Vietnam: Parts unspoilt (first of two parts)

THE view of the open sea from my stateroom melts into forested rolling hills punctuated by houses and buildings.

It’s the third day of our cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, and just as the captain promised, we are anchored off the coast of Nha Trang, Vietnam at 7 a.m.

Immediately after breakfast, tender boats shuttle us from ship to shore in groups of 120. During the 20-minute ride, my thoughts drift to my preconceived notions about Vietnam, based solely on travel shows I have seen. The well-worn tourist trails in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh may be the usual suspects, but there are other places worth going off the beaten track for. For rural adventures, pagodas, and emerald waters, there’s Nha Trang. For old town exploration and heritage sites, there’s Da Nang.

Equal parts charm and choreographed chaos are what greet us in Nha Trang. Roads teem with motorcycles, some cars, cabs and buses. This seaside town in southern Vietnam used to be a recreational spot for American sailors during the Vietnam War. Now, it is popular among divers and beach bums for its offshore islands, glorious reefs and beachfront cafes where they can relax with a drink in hand.

The shore excursion we are joining though is the city highlights tour and the first stop is the National Oceanographic Museum. As we hop off the bus, the 32-degree weather has me wishing we were back on the ship. “I could be taking on the FlowRider right now and humiliating myself. Or I could be at the spa enjoying some me time,” I think to myself. But we pass by sea mammals and I snap back to reality. Tanks of marine life and the skeleton of a humpback whale have me ooh-ing and aah-ing with everyone else.

As we reach our next stop, the Long Son Pagoda, our guide tells us it is optional to go up the 150 steps to the 79-foot tall statue of Buddha. The pagoda was founded in the 19th century and the statue was built in the 1960s in honor of the monks and nuns who died protesting against communist mistreatment. I am soaked to the skin under the sweltering heat of the sun at noon. Nevertheless, I make it up to the last stone step and take in the sweeping view of the city from the platform beneath the statue.

The grounds of the Po Nagar Cham Towers also offer a good view of Nha Trang’s landscapes. Situated on the banks of the Cai River, this site of worship is dedicated to Yang Ino Po Nagar, the goddess of the Cham kingdom. To this day, it plays a huge part in the history and archaeology of the country, and is frequented by women seeking fertility. It is nearly impossible to take a photo without people in it.

The humidity is coupled with the cacophony produced by vendors and tourists on motorbike-clogged alleys within the Cho Dam Market. We bask in the sights and sounds when our guide says we are in for a shopping experience like no other. As we are about to put our bargaining hat on, a pho shop catches our eye and we decide that the souvenir items will have to take a backseat to Vietnam’s national dish. A simmering stockpot of fragrant broth is made to drench rice noodles and thinly sliced beef. A bowl of pho so flavorful, it needs no fussing with other condiments.

The place is just one of the family-owned restaurants in the area. These are not the ones you find on crowdsourced review sites. Thriving on word of mouth, these holes-in-the-wall focus on just one or two dishes perfected over decades by the same family. Even with a charmless façade and plastic stools for seats, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad meal in any of these concrete boxes.

We leave Nha Trang filled with admiration for its craftsmanship as we visit the XQ Hand Embroidery Center. Resembling a rural village, this workshop features hand-embroidered Vietnamese silk. You can even watch young women work meticulously on some pieces. Exquisite needlework is executed in each of the artworks which take several months to complete.
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