute is comprised of a research center established in 1923, and houses a marine animal museum with more than 20,000 salt and freshwater species. Population: about 400,000.
And in this corner: Quy Nhon!
Quy Nhon is a less frequently-visited, relative newcomer to the lineup of Vietnam beach towns. Its history goes back to the 11th century Kingdom of Champa. In the 15th century, Emperor Le Thanh Tong, the neo-Confucianist known as the “Vietnamese Hammurabi” for enacting a new legal code more favorable to women, made Quy Nhon his administrative center. In the 17th century, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived.
Quy Nhon is also the birthplace of Emperor Quang Trung (Nguyen Hue), known as a fearful military strategist and leader of the Tay Son rebellion, which led to expansion of Vietnamese territory. Quang Trung’s military machine defeated the Kingdom of Siam in 1784, and the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1789. During the Vietnam War, there was a large American military presence in Quy Nhon with a naval base. Currently, Quy Nhon is the third largest industrial center of the South Central Coast, after Da Nang and Nha Trang. Industries include wood furniture, paper products, construction materials, fisheries, and pharmaceuticals. Population: about 250,000.
Round 1: Accommodation
In Quy Nhon, we stayed at the Seagull Hotel. This is an old school high rise on the sea with a lovely, vintage interior and elegant deco exterior lines. It’s popular for special events and weddings. Our room was comfortable with a spectacular ocean view. The nightly rate was about $56USD, which included a generous and diverse breakfast. Wifi was reliable and fast, and the room layout was sufficiently large so that both of us could work comfortably. Our only problem at the Seagull had to do with coffee. We’re not fans of the sweetened Vietnamese coffee, and it was impossible for them to procure us anything other in our room, although they did try. We know, first world problem.
We wish we could recommend a hotel in Nha Trang, but alas our choice was rather a disaster. This was the only time in Vietnam where chasing a hotel deal didn’t pay off. We wound up penny-wise and pound foolish. Our hotel, the Pavilion Garden, was in the midst of major construction zone. The noise went on 18 hours per day at high decibel levels. Our supposed sea view room, while spacious, was of the “crane your neck and you might see the ocean” variety. Cleanliness was hit and miss. The pool was a case of very misleading photography, abysmally small – it had one lounger – and unusable due to noise. While certain staff members tried hard to anticipate wants and needs, overall our experience was not the best. Next time, we’ll bite the bullet and stay at the Best Western or another high rise hotel north of the Promenade in the vicinity of Costa Seafood. A better hotel would have run us upwards of $60 per night. We should have paid it.
Round 2: Atmosphere
Nha Trang, having been the focus of a concerted effort by the Vietnamese government to lure tourists from the communist bloc, has a distinct aesthetic. Think Miami with a Soviet overlay. The beachfront is semi-circular, ringing the bay with a lengthy series of gardens and parks. There is a main promenade in the city center, dominated by a rocket ship-like building which houses a tourism office. North of the promenade the neighborhood gets more high end with four and five-star hotels. Go south, and moderate to very inexpensive options are available, but that tends to be where the construction is.
While in Nha Trang, we encountered no other Americans or Australians during our entire stay. Our fellow visitors were Russian. Normally, this would be fine by us, but the individual couples and groups were invariably sullen, morose and downright unfriendly. What’s up with that? we wondered. Certainly you could crack a smile on your gorgeous beach vacation? One encounter epitomized this observation: we were lunching at a brewery restaurant and in filed a tour group of a couple dozen Russians from their bus. To a person, it was the sorriest, saddest group we’d ever seen. No one looked up from their plate or said a word to each other. They glumly finished their meal and were hustled back out by their guide, a demanding, argumentative woman who spent the entire time complaining to the staff. Ugh.
If Nha Trang is Miami, Quy Nhon might be Tampa. About half the size of Nha Trang, Quy Nhon’s main waterfront is far less developed by comparison with Nha Trang and there is a secondary city center across the bay, similar to the relationship Tampa has with St. Pete. Its university complex was across the street from our hotel; the two universities there have a student population in excess of 20,000. We encountered no other foreign tourists of any nationality in Quy Nhon.
Quy Nhon is undergoing a transformation, with new construction and redevelopment along the highway corridor leading to Dieu Tri (where the main train station for the national Reunification Express train stops), about 15 minutes by car inland. Car dealers and other suburban businesses line this road, replacing old residential buildings and shops as the road is widened. In the city, urban development is less evident. The atmosphere is “old Vietnam,” whatever your connotation of that might be.
Round 3: Food
Nha Trang’s food scene is evolving. You could play it safe and eat solely in hotel restaurants, but where’s the fun in that? We enjoyed the local mom and pop restaurants located in our hotel’s alley, and discovered a couple of wonderful options along the main “Golden Street” (Tran Phu) just north of the promenade.
Costa Seafood at The Costa Nha Trang residences, part of the Intercontinental Nha Trang Hotel, bills itself as the premier seafood restaurant in Nha Trang. This restaurant has sisters in Hanoi and boasts a Hong Kong-based executive chef. The comprehensive menu is comprised of the expected – lobster, prawns, grouper, crab and squid, and the unexpected – Alaskan crab, Australian abalone, sea snails, and Canadian geoduck (which isn’t duck at all, but an enormous saltwater clam). The style is Asian fusion with a Vietnamese overlay. Service was impeccable and unobtrusive, the perfect combination. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available. Pricing is moderately high.
Runam Bistro, a few doors up from Costa Seafood at No. 32-34 Tran Phu, is part of a group of cafes and bistros located in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Danang. Proudly serving traditional drip-brewed Vietnamese coffee grown in the Central Highlands, their roasting process is overseen by an Italian coffee master. The menu features a variety ranging from grilled baguette sandwiches and seafood towers, to tasting samplers and homemade cakes. Manager Loc’s personality and service ethic was reflected in our experience. He was candid about how far the service community has to go overall in Vietnam, and his commitment to excellence in his own establishment was impressive by any international standard.
Good Morning Vietnam is an excellent Italian restaurant located at 19 Biet Thu. Part of the La Hostaria group out of Saigon, it has a twin in Hoi An, and another sibling by the name of Limoncello in Da Nang. The full classic Italian menu has antipasti, fresh egg pastas, risottos, thin crust pizza and traditional desserts. We ate here twice and both times the meal was superb and very reasonably priced with friendly, conscientious staff
Quy Nhon’s restaurant scene will seem pretty non-existent to the Western traveler. There are less than 30 restaurant listings on TripAdvisor with paltry information. While this might be cause for concern, we viewed it as a blessing. Our hotel’s oceanside restaurant had a lovely breakfast buffet and the dinner menu was fairly nice, but when we asked for a recommendation for good seafood, the desk concierge flagged us a taxi and sent us to a place we never would have discovered otherwise.
Nha Hang Bay Hoa Restaurant is located on the corner of Xuan Dieu and Phan Ke Binh. Very nondescript, almost ramshackle on the outside, this is the outlet for a seafood distributor of the same name. Located across the street from the shoreline in the Phuong Hai Cang district, it’s fair to say they rarely, if ever, have seen a non-Vietnamese customer. Outside, neighborhood residents played an impromptu game of xiangqi (a Chinese strategy board game like chess), inside were tanks and buckets of fresh catch. We ordered the scallops, which came presented on a half shell with a flat rice cracker. They were so good we ordered them again. The menu was enormous with a sufficient number of photos for us to discern what we were getting.
Round 4: Attractions
Nha Trang has had decades with which to ply tourists. The most well-known of its attractions might be the Vinpearl Gondola, which takes you over water to the island amusement park of the same name. The ride itself will run you about $40USD per person, so it’s rather spendy. Once you get to the island, you may want to keep your expectations low. While there is a Sea World-like marine show and a poorly-executed knockoff of the Magic Kingdom’s castle with slavic overtones, there really is little to do except shop and eat. The retail offerings are predictable and the food is mainly fast and fried. The layout won’t seem very friendly if you have any mobility concerns. The one real restaurant open during our visit was underwhelming, but the view across the bay to the Nha Trang skyline was lovely.
Quy Nhon makes no such claims. It has traditionally been a retirement destination for those who want long walks on the beach and sea views. South of town there is a cluster of newer guesthouse resorts amid a couple of backpacker hostels, but for the most part the typical tourist attractions one might expect in Vietnam beach towns are missing from Quy Nhon. The Long Khanh Pagoda, dating from the 18th century, is a Buddhist temple whose 20th century Buddha measures 17 meters high. The Thap Doi Cham Towers are dual structures reminiscent of Khmer temples elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Round 5: Local Flavor
This isn’t to say that Quy Nhon has nothing going for it. Far from it! The beach quality is terrific: flat, sugary sand and uncrowded. There’s a bit of a before and after work flurry, but for the most part, our view was unimpeded by others. Our room looked northward over the bay and beyond the peninsula to the South China Sea, which made for a spectacular sunrise.
But we turned inland in Quy Nhon for some of the most memorable impressions in all Vietnam. Walking to the post office one day sent us beyond the university block into the streets where local market stalls were set up. Not unexpectedly, we were the source of much curiosity, all friendly and welcoming. “Where are you from?” we were repeatedly asked, and the reactions ranged from surprised and delighted to downright stupefied. This was a slice of real life which we were grateful to experience.
In Nha Trang, there was more of a big city vibe. Although there was local color, it was tempered with a rather jaded aspect. The shopping stalls in the market streets close to our hotel were filled with cheap little trinkets and tacky souvenirs, rather than foodstuffs and typical household items. We would have had to venture much farther in order to have the sort of encounters we enjoyed so much in Quy Nhon.
Nha Trang’s beach quality is just as you’d expect from a premier destination: flat, soft sand, dotted with watering holes and restaurants, energetic. In the evenings, the promenade is a popular gathering place for families and teens. While there is a bit of “see and be seen” to the vibe, it’s all very good-natured and wholesome. When we visited, there was a concert stage being set up on the promenade in anticipation of a long holiday weekend special event.
And the Winner Is? Well, It’s a Decision!
Either Quy Nhon or Nha Trang is a solid choice if you’re seeking a getaway in one of the many Vietnam beach towns between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It really just depends on what your intentions might be for the ideal holiday. If you’re looking for a bit more glam and vibrant nightlife, you might prefer Nha Trang. We would call this match for Quy Nhon. While it isn’t as fancy or well known as Nha Trang, it offered what we felt was a more interesting time with better opportunities to interact with locals and experience daily life.
Both cities are served separately by air from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Flights will be between one and two hours in length. You may enjoy arriving by train. We certainly did. The Reunification Express train from Saigon takes about 7 hours from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang, with Quy Nhon another 3-1/2 hours north. Your station for Quy Nhon is actually inland at Dieu Tri. Have your Quy Nhon hotel arrange for a taxi to meet you upon arrival for the trip into town which will take approximately 15 minutes. Book tickets ahead of time at the excellent Vietnam Railways System site.